[section_title title=New page title] One of the most subtly subversive things about the universe of the show, however, was how it portrayed gender roles to be culturally constructed rather than natural. The Water Tribes are patriarchal, where men act as leaders and warriors and women act as caretakers and are restricted from “male” pursuits. However, the first place that the main characters visit after leaving the South Pole is Kyoshi Island, an island founded by a past female Avatar where all of the warriors are women who fight in dresses and makeup and use traditionally feminine implements such as fans to fight. Although this is the starkest contrast and the one that forces the main character Sokka to abandon his misogynistic attitudes, conceptions of gender in the other nations are not uniform. In the Fire Nation, there doesn’t seem to be any tradition stopping Azula from becoming Fire Lord besides the fact that she’s the younger sibling. The Air Nation segregates its citizens by gender but otherwise does not treat them differently, and Aang often displays traditionally feminine characteristics, a fact which is emphasized in the penultimate episode of the series (“The Ember Island Players”), where he is portrayed in a play by a female actor. Just considering these facts is amazing.
The Last Airbender was a show that was not specifically targeted towards girls. Historically, fighting-oriented TV shows are targeted towards young boys. When girls are young, they are marketed shows about menial tasks, being princesses, or something that is rather dependent on some power structure. From a marketing standpoint, focus groups show that adolescent girls are willing to watch shows where the protagonist is either female or male; however, the opposite is true for young boys – they only want to view a male protagonist.
When girls are young teens, they are given shows from Disney and Nickelodeon alike that presume that their main concerns are fashion, beauty, and finding boyfriends. Sure, there are characters that are outliers, but usually those characters are a mere excuse for being sexist: they are the outlier in the show since the show itself has no legitimate concern for being fair to women. Examples of this include Isabella from Phineas and Ferb, Alex Russo from Wizards of Waverly Place, or Sandy from Spongebob.
But amid the capitalist and sexist tendencies of kids-show history, The Last Airbender decided to portray women in the potential they are rightly due. And with the contrast of the patriarchal society the show is set in, it wouldn’t be absurd to call The Last Airbender groundbreaking in cartoon history. The defiance of patriarchy in The Last Airbender wasn’t just a frequent occurrence but a central theme of the show.
The Legend of Korra is what appears to be a post-patriarchal version of The Last Airbender. Unlike the old show, The Legend of Korra displays many iconic women not only defying classic gender roles in modern society but also ruling modern society in glorious fashion. With the Avatar reincarnated as a woman and many leadership roles such as police chief being filled by women, one would think that The Legend of Korra would challenge the patriarchy at least as much as The Last Airbender. However, it needs to be critically discussed whether The Legend of Korra actually succeeded at living up to this goal and what that means for challenging sexism in media. But before speaking to those flaws, it would be nice to visit what The Legend of Korra did right.
From the get-go, The Legend of Korra has a female lead. Despite the typical concerns of TV producers, the young-male demographic responded very well to Korra as the central protagonist. Korra is a headstrong individual with no pretense of docility or passivity. She is far more aggressive than her predecessor Aang and challenges not only villains but men in positions of authority who attempt to restrict her choices and overly protect her: President Reiko of The United Republic, Tarrlok of the Water Tribe, and even her father Tonraq all get a taste of her defiance. Korra faces the world with a clear don’t-mess-with-me, I-get-to-choose-my-life attitude.