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There are many female leaders present in this series compared to the original one. The two daughters of Toph Beifong from the original series each dominate their respective spheres of influence: Suyin leads Zaofu, the most technologically advanced city in the world, and her sister Lin is chief of police in Republic City. The Fire Lord in this series, in contrast to the original, is a woman, and so is the monarch of the Earth Kingdom. Kuvira is the central villain of the final season, and she demonstrates extraordinary political savvy and power to reunite the fractured Earth Kingdom and declare herself leader.
And then there is Asami. The first thing that the audience is meant to notice about Asami, as she is introduced from the perspective of a boy that she just knocked over with her motorcycle and her looks, is that she is conventionally beautiful and elegant. If you were to pause the show at that moment and never continue, you may conclude that Asami is very much oriented around her figure and looks, a woman prized more for her appearance than her character. But Asami, despite the fact that her appearance is striking, is one of the greatest engineers of the time, building mechanisms that rival the brilliance of her father. When her father betrays her in the first season, Asami assumes the role as a CEO of one of the largest companies in the Avatar world. What we end up having is a woman who is both an engineer and a CEO, two typically male roles in modern society.
Two female villains throughout the show are also an amazing characterization of women in power: Kuvira, mentioned prior, and MingHua, an armless water bender. Minghua is seen to have amazing strength amid her lack of arms – her water-bending skills debatably may be unmatched in the history of the show. She is, simply put, a master at fighting benders – male or female.
Kuvira is something that is rarely, and potentially never in a kids show, seen. Her back-story is one of despair being an orphan. Her looks are not glamorized in the slightest – one could argue that the spot beneath her eye is a direct testament to the intentions of the producers not to sexualize Kuvira. Kuvira takes control of the entire Earth Kingdom, save Republic City that the finale revolves around, because of her wit, power, and demeanor. She is similar to Azula in her power and political savvy, and while Azula is commentary on her young age and talent, Kuvira is a testament to something else: her ability to unite and conquer. Being from humble backgrounds, Kuvira is one of the very few female villains that had nearly no contribution of inheritance to her role. She is neither a “Daddy’s Girl” who uses family influence to attain power nor is she a seductress who uses her looks.
Kuvira is simply one of the most skilled metal benders of her time and dominant in every sphere of her life, personal and political. Kuvira is a brilliant speaker and mastermind of strategy, and equally is not portrayed as a psychotic “witch-like” character, but rather a rational leader who just possesses different political values than the Avatar. Kuvira may be the most successful leader in the history of the show given her outright support across the nation. And she didn’t need anyone’s help to do that: Korra even admits she sees a lot of herself in Kuvira given their headstrong attitudes.
There is another single moment that is one of the greatest advances in cartoon history, but given its magnitude and conclusiveness, it is discussed at the end of this article for those who don’t want to be spoiled about the finale.
But praise at the same time must be put aside where the show does make considerable flaws. Calling certain themes in The Legend of Korra sexist may create a gag reflex for devout fans: thinking of the show as the epitome of feminist empowerment seems to be the view many would want to embrace. The finale of the show does leave certain plotlines untouched and certain plotlines off slightly worse. And given the portrayal of certain women in the show, one can conclude that although perhaps the creators’ intentions were to be fair to women, but due to normalized sexism in society, their values still contained sexist issues.
A disappointing trend of television history is that a strong female lead or main character is often used as an excuse for neglecting other female characters and even being outright sexist in the rest of the show. We shouldn’t allow this to be the case. Even though the show presented us with a strong and unconventional female protagonist, it’s important to be critical of the way that the show portrays gender as a whole.
The reason you should question these examples set in The Legend of Korra isn’t to demoralize the show and set back the considerable advances it has for women in media. It is to fulfill what the Legend of Korra wants to do: create a dialogue about women in society. And a true Korra fan should come to at least engage with these issues because they are in spirit a direct contestation to what the filmmakers wanted to do. The goal of creating fair and positive television for women is something that was shared in The Legend of Korra but not entirely accomplished by any means. Spoilers from the finale after this point.