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The major overarching difference in The Legend of Korra from The Last Airbender is that Korra’s world is supposed to be a more modern one which has transcended most of the social ills of The Last Airbender, including sexism. It is clearly meant to represent a post-patriarchal society. However, the great feminist strength of Avatar: The Last Airbender often came from its representation and active subversion of patriarchy. Because it was set in a world where gender roles were confining and repressive, the creators had to address them and deconstruct them head-on.
However, being set in a purportedly post-patriarchal world meant that Legend of Korra fell prey to more subtle misogyny that exists in modern society and pervades the way that we—and the creators—view women. Because the creators do not approach misogyny as one of their core social messages as they did in Avatar: The Last Airbender, the world of Korra is one of normalized sexism that is never named as such. Sometimes, this means that characters display misogynistic behavior that is never called out as such and is played off for laughs. Sometimes, this seeps into the characterization of the female characters themselves. Both things are products of the invisible misogyny of modern society, and it’s crucial to recognize them if we want to improve media as a whole.
Take, for instance, the character of Meelo. He is the second-youngest child and oldest son of Tenzin, who is Aang’s son and the steward of Air Nomad culture. For the first few seasons, Meelo is a very young child who mostly exists for comic relief. However, in the later seasons, he begins to take on more responsibility and go with his older sisters on missions. What happens at this point is that he begins to believe that he is the alpha male in the group, despite being the youngest, and casually dismisses his older sisters’ abilities because they’re girls, claiming almost full credit whenever a mission goes successfully.
Never once is he told to respect girls or stop believing that he’s better because he’s a boy when he makes such misogynistic comments. It’s easy to dismiss this as just the way that little boys act. But the fact that Meelo is never called out or lectured for this attitude represents normalized sexism. Whereas Sokka’s offhand, joking comments about “girl stuff” was rightfully called out and shut down in the very first episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Meelo is allowed to continue speaking this way about his older sisters and still be a quirky, talented hero. Not to mention what his attitude says about the Air Nomad culture and about our own society: young boys assume a privileged role in the household regardless of age. Studies have actually shown that boys with older sisters are more likely to grow up with conservative, anti-feminist views because they grew up watching their sisters be treated with less respect than them and given traditionally “girly” tasks. Meelo’s views represent a generally negative attitude about women, and the fact that he isn’t chastised for it represent the fact that society agrees with him.
Varrick’s relationship with Zhu Li, although in the end it underwent a major change, is also a negative representation of gender roles. Zhu Li starts out as an absolutely subservient assistant to Varrick, performing every task that he desires without ever voicing an opinion of her own. The gendered implications of this relationship are impossible to ignore: the female assistant is mistreated and abused by the male boss, who is portrayed as brilliant and eccentric aside from a few quirky bad behaviors.
Prior to discussing the conclusion of this relationship, it is critical to note that Zhu Li is a direct representation on how women are regarded in Science. Most of Varrick’s inventions come in part at her skill of detail. Bolin, one of the other male leads of the show, comments that Zhu Li “doesn’t make mistakes.” He is one of the very few characters that treats her as a human, not a tool for achieving a higher good.
And Zhu Li never asks for credit – she just signs it off to Varrick who takes full credit: like every other major male scientist that had a female collaborator (or potentially leader) in a major project. For a short time during the final season, Zhu Li starts down an arc of empowerment that develops her character and shows her skill and cunning independently of Varrick. She pretends to betray Varrick in order to work for Kuvira and sabotage her plans, and upon returning to Varrick angrily tells him that she won’t be her assistant anymore and that he will have to start treating her like an equal. However, this all falls apart quickly in the final episode.
Without demonstrating any other growth in character, Varrick proposes marriage to Zhu Li, who instantly and delightedly says yes. Despite having demanded better, more equal treatment in the earlier episodes, it seems that what the writers meant by that was that she wanted romantic attention. When they get married, what Zhu Li asks for in her vows is to be treated as an equal, not as an assistant. By contrast, what Varrick asks for is a whole list of menial and degrading tasks so long that Bolin stops reading them after he asks her to rub his calluses two times a week. Despite the spoken promise to treat her as an individual, Varrick displays no actual remorse or understanding of how he treated her poorly in the past, and it’s clear that Zhu Li is still expected to fulfill all the roles of the assistant in her marriage, just with the label of “wife”.
For many fans, this may prompt a “Hey, give the creators some slack!” or “This is a minor detail of the whole thing.” Sure, in retrospect to the entire series, the Zhu Li and Varrick arc is barely as visited as other major themes. But this is direct evidence of normalized sexism – often critics are welcome to set aside small microcosm of sexist relationships using other female leads of an excuse. But 2% sexist is still sexist. And what is important to note is that this dialogue of sexism in society and feminism in The Legend of Korra is barely as prominent as other conversations about how boss so-and-so is at fighting so-and-so.
In the ending, the idea of Zhu Li being happy as being a submissive wife to a man that treated her as nothing throughout the series is passively ignored and by extension, passively ingrained in our tolerance of social norms. What’s true of the inequality in Zhu Li and Varrick’s relationship is still true in real world society: women are told they are equal partners in relationships and may even hold full time jobs, but they still do housework 2.5 times as much as their partners do. The representation of Zhu Li and Varrick is a big issue in light of the original intentions of The Legend of Korra: the creators flopped at depicting a woman who was asking for better treatment and conflated respecting a woman and needing a woman.