The “man with boobs” is a concept that has been thrown around on Fangirlblog, and in fact before I wrote for Fangirl I discussed it over there. It's not a phrase I easily understood. Sometimes it sounds like an excuse for making a character either overtly emotional or overtly tough, in order to exaggerate their gender. Is it un-female to, for example, disregard romantic relationships? I still think there’s some gender assumptions within that phrase that don’t need to be made, but right now the real question is whether, two episodes into a show, Korra herself is a well-written character.
I think that she is. As the “avatar” of the audience she nicely brings us into Republic City, the capital of the world fifty years after Aang’s adventures in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Republic City’s aesthetic is inspired by 1920’s America with a steampunk twist. The ships and zeppelins developed by the Fire Nation for the war in Avatar are now used by civilians as everyday conveniences. It’s great that the show takes economic and technological development into its design, and one of the smartest moves I’ve ever seen an animated show make. The new aesthetic also keeps the story bright and exciting, while continuing the Asian-inspired flair of the original. An all-new look could have been jarring, but through Korra’s eyes (she, like the audience, has been stuck in another part of the world for a while) it makes sense.
Korra has been raised in the distant Water Tribe, which means that she had a lot of freedom growing up but not a lot of places to go. Her introduction to the city highlights all the things she doesn’t understand, including hobos, the law, and the rules of “pro bending”. She’s headstrong and willful to a fault, and sometimes gets chastised for it. Willfulness seems like a cop-out flaw to me, like someone sadly saying oh, you’re too brave. There’s a coolness factor to that that wouldn’t be there if a protagonist from an icy wasteland was, for example, shy.
But that isn’t her only flaw. She gets knocked out of her first pro bending round by breaking rules she didn’t know existed, a problem that made me angry right along with her. That’s a great scene to show that not all the Avatar’s problems are heroic in scale. In addition to being a fish out of water, even if she masters the physical moves in the arena she doesn’t have the Zen discipline to master airbending. There’s a great scene where she fidgets during meditation.
Korra may not be a “man with boobs”, but one thing I loved about the episodes was that she was never specifically called out as female either. The world of Avatar is a world of equality: Korra ends up in a prison interrogation room, a part of town run by a gang, and a changing room in the pro bending arena, and no one ever tells her she should get out or be treated specially because she’s female. Of all the things she has to live up to, being one gender or another isn’t one of them. I love that because it doesn’t make female-ness a challenge that Korra has to overcome. Being female does not make her more or less noticeable or significant than if she was male, except in the case where she’s noticed by the potential love interest.
The Legend of Korra brings back all the things I loved about Avatar: beautiful animation, martial arts action, and humor. We're only two episodes in, and there's sure to be a lot more character development surrounding Korra and her two companions, the pro bending brothers Bolin and Mako. I'll be reviewing Legend of Korra regularly, and maybe talking a bit about its fandom too. Avatar had an incredibly loud fanbase, and two creators who loved to mess with and communicate with them. Will Bolin and Mako be the new Aang and Zuko, inciting fangirls to passionate, creative rage? I'm wondering what is in store for the new Avatar as well as her fandom on this season of Legend of Korra.