I'm referring to Korra from “The Legend of Korra,” the sequel series to “Avatar: the Last Airbender,” which ended recently. In the final episode, in the final scene, she – and Asame Sato – were revealed to be pretty definitely gay.
There's the normal fuss over this. Gay people are punching the air and screaming “Yes!” Conservative straight people are punching their couch pillows and screaming, “No!” There's some debate as to whether it's appropriate to have this kind of material in children's programming, or whether having it there with no particular “A very special episode” flags raised over it is a triumph. Let 'em yell. I don't care much one way or another.
Now, I hope to go into a series review of “Korra” in more detail at some future time, because it's a series that has a lot of great things about it, a not-insignificant number of terrible things, and a lot of surprisingly ballsy choices, given what came before. Some of these worked, some didn't. What I want to talk about, however, is the relationship – as revealed in the end – and whether it worked or not.
Here's the thing: Science Fiction (And fantasy) don't have a great track record when dealing with non-hetero folks. Look at Torchwood: A shitty show with an over-the-top parody of a perpetualy horny butch bisexual guy in charge, who has really no personality beyond that. Look at Stargate: Universe, in which the one gay character is conniving, untrustworthy, mutinous, and just basically awful, and yet we're told we gotta' love her 'cuz she's such a great person and just like you or me. Terrible character that just makes gay folks look like untrustworthy mustache twirlers (the character winning a bunch of awards from gay media organizations that were attantion starved and looking for any kind of validation probably didn't help any.) Or, oh, hey, Dumbledore was gay! If that's not tokenism, I don't know what is: there's not a word in the books to support the notion, and then the author SAYS it after the fact, and we're supposed to believe that Albus was some kind of gay hero? Sure. Why not.
Gay people have done better in sitcoms – Will and Grace, Modern Family, etc – but that's basically because sitcoms are trivial. The characters are not to be taken seriously. You can laugh at them and put them out of your mind, and that's that. Non-genre-drama is more of a mixed bag. And have you noticed in sitcoms there's always a perfectly-straight-acting gay guy (Generally played by a straight guy) who's sidekicked with a flaming over-the-top caricature? That's trying to have it both ways: “Gays are people too,” but “Let's laugh at the silly little queens.”
Make of that what you will. The situation is analogous to the 1970s when there was a mad rush to incorporate as many black people into the WASPy wilds of TV as possible in a short period of time. If you didn't like blacks, you were going to recoil in horror at all the “Good Times” and “What's Happenin?” styled shows. If you were black, it was nice to see people similar to yourself on TV, which had to be wildly validating and encouraging. If you were me, you didn't really care. You watched the shows that were funny, and didn't watch the ones that weren't, and didn't pay much attention to the color line because, hey, I was nine or ten years old. Why would I?
Over the last 10 or 15 years, there's been a push to put gay people in TV shows, both nongenre fition, and SF. What's bugged me about this is how forced it has generally seemed. Much like Camille Wray on SGU, we're told we HAVE to like 'em, have to accept them, that they're just like everyone else. Except that they're largely defined – or at least introduced – by their sexual proclivities, and their character is secondary, if it exists at all (Again, I sight Capn' Jack). Now, if Radek or even Major Lorne from Stargate: Atlantis had turned out to be gay, I wouldn't have minded. They were introduced as just normal characters, they were likeable, and if, in the third or fourth season, Radek let it slip, I wouldn't have minded at all. He's a good guy, I liked him. Instead, they decided to introduce an angry bitchy character who's only point was to be gay. They realized the error of their ways, cut all the scenes refering to this (And indeed most of her scenes) and killed her of as quickly as possible.
In fact, I can only think of one really honest-seeming portrayal in the genre: Prince Jack from “Kings.” A closeted homosexual who went to great lengths to hide what he was, self-loathing, self-destructive, living in a family where his dad claimed to accept him (“You are as God made you”) but called him “Faggot” when he got pissed off, and locked him in a room with a woman and refused to let him come out until he'd impregnated her. His unrequitable love for David was a sourse of constant tension. Jack wasn't a good man, he was an adversary, but he was such a messed up, broken individual, that it was hard not to have sympathy for him. Flawed, not super-ideal.
Which brings us back to Korra:
I think it worked.
We're introduced to Korra as something of a tomboy already at age six or so. Flash forward to age seventeen, when she's finishing her training and the story gets going. “Legend of Korra” was intended as a 12-episode miniseries, and had it ended there I don't think her orientation would have come up. In fact, I doubt the producers had anything like that in mind. She was just a fairly awesome, slightly frumpy teenage girl with anger issues. (As all teenaged girls seem to at one point or another)
As the story starts, she's been semi-cloistered her whole life, and has just gotten out into the world. She instantly deveops a crush on Mako, a professional athlete, who will become a member of Team Avatar, along with his dumb comedy relief brother, Bolin, and the impossibly hot 1930s glamor queen, Asame Sato.
Korra is smitten with Mako, but we have a love triangle between her, him, and Asame, with Mako never quite able to make up his mind. Eventualy, in the end of the first season (Which, recall, was intended as the end of the series), he and Korra get together, roll credits, the end.
In the second season, Korra and Mako fight a lot, break up, get back together, genuinely really like each other, and are both realy frustrated that they can't figure out why. “I think we both realize this isn't working,” Korra says in Season 2, and Mako agrees. They break up for good, and while he obviously still carries a torch for her, he realizes that ship has sailed. It should be noted that this whole teen romance thing is not really different from the way things actually play out for teenagers in real life. They were figuring it out, third-guessing themselves and each other. Teen romance sucks, so this was surprisingly realistic. Despite the on-again off-again can't-make-up-his-mind nature of the triangle, Korra and Asame stay friends, and ultimately come to see the whole thing as being kind of silly, with Mako kind of being the butt of the joke.
From the breakup on, Mako recedes into the background, becoming more of a supporting player. He's barely in season 4 at all. There is no romantic subplot for Korra in season 3 at all, which is a little odd for this kind of show, but not unheard of. I mean, the whole season takes place over the course of a couple weeks in show time, it's very dark (There's one on-screen murder of an old woman, and three other onscreen deaths), and it ends with Korra being crippled both emotionally and psychologically. There really wasn't room to cram romance in there. I sort of expected the introduction of some dude – probably among the Bei Fong family, which had a lot of boys in it – who'd turn out to be the love of her life in the final year, but that didn't happen.
The final season is set three years later. Korra has physically recovered, but not psychologically, and hence she's kind of hamstrung as Avatar as well. During this period, Asame took care of her briefly, and then she was shipped off to her family in the Southern Water Nation to recouperate. During this time the rest of Team Avatar wrote her letters continually, but she never replied to any of them, and eventually she stopped even reading them.
Except, we later find out, for Asame. Those she replied to.
There are very few signs that the two girls might be interested in each other. The most overt is when they first see each other again, and Asame says Korra looks nice. Korra blushes. Their other scenes together generally consist of Asame attempting to encourage Korra when she's depressed, but nothing that seems more than a close friendship. A less obvious clue is that Asame, who's rich, gorgeous, and prestigious, has no man in her life. An even less obvious clue is that the series kind of turns into “The Girlie Show” in the final season, with the major antagonists and protagonists mostly being women. You don't really notice this because the show has always had a strong female presence (the star is a chick, duh), and because Bolin and Verrick loom so large as comedic presences, but the guys are mostly relegated to supporting parts.
Finally, when all is done, Korra and Asame decide to go on vacation – just the two of them – in the spirit world. They walk to the portal hand in hand, and then when they stand in it, they join their other hands, stand face to face, gaze into each other's eyes, smile and....
The End. Roll Credits.
Despite there being no overt clues, over the last five or six episodes, I began to feel subconsciously that this was where the show was headed, and I was dreading another 'forced gay character.' Another Dumbledore. Another “This is a trendy cause right now, so let's tack it on.” But you know what? It didn't play out that way. It was sweet and touching, and though some people are bitching that they didn't kiss, I think it's better that they didn't. It's more innocent, and, I think it probably reflects their emotions better: they're not entirely sure what they're doing, or how to go about it, but they want to figure it out.
A lot of people online have been making a big deal out of the girls being bisexual, and how that makes some clever storytelling point or political statement or whatever. I don't think that's the case at all. I'll tell you why: In the run of the show, both of them are attracted to only one guy: Popular, athletic, attractive, heroic, but with a bad boy side. This is exactly the kind of guy girls are conditioned to like when growing up. They star in every TV show, in every romantic movie, every tawdry novel. Hell, even cartoons.
I have known some lesbians in my life who've dated guys like this in high school because they basically thought they were supposed to. Then they're amazingly frustrated and confused as to why it isn't heaven, and it takes them a long time to figure it out. There's social conditioning, and then there's what you are. For every person who grows up knowing they're sexually atypical, there's at least two or three more who *DONT* know, and have to figure it out. That's what we saw here: Two girls figuring it out.
They're STILL figuring it out at the end of the show, which is why they don't kiss, I don't even think they're entirely sure what they want of each other, but they've set off to figure it out. It's the beginning of their romance, and their story, it's not a consumation of something that's been there all along. This rings true to me, as a straight guy with little knowledge of such things. It matches stuff I've seen in real life.
I do have the minor beef that “the assertive chick is always gay” (See: Susan Ivonova in B5 and others), or that tomboys are always, y'know, THAT way. But Asame takes some of the curse off of this.
All that said, I think it's the best gay relationship ever shown on American TV. Why? Because they established a character we liked, dropped some very subtle foreshadowing, spent three years building to this point, and then came out of the closet at the end. By then we already invested so much in the character, we like her so much, that her orientation just doesn't matter. No one else (That I'm aware of) has ever done that.
Funny that it took a silly little children's show to pull it off.