SPOILERS for the Legend of Korra Book One, if you’ve never seen it (dude get on that). Trigger Warning: Abduction.
With less than a week until the premiere of The Legend of Korra Book Two, and with an alleged visit from Verizon scheduled for my house somewhere between noon and four*, I decided to spend this afternoon re-watching the first season of LOK. I watched the entire twelve episode season in about four and a half hours. And I found myself in love all over again with the Avatar universe.
Korra is a feminist fantasy nerd’s dream show about 90% of the time (the other ten percent is the boring relationship quadrangle plot line, which is the only obnoxious part of the show). Korra (unlike Katara of The Last Airbender) never assumes a maternal, stereotypically feminine role within her various group dynamics. Instead, Korra hones her athletic and active nature into her bending, completely mastering three of the four elements at seventeen years old (the traditional age for the Avatar’s identity to be revealed is sixteen, I believe). She’s not a naturally spiritual person, and she doesn’t pretend to be. Instead, Korra is most likely to use physical force and strong will to get her way, which as often as not causes her problems. She takes the responsibility of being the Avatar seriously, much more seriously than Tenzin and the White Lotus guards understand. Korra doesn’t take a passive role for anyone; this is her show.
The other women of the series also have engaging force to them. Police Chief Lin Bei fong is in many ways a code hero. She has a firm concept of right and wrong, and she operates within that code. Asami, originally presented as a prissy daughter of the silver spoon, is a fast driving and action loving non-bender who makes the choice to befriend Korra (despite the love quadrangle) and to reject her father’s (aka society’s) accepted world view in favor of true egalitarianism. Pemma, Tenzin’s wife and a pregnant mother of three, isn’t defined only by her motherhood. She is an authority figure for Korra and often has the last say on family matters (with Tenzin deferring to her). Jinora and Ikki both display unique and developing personalities appropriate for their ages.
I could give countless examples of general feminist badassery, but one specific scene stuck out to me today. And here are the big spoilers for you unlucky folks who’ve never watched the show (seriously, go watch it). The big feminist win for me came in episode nine, “Out of the Past.” At the end of the previous episode, Korra had been taken captive by bloodbender Tarrlok. Tarrlok stages evidence to incriminate Amon and the anti-bender Equalists and sends Tenzin, Korra’s temporary guardian, on a hunt for her captors. Tenzin is joined by Lin Bei fong and Korra’s allies Mako, Bolin and Asami; the team invades the underground Equalist prison and free captured members of the police force.
Meanwhile Korra is trapped in a metal box, hidden in the basement of a house outside of the city. Korra doesn’t let capture wreak havoc on her mind. Instead, she uses the time to connect with Avatar Aang from her past life to learn the history behind her situation. She is there for an indefinite amount of time. At least one day, perhaps two or three.
Korra is never rescued.
Instead, Amon ambushes Tarrlok at the house, strips Tarrlok of his bending and instructs his chi blockers to electrocute Korra’s metal prison in order to knock her out before taking her captive for himself. Korra uses the fabric from her armband looped through the air grate at the top of the box to hover inside without touching the metal exterior. When Amon’s men open the box, she surprises them with a blast of fire and makes her escape.
Once outside the house, she dodges Amon and his men. She takes off down a mountainside, using the adrenaline of escape to push herself forward. Eventually she collides with a tree and passes out. She’s found by Naga and returns to Republic City on her own.
Again, except by Naga in the woods, Korra was never rescued. Korra escaped and saved herself. She was her own hero.
It may seem like a small moment, and it might not seem like the biggest feminist victory in the series, but for me, this was probably the most important scene in the whole show (maybe even including all of The Last Airbender, including Zuko and Azula’s agni kai).
When I was seventeen, I was abducted and molested by an older man (I’d say mid to late fifties) whom I had never met, nor have seen since. The entire experience maybe lasted about fifteen minutes, though; after being coerced and then locked into his car, then groped while on the road, I pulled the mechanical lock on the door, opened it and got out. Yep, I jumped out of a moving car. Dude slammed the brakes and tried to get me back in, but I took off running. I made it back to my host family’s house without anyone in the world knowing what had happened to me.
I think that until this moment in The Legend of Korra, I never once saw a woman escape captivity on screen on her own. Until Korra, I had only ever seen women being rescued by men. Women were always the side stories, and the damsel in distress is nothing new. Had Korra been found and rescued in time by her team, she would have fallen into that trope. But nobody rescued Korra, and nobody rescued me. Like her, I escaped on my own.
But instead of having a Mako to tell me that I was safe once it was over, I felt guilty for what had happened to me. It took well over a year for me to begin to confide in some friends what had happened. Nearly two years passed before telling my mother, and I only told my father about it last December. I suffered in silence with (99.999% likely) undiagnosed and at times incapacitating PTSD all through my senior year of high school and most of college. Heck, I’m nearly 23 now, and this fifteen minute long ordeal from five years ago is still an issue for me. I could be dead, I think sometimes, or I could have disappeared for forever. No one would have known where to look. Like Korra, I was living abroad with a host family at the time. God alone knows what might have happened had I not escaped.
Discovering feminism, along with the help of some good friends and guidance, helped me to re-evaluate my trauma. I was finally able to place the blame where it had always lain: with my attacker, not myself. A friend once told me that, though I had been victimized, I was a hero. I was my own hero. And yet, I still felt guilty.
Story writers continue to throw around the damsel in distress abduction plot line as if every good woman (usually the main man’s wife/daughter/love interest) needs to suffer abduction and be saved for the sake of the man’s development as a character. It gives him motivation, you see. In every other abduction story line I have seen, the woman is always helpless and must wait for rescue. She may be able to fool her captors for a little while, but she must always wait for rescue. Also, she never suffers psychological backlash, or if she does, it’s not shown.
Plenty has been said about the damaging effects of the damsel in distress trope in our perception of men and women in society. Women are passive un-characters used to elicit an animalistic, territorial protection out of men. In fact, the women wrapped into these tropes are almost always rescued by their corresponding men.
Most popular TV shows that aren’t sitcoms will dabble into the abduction story. I can’t even begin to count the number of people abducted throughout the course of NCIS, for example (and I love NCIS). It’s an especially popular plot line for cop shows. Virtually every abduction on TV is a damsel in distress, and the abduction story is so common that its effect is exponentially larger than if you’re only exposed to it once or twice. And this is what it teaches young women: You are helpless, the pawn of others, and you must be rescued when in danger.
I think that the rootedness of this trope within our stories is one of the things that kept me silent all those years when I needed help the most. And it took minoring in Women’s Studies, hearing Gloria Steinem in person, two and a half years of counseling, science fiction and literary criticism to get me to a place academically and mentally where I could accept my own role as a hero in my situation. I felt guilty, dirty and used after what happened. I felt guilty, as if I had made it happen, and I felt guilty that I had escaped. I felt guilty of my bravery because I had been sold the story of the damsel in distress my whole life.
When the creative team behind Avatar decided that Korra could and should be brave enough to escape, they created a model of courage for young women. They took the damsel in distress trope and spat on it. During her escape, I saw myself in Korra and felt a liberating validation. I felt proud of having survived by the strength of my courage.
Throw all of the other awesomely feminist moments from The Legend of Korra at me, and I will still say this — this is the biggest win for feminism on that show.
We need more stories like Korra’s on television. We need them in books and in the movies. By continuously propagating the damsel in distress, we train young women to accept their own helplessness, to the point where courage and bravery seem like horrendous crimes. We need to see women who can rescue themselves.
*In case you were wondering, Verizon didn’t show up.