Korra’s Politics: She’s a small-c Conservative
[Spoiler warning for Avatar: The Last Airbender]
Like their scrappy protagonist, the creators of TV’s The Legend of Korra (LOK), seem to seek controversy, and like their protagonist, they find it. LOK is about politics, and many of its villains claim to be idealistic revolutionaries. Certain critics invite us to question the message this sends. Since Avatar Korra, the main character, fights to preserve the status quo, one may accuse her of being a reactionary. Thus, the show’s creators seem to encourage reactionary attitudes in real life.
These critics make telling points. Korra may not be as far to the right as her enemy Kuvira, but she is certainly a small-c conservative. One of LOK’s strengths as a work of fiction, however, is that it explores its world in enough depth so that one can trace out how Korra developed her views. Not only does this provide insight into her character, it may even deepen our understanding of the issues she encounters. Even those of us who reject conservatism as an ideology for twenty-first century Earth may find wisdom in The Legend of Korra.
The fundamental reason why Korra defends the status quo is that she is the successor to the main characters from the earlier TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA). In ATLA, the protagonists won. As Korra’s friends in the world of professional bending competition would surely have told her, the last tournament’s upstart challengers become the next tournament’s defending champions. Moreover, the way in which the ATLA characters achieved their victory promoted a society in which the privileged would keep their prerogatives.
ATLA’s main characters would have found it difficult to organize their world in any more progressive way because they were working within a coalition. This coalition consisted largely of aristocrats from pre-existing tribes and nations. For the coalition to function, the ATLA protagonists needed to maintain its members’ support. That meant they needed to respect those members’ interests.
For these reasons, Korra inherited a world where traditional elites held onto their positions. Those elites retained considerable autonomy. Royal families remained sovereign and industry remained in the hands of private owners. No institution had the power to impose decisions upon the elites without at least a modicum of consent. The requirement for consent virtually guaranteed that policy would be based on compromise, and compromise is rarely a morally satisfying thing.
As avatar, Korra had both supernatural abilities and fame. Although there was a social expectation that she would promote “balance,” she was free to decide for herself what that meant. In principle, therefore, she might have used her power to challenge the system the ATLA characters bequeathed to her. Most of the time, however, neither her personality nor her moral sense inclined her to do so.
LOK introduces Korra as a teenager. Meditation and spiritual studies frustrate her; she is a doer, not a thinker. She is impatient, extroverted and eager to take her place as avatar. Aang, a protagonist of the ATLA series, has defined avatar-dom so memorably that his statue towers over the harbor in the city where much of LOK takes place. In one scene, Korra stands by the statue and imitates Aang’s pose.
Although Korra rebels against restrictions on her own freedom, it would be unlike her to engage in the kind of soul-searching that might move her to rebel against the society her role model restored. Moreover, if she had reviewed her world’s history in a fair and reflective frame of mind, there is no reason to assume she would have become a revolutionary. The experience might, to the contrary, have reaffirmed her determination to follow Aang’s example. She might have found that Aang acted with moral purpose.
Compromise and respect of others’ autonomy are, after all, the alternatives to war. Aang lived through a war which lasted a hundred years and prompted two episodes of attempted genocide. An ATLA episode drew attention to the fact that even those fighting for good reasons may find it expedient to kill innocent people en masse. Although the TV show showed the protagonists going to heroic lengths to prevent the massacre, those with an interest in real-life issues may note that in actual conflict, so-called collateral damage is an everyday thing.
Awful as war is, some causes demand it. ATLA left no doubt that Aang and his companions needed to overthrow Fire Lord Ozai’s regime. The series also indicated that this regime was consistent with recent Fire Nation culture, and that the Fire Nation’s citizens were complicit with it. One could make a case that those people should have been held accountable. The folk of the authoritarian Earth Kingdom and the misogynist Northern Water Tribe had much to answer for as well.
By that way of looking at things, Aang’s conservative compromise might seem disappointing. The ATLA world was full of injustice, and few of its inhabitants deserve a quiet life. Why not continue the struggle, and let chips fall where they may? Aang and his companions, however, seemed to see things differently. ATLA hints at the reason why. One of the most life-affirming things about ATLA is the way it depicts the people the main characters meet in their travels.
Many of those people are suffering from brigandage, tyranny and the war. Nevertheless, they are more than victims, and some of their tales are happy ones. ATLA depicts their homes, their games, their food, their art, their pets, their festivals, their families, and their ways of making their lives comfortable. Many are brave, many are kind and most seem potentially to be sympathetic individuals. Aang himself certainly seems prepared to sympathize with them, even in the Fire Nation itself.
It seems the ATLA world’s traditional regimes, despite their inequities, made room for private happiness. Anyone with any compassion would wish to make that happiness available to all. Nevertheless, the ATLA characters seem to have concluded, a society which is even partly successful at creating such a space ought to be handled with care. This is, in a sense, a conservative approach, but it is one which those of a progressive outlook may be able to support.
Those interested in criticisms of LOK’s conservative themes may enjoy:
Kay and Skittles, “The Politics of The Legend of Korra — Book 1: Communism,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ModX151Ipgs, acessed Dec. 29, 2020.
Kay and Skittles, “The Politics of The Legend of Korra — Book 2: Colonization,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6alQz2CEsz0, accessed Dec. 29, 2020.
Kay and Skittles, “The Politics of The Legend of Korra — Book 3: Anarchy,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DyKwTXPar4, accessed Dec. 29, 2020.
Kay and Skittles, “The Politics of The Legend of Korra — Book 4: Nationalism,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGX2rRAlNME, accessed Dec. 29, 2020.
Ng, Jeannette, “The Inescapable Whiteness of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA, and its Uncomfortable Implications,” Medium, https://medium.com/@nettlefish/the-inescapable-whiteness-of-avatar-the-legend-of-korra-and-its-uncomfortable-implications-debc76bbf7f, accessed Dec. 29, 2020.
Weekes, Princess, “It’s OK to Discuss What Makes The Legend of Korra a Mixed Bag,” The Mary Sue, https://www.themarysue.com/discuss-legend-of-korra-mixed-bag/, accessed Dec. 29, 2020.