Queer characters that changed my life: Femslash in animation and ‘The Legend of Korra’

Queer characters that changed my life” is a series documenting LGBTQ-identified characters in media and what they mean to us.


Subtext and More Subtext

 

In the 10 years between the first episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA)” and the last of “The Legend of Korra,” I subsisted on subtext. I put a magnifying glass to each episode of every show I became obsessed with in a given year. Not long after I came out to her, my best friend patiently endured my Piper/Cyclonis (“Storm Hawks”) and Terra/Raven (“Teen Titans”) conspiracy theories and fanfiction recommendations during our freshman year of high school. I hung out on DeviantArt and debated about whether I could get behind Katara/Toph in “ATLA.” (I never did, but it was a fun thought.)

I’m someone who knew she was queer long before she knew what that meant. I was starved for low-resolution Anime Music Videos with t.A.T.u. songs, for heavily artifacted GIFS and JPEGs of those in my favorite “ships” just standing next to one another. I considered myself expertly versed in mid-2000s fanfic lingo, where I first learned the word “femslash” (and “yuri” and “F/F”) and never looked back. Sometimes, I even dug into femslash fanart and fanfiction for shows I never watched.

I read and reread wiki pages on what I thought, at the time, was a scandalous Americanization of a queer couple in “Sailor Moon”: when Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were changed from lovers to cousins in the North American distribution. The change became less scandalous the more I realized how completely unexpected it really was. These were still the dying days of U.S. sodomy laws, after all.

Then “Revolutionary Girl Utena” and its film adaptation changed how I saw femslash forever. “Utena” is arguably a flagship anime of the yuri genre. The show was ultimately about the relationship between Utena and Anthy, but from start to finish, it came off hesitant on whether to be explicit about their budding romance. The film removed that ambiguity the moment Anthy leapt into the air and French-kissed Utena over a field of roses, allowing her to summon the Sword of Dios for the first time.

My hunt for representation was interstitial, desperate, exhaustive.

 

To have something animated — something part of the amorphous media umbrella of “canon” — be so frank about its femslash was entirely novel to me. But as much as owning the DVD boxset and movie means to me today, “Utena” still didn’t feel like enough. It was something I discovered not long before I left for college, and it is definitely not a series geared toward children.

If anything, its early ambiguity about Utena and Anthy’s relationship reinforced an idea that took me some time to parse through: the thought that people like me were meant to be hidden; that much like The Talk, mentioning our existence fell under the category of “adult conversation.”

That message was unconsciously, but stubbornly, repeated to me as I grew up. I bought the argument that we were, by virtue of existing, inappropriate to discuss around kids. That mentioning slash or femslash in a fanfic description alone was enough to bump its rating up to “Teen” or “Mature.” That it was perfectly normal for authors to feel the need to warn off homophobic vitriol with incessant disclaimers of “don’t like, don’t read.”

My hunt for representation was interstitial, desperate, exhaustive. I attribute my fact-checking skills as a copy editor to the obsessive googling of my preteens and early teens, to my daily hunt to find new content that showed some spark of someone like me in the media I cared about. I was not satisfied that there was a genre “made” for me that was comprised by, at times, inaccessible romances in the LGBT section.

I questioned why I could only be justified by a separate genre rather than exist as a natural part of the works I wanted to consume. I questioned why, knowing that I was queer at age 12, I would have been “too adult” to be represented in works for children that age.

‘The Legend of Korra’: Disappointment to Triumph

 

When “Legend of Korra” was officially announced around 2010, I was excited; it was geared toward a slightly older audience than that of “ATLA,” its predecessor, with a more serious tone and new settings.

“ATLA” had its own finale in 2008. It was a show that had its entire run during a crucial point in my life. I grew up watching a dynamic cast of Asian women in powerful, intelligent and creative roles. Fittingly, the first episode of “ATLA” aired around the time I was having an internal crisis over being gay; I couldn’t have predicted that the show’s legacy would go beyond representing women or Asian culture.

Seeing images of and reading about Korra was almost like looking in a mirror — stubborn, tomboyish and a total (polar bear) dog lover. Adding engineering prodigy Asami Sato to the mix was almost too good to be true. Fans (e.g., me) immediately shipped them together once the first season began airing in 2012. Granted, I was a bit older by then, a bit less enthusiastic at hungrily digging up subtext wherever I saw it. I appreciated that they got along well as friends and teammates.

I questioned why I could only be justified by a separate genre rather than exist as a natural part of the works I wanted to consume. I questioned why, knowing that I was queer at age 12, I would have been “too adult” to be represented in works for children that age.

 

The end of Season 1 left a bitter taste in my mouth. Seeing them both entangled in a love triangle with bad-boy Mako for several episodes was like pulling teeth. The finale kiss between Korra and Mako was so eye-roll inducing, I skipped out on watching Season 2 until the third had been announced.

I went into Season 3 with low expectations. Season 2 was not much of an improvement to the first, but it did have the virtue of making Mako and Korra permanently break up. What I had not expected in the third season was the care the show took to have Korra and Asami work together and support one another so closely. When Korra was in early recovery from her ordeal with The Red Lotus, I found it curious at how the show emphasized Asami being by her side.

Once Season 4 came around in late 2014, there were theories upon theories of Korra and Asami’s budding relationship floating around with each newly released episode. The letters between them, the compliments on appearance, the place in the narrative that used to belong to Mako and was now becoming Asami’s. I was hopeful, but I didn’t expect anything. For all I knew, maybe the show’s creators were just throwing bones at the vocal Korrasami contingent in the fandom.

I fell out of my chair during the last episode, and I appreciated that my roommate wasn’t there to see it. I was shaking during the penultimate scene when Asami sat with Korra to talk in private, not long after Varrick and Zhu Li’s wedding celebrations. My eyes widened when they apologized to one another, when they hugged, when Korra excitedly suggested that they both go on a vacation alone together. My heart raced when they slowly approached the portal to the Spirit World with their travel gear, and I fell when they reached out to hold hands, entered the portal and looked into one another’s eyes as the series came to a close.

end

Aftermath (or, The Seven Stages of Grief Condensed in Three Days)

 

After the Korrasami celebrations, after frantic capslock screaming, after barrages of GIF sets and reaction videos of the moments leading up to the finale, after seeing, with my own eyes, the deep gaze between Korra and Asami as they clasped one another’s hands in the portal against a backdrop of romantic music — I paused.

I questioned myself. I questioned my equally excited friends. I questioned whether the people decrying that Korra and Asami could even be canon were really wrong. I accepted the cynicism of a slightly older, married queer couple who commented that they had seen the episode (or at least that part of it), and were not convinced Korrasami had been written in at all. I got angry, mostly at myself for feeling fooled.

Perhaps it was appropriately ironic that I would scoff when Korrasami was handed to me on a rainbow-colored platter. I could only think, “Of course I would give up my hopes again. Of course there would never really be a queer couple shown on a cartoon for kids.” Of course, in that moment, I would almost give up on what I had been looking for all these years.

But then, something unexpected happened. In the closest you could get to making a decorous announcement via loudspeaker over a chorus of Internet shouting, Bryan Konietzco, co-creator for the “Avatar” series, made a post on Tumblr with a simple, bolded heading: Korrasami is canon.

“You can celebrate it, embrace it, accept it, get over it, or whatever you feel the need to do,” Bryan writes, “but there is no denying it. That is the official story.”

After Bryan’s affirmation, I could actually say what I had treated as a light-hearted joke since the show first aired in 2012: “Korrasami is canon. Korra and Asami Sato are bisexual women who have fallen in love and are beginning a relationship.” It felt eons away from my obsessive subtext-hunting and sleuthing as a teen who stubbornly piled together evidence that her existence was justified in all forms of media, not just confined to the corners of a designated LGBT section more friendly to adults.

“[T]his particular decision wasn’t only done for us,” Bryan writes. “We did it for all our queer friends, family, and colleagues. It is long overdue that our media (including children’s media) stops treating non-heterosexual people as nonexistent, or as something merely to be mocked. I’m only sorry it took us so long to have this kind of representation in one of our stories.”

Bryan drove his point home with his March 2015 illustration of Korra and Asami going on a date, cuddled together on a turtle-duck boat. They might not have shared the on-screen kiss that Aang and Katara had at the end of “ATLA,” or mirrored the kiss between Korra and Mako at the end of the first season. But breaking uncertain grounds in children’s animation carried a price, and Bryan mentions that “there was a limit to how far [he and co-creator Mike DiMartino] could go with it.”

It felt eons away from my obsessive subtext-hunting and sleuthing as a teen who stubbornly piled together evidence that her existence was justified in all forms of media, not just confined to the corners of a designated LGBT section more friendly to adults.

 

However shown or however said, Korra and Asami are endgame. They are real, and getting to witness their relationship play out in a series with a younger demographic marked a distinct shift in the tone of the kinds of media that I grew up with: I’m no longer someone “too adult” to be seen and represented in works for children.

It’s an understatement to say that Korrasami changed my life. But I’m older now. I’m more sure of who I am and where I belong. In the end, I hope Korrasami changed the lives of kids who, like me, were starved to see themselves in the shows they loved.


N is a bona fide professional student and fandom connoisseur of all things femslash-related. You can find her replaying ‘Life is Strange’ for the umpteenth time or fruitlessly rereading the same two chapters in ‘Ulysses.’

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