Occupy Republic City! Or, Why You Should Join The Equalists

Editor’s note: this piece was written by guest writer B. Lana Guggenheim. Guggenheim is a loudmouthed Jewess who enjoys blogging for social justice, watching Avatar, and eating. She will be studying international conflict in LSE this fall. In her spare time, Lana co-captains the steampunk airship Liberi Lupi (a group dedicated to addressing issues of colonialism, racism, and cultural appropriation in steampunk) and enjoys watching Asami kick butt. You can find her rambling about life, fandom, and puppies on thearcanetheory.tumblr.com.

Korra responds to an anti-bending protester.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, for all its innovation, had a fairly straightforward premise (hero must stop the bad guy and save the world), with an easily recognized, even stereotypical, arch-villain. We know the Fire Nation in general, and specifically Fire Lord Ozai, are the bad guys, and we root for their downfall. We are presented with instances in which Fire Nation individuals are neutral, or outright helpful to the Gaang — such as Jong-Jong, and eventually Iroh and Zuko — but never do we doubt that the current governmental regime of the Fire Nation needs to fall in order for Good to Win.

The Legend of Korra is different. We are presented with a seemingly similar setup to A:TLA, in that the hero, Korra, must beat the bad guys, Amon and the Equalists, in order to save the city. However, from very early on, we see clues that the bad guys aren’t actually bad. Because while it is made abundantly clear that the Fire Nation are colonialist aggressors in that series’ world war, the Equalists claim the role of the no-longer-quiescent victims of society, and name the benders as the oppressors. Or, to compare it to real life, the benders are the powerful of society, the movers and shakers, and the non-benders are everyone else. The 1% and the 99%. This makes the Equalists analogous to the Occupy movement.

In episode one, where Korra first interacts with an Equalist agitator, she states in response to the agitator’s rant against bending privilege that “bending is the most awesome thing ever!” She then goes on to admit that she’d use her abilities to silence the opposition. Korra herself provides a perfect example of both the ignorance of the supreme privilege that bending gives her, and a willingness to abuse that privilege. (She also demonstrates to the audience that she is understandably naïve in terms of politicking, having allowed herself to be drawn into such an obvious conversational pitfall.)

More examples of the physical superiority of benders over non-benders abound throughout the series. The bending triads’ power over hapless non-benders; the admittedly awesome-cool-super-amazing metal-bending police force; the tragic backstory of Mako and Bolin, and Asami, where both families lost parents to rogue Firebenders; Tarrlok’s anti-Equalist taskforce, where a small trained group took out an entire Equalist stronghold; and Lin Bei Fong’s final offensive against the Equalist at the series’ end. Lin Bei Fong’s last battle is a particularly impressive example of her metalbending prowess, in that one lone, middle-aged woman took down two fully manned and weaponed airships. Such a world in which such feats are possible  demands that non-benders rely on benders to protect them from other benders abusing their privilege. This is a precarious situation; the police aren’t always there, or even there on time (such as when Korra beat up the bending mafia squad in Episode One), and neither are friendly benders always on hand to protect a vulnerable non-bender’s butt. In such a world, a non-bender, while not legally discriminated against, is a de facto second class citizen, unable to adequately protect himself or face down benders on an even playing field.

Benders’ power and privilege didn’t arise in LoK; there were nods to it in A:TLA, such as when Sokka states outright that he feels sub-par compared to the other members of the Gaang due to the lack of his bending abilities (Season Three, “Sokka’s Master”). However, it is clear that in Republic City, the power disparity between benders and non-benders has increased and indeed been woven into the very fabric and structure of the city. Not only have powerful bending techniques become more widely dispersed (compare the relative rarity of lightning-bending and blood-bending from Aang’s time to their relative commonality in Korra’s time), but the social power/privilege disparity between benders and non-benders has increased, as certain jobs are closed to non-benders, as are areas of prestige, such as Pro-Bending. This disparity gets even worse when the Council enacts curfews and restrictions against the city’s non-bending population, resulting in a martial-law apartheid between benders and non-benders, to the point where even being a non-bender automatically puts you as suspect as being an Equalist. (A tactic which no doubt drove many on the fence straight into Amon’s arms.) It is hardly surprising that such an inherently unequal society gave rise to a backlash movement like the Equalists.

This is not to imply that non-benders have no agency. In both A:TLA and LoK, non-benders are shown to kick some major butt. A:TLA had notables like Jet, Ty Lee, Mai, and, later on, Sokka, who used non-bending martial arts to hold their own against benders and fight for whatever causes they so choose. Indeed, Ty Lee’s chi-blocking is a defensive weapon taught to non-benders en masse by the Equalists because of its effectiveness at temporarily neutralizing a bender’s ability. Technology has also been shown to be the great equalizer. As the technical prowess of the Avater-verse progressed, it can be surmised that bending ability, while increasing in power over time, becomes less important relatively as technological apparati allow for benders and non-benders alike to accomplish various tasks previously only done conveniently by benders. Notably, in terms of combat, the Equalists have mastered the weaponization of electricity, something that only a firebender has the potential to redirect or otherwise defend against.

Shown: Asami showing her agency using
fancy steampunk technology.

Of course, there are two main obstacles for a non-bender arming themselves thus, either with knowledge of chi-blocking or with one of those steampunk-esque electrocution gloves. One obstacle is that both are only available through the Equalists. Many people I talk LoK with will admit that as non-benders, they’d want to learn chi-blocking, but wouldn’t go so far as to join the Equalists. But when the only people willing to teach you these defensive moves are Equalists, what are your options? And even learning chi-blocking is a suspicious act, proven when Korra, with Tarrlok’s task force, breaks up nothing more than illegal chi-blocking classes, jailing all the participants. It says a lot when the only chi-blocking classes on the block are run by Equalists, and it says even more that these classes themselves are illegal.

Above: Mako can lightning bend the Equalists’
main weapon against them. Even these weapons
are not a foolproof trump card. 

The second obstacle is money. The electric gloves cost money to make, as did all the other fancy electric Equalist toys. If one wanted to purchase such a glove (I’d assume on the black market), one would require enough financial liquidity to afford it. Even the Equalists’ main funder, Hiroshi Sato, was only able to invest in this technology due to his moneyed status. His daughter, Asami, is competent and knowledgeable, but her martial-arts prowess is due to the fact that her father had the ability to pay for it, and she had the luxury time to learn it. Private (legal) self-defense classes cost both time and money, and are thus a function of those with wealth.

All this means there are few options available for a lone, working/middle-class non-bender. Protection lies in groups, and only one group provides non-benders with the tools to defend themselves from abusive benders: the Equalists.

Viewers will agree that Amon’s/Noatauk’s goal to erase all bending from the planet is a non-practical, immoral way of solving the issue of bending privilege. What Amon is doing — forcibly removing benders’ ability to bend, publicizing the fact, and declaring war on the bending population of Republic City — is nothing more or less than terrorism. And, as we all know, terrorism is wrong. This terrorism, and the terror it successfully inspires, prevent Korra and Team Avatar from treating Amon and the Equalists as anything other than an existential threat, the Bad Guy to be stopped, rather than symptoms of a social issue so deep-rooted, only the Avatar can solve it. This terrorism, as far as storytelling goes, is what drives viewers to root for Korra, even as she refuses to understand the nature of privilege, specically the insidious, all-encompassing nature of bender privilege, which she has in spades; and the fact that she is an active perpetrator of this oppressive, unequal system, not its victim.

However, despite the evil execution of Amon’s/Noatauk’s anti-bending ideals, the Equalist movement remains an expression of the tension and dissatisfaction with the status quo between the benders and non-benders, the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless, the 1% and the 99% of the Avatar-verse. The Equalists are the Occupy movement with teeth, and Korra and Team Avatar, heroes though they are, are ultimately fighting on the wrong side, on the side of 1% instead of the 99%. The social tension due to this social disparity remains unresolved, and even with Amon gone, the question of equality remains.

Panel Report: Korra and Real Life Influences

Editor’s note: this article is part of a series of posts that covers the discussion panels The Analytical Couch Potato hosted during Connecticon 2012. For those who couldn’t make it, the staff decided to summarize some of the panels and provide pictures of the staff presenting. Those who want to see the full album of Connecticon pictures can see it on Facebook here. Thanks to everyone who made it out there to see us!

In our first panel of the day for Saturday, Nathan, Alex and I took the stage to lead a packed room full of Legend of Korra fans (many of them in costume) in discussing the Nickelodeon show’s social implications.

I opened the panel by asking audience members to list some of the differences between Korra and its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender. This led into a discussion of how technology and social change were shaping Korra’s world.

We had some ideas coming into the panel about how the Equalist movement does and doesn’t mirror the populist movements of today, like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street. We asked the crowd if they thought the Equalists had legitimate complaints – if non-benders really were an oppressed group.

The response couldn’t have been more varied. Some people pointed to the capable non-benders in Last Airbender and suggested that Amon essentially created the inequality as a means to seek power. Others expressed solidarity with the nonviolent civilians of the Equalist movement. When we asked the crowd whether people would join up had they been born a non-bender in Republic City, the hands were about half and half.

Next we talked about the avatar’s actual role in society, and what happens when she enters a more modern system of government that isn’t designed to incorporate a warrior/priest who’s above the law. It’s significant that Korra’s first act on arriving in Republic city is to get herself arrested for property damage.

We spoke about the make-up of Republic City’s council, and whether it was significant that non-benders seemed unrepresented. And we talked about how the “unity” of the four nations was really a result of Fire Nation imperialism, and if we would see more of a cultural affect of that in coming seasons.

The discussion segued from populist movements into technology: Is the new tech in Korra really an equalizer? Again we had a lot of great discussion and voices on both sides of the issue. We compared the industrial tech of Korra to the information age tech of today, in it’s capacity to equalize the common people with the people in power.

We considered what the march of technology would mean for bending into the future – most bending might become obsolete, but metal and lightning bending might become even more powerful.

Someone pointed out how the technology seemed to be used mostly in the military, but someone else jumped in to point out that that’s how it’s often worked in our world too. Military technology matriculates into civilian life.

And finally, we had a discussion about gender and shipping, and whether the focus on relationships undermined Korra’s status as a strong female protagonist. We heard good points from both sides, and we all agreed that this would be one thing we’d be watching closely for in future seasons – a real Korra/Asami relationship above and beyond Mako would be a good step.

All in all, it seems like in our hour together we were able to discuss almost every aspect of The Legend of Korra, and hear from a good chunk of the 100 or so highly intelligent Korra fans who turned up. For those of you who came, thanks for talking to us. I hope the rest of our readers have a chance to join us in the future!

Was there a highlight from the discussion I neglected to mention? Tell me in the comments!

The World-Building of Avatar and the Role of Discipline and Language

By Gillian Daniels

Dialogue doesn’t have to be realistic in mass media, it just has to be good. Or, to rephrase: “realism” is secondary to dialogue than, say, reflecting the world and social norms of the story. 

Quentin Tarantino’s movies are often seen by fans as realistic in their use dialogue, but I can’t imagine the quips and speeches delivered in Pulp Fiction and Resevoir Dogs swapped in conversation between any two people off the street.

The animated shows The Legend of Korra and its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, do not have realistic dialogue. Sometimes characters point blank tell their emotions rather than show them.

One example is during the recent finale of the twelve episode season of Legend of Korra.  One character, Asami, says to her father during “Endgame,” “You don’t have any love for Mother anymore. You’re too full of hatred.” It’s a line that tells the characters emotions rather than shows them, marking a pivotal realization. It’s also a bit clunky in its exposition and, for a fight with one’s own father, terribly restrained.I also found it eerily similar to how Zuko admonishes his father, Ozai, during “Day of Black Sun 2: Eclipse” in the third season of Avatar: The Last Airbender. When Zuko faces his father in his throne room, he discusses why the Fire Nation needs to stop The Hundred Year War. “We’ve created an era of fear in the world,” Zuko says at the end of a speech. “And if we don’t want the world to destroy itself, we need to replace it with an era of peace and kindness.”  It’s a line that’s a little cheesy, but it shows innocence and enlightenment.Like Asami’s realization that her father’s love for her mother has vanished in empty obsession, Zuko must come to terms with the grievances of his own nation.

Both series have lines like this. These examples of dialogue wouldn’t be real to us if used in our world, but they’re real to them. One would think it’s mainly due to the fact the show has writers who initially expected to write for younger viewers.

Or perhaps it’s a much more integral part of world-building in Avatar, one that takes a little more thought.There’s something fundamentally innocent about the Four Nations and the people in them. Despite the more mature themes of both series, like war, social unrest, family dysfunction, and genocide, many characters remain restrained, respectful, and disciplined. Their revelations about the betrayal of friends and family must be expressed through words rather than physical violence. They wouldn’t survive otherwise.

A good example of this restraint can be found in one of the original show’s biggest symbols, Zuko’s scar. For an entire country where a good percentage of the population can manipulate fire, it sure is surprising that Zuko is one of the only characters in the Fire Nation we see with permanent flame damage. One would think there would be more accidents or mutilation in the background. Not even big scars, either, just signs that these folk live in a world where some people throw fireballs. And Zuko’s scar is far from an accident, too, but something caused by direct abuse between parent and child.

Maybe the writers had to leave that stuff off to the side or else de-accentuate it for fear of catching the wrath of Nickelodeon executives.

But I think in a society where people can move certain elements, possibly have control over others, discipline is central to building a civilization. Super powered humans seek discipline and enlightenment through fighting styles, strong student-master relationships, and basic social norms. Without them, they would just burn, bury, drown, and choke one another while subjugating non-benders.

The society for Avatar is a little more gentle, a little more proper than the real world because it must be. In a very Darwin sense, society couldn’t exist in this fictional universe unless the ancestors of said characters learned to be restrained in order to live together.  It’s no accident that so many episodes in Avatar: The Last Airbender involve kinds seeking out and wanting to earn the respect of teachers, including “The Deserter,” “The Waterbending Master,” and “The Blind Bandit.”  In this case, these characters are looking for discipline in their lives.

This need for discipline is reflected in the more innocent dialogue. In the original show, after all, it appears that phrases like “Monkey Feathers” were used as a substitute for more inflammatory language. Respect for the mothers of one another, it seems, must be observed no matter who they’re “fucking.”  A magical society built without respect or restraint, where one group is genetically more powerful than another, is a society that would literally incinerate itself.

Still, doesn’t that just prove this is a show originally made with a younger audience in mind?

Not necessarily. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra are much more aware of the delicate social balance, I think, than viewers give them credit for.

One of the major storylines in Legend of Korra involves social upheaval. Specifically, the Equalist Movement in Republic City. In this plot, a small fringe group of non-benders demand that all benders be de-powered.

Their world has changed since the first episodes of A:TLA. Instead of being separated among four nations, all four types of benders live in one city. The delicate social balance has been upset. In the first episode, gangs of benders roam the streets looking to bully non-benders and people weaker than them. A modern, more technological city has forced great change on this society. Much of Legend of Korra deals with this fallout, a disturbance that has begun to rock a culture to its core.

In one of his most super villain-esque moments, Amon, the mastermind behind the Equalist Movement, allows Korra and her friends to get away during the episode, “The Revelation.” Amon justifies this to his lieutenant by saying, “Let her go. She’s the perfect messenger to tell the city of my power.” It’s the line of a bad guy if I’ve ever heard one.

It’s also a line that, in the context of Amon actually wanting to show off his de-bending power, in a world where people depend on respect and certain social norms to get things done, makes perfect sense.

Leave it to Avatar to build a world so lushly detailed, even its PG-rated constrictions feed into the epic, continuing story.

My Little Korra Bending Is Magic: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Cartoons

Sitting in my living room, finishing up a season one episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic on Netflix and moving right on to Nickelodeon’s website to catch the latest The Legend of Korra, a surreal thought occurred to me. At the age of 24, I’m once again looking forward to Saturday morning for the cartoons.

This article is now about Ponies. Oh wait, it was always about ponies.

Now, I’m a TV junkie. So it makes sense that during the summer hiatus I would get my kicks wherever there are new episodes to see — whether that’s PBS shows like Sherlock or the latest fare from the Hub or Nick. But there’s more than that going on here. Assuming you’ve been living on the Internet and not in a cave, you’ve heard all about the Brony phenomenon. And there’s no question that a big part of the direction that’s been taken with Korra is in recognition of Avatar‘s large non-child audience. The makers of Saturday morning cartoons are not just making shows for kids anymore. Increasingly, they’re walking a tightrope of sophistication in order to make programs simple and unobjectionable enough that parents can still park their kids in front of them, but complex and entertaining enough to rope in those young adult fans.

So, with all the programming geared and designed for us specifically, the coveted 18-to-25-year-old demographic, why are we drawn to these children’s shows? I see in these two very different children’s cartoons not only why so many people in my generation are drawn to this regressive entertainment, but what it is that draws us into all entertainment, all literature: exploration and escapism.

The plotlines in The Legend of Korra wrestle with might, right, and political power. Even nine episodes in, the drama is so intense and the lighthearted moments so few that I wonder how many truly youthful fans the show has. (A Google search for “actual kids who watch Korra” reveals that I am not alone in this question.) The Legend of Korra is following in the tradition of great science fiction and using a fantastic world to explore questions about humanity. When some people (benders) have power and some don’t, how do you build a functioning society? Do you take away the powers so everyone is equal, like Amon wants to do, or do you find a way to regulate those with the power, to force them to use it fairly and responsibly?

Also they shoot fire and stuff? Ok, the kids probably get a kick out of that part.

Unlike Aang, who had to learn to fight and attain the power to overthrow a nation, Korra comes to Republic City a fierce fighter, but must learn temperance and wisdom to be the Avatar, and to save the city from the sinister forces threatening not just attack, but social upheaval. Korra is perpetually caught between supposed good guys on the side of the law and supposed bad guys who are genuinely oppressed. There are big problems in The Legend of Korra, but there are no easy solutions.

 My Little Pony is like the opposite of Korra. It’s lighthearted to the extreme, but the characters are so dynamic and the world so inviting that you can’t help but be drawn in. The challenges the ponies face lack Korra‘s complexity: An evil mare who wants to bring perpetual night, a dragon whose snores are suffocating everypony with smog. And in this case there IS an easy solution, an easy, one size fits all, dare-I-say magical solution: friendship. MLP is all about friendship, and Twilight Sparkle’s struggles to learn about its many mysteries.

As a disaffected twenty-something, I enjoy engaging with the complex, morally gray world of The Legend of Korra. But at the end of a complex, morally gray day, there is nothing like escaping to a world where friendship is a magical force that solves all problems. Friendship is the one thing in this world I feel I’m truly good at. And I have experienced time and again that when I reach the end of my rope, it’s my friends who pull through and rescue me. So Equestria and its simple morality offer a welcome change from the often confusing realities of life, but that simplistic morality also rings true to me. And even in Korra’s world, and Aang’s before her, friendship was always the one thing the heroes could count on. These two cartoons aren’t just offering cool fight scenes or selling us toys, they’re helping us to engage with our lives meaningfully.

Korra explores our changing world, while MLP lets us escape it, and both try to point us toward something we can hold on to, something truly important: friendship. Which, if you haven’t heard, is magic.

Some people said I should talk about Spongebob in this article.
I ignored them, but this is my concession.

Comments sound off: What’s your favorite Saturday Morning Cartoon? What do you think of Bronies? Have you ever met an actual child who watches The Legend of Korra?