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.
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.