Just about a week ago, Avatar: The Legend of Korra aired its series finale. That it happened in the first place is a triumph for its creators and fans, since the show has been plagued from the beginning with production and budget issues. Add how the show managed to pick up despite a season where even some of us die-hard fans were tempted to give up on it and you have an ending that is more than a little impressive.
Of course, there was something else about the ending that got people talking: The protagonist of the show, Korra, walking off into the Spirit Realm hand-in-hand with another female character, Asami. From my first viewing of the finale, I saw the ending for what it ended up confirmed to be. After a season full of moments of closeness and frank tenderness between the two young women, it seemed unsurprising to me that Korrasami is canon.
I was to find that others’ reactions to the finale would include some pre-confirmation acceptance of my interpretation, but that others weren’t so sure. From people who aren’t queer women, I heard grumbles about the ending being shoehorned without any real lead-up or indication as “fanservice” -- a term that is never used positively. Meanwhile, some queer women took the ending to task for not being as explicit as the more heteronormative ending of Avatar: The Last Airbender -- or even the straight pairings in Korra. Post-Korrasami confirmation, the creators explained that the meaningful look and hand-holding was as far as Nickelodeon was willing to let them go with the ending.
In a very meta sense, the ways by which Korrasami came to be and was received reveal quite a bit about certain aspects of queer female experiences in mainstream culture.
Unlike men, women are permitted by society to be affectionate with each other without being accused of being gay for each other. The flip side of that is that women’s non-platonic love for each other is often erased. Take Angel Haze and Ireland Baldwin for example: Angel Haze had to spell it out despite the fact that had one or both of them been a man, not only would everyone have assumed that they were together, romantic or sexual involvement would have been assumed based on the most innocuous behaviors. The same applies to Korra and Asami’s relationship arc. Some did not see the affection between the characters as something that could be indicative of potential romance, even though the initial lead-up moments to Korra’s pairing(s?) with Mako were not all that different.
The lack of parity between Korra and Asami’s “We’re Together Now!” moment and those of the straight characters, too, is a mirror of society’s treatment of female-female relationships. The more outraged reactions to Korrasami online accused the creators of “pushing” or “promoting” queerness for a moment that was far less explicit than many of the other romantic moments in the show. Further angering some is how Korra is technically a children’s cartoon, with the implication that witnessing queerness is harmful to young people. Leaving aside how straight pairings are not perceived as indicative of some kind of agenda or harmful to children by merely existing, is queer representation for children’s television really such a bad agenda? The idea that seeing two women holding hands as they take a trip to a coexisting dimension is going to scar a child assumes that no children have queer people in their lives or are queer themselves.
This is where I part ways with some of my fellow queer women. I understand the desire to see same-gender relationships between women stated and manifested in an unambiguous way. Queerbaiting is a real problem, yet as someone who has trouble expressing myself to my crushes, especially non-male ones, I relate to the more timid-in-love queer characters rather than the boldly propositioning types. That is, I enjoyed the Korrasami lead-up as much as I did partly because the moments were so tentative and potentially open to misinterpretation but still managed to lead to them being together.
In a heterocentric world, it can be hard to figure out if a fellow woman is flirting or is just being friendly (or even antagonistic) in a way characteristic of stereotypical feminine behavior. Women are far more likely than men to cuddle, kiss, hug, and feel comfortable about changing around each other without any sort of non-platonic implications. If a woman fixes her gaze on another woman, the assumption there, too, is not of attraction; more often than not, the look is read as a hostile glare.
Additionally, due to the way that women are socialized to think of ourselves and each other, there is sometimes a feeling of fragility to the romantic impulses between women, in no small part due to how romantic love and sex between women is erased and overlooked. Two women could be married for decades yet they will still be told that they simply need to find the right man to become straight. A woman could have had the kinkiest of sex with hundreds of other women yet, by popular definitions of the term, she would still be considered a virgin unless she has also had sex with at least one man.
The Legend of Korra may not have ended on as explicit of a note as hoped for, but the struggles along the way to achieving that ending both within the show and due to production limitations rang very true to me. Korrasami ended up being less a queer-bait and more a cartoon version of the Staring Lesbian Sheep phenomenon (NSFW warning for the text). Unlike many other lesbian sheep, Korra and Asami ended up having a very happy rather than a frustrating end to their staring.