co-creator of The Legend of Korra & Avatar: The Last Airbender, photographer, musician/recording artist Ginormous
You can celebrate it, embrace it, accept it, get over it, or whatever you feel the need to do, but there is no denying it. That is the official story. We received some wonderful press in the wake of the series finale at the end of last week, and just about every piece I read got it right: Korra and Asami fell in love. Were they friends? Yes, and they still are, but they also grew to have romantic feelings for each other.
Was Korrasami “endgame,” meaning, did we plan it from the start of the series? No, but nothing other than Korra’s spiritual arc was. Asami was a duplicitous spy when Mike and I first conceived her character. Then we liked her too much so we reworked the story to keep her in the dark regarding her father’s villainous activities. Varrick and Zhu Li weren’t originally planned to end up as a couple either, but that’s where we took the story/where the story took us. That’s how writing works the vast majority of the time. You give these characters life and then they tell you what they want to do.
I have bragging rights as the first Korrasami shipper (I win!). As we wrote Book 1, before the audience had ever laid eyes on Korra and Asami, it was an idea I would kick around the writers’ room. At first we didn’t give it much weight, not because we think same-sex relationships are a joke, but because we never assumed it was something we would ever get away with depicting on an animated show for a kids network in this day and age, or at least in 2010.
Makorra was only “endgame” as far as the end of Book 1. Once we got into Book 2 we knew we were going to have them break up, and we never planned on getting them back together. Sorry, friends. I like Mako too, and I am sure he will be just fine in the romance department. He grew up and learned about himself through his relationships with Asami and Korra, and he’s a better person for it, and he’ll be a better partner for whomever he ends up with.
Once Mako and Korra were through, we focused on developing Korra and Asami’s relationship. Originally, it was primarily intended to be a strong friendship. Frankly, we wanted to set most of the romance business aside for the last two seasons. Personally, at that point I didn’t want Korra to
, but even that felt a bit forced to me. I’m usually rolling my eyes when that happens in virtually every action film, “Here we go again…” It was probably around that time that I came across this quote from Hayao Miyazaki:
“I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live - if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.”
I agree with him wholeheartedly, especially since the majority of the examples in media portray a female character that is little more than a trophy to be won by the male lead for his derring-do. So Mako and Korra break the typical pattern and end up respecting, admiring, and inspiring each other. That is a resolution I am proud of.
However, I think there needs to be a counterpart to Miyazaki’s sentiment: Just because two characters of the same sex appear in the same story, it should not preclude the possibility of a romance between them. No, not everyone is queer, but the other side of that coin is that not everyone is straight. The more Korra and Asami’s relationship progressed, the more the idea of a romance between them organically blossomed for us. However, we still operated under this notion, another “unwritten rule,” that we would not be allowed to depict that in our show. So we alluded to it throughout the second half of the series, working in the idea that their trajectory could be heading towards a romance.
But as we got close to finishing the finale, the thought struck me: How do I know we can’t openly depict that? No one ever explicitly said so. It was just another assumption based on a paradigm that marginalizes non-heterosexual people. If we want to see that paradigm evolve, we need to take a stand against it. And I didn’t want to look back in 20 years and think, “Man, we could have fought harder for that.” Mike and I talked it over and decided it was important to be unambiguous about the intended relationship.
We approached the network and while they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it, as just about every article I read accurately deduced. It was originally written in the script over a year ago that Korra and Asami held hands as they walked into the spirit portal. We went back and forth on it in the storyboards, but later in the retake process I staged a revision where they turned towards each other, clasping both hands in a reverential manner, in a direct reference to Varrick and Zhu Li’s nuptial pose from a few minutes prior. We asked Jeremy Zuckerman to make the music tender and romantic, and he fulfilled the assignment with a sublime score. I think the entire last two-minute sequence with Korra and Asami turned out beautiful, and again, it is a resolution of which I am very proud. I love how their relationship arc took its time, through kindness and caring. If it seems out of the blue to you, I think a second viewing of the last two seasons would show that perhaps you were looking at it only through a hetero lens.
Was it a slam-dunk victory for queer representation? I think it falls short of that, but hopefully it is a somewhat significant inching forward. It has been encouraging how well the media and the bulk of the fans have embraced it. Sadly and unsurprisingly, there are also plenty of people who have lashed out with homophobic vitriol and nonsense. It has been my experience that by and large this kind of mindset is a result of a lack of exposure to people whose lives and struggles are different from one’s own, and due to a deficiency in empathy––the latter being a key theme in Book 4. (Despite what you might have heard, bisexual people are real!) I have held plenty of stupid notions throughout my life that were planted there in any number of ways, or even grown out of my own ignorance and flawed personality. Yet through getting to know people from all walks of life, listening to the stories of their experiences, and employing some empathy to try to imagine what it might be like to walk in their shoes, I have been able to shed many hurtful mindsets. I still have a long way to go, and I still have a lot to learn. It is a humbling process and hard work, but nothing on the scale of what anyone who has been marginalized has experienced. It is a worthwhile, lifelong endeavor to try to understand where people are coming from.
There is the inevitable reaction, “Mike and Bryan just caved in to the fans.” Well,
fans? There were plenty of Makorra shippers out there, so if we had gone back on our decision and gotten those characters back together, would that have meant we caved in to those fans instead? Either direction we went, there would inevitably be a faction that was elated and another that was devastated. Trust me, I remember Kataang vs. Zutara. But one of those directions is going to be the one that feels right to us, and Mike and I have always made both
for us, first and foremost. We are lucky that so many other people around the world connect with these series as well. Tahno playing trombone––now that was us caving in to the fans!
But this particular decision wasn’t only done for us. We did it for all our queer friends, family, and colleagues. It is long over due 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.
I’ll wrap this up with some incredible words that Mike and I received in a message from a former
crew member. He is a deeply religious person who devotes much of his time and energy not only to his faith, but also to helping young people. He and I may have starkly different belief systems, but it is heartwarming and encouraging that on this issue we are aligned in a positive, progressive direction:
“I’ve read enough reviews to get a sense of how it affected people. One very well-written article in Vanity Fair called it subversive (in a good way, of course)… I would say a better word might be “healing.” I think your finale was healing for a lot of people who feel outside or on the fringes, or that their love and their journey is somehow less real or valuable than someone else’s… That it’s somehow less valid. I know quite a few people in that position, who have a lifetime of that on their shoulders, and in one episode of television you both relieved and validated them. That’s healing in my book.”
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