Legend of Korra & Boys Wanting "Boy Things"

| Monday, April 9, 2012
Today's Tune: With Love, Vincent

To start us off: if you are an Avatar: The Last Airbender fan and you have not already heard, the first two episodes of the new Avatar series, Legend of Korra, are available as a FREE DOWNLOAD from iTunes. And if you never watched Avatar, you should watch this show anyway because it looks full of promise and seeing the first series is not a requirement. Although you should watch it anyway because srsly REALLY GOOD and also it will ground you in the world a bit better.

Next: I've seen the first two episodes, but since they haven't officially aired on television yet, this post will not contain spoilers. Rather, it will be discussing the show in a generalized way and incorporating a larger topic. And that topic is:

Boys, apparently, have nothing to read these days, particularly in the YA section. All of the books, apparently, are written specifically for girls and about girly things that boys just don't find interesting. The protagonists, apparently, are all females concerned with romance-y elements, and it's all about... well, I don't know, okay, all I know is that it has to do with girl junk. It seems that boys no longer want to read once they hit puberty because the well of "boy books" has dried up. Either that or they jump immediately to "real/serious/exciting" adult fiction and bypass YA entirely.

A lot of people make these claims. The marketing research tends to support the claim that boys aren't big YA purchasers. The claim is not unfounded, and I'm not saying it is. However, I do think this issue is a lot bigger than writing more "boy books" that specifically cater to boys and "boy things," and I also think that it's kind of... well, BS. I think a lot of boys WOULD be interested in books with female protagonists and "female issues," just as women have always found ways to relate to male protagonists and "male issues." Unfortunately, I think society is teaching them that they shouldn't while simultaneously supporting the idea that they deserve special books just for them because OF COURSE it's understandable that you don't want to read about GIRLS, Junior. WHY WOULD YOU LOL.

Before I start repeating arguments that have already been made, let me just direct you to this blog post by Saundra Mitchell wherein she says pretty much exactly what I'm thinking.

And I'm kind of hoping that no one pipes in with WELL WHAT IF PEOPLE JUST DON'T *LIKE* ROMANCE, HUH? YOU CAN'T MAKE PEOPLE LIKE THINGS THEY DON'T LIKE! This isn't about forcing people to like romance novels. *I* don't generally enjoy romance novels, although I've been known to read and like them on occasion. This is about 1) the assumption that female authors using romantic tropes are automatically writing "romance novels" while male authors using the EXACT SAME TROPES are not, and 2) boys who won't pick up books by or about females, regardless of content... or whose parents won't pick up those books for them.

And 3) the fact that I think boys can, do, and will enjoy and appreciate female characters and stories about the female experience.

Which brings me to the Avatar series.

When Avatar: The Last Airbender came on the scene years ago, it was a runaway success. Wildly popular among young, old, female, and male audiences alike. The title character of the series was a 12-year-old boy, but he was far from the only significant character on the show. The female characters were treated with such care, given such personality and power while still remaining undeniably female. And boy watchers? They noticed.

One of the fandom's favorite characters is a young female Earthbender named Toph. Originally, the creators of the show had planned to make her a well-muscled teenaged boy, but they eventually decided to invert the trope and go with a petite pre-teen girl. It may have been a risky move, what with boys apparently being turned off by girl characters who act like girls, but it was a move that resulted in some incredible feedback.

The boys liked Toph. No, the boys LOVED Toph. Many listed her as their favorite character. Many wanted to dress as her for Halloween! True, Toph was a tomboy, but she also had distinctly female issues and fears. She wanted to be respected by her family, and simultaneously missed them despite their reluctance to let her do her own thing. She worried about being pretty. She could dress as a lady of the court and behave accordingly. She flirted with and crushed on boys. And you know what? Boys. Still. Liked. Her.

After the wild success of The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon has revived the world of Avatar with a brand new storyline. However, they've made some changes. The protagonist and her peers have been aged up -- they're now 16-18 instead of 12-15. The overreaching scope of the world and the heavy traveling of the original series has become a steampunk-y city full of new adventures. And? The protagonist is a girl. You know what this means?

It means that while the original series had a distinctly Middle Grade epic adventure feel to it, this new series is likely to feel a lot more like... Young Adult. That tricky area where boys apparently get lost and lose interest in hearing about girl protagonists and their girly issues.

But the funny thing is, the male fans of the original Avatar do not seem deterred by this. They are not rolling their eyes and going, "Ugh, a girl." And Korra is, I can assure you, a girl. She's a skilled fighter who promises a lot of high-octane action scenes and fight sequences, but she is undeniably female in her speech, mannerisms, and behavior.

I will grant that I have only seen the first two episodes of the series, and I have no idea the direction future episodes will take. Still, if this first taste is any indication, it will be an incredible and enlightening journey. The Avatar creators have a knack for inclusiveness and mindfulness in their characters. I do not doubt they have great things planned for this show.

What does this all mean? The creators of the show were careful to indicate that the Avatar cycle tends to run male-female-male-female, so Korra's sex came as a surprise to no one. The original series set up the world, its rules, and the fandom's investment in the characters. Now they're delivering a show that people are already lining up for. But will this change anything? What will young men take away from this?

I'm already predicting arguments about how Avatar is more adventure-action based, and this is what appeals to boys and will overshadow the fact that Korra's a giiiiirl. However, all of the action will not change the fact that Korra's coming at this experience from a female perspective. There are plenty of YA novels with female protagonists that contain action and adventure, yet there's still the insistence that it's the femaleness of it, the fact that the narrator's a girl, the girl-centric worldview, that distances male readers. So which is it? They can "forgive" a female protagonist in a cartoon, but not in a book? Or maybe we're all looking at this the wrong way. Maybe this is and has always been about character, worldbuilding, and strong writing, not the sex of the protagonist. And maybe people are all subconsciously assuming that female protagonists indicate a lack of those things, and/or projecting that on young boys.

I hope this is a move that will help marketers, boys, and society in general realize that boys can and will go bonkers for a female protagonist and her female perspective. I hope this is a step toward breaking down the idea that boys simply can't find any way to relate to girls. Even the very "boy" based original series did not shy away from romantic storylines, and I doubt this show will, either.

I'm actually curious to see if there's a noticeable drop in male viewership with this series. Time will tell.

You'll be hearing more about this from me as the series progresses and breathes, I'm sure ;) In the meantime, what do you think? Will you be watching? If you're male, has Korra's sex had any impact on your desire to watch the series?


{ Becky Mahoney } at: April 9, 2012 at 6:05 AM said...

I am so pumped about Korra, I can't even coherently discuss the series. I just devolve into happy noises and flaily-hands. I love that Korra is cocky and hot-headed the way a typical male protagonist might be, but does not just read like a male character with a female character design. As you said, much like Toph, she's clearly a girl, with "girl issues."

I feel like studio execs and showrunners are always so terrified of making something different that they assume their audience won't be able to empathize with someone who isn't them: boys won't empathize with girls, white viewers won't empathize with characters of color, straight viewers won't empathize with LGBTQ characters, and so on. I hope they get proved wrong on all counts very soon.

{ Landra } at: April 9, 2012 at 6:19 AM said...

Too excited about this show! I loved The Last Airbender series. I own the entire thing and me, my husband and 2 kids watched faithfully. The emergence of Korra is definitely going to be different. I worry that this new show, because of the YA element, may alienate some who watched the original. But I would venture to say probably not. My son loved an original cartoon series called Ben 10. When 3 season later Ben suddenly went from 11-12 year-old kid to a teenager my son's love for the character did not diminish. But the character is male. So not sure if that example works.
Bottom line we'll be watching Korra.

{ Susan Kaye Quinn } at: April 9, 2012 at 7:48 AM said...

First, thank you for alerting me to the new Airbender series...I now have that queued up on the DVR.

Second, my 13 yo son today reviewed an indie YA book on his blog - with a girl protagonist, a love triangle, and everything! :) (His review, my post about his review)

{ prerna pickett } at: April 9, 2012 at 7:52 AM said...

I've never watched the last airbender but I've heard nothing but good things. I hate when people assume that just because you're a boy all you like to read is sci-fi or something related to sports. I think the Hunger Games is a book that boys would thoroughly enjoy but because the MC is female, they shy away...sad really.

{ Jaron Frost } at: April 9, 2012 at 8:30 AM said...

I love The Last Airbender, and I'm totally excited for The Legend of Korra. And yes, I am male! And still pretty young! I might not be the best representation of my demographic here, but the stuff I like about my favorite books, games, and tv shows has very little to do with the gender of the main characters and a lot more to do with the themes and depth contained in the story. Avatar totally fits the bill there.

But the reasons why I don't care for the Hunger Games don't necessarily have anything to do with Katniss being female. By all accounts, as prerna pickett mentioned, boys should be all over this series. It's got killing! It's got action! But my memories of the first book were lukewarm at best, and I think a big reason why was 1) the violence was a bit too realistic and gratuitous for me, and 2) Katniss seemed like a really dumb person. In the first book (the only one I read), it seemed like she took forever to figure anything out, and if she ever intended to fight against the system in any way, she certainly took her time to come to that conclusion. I wanted to see her rebel against the evil government MUCH sooner, rather than playing into their game until the last fifty pages. It's this kind of slow-moving emotional "I don't know what I want to do" that drives boys away, probably. Female characters can and should make strong decisions for themselves. That's why I love the females in Avatar.

Whoo, sorry for the rant, there. :) Thanks for the post!

{ Jaron Frost } at: April 9, 2012 at 8:37 AM said...

As a follow-up example, if Aang had already mastered all four elements and the entire original series was about him deciding whether or not he actually wanted to fight the Fire Lord, I would not be interested in the show. Doesn't matter what gender he is. But the show didn't do that. Aang spent maybe two episodes toward the VERY end of the last season seriously debating his devotion to the idea--for the rest of the time, it was a given that he'd be up to the challenge, and he was focused on the matter at hand. That kind of immediacy and living-in-the-moment is what makes for a more interesting story, to me. That way, it doesn't circle around one topic forever that could easily be solved if the MC would just make a decision.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: April 9, 2012 at 9:42 AM said...

@ Becky - I often worry about the same thing. It feels like a vicious cycle -- people don't take risks with different characters, viewers/readers aren't exposed to different characters, viewers/readers get used to not being exposed to different characters and buck against change, so people don't take risks with different characters. On and on. What I find so interesting about Avatar is that there's a lot of insistence that white kids aren't interested in characters of color or can't relate to them. But here's Avatar, with a world entirely comprised of Asian and Native-based people, and it didn't suffer for it.

@ Landra - I'm really interested to see what the viewership ends up like, and if people drop off, what they cite as the reason for losing interest.

@ Susan - Your son is a rad kid :)

@ Perna - You should ABSOLUTELY watch the series. I think you'd love it! I think patriarchal assumptions hurt boys just as much as girls. How's a boy supposed to function in a society that tells him he's a weak little loser because he prefers emotional resonance to explosions?

@ Jaron - Thanks so much for your insight! I think you stumbled on to a writing/plotting/characterization issue there. I can certainly relate to preferring decisiveness and active roles in my characters.

{ Emily R. King } at: April 9, 2012 at 9:56 AM said...

Hmm, as a lover of romance, I can't imagine ANYONE not liking it. Then again, when my friend read the Hunger Games, he skipped past the romance, and that's where it was just starting to get good! To each his own, right?

{ Rachel } at: April 9, 2012 at 7:56 PM said...

I've never watched Legend of Korra or Avatar but REALLY want to download them now :-) I did see the HORRIBLE live action film...

{ Fiona } at: April 10, 2012 at 2:14 AM said...

A post about Avatar and YA markets? What more could I ask for! I loved reading this, and I completely agree with you in the division between boys and girls in YA. I don't think there should be any sort of division, but unfortunately we have a culture in which boys are criticised for appearing to like anything for girls. Yet if girls can cross platforms (I myself loved the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz, despite the fact it was very male orientated in some respects) I don't see why boys can't.

I like your parallel with the Avatar series. I've only found one other person who liked it, and they were a boy. If Avatar can engage boys and girls, YA should be able to do exactly the same.

Great, informative post!

{ TL Conway } at: April 10, 2012 at 7:37 AM said...

Steph, you always write such thoughtful posts. I had no idea a new Avatar-based series was coming out, so I will absolutely check out the episodes on iTunes.

"Or maybe we're all looking at this the wrong way. Maybe this is and has always been about character, worldbuilding, and strong writing, not the sex of the protagonist."

I agree with this statement. I was actually indifferent to the first half of the first season of Avatar, but the storytelling and character development really pulled me in. It could've easily just turned into a action-based cartoon without any real development. Instead, the writers put a lot of time and thought into creating some amazing characters and plot lines. If the writers for the new series (do we know if they're the same writers?) take the time and show this level of care for the characters, I imagine it will be an equal success.

{ Tor Hershman } at: April 10, 2012 at 10:00 AM said...

.[____].---{Did you ever read "My Life As A Small Boy" by Wally Cox? Oh yeah, me hair is super funky cool, ain't it?}

{ Tor Hershman } at: April 10, 2012 at 10:02 AM said...

Oh, 'my hair' as in me lastest pic (on moi's blog) not in the short-haired profile pic.


Anonymous at: April 29, 2012 at 9:31 PM said...

Main protagonist is still a girl
and the guy main characters make up for it cause they are hilarious

{ E.Maree } at: June 29, 2012 at 10:39 AM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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