Damsels in Distress: Legend of Korra & Tomb Raider

| Friday, November 15, 2013

I've got ~feelings~ about Legend of Korra again, friends. I've shared my initial excitement about the series, then my disappointment after the completion of the first book/season.The new book/season has unfortunately not done much to improve my opinion so far. Many other watchers are having a similar reaction. I've seen numerous posts floating around Tumblr calling out the continued need to push Korra's male (always male) mentors front-and-center so they can fight over the path she should take while she sulks and uses her bending to throw shit around.

I've also seen a post floating around that breaks down ATLA episodes and LOK episodes by writer, which illustrates how ATLA episodes were written by a wide variety of writers while all of the first season's LOK episodes are written by Bryan and Mike, the show's creators, alone. This may help explain why the writing for this series has been fairly one-note. I can't find that post despite my formidable Googling skills, so please post in comments if you have it saved!


Anyway. It's pretty evident that one of the show's major failings, in my opinion, is heavily utilizing the male characters to the detriment of the female characters. It's KORRA'S FREAKING SHOW, yet she regularly plays second fiddle to the male characters -- Mako, Bolin, her father, her uncle, Tenzin. Mako and Bolin are given shiny new jobs (remember when they were struggling to get by and it was kind of an important plot point?), Mako's given another shot at rekindling the Asami-Mako-Korra triangle (REALLY? REALLY???), Tenzin's having sibling rivalry, Unalaq and Tonraq are bickering about who's the rightful king of Pride Rock, etc.

MOVING ON. In one of the more recent episodes, it actually looked like we were getting somewhere. Sort of. Korra, who's had notoriously little character growth, has to go on a spirit quest to discover the origin of the Avatar, which was pretty cool if we put aside the fact that OF COURSE everybody in that storyline was male, too. Well, there's Raava, but she doesn't exactly count since she's an amorphous spirit-being representing Light. Especially given that she sacrifices herself to be fused with the Avatar while her male counterpart lives on, albeit trapped.

So, Korra goes on her quest, discovers what's at stake, and goes back to Tenzin for more spirit training. But -- SURPRISE TWIST! -- he's not that good at it. His daughter Jinora, on the other hand, has a natural connection with the spirits. Like this Tumblr user right here, I was also excited to FINALLY see a subversion of the male mentor trope! At last, Korra has a female guide in her training. I'm forever bitter Katara doesn't play more of a role in Korra's life, to be honest, but this was something! EXCITED!

... that lasted about six seconds.

Because naturally, as soon as the girls cross over into the spirit realm, Jinora skips off and they're almost immediately separated. Korra's left alone, lost and scared without the bending she relies on, and becomes a small child. And then! PLOT TWIST!

Oh hi, Iroh.

Don't get me wrong, I was ecstatic to see him, because IROH! IROH AND TEA OTP 4EVA! But the point stands. Korra's older male spirit trainer was replaced with a young female spirit trainer who was immediately replaced with... another older male spirit trainer. The hell, right?

And this is exactly the problem. Female characters are shuffled to the background so that the creators' male favorites can take the limelight. I love Iroh! The fandom loves Iroh! But that's kind of the problem. What was the purpose of bringing Iroh back, really, other than fanfare? True, Iroh has always played the part of the good-natured uncle and spiritual teacher, but he wasn't needed here.

It's not inconsequential that Korra was very literally transformed into a child for this storyline. I understand what they were trying to do here. Her childlike appearance and attitude represented her helplessness and immaturity when it comes to matters of spirit. Nonetheless, it also served to remove her agency and allow yet another older male character to come in and tell her the right way to live her life and do her job. It seems innocuous, because Iroh is lovable and kind, but it reinforces the pattern that was already wearing very thin.

Korra can't learn and grow on her own. She must be guided and shaped and moved like a chess piece by the men in her life. The women -- Katara, Lin, Korra's mother -- play minimal roles and have few spoken lines. Kya doesn't even really count here because she has no relationship with Korra.

Contrast to ATLA, where Aang learned from a variety of people throughout his journey, including women, love interests, and former enemies. He went on some personal journeys to discover things for himself without ending up stripped of agency. He needed the help and support from his friends, but in the end, he was a force unto himself and much of his wisdom came from within.

The same cannot be said for Korra.

Now let's talk about Jinora again, shall we? Because this character who was supposed to be Korra's spiritual guide, who could have had an incredible role to play, was turned into a Damsel In Distress. When Jinora loses Korra, she displays some agency -- she takes control of her situation, enlists the help of a spirit friend, and seeks out the knowledge she needs. Unfortunately, she's promptly captured and rendered inert by the enemy so she can be used to force Korra's hand. Because apparently an ancient spirit who already has a low opinion of humans doesn't know a freaking slimy charlatan when he sees one. I don't even know.

This is a storyline that has the potential for subversion and interesting outcomes. A woman saving her friend instead of a man saving the pretty lady he wants to bang? It has merit. Unfortunately, the way it was handled and the very obvious pattern apparent in the storyline doesn't give me much hope for a good outcome.

But let's talk about this some more, shall we? Let's talk about ladies saving ladies in a twist on the classic Damsel In Distress trope.

Let's talk about Tomb Raider (spoilers!).

So, Tomb Raider is a game that also heavily employed the Damsel In Distress trope by kidnapping Lara's friend Sam and using her as a game motivator. Literal classic usage, but the context is entirely different. Lara and Sam have a deep friendship and history together. Sam is an actual character with a background and a personality. The method of her capture is fairly contrived (she's the descendent of an ancient Japanese queen and they need her to complete a ritual!), but at least I felt like I was saving a real person instead of the doll I get to kiss at the end. At least the women actually spend time together in the game, instead of having Sam absent throughout.

Unlike LOK, Tomb Raider maintains its focus on the female characters' storylines. While LOK constantly spoon-feeds us plots that are supposed to force us to like the male heroes, often to the detriment of the female heroes, Tomb Raider took a very different approach. Historically, video games love their straight white men, and Tomb Raider had its fair share. Three, to be exact. The father figure, the potential love interest, and the slimy turncoat. It also featured three POC characters (two women, one man), and Lara herself, who is a white woman.

But here's where things got interesting.

Instead of sacrificing other character storylines so that we could hear all about the wonderful white men and their intricate backstories, instead of killing off the "extras" so that Lara could have her daddy figure and her white knight, instead of making the "bad guy" sassy and lovable... the game killed them. All of them.


And this, for me, is the real difference in the stories. Instead of saying "Here, look at this guy, isn't he just the best? Don't you love him? Isn't he just so important?", the spotlight remains on the minority characters. They are given full stories, full lives, and full agency. Lara remains the focus of her own story, and she's given real growth. This was her origin story. She starts as a bookish student, someone with no survival skills. The opening scene involves her own capture and escape, complete with minor freakout and "oh my god, I can't do this!" And she becomes a WARRIOR.

When you compare that to a character who is constantly written as a stubborn ass with stereotypical masculine strength and a short temper, who doesn't change unless she's forced to by having her power and agency literally stripped from her while someone (a man) teaches her a lesson, the differences become very stark indeed.

This isn't to say Tomb Raider isn't without its problems. Lara is, after all, a skinny rich white girl. Sam is an Asian woman who is taken captive and has to be saved. Other characters could have received more attention. It's not a perfect example, but it's at least a clear one.

All of this pains me, because I want so desperately to love Legend of Korra. I want it to be everything I know it can be. I want to see fantastic stories based in a non-western world with powerful women of color. I WANT IT. I'm just becoming ever-more convinced that I'm not going to get it. And that sucks.

These are my thoughts! What are yours?

10 Ways Pop Culture is Like Real Art

| Wednesday, November 6, 2013

If you guys have been hanging around me for long enough, you'll know by now that I have a not-insignificant amount of disdain for people who equate intelligence with academia. It's classist as hell.

You'll also know that I love love love talking about pop culture and popular media. Whether I'm doing a big ol' feminist critique or I'm just enjoying it, I love pop culture. I think it says fascinating things about us and reveals a dark side many of us don't like to dwell on. I also think it's very much artistic.

Now, granted, I'm not arguing everything that comes out of pop culture is high art, and I'll be the first to drop someone to the mat when they do something pedestrian and jerky while hiding behind the claim "I AM AN ARTIST AND ART MEANS FREEDOM TO DO MY SHITTY ACT WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE" the second the critics come out. Just because I'm arguing it's art doesn't mean I'm arguing it's all good art. The fact that it's art doesn't mean it's free to do what it pleases without criticism.

But I am saying it's art. In fact, I'm going to give you ten reasons why I think pop culture is like "real art."

Bubblegum Pop Culture
Photo Credit: Helga Weber via Compfight cc

1) It can reach a wide audience. It is "popular" culture, after all. It's known for appealing to the masses. You'll find it anywhere, much as many great artists of our age can be found on dorm room walls in any university today.

2) It can reach a niche audience. It may seem oxymoronic to say pop culture can be niche, but this is where cult followings come in. We all know a hipster or six who knew about a band well before they were booked for all the summer music festivals. The exclusivity makes people feel special, whether it's an obsession with The Postal Service or a dedication to medieval Germanic poetry, and you'll see the same reaction when it begins to gain traction with the masses. I DID IT BEFORE IT WAS COOL! YOU'RE NOT A TRUE SCHOLAR FAN!

3) People can relate to it. Not every piece of art is created to be relateable -- in fact, some art is specifically created to be difficult to access. That's cool. But art is such a human thing. We create it because we must, because there's something in us that drives us to make something beautiful, enjoyable, entertaining, or all of the above. When we look at art, we often want to see ourselves.

4) It can be studied. If you think you can't take an entire class on analyzing Top 40 radio hits, you'd be wrong. Pop culture is social. It's story. It can be pulled apart and reviewed through a hundred different lenses to reveal its strengths and shortcomings. If the designation of "real art" is that it can be reviewed in an academic setting, than popular media easily fits the bill. I mean, Overthinking It, guys.

5) It's a marker of the culture and period we currently live in. Some people get stuck in this rut where art has to be old, or proven, or approved by years of study. This is the reason so much of our "real art" is westernized and white and male and fits in a very particular box. Culture and society matter. Much as Age of Enlightenment-era art reflects the changes occurring at the time, our present multimedia exploits, our television, our film and music... they all represent the technological and ideological shift happening in our culture. And it's amazing.

6) It can be enjoyed or appreciated regardless of education or class status. There are two kinds of art lovers: those who argue that great art is great because anyone can sense its greatness even if they don't understand its every nuance, and those who argue that great art is great because they went to school to learn about it for a really long time and know more about it than you ever will and you don't like it because you're uneducated. I tend to lean toward the former. One is a recognition that art can be appreciated by all, while the other is the insistence that art is class-based and only the upper crust can appreciate the good stuff.

7) It exposes us to ways of thinking we never considered before. Art changes us. It reveals insight into ideas and lives we haven't been exposed to before. Reading fiction can literally increase our capacity for empathy. This doesn't just apply to classic literature or Renaissance art. This is why representation matters, and why people who are underrepresented in media fight so hard to be seen. On some level, we all understand that seeing ourselves in our art and entertainment means that our lives are important, and other people can come to understand that.

8) It makes us feel. Have you ever looked upon a great work of art, seen a well-acted play, or listened to a piece of music and felt overcome with emotion? Art makes us feel things we can't explain. It makes us angry, and joyous, and full of despair. One only needs look at fandoms, or see people reduced to tears while they tell an actor that their character saved their life, to know that pop culture moves people.

9) We're often told it's not good simply because it wasn't done by a white man first. One of the earliest science fiction novels was written by a woman named Mary Shelley. Some of our most beloved music -- jazz, blues, reggae, hip-hop, rock 'n roll -- was born of Black men and women. What is thought to be the world's first modern novel was written by a Japanese woman. But so often, especially today, we're told that these things don't matter. Worse, we're told something is trashy/valueless until it is properly "elevated" by someone white, or someone male. How often do we witness timeless homestyle cooking from a non-white country "transformed" into haute cuisine by a white chef? Pop culture is the same. Rap is "ghetto" and othered until a white rapper sings something about being okay with queer people. Romance novels are useless pulp until some man does it and makes it a "human story." Again and again, art is stripped of value until an approved member of society "reinvents" it.

10) It IS real art. Stop being a butt. Nothing more to say on this one, really.

The next time you find yourself getting ready to go on a rant about how stupid the general public is because they don't read ~REAL~ books or appreciate ~GOOD~ music or understand ~QUALITY~ culture, be a pal and don't.

***Super special note because this argument always comes up*** Once again, this does not mean pop culture is immune to criticism. There's some damaging and poorly-done shit floating around out there. This applies to pop culture AS A CONCEPT, not as a blanket "all pop culture is good!" argument.

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