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?


{ E.Maree } at: November 15, 2013 at 6:15 AM said...

Welp, that's me convinced to go play Tomb Raider.

I have such mixed feelings about this season of Korra. So disappointed about her lack of development and her ridiculous dramatic break-up, but I'm still living in hope this season will get a better tie-off than season 1's mess.

On the bright side, the flashback episodes were GORGEOUS.

{ S.E. Sinkhorn } at: November 15, 2013 at 7:58 AM said...

Oh no doubt, the art and choreography in Korra continues to be ABSOLUTELY STUNNING. Wan's episode was so incredible to look at.

I was honestly surprised at Tomb Raider, because I went in with fairly low expectations.

{ Miss Cole } at: November 15, 2013 at 2:40 PM said...

The latest Tomb Raider game, while very flawed (hello insane levels of graphic violence, a lack of tombs to raid and dodgy camera angles to name a few), worked so well for me because of the reasons you just outlined. It was such a change from the usual games you play, even if our damsel was still a female... And Lara's character development felt pretty real... Even if moments after weeping over killing one bloke she goes on to slaughter an island full... Oooh, how I love the "DIE YOU BASTAAAAARDS!" moments in that game :P

I was hugely and pleasantly surprised by Tomb Raider. I think they made a huge error in marketing that game telling us all we'd want to protect her (Um, no, I wanna make her SHOOT ALL THE THINGS) and that bizarre trailer with all the out of context violence. For me, Lara remains gaming's best leading lady. That said, I'm totally biased. Lara's been my hero since childhood ;)

{ Catherine } at: November 17, 2013 at 2:32 PM said...

There's also a fourth white guy in amongst the Endurance crew... and he also dies. Actively attempting to save Lara, too.

The Reborn trailer for Tomb Raider was so much better than the original, with all the different people proclaiming they are Lara Croft ("I am fast. Bold. Brutal. I am agile.Tough.I am daring. Courageous. Dangerous. Strong. I am Lara Croft") and really showing how Lara kicks so much butt.

Have you played Mirror's Edge? It's also written by Rhianna Pratchett (who wrote Tomb Raider) and again focusses on women, with both rescuer and rescued being WOC.

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