This article includes spoilers for the series finale of The Legend of Korra.
The final moments of The Legend of Korra, Nickelodeon's follow-up to animated hit Avatar: The Last Airbender, unfold in a very familiar way. The hero triumphs over evil and, hand-in-hand with a loved one, departs into the sunset (or in this case, a spirit portal).
Korra twists this well-worn conclusion in a few very important ways, the most obvious of which is that the hero is actually a heroine. But if you were expecting the show to skip the part about getting the girl, you're wrong. Just before the credits roll, we see Korra and her longtime friend Asami hold hands and lock eyes in a long, intimate gaze. As others have pointed out, this scene evokes the final moments of of The Last Airbender, in which the series' main couple shares a smooch. The throwback, as many fans surmised, wasn't unintentional. Yesterday, the show's creators confirmed this not-so-subtle pairing as a canon couple.
This scene was short; it lasted for roughly half a minute. What it achieved in those mere seconds is more than what most shows, let alone kids' shows, aspire to in their entire run.
Korra's progressive legend
The Legend of Korra has always been a progressive kids' show for tackling topics like equality, social class and political agendas with a diverse cast. Its racial variety is noticeable, and its women are a force to be reckoned with. Over the course of the show, we've watched Avatar Korra transform from a hotheaded youth to a complex, thoughtful survivor struggling to overcome PTSD. After three seasons of male masterminds, season four introduced the conquerer and villainess Kuvira. And then there were Korra's friends: the fierce Beifong sisters, Su and Lin, who braved more than a few suicide missions in their day; the airbender Jinora, a young girl with tremendous spiritual power; and of course Asami, a brilliant engineer with a complicated family.
The evolution of their relationship is almost unimaginable by Hollywood standards.
The evolution of Korra and Asami's relationship is almost unimaginable by Hollywood standards. Once rivals for the same man, the two eventually developed a close friendship. On-screen, their level of intimacy grew as Korra shut out her relationships and began to lean more heavily on Asami for support.
Back in the writers' room, according to co-creator Bryan Konietzko, a romantic seed was planted much sooner. In a post on his personal website talking about the finale, Konietzko explains that pairing Korra and Asami was an idea kicked around as early as season one.
"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," he wrote.
The pairing between the two was never "endgame," he wrote, but then again, none of Korra's relationships were. Konietzko comments briefly on how he didn't want Korra to "have to end up with someone," but that the idea was one that progressed as the show did.
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 [DiMartino] and I talked it over and decided it was important to be unambiguous about the intended relationship.
It's possible that 20 years from now, we'll look back at this show as a milestone for more than just children's TV.
The quiet B in LGBT
What's most impressive about the Korra and Asami relationship is that it tips its hat to not one, but two bisexual characters. While LGBT characters are a minority in TV and movies today, those who identify as bisexual are an even rarer find. According to LGBT organization GLAAD's most recent report on diversity and the appearance of LGBT characters on TV, there are 65 LGBT characters in the 2014-2015 broadcast season. Of those characters, 10 are bisexual women and only two are bisexual men. Compare this to 18 lesbian characters, and 35 gay characters; together, bisexual characters make up only 18 percent of the LGBT community on TV.
Those low numbers are important, because they reflect a society in which bisexuality is often ignored or flat-out disregarded. Just this year, we had Larry King's awkward line of questions fired at openly bisexual actress Anna Paquin about whether she considers herself a "non-practicing bisexual." Dear Prudence columnist Emily Yoffe advised a bisexual woman to remain closeted, for which she received heat from the LGBT community and GLAAD. And, as numerous critics have pointed out, even current TV shows wash away bisexuality by either brushing it aside, stripping it from characters entirely or playing it off as a strict "gay or straight" line.
Korra, for all its mature handling of fairly controversial topics, even had its wings clipped. Although Nickelodeon was supportive of the coupling, to use Konietzko's own words, there were limits. The team settled on what eventually became the series' finale, with the two women facing each other "in a reverential manner" to a score intended to be tender and romantic.
Seeing ourselves in our media
Konietzko says this end falls short of being a "slam-dunk victory" for queer representation, but I think he's being too modest. It's no swoon-and-kiss, no marriage proposal, true. But it is a true-to-life representation of how relationships can develop into something deeper, presented on-screen along the same path a heterosexual couple might follow.
Their preferences simply ... exist.
In the midst of deeper storylines, The Legend of Korra subtly weaves these moments into its story — a touch here, or a moment of quiet trust there. It's refreshing to see a queer character's sexuality acknowledged but given a back seat, rather than used to define their character. Korra and Asami's bisexuality isn't explicitly explored or tossed around as a way to make their characters appear deeper. Instead, their preferences simply ... exist. We as the audience are given the chance to grow to like their characters individually and then together.
Modern media is becoming more inclusive for the LGBT community, but movies, TV and yes, even games, so desperately need more bisexual role models. That the two women in question happen to be fantastically developed characters is evidence that sexuality can be more than a plot device.
The Legend of Korra's legacy is more than what Konietzko calls inching forward. It's a beacon for change and acceptance in the most unlikely of places.