Television

A Fond Farewell to the Legend of Korra, an Anti-Authoritarian Delight

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Korra
Nickelodeon

The Legend of Korra ended its run Friday with an action-packed finale that saw the hero, Avatar Korra, thwart a fascist dictator bent on world conquest. This final season, like the previous three, has drawn praise for its trailblazing feminist and progressive values, ending as it did with the hint of a same-sex romance for the lead character, a teenage girl.

Some Reason readers undoubtedly eye those descriptors cautiously, associating modern progressive feminism with a host of liberty-unfriendly attitudes. But Korra, thankfully, espoused individualist feminism and voluntary progressivism, and frequently engaged libertarian themes. The show celebrated the awesome power of individuals, extolled the virtues of open borders, and scrutinized state-initiated violence—going so far as allowing an anarchist sect to makes its case for a world without government.

The anime-influenced cartoon series, which debuted on Nickelodeon in 2012, was a sequel to the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original show was set in a fictional world divided into four territories (the Air Temples, Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, and Fire Nation) filled with people who could manipulate—or "bend"—the four representative elements: air, water, fire, and earth. Only one person, Avatar Aang, had the power to control all four, and it was his job to keep the world in balance. The sequel series concerned the exploits of the reincarnated avatar, a 17-year-old girl named Korra, who took over the job after Aang's natural death several decades subsequent to the events of A:TLA.

Though aimed at kids and teens, neither series shied from including sophisticated political themes. A:TLA dealt with the Fire Nation's genocidal wars against the Air Nomads and Water Tribes. The heroes eventually fled to the Earth Kingdom capital, only to discover that the constant threat of war had motivated the city's bureaucratic elite to establish an Orwellian police state. The Fire Nation itself invited obvious comparisons to Nazi Germany and fascist Japan.

Korra extended these themes throughout its four-year run. In the first season, Avatar Korra faced a populist uprising against the rule of the "bending" elite. The leader of the revolution, Amon, a Leninist figure, was eventually exposed as a hypocrite, legitimate though some his gripes were. Similarly, in the third season, Korra confronted her most dangerous enemy of all, Zaheer, an anarchist philosopher and terrorist. Zaheer's goal was to abolish world government, and he even succeeded at assassinating the queen of the Earth Kingdom. While his use of violence to achieve these ends relegated him to villain status, his ideas were not written off entirely. Instead, Korra eventually conceded that there was some wisdom in them.

Among Korra's crowning achievements was her decision to re-open the spirit portals, allowing spirits to mingle with people in both the physical world and the spirit world. While this caused some difficulties, the show firmly pushed the idea that people (and spirits) should not be segregated to the lands of their birth; there is greater balance in the world when everyone in it has the freedom to travel.

Both series thrived off the underlying notion that all people—young or old, male or female, black or white, rich or poor, bender or non-bender—are individuals capable of greatness. Our traits are part of what we are, of course, but they aren't definitive and don't pre-destine us. Individuality transcends even the four elements; Korra's friend Bolin, for instance, may have been just one of probably thousands of earth benders, and yet he was uniquely able to control lava as well, something almost no one else in the world could do. Asami, another ally of Korra (and potential love interest), possessed no magical bending abilities, but was a brilliant engineer and pioneering businesswoman. (She even builds trains! Paging Dagny Taggart…)

It would be wrong, of course, to claim that Korra is deliberately, or primarily, libertarian. (If it were, it might not have been any good, anyway—ideological propaganda rarely makes for great TV.) But as with other recent staples of kid culture, like The Hunger Games and Divergent, it would be equally wrong to ignore this anti-statist trend in teen entertainment.

A generation that hears the word "elements" and thinks Korra is certainly going to be more libertarian than one that hears the word "elements" and thinks Captain Planet, that's for damn sure.