NOTE: Content warning for mentions of assault, no graphic detail.
When you revisit TV shows from your adolescent years, you hope and you pray that they still hold up. It’s a bit of an ego thing: “if this sucks now, why did I like it back then?”. Avatar: The Last Airbender certainly stood the test of time. When I dove into its spin-off, The Legend of Korra, I hoped it would too. It did hold up. Just not in the way I expected.
I was assaulted twice in the same semester during my first year of university. It coloured the way I walked, talked and moved around the world. I didn’t know I was assaulted for the longest time because I didn’t have the words for what I went through. It was definitely abuse, but it wasn’t the brutal Criminal Minds or CSI type of abuse we’re used to hearing about. When I finally came to terms with it months later, I had no idea what healing would look like. It’s a surprise that I found it perfectly reflected in a show from my early adolescence.
The Legend of Korra follows the story of the next Avatar in the cycle, a Southern Water Tribe girl named Korra. She’s the complete opposite of her predecessor Aang. She’s a “punch first, ask questions later” girl. There’s almost a sense of invincibility to her nature as she spends fight after fight dominating villains using her bending powers. Each season (stylised as a “book” in the Avatar cinematic universe) follows Korra as the Avatar, seeking to bring peace and balance to warring nations and civil unrest. The seasons follow the typical “bad guys lose, good guys win” formula, up until Book 3. While Korra does win against Zaheer, a militant anarchist backed up by a group of vigilantes, she does so at the cost of her own body and soul. The final fight against Zaheer is a gruelling scene where Korra is bound against her will and poisoned to put her in her most vulnerable state. It injures her so badly that she’s wheelchair bound at the end of the season. She looks on as her friends and allies celebrate the victory, tears streaming down her face. The season cuts to black. What happens to the indomitable Korra now?
She had to heal. I know that situation all too well.
The Legend of Korra isn’t interested in the pretty picture of healing. The show may deal with fantastical mythology and cuddly flying bison, but this storyline wasn’t part of that canon. Korra couldn’t deus ex machina away with the Avatar State. Her narrative post-Zaheer covers all the gruesome and exhausting parts of healing. After Korra returns to her hometown, she’s coming to terms that life may not be the same. So she tries her damn hardest to go back to it.
When you are assaulted, life is suddenly spliced between a “before” and an “after”. After I was assaulted, I was chasing the “before”. I attempted to claw back pieces of myself that felt normal. Korra does too, maybe a little bit indulgently. She goes through physical therapy with Katara but strains herself to injury. When she struggles to progress, she laments that she’s stuck. When Korra is finally well enough to spar, she’s still overcome by her opponents. When all that doesn’t work, she resorts to fighting underground to the point where she’s battered and bruised. It’s an attempt to reclaim her body. It’s a fantasy-imbued remix of a scene that’s all too familiar for women. What do we do when we’ve been violated? How do we get bodies to be our own again?
It doesn’t stop there. Korra has nightmares about Zaheer’s violent poisoning. She has hallucinations of her past self following her around, haunting her in the periphery. It’s reminiscent of the event of your trauma rushing back into your head, your psyche replaying the event over and over again like a twisted VHS.
Korra’s fights against her various antagonists are emblematic of what women go through throughout their life. Up until Book 4, each of her antagonists are men. In Book 1, underground resistance leader Amon tells her there is no longer a need for the Avatar. Politician Tarlok manipulates her for his own political gain. Her own father and uncle Unalaq attempt to control her actions and agency around the upcoming civil war, despite her being more than competent enough to overthrow an underground rebellion. Things come to a head in Book 3 when Korra is confronted by Zaheer and the Red Lotus, who see her demise as a gateway to peace in the world. So often women are confronted with men who only seek to use them one way or another.
In all that pain, there is still community and comfort in healing. There’s a recurring theme in the first few episodes of Book 4 where Korra writes to her friends back in Republic City. They wish her well and wait for her with open arms. They love her as Korra, not as the Avatar. Trauma feels like such an acutely lonely process. You live in such a bubble you fail to realise the people around you. To Korra, that isn’t enough. She needs something concrete to her healing.
Her journey in healing comes to a climax when she meets fan favourite Toph Beifong, the earthbending extraordinaire from Avatar: The Last Airbender who decided to live out her days in a magical swamp. After Korra parses through solution after solution to no avail, Toph mentions there’s still leftover metal poison in her. Toph can’t metalbend it out for her. No, it’s a job for Korra and Korra alone. So, Korra does it. With all her strength, she metalbends the poison out as triumphant music swells in the background. Korra’s eyes light up, signifying the return of the Avatar State. The Avatar is back.
I was struck at how this paralleled my own journey. I did everything Korra did. I tried to make my body feel like it did before. I found comfort in loved ones. I fought for what I wanted. Earlier this month, I told my therapist how badly I wanted everyone to know who my abuser was. I wanted justice and revenge, like so many survivors do. I wanted external help to fix something internal. That was valid, my therapist said, and while that could definitely help, this was something I could work on within myself. So, during my rewatch, I was mesmerised at how poignant the imagery of Korra painfully pulling out the remaining metal from her body. The scene felt like holding a mirror up to my own journey. She had guidance, love and wisdom all the way but it was her own doing at the end of the day that saved her. Something shifted within me. I realised I was looking in all the wrong directions. This was something I had to do myself. I was calling the shots.
Her narrative isn’t picture perfect. In the last episode of the series, Korra’s understanding of her struggle and her healing is wrapped into the sentiment of “I had to go through it to become compassionate”. I personally don’t buy that; it feels too close to Sansa’s turnaround at the end of season 8 in Game of Thrones. There’s a danger in believing that a person has to go through a trauma to come out better. Women are sold the idea that trauma is a natural course for us. It should never be. That’s not to say that something beautiful can’t blossom out of pain and sadness, but there shouldn’t be a need for it. I didn’t need to suffer at the hands of someone else to be compassionate and kind. I was compassionate and kind before. Korra was compassionate and kind before too.
Despite that, I’m willing to let go of a throwaway line for the greater arc of Korra. Seeing her journey through her healing as a woman of colour made me feel seen. Before she rides off to the metaphorical Spirit World sunset, Korra has a talk with her long-time airbending mentor Tenzin. She remarks how “it’s been a bit of a bumpy ride, huh?”. Tenzin agrees, but adds his own bit of airbender monk wisdom. “Life is one big bumpy ride”. Healing after trauma is like that. It’s a lifelong ride. Avatar Korra’s journey felt and looked so much like my own. To see this storyline ring true five years later, in a way I never thought it would, felt like a gift from my younger self.
by Robyn Matuto
Robyn Matuto is a Filipina culture critic, writer and actress living in Toronto, Canada. A film school graduate (or survivor), she hopes to use her multiple disciplines to continue to highlight underrepresented voices in film and television. She’s also written one too many essays about Clueless (1995) and she doesn’t regret it one bit. You can find her at @robynranika on Twitter.