Legend of Korra: Well I Guess This Is Growing Up

Legend of Korra: Well I Guess This Is Growing Up

Chakra soup for the teenage soul.

You May Be Born With Privileges That You Don’t Recognize

When Korra visits Republic City, it’s her first time dealing with strangers in years. When she was discovered to be the Avatar, she was scooped up and dropped into an Order of the White Lotus compound. She spent the next dozen years being feted and trained by the greatest benders in the world. The crowds in Republic City are her first exposure to common people.

Things don’t go well for her at first.

Equalist Agitator: Join Amon, and together we will tear down the bending establishment!

Korra: What are you talking about? Bending is the coolest thing in the world.

Equalist Agitator: Oh yeah? Let me guess – you’re a bender.

Korra: Yeah, I am.

Equalist Agitator: And I’ll bet you’d just love to knock me off this platform with some waterbending, huh?

Korra: I’m seriously thinking about it.

Equalist Agitator: This is what’s wrong with the city! Benders like this girl only use their power to oppress us!

(Crowd boos and yells at Korra)

Korra: What? I’m not oppressing anyone! You’re … you’re oppressing yourselves!

Equalist Agitator: That didn’t even make sense!

As the Nick audience, we’re inclined to agree with Korra’s initial take – that bending is the coolest thing in the world. If bending is oppressive to non-bender citizens, we’re not going to see it. But whether or not it is oppressive, there’s clearly a sizable faction who feels as though it is. How sizable? Big enough to field an apparently limitless army of masked chi-blockers and pilot a flotilla of bomber zeppelins.

But most of the benders we see in LOK are benevolent, with a few exceptions like Tarrlok and Lightning Bolt Zolt. So where does this sense of being oppressed by benders come from? Are they making it all up? Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. If enough people feel as if they’re being oppressed, they will act the way oppressed people do: grumbling, occasional angry backlashes, and an undercurrent of hostility that a demagogue can shape to his purposes. There’s no practical difference between an underclass that thinks it’s being oppressed and an underclass that is being oppressed – they’ll react the same way.

Unfortunately, because the source of that oppression is inherited through birth and feels pretty harmless, or even awesome, it’s going to be hard for the “bending class” to sympathize. And it’s going to be even harder for us, the Nick audience, to sympathize, since we tend to think bending is pretty awesome, too.

That’s the way privilege works.

The word “privilege” gets thrown around a lot in discussions of social and cultural power. Lots of commentators use it without defining it, deflecting ideological opponents and closing ranks. Telling someone with privilege to “check their privilege!” doesn’t make things any clearer for them. Of course, it’s not the job of subaltern classes to make themselves easier for the rest of us to understand. But the balance of power only ever shifts if those in power relinquish some of it, and doing that takes understanding.

So: privilege is the ability to ignore something if you don’t want to care about it.

Korra has a brief and frustrating dialogue with an Equalist agitator in E1, as outlined above. She blunders into his rhetorical trap, admitting that she can shut down his peaceful discussion anytime she wants by using her bending powers. Stymied when the crowd turns on her, she rides off. She spoke with an angry non-bender, tried to find out where he was coming from, then disengaged.

Korra, as a bender – as potentially the greatest bender in the world – doesn’t know what it’s like to be a non-bender. She can listen to non-benders, like the rabble-rouser in E1. She can even sympathize with them, as she does when breaking up a police action in E8. But she can stop caring about them and return to Air Temple Island any time she likes. It wouldn’t be a crime if she did; it wouldn’t even be unusual. And no one could say that Korra is a bad person.

A non-bender, on the other hand, never gets to stop dealing with being a non-bender. They don’t get to set aside their non-bending concerns for a while if they get tired. They always have to worry if the Triple Threat Triad is going to pick on them this week (E1), or if they’re going to lose their shift at the power plant because a slumming firebender is going to zap the batteries (E3), or if the Council is going to pass some bizarre new edict that cracks down on all non-benders (E8). Their life may not be a constant misery. In fact, most of them probably live very good lives. But just as a person can’t take off their skin color or their gender, a non-bender can’t take off their non-bendingness. They can’t stop caring about what life is like as a non-bender, whereas a bender – even the most patient, saintly bender – can stop caring what life is like for non-benders at any time.

The biggest obstacle with privilege is that the people who are born with it don’t feel guilty about it. How can they? It’s something they were born into. It’s something they’ve been raised with since childhood. Korra has been surrounded by people telling her she was special and powerful her whole life. When someone tells her that she should be ashamed of that specialness and power, she gets defensive. Who wouldn’t? It’s like telling someone they should be ashamed of their face.

Of course, jokes about “white guilt” (chi guilt?) aside, people shoudn’t feel guilty about their privilege. The point of calling out privilege isn’t (or shouldn’t be) to shame people. It’s to get them to recognize the differences in personal experience that might make other people’s lives incomprehensible to them. A bender might not understand how a non-bender could feel oppressed by the generally benevolent bender population. Korra in particular wouldn’t understand it, having been immersed in bending culture and practice her entire life.

And yet it’s something she has to recognize. As a stranded civilian points out to her in E8, “you’re our Avatar too!” She’s the spiritual diplomat to the entire world, benders and non-benders alike. She has to step outside of the experience she was raised in and learn how other people feel, even if they have feelings she isn’t going to understand. The rest of us may get to live comfortably within the strata we were born into, but Korra is called to step outside her comfort zone.

One of the biggest things adolescents deal with as they leave home, going to college or entering the workforce for the first time, is exposure to people unlike themselves. Most adolescents are raised in a community that largely matches their home life: same socioeconomic status, limited racial diversity, same small set of religions. Going to a big university or entering an urban job market will blow their minds at how wide the world is. Some commentators would argue that the best response is to broaden your horizons and try to understand these strangers, while others say that sticking to one’s native cultural heritage is healthier. Either way, exposure to strangers is a hallmark of growing up.

Listening to the Spirits

Lots of children’s programming tells you to believe in yourself, work hard and respect others. But few shows, if any, give real shrift to how hard that is. The world throws a lot at you when you cross from adolescence into adulthood, and it doesn’t prepare you for most of it. Legend of Korra doesn’t have all the answers on how to live as a responsible adult in a modern society. But it lets you know that it’s hard, that it’s okay to look for help, and that the people who weather the storm are heroes.

5 Comments on “Legend of Korra: Well I Guess This Is Growing Up”

  1. Gab #

    ::slow clap::

    I think Amon is set up as a great contrast to Korra and magnifies her internal struggles, sometimes even personifying them himself. Obviously,


    He starts out as a non-bender, and further, one that can make benders “like him,” so to speak, in the sense that he can take away their bending. The Avatar isn’t meant to bring life, no, but balance, and one could argue that it’s a blatant disruption of balance for a human to take away the bending powers of another. In essence, that bending-sucking power of his is a complete antithesis of that of an Avatar, metaphorically at first. And then actually, since in the season finale, Korra gains the ability to give benders their powers back. This makes me wonder if she’ll go further and grand bending to everyone, although I think that would be just a large of an infraction of balance as taking it away, so I doubt she would.

    Then when we realize the truth about Amon, that he’s actually a water bender like Korra, it’s no surprise, but rather a demostration of the differences in choice and autonomy made by people with power. And that he’s a blood bender sets him up once again as her opposite. TLA does a good job of informing us that blood bending is the equivalent of dark magic and only the craziest or wickedest of persons would ever do it. So we see that while Korra has these great powers of bending in all elements, she chooses to do good with them, despite being a petulant teenager; whereas Amon uses the power of blood bending for atrocious acts of stripping bending powers and controlling people. In the end, Korra choosing and accepting and, in a way, needing her role as the Avatar, which is highly different than the (adorable) scene where she’s buzzing around spouting about it (it’s on a much deeper level, literally spiritual, since that’s the moment when she finally connects with all the other past avatars); that choice is what sets her free and gives her that ultimate power of bending-giving. Amon chooses constantly to only accept some of who he is and lets the conditioning of his (albeit crazy and rather terrible) father determine what he does, and that lads to his downfall (so it seems, at least), at he hands of his own brother, nonetheless.

    Now I realize the avatar is conditioned to “bring balance” and stuff, too, but it isn’t until they truly accept it that they can.

    So maybe another message to teens (or whoever) from both series is not one of believing in oneself, so much as accepting oneself. Embrace it. It’s more blatant in TLA, but I think Korra’s true acceptance of and desire for her destiny is shown in a subtler, more roundabout way. And I rather like that. It’s not beating me over the head, something that tends to happen with kids’ shows. And that’s one reason I loved the original, too- it had a lot of other things going on that were subtle.

    Anyhoo, fabulous piece. I had been waiting for you to write something awesome, and I wasn’t let down.


  2. Carl #

    Great article! I just discovered this site and I am having a blast so far.

    I loved the theme of bending privilege this show had and I hop they keep it going throughout the shows run. I don’t think Korra and the rest are done with The Equalists just yet.

    Like the article mentioned this world has advanced a great deal in the 70 years since TLA. We know from the season finale that there has been countless avatars before Korra. Their civilization must go back thousands of years. Yet their technology is only now progressing at what we would consider normal levels.

    I think the reason for this is the 100 year war from the first series. Between the benders who died during the war and the ones The Fire Nation imprisoned the worlds bending population must have dropped drastically (Not to mention the genocide of the Air Tribe). In the pre-war world their were plenty of benders to handle everything their society needed. After the events of TLA non benders were forced to pick themselves back up and they developed advanced technology to do it. For the first time in history regular people had the numbers and power to create real change on their own. This sets the stage for the conflict in Korra.

    Now that there is peace the bending population is growing. The power the normal humans have grown accustomed to is evaporating. I don’t believe they wish to go back to being second class citizens. Non-benders created power plants and now fire benders are taking their jobs. Bending gangs harass shop keepers. Even the ruling council is made up of all benders.

    Amon had a very easy time getting the people to come along with his line of thinking. I think its funny that blood bending is so feared that is must be banned. Most benders are powerless against it so it makes sense that they would outlaw it but think about it from the perspective of the normal human. To them blood bending isn’t any scarier than getting burned to death or having a giant boulder dropped on your head. Isn’t this prohibition against blood bending just the ruling class creating equalist laws for themselves? Why not ban all bending then?

    I’ll be very disappointing if season 2 abandons the Equalist storyline for some generic villain. This show has the opportunity to really mean something.


  3. Outis #

    I do think it matters whether or not non-benders are actually oppressed. It really takes me out of the story when I have to figure out why the entire city is so anti-bender. It makes sense that non-benders would have a certain amount of resentment towards benders. At the end of The Last Airbender, benders were mostly a military class. In the 70 years between the series, however, that has changed. An era of peace and the rise of technology have rendered most benders redundant. The first few episode seem to indicate that the benders’ position is similar to that of samurai in Japan’s Meiji period. Some bending families were able to use their resources to maintain their status in the new social order, but many were simply not able to adjust, becoming thugs and beggars. I have a hard time believing that so many citizens would feel so strongly about benders when those benders don’t actually occupy a position of privilege.


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