Homophobia and the West in the ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ Universe

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TW // Discussion of homophobia, colonisation, genocide, and pederasty. Dear Asian Youth, Like many young Asian people, ‘Avatar: The Last...

TW // Discussion of homophobia, colonisation, genocide, and pederasty.

Dear Asian Youth,

Like many young Asian people, ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ has a special place in my heart. The show is loved for its complex characters, intricate plotlines, and worldbuilding, inspired primarily by Asian, Inuit and Yup’ik cultures. So when I heard about ‘Avatar’ comics, novels and even a sequel, I was excited to dive deeper into the ‘Avatar’ universe. As a queer fan, I was particularly intrigued by ‘The Legend of Korra’ and ‘The Rise of Kyoshi’, as I had heard from other fans that both Avatar Korra and Avatar Kyoshi are bisexual and have relationships with other women.

Oh, how naive I was… but before I get ahead of myself, let’s look at ‘The Legend of Korra’.

After spending her whole life training to be the Avatar in the Southern Water Tribe, Korra arrives in Republic City to learn about Airbending. (Something feels off already. Republic City, an ex-Fire Nation colony that is now independent from the other nations, is clearly inspired by 1920s America, straying from ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’’s Asian, Inuit and Yup’ik cultural influences. Sure, this series takes place seventy years after ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, but why does it look like an American city, devoid of Earth Kingdom or Fire Nation influence?) Korra meets pro-benders and brothers Mako and Bolin, joins their pro-bending team, and soon develops a crush on Mako. Maybe it’s his broody nature or his confusing eyebrows, I can’t be certain. However, Mako begins to date Asami, a mechanic and the heiress to the Sato-mobile industrial empire. There’s a painful love triangle, but despite everything, Korra and Asami are great friends.

By season four, something shifts. While recovering from an almost fatal battle, Korra finds that the only friend she wants to write to is Asami. When they finally reunite with a close hug, Asami compliments Korra’s new shoulder-length hair (gasp, The Bisexual Haircut) and Korra blushes. The two have an easy and fun kind of chemistry. The season ends with a wedding, during which Korra and Asami decide to go on a trip together to the spirit world. As the two pass through the spirit portal, they hold hands and look deeply into each others’ eyes before the credits roll. Their pose seems to parallel that of the wedding a few moments before or even Avatar Aang and Waterbending master Katara’s ending in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’. But was this enough evidence to say that Korra and Asami had romantic feelings for each other?

Yes, according to the creators. In 2014, Bryan Konietzko confirmed that ‘Korrasami’ was indeed canon, stating that “while [Nickelodeon] were supportive there was a limit to how far [the creators] could go with [their relationship]”.[1] Even if the show’s ending was ambiguous, the comics explore Korra and Asami’s romantic relationship in depth. I was ecstatic to see their first kiss in ‘Turf Wars Part One’!

But the creators apparently had to burst the happy gay bubble. Later, Korra and Asami tell Korra’s parents about their relationship, despite Asami’s hesitance. Korra’s parents embrace and congratulate them, but also advise them to keep her personal life private because “not everyone will be so accepting.” My heart sank as I read the word “ACCEPTING”. I could tell where this was going.

Korra, too, is upset with her parents, and leaves immediately with Asami. Back in Republic City, Korra and Asami speak with Kya, Aang and Katara’s daughter, who reveals that she has also had relationships with women. Then, it’s time for some heartbreaking worldbuilding, as Kya gives us a quick history of homosexuality and homophobia in the ‘Avatar’ universe.

Kya explains that in the Water Tribe, “No one’s going to disown you for coming out, but [their] culture would prefer you to keep it to yourself.” The Earth Kingdom, despite Avatar Kyoshi’s love for both women and men, is still the “slowest to accept change”, establishing heterosexuality as the default there. The Fire Nation was once “tolerant”, but during Lord Sozin’s imperial rule, homosexuality was deemed criminal. The Air Nomads were the only people that “embraced everyone, no matter their orientation”. The Air Nomads, though, were victims of a genocide at the hands of the Fire Nation.

Closing the comic, I felt dejected. Because even in a fantasy where people can bend the elements and fall in love among spirits, you can’t escape homophobia.

At first, I was genuinely baffled by the creators’ choice to establish institutionalised homophobia in the ‘Avatar’ universe. Did they not understand how hurtful this would be to queer readers – to all the fans who already have had to hide their orientation or have faced discrimination because of it? Did they really think that the mere existence of bisexual protagonists would make this okay?

However, I now think that the creators made this decision because they simply couldn’t imagine a world without homophobia. And if we take a closer look at ‘The Legend of Korra’ and the ‘Avatar’ comics, we’ll find that this is because the creators can’t fathom a world free from western imperialism.

***

In August 2020, I wrote about my opinion of the homophobia in the ‘Avatar’ universe for the first time on my Tumblr, arguing that its existence was totally incongruous with a show based on Asian, Inuit and Yup’ik cultures. Stigma and shame around homosexuality was never a universal norm, but a policy of European colonisers and Christian missionaries. In Asia and Africa, for example, many of the legal codes that criminalise homosexuality today were in fact established by the British Empire from 1860 onwards.[2] The documentary ‘Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things’ explains that in Inuit communities, same-sex relationships were heavily stigmatised by the Christian church, and that there are accounts of Inuit same-sex couples prior to Christianisation.[3]

Even though the ‘Avatar’ universe exists outside of European imperialism and Christianisation, it still draws from it. The criminalisation of homosexuality in the Fire Nation, during the age of their empire, seems to mirror the policies of European empires. However, the creators otherwise incorporate aspects of Japanese culture, architecture, dress, and imperial and industrial history into their portrayal of the Fire Nation. In Japan, though, as early as the 1540s, there are accounts of same-sex relationships among monks and nobility that were accepted in their communities.[4] (It is important to note that many of the relationships in these accounts were pederastic, meaning that they were between men and pubescent or adolescent boys. These relationships should not be glorified or romanticised, and we cannot assume that these relationships were normalised in all of Japanese society simply because they are documented among the upper class. It is important, though, to acknowledge this history as it is so often ignored.) It was during the Meiji period that attitudes towards homosexuality in Japan began to shift: the Meiji state “owed much to the desire to shield Japan from Westerners’ contempt”, emphasising a new concern for “civilised behaviour”, and by the early twentieth century, Japan’s construct of homosexuality had come to mirror that of the West’s.[5] If we are to acknowledge its cultural influences, then why, in a fantasy universe without the West, should the Fire Nation come to criminalise homosexuality?

Well, the establishment of a western outlook on homosexuality is not an isolated incident. As I mentioned earlier, ‘The Legend of Korra’ is distinctively western in a way ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ didn’t appear to be.

In recent years, many fans have written discourses about the ‘Avatar’ universe. Jeannette Ng’s brilliant article ‘The Inescapable Whiteness of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA, and its Uncomfortable Implications’ explores the manifestations of western imperialism in ‘The Legend of Korra’, from its American-influenced architecture to its characters and storylines. The comment section of Ng’s article is composed of two very different kinds of ‘Avatar’ enthusiasts. There were those who also disliked the creators’ choices and agreed with and expanded upon Ng’s detailed critique, and those who insulted Ng, incensed that she was “making it about race.” How ironic, when ‘Avatar’ is literally an American franchise known for its Asian and Indigenous characters and its discussion of imperialism! Crucially, Ng points out that ‘The Legend of Korra’ had the “opportunity to imagine a future without European and American colonisation and imperialism and [gave] us nothing but that. And that leaves a very foul aftertaste. To suggest that […] westernisation is inevitable even in fantasy worlds without a “West.”” So it seems that if the creators were going to rebuild the imperial West, they were going to pull out all the stops: institutionalised homophobia, a corrupt police force, rampant industrialisation, you name it.

I want to clarify that the problem here is not the presence of corruption or industrialisation in Republic City itself; the problem is its western frame. Republic City, now free from the Fire Nation’s colonial regime, would definitely be grappling with the legacy of the Fire Nation’s industrialist and socially oppressive policies and we would expect a power vacuum. However, the creators didn’t have to make Republic City continue on the path of industrialisation or establish an American-style police institution. Furthermore, in ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, when the protagonists saw violence, corruption, and inequality, they fought against it. In season one of ‘The Legend of Korra’, on the other hand, when the protagonists see that non-benders are joining a violent revolutionary group, the Equalists, they do not stop and contemplate the fear and anger that has pushed non-benders to this point. They just imprison the Equalists, with no chance for rehabilitation, and there is little acknowledgement of the privilege that benders have over non-benders. In season two, we see how punishing the Republic City “justice” system can be when Mako is swiftly imprisoned after he is framed for stealing from Future Industries. This isn’t the world Aang (and many fans) imagined when he defeated the Fire Lord.

‘Avatar’ has always straddled the line of cultural appropriation, especially with a predominantly white voice cast and writing team, and some aspects of the shows are racist. In this post, fans highlight how the creators appropriated the third eye of the Hindu god Shiva, a symbol of balance rather than destruction, in their design of the combustion-benders, both of whom are violent villains. Even if the ‘Avatar’ creators did not have any malicious intent, they misunderstood and disrespected the significance of Shiva’s third eye.

Fans of ‘Avatar’ have also heavily criticised the creators for their portrayal of the Water Tribes, which are based on Inuit and Yup’ik cultures. In this thread, one fan points out that in both shows and the comics, the creators sexualise and villainise Water Tribe characters, and also disrespect Inuit and Yup’ik cultural practices. Here, another fan criticises the comics for the writers’ use of anti-Indigenous language and for industrialising Southern Water Tribe land in ‘North and South’. While the creators of ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ gave us Katara and Sokka, two amazing and complex Indigenous-coded characters, and may not intend harm, the creators also disregarded and disrespected the cultural influences of the Water Tribes and their characters. We should acknowledge both the good and the bad aspects of representation in the ‘Avatar’ universe. Conversations about ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ are often dominated by Asian and white fans, so we must make sure that we are amplifying the voices of Indigenous fans and understanding the implications of the creators’ depictions of Indigenous peoples.

What the ‘Avatar’ universe shows us is how representation in the media can impact us. I’m glad to say that now there are more and more animated fantasy shows about people of colour, including LGBTQ+ people of colour. (My favourites are ‘Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts’ and ‘The Dragon Prince’!) We all need a little escapism sometimes, and we deserve to see ourselves in the fantasy worlds we visit. For young LGBTQ+ viewers especially, I think it’s important that there are shows where conversations about orientation and gender are not stigmatised, and love and support for LGBTQ+ characters is not conditional.

Editors: Joyce P, Lydia L, Megan L, Dilara S, Leah C, Maddy M-B

Sources:

1: Bryan Konietzko. (2014.) “Korrasami is canon.”

2: E. Han & J. O’Mahoney. (2014). “British Colonialism and the Criminalization of Homosexuality: Queens, crime and empire.” p. 4.

3: Miles Kenyon. (2016). “Documentary shines spotlight on experience of LGBT Inuit.”

https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2016/05/28/documentary-shines-spotlight-on-experience-of-lgbt-inuit.html

4: Louis Crompton. (2009). “Homosexuality and Civilization.” pp. 411-414.

5: Anne Walthall. (2000). “Review of Gregory M. Pflugfelder’s “Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse 1600-1950.””

https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=4126

6: Jeannette Ng. (2020). “The Inescapable Whiteness of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA, and its Uncomfortable Implications.”

https://medium.com/@nettlefish/the-inescapable-whiteness-of-avatar-the-legend-of-korra-and-its-uncomfortable-implications-debc76bbf7f

7: https://incorrectzukka.tumblr.com/post/632878301523984384/panini-the-bird-killer

8: https://lilndndemon.tumblr.com/post/634617664212451328/an-important-thread-an-critique-of-avatar-isnt-a

9: https://comradekatara.tumblr.com/post/634704359588036608/as-heavily-inuityupik-coded-characters-sokka

Cover photo source: www.netflix.com