The Inescapable Whiteness of AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA, and its Uncomfortable Implications

Korra looks upon across the water at a green-tinted statue of Aang in position clearly meant to evoke that of the Statue of Liberty holding a flame aloft

“Why is Aang now the Statue of Liberty? Is this show set in New York now?”

That was my very first impressions of Korra. And I can’t say anything in the subsequent episodes contradicted this. The sequel to the much-lauded Last Airbender, commonly celebrated for grounding its world building on non-white cultures decided that what it really needed for its sequel is to have all the action be about this new PseudoAmerica. Despite Korra herself not being from Republic City or even The United Republic of Nations, her perspective keeps being pulled towards it. There is a narrative gravity to Republic City that makes every plot end up there, even when there is superficially no good reason for it to.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’ll start at the beginning.

I’ve always been told that The Legend of Korra was “steampunk”, that the industrial revolution has happened within it and that the “march of progress” was one of its core themes. All of which I was genuinely excited about, but really, the look of it is just a weird mashup of American cities with Asian-ish flourishes thrown in.

I can say this with some certainty because the art team have been very open about their influences. It’s all documented with citations on the Legend of Korra wiki. This bridge, for example, is modelled after Manhattan Bridge in New York and Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver. The list of buildings they’re drawing inspiration from are things like Michigan’s Boji Tower (Cabbage Corp) and New York’s Plaza Hotel (Four Elements Hotel) and Pennsylvania Station (Central Station). There’s also a notable sprinkling of iconic European buildings like London’s Battersea Power Station (a Future Industries factory), Germany’s Reichstag (City Hall) and Paris’ Eiffel Tower (Harmony Tower).

There are other references that screamingly obvious to me but are not, to my knowledge, explicitly intended as such by the creators, such as City Park being basically New York’s Central Park. I will also note that it’s possible to design a green space in a city that’s bordered by tall buildings that doesn’t immediately evoke like Central Park (Hong Kong’s botanical gardens, for example) but this one just isn’t it.

The creators also talk about Republic City as though it’s New York, such as Bryan Konietzko likening Dragon Flats (where Mako and Bolin live in season one) to Queens in New York.

The only exception to this cavalcade of European and American architecture being referenced is the Pro-Bending Arena. It is based on the Harmandir Sahib (aka Golden Temple) in Punjab, India. But even then it’s a bewildering choice to base a sporting arena on a literal real world holy site.

Or to put it another way: If we as the audience recognise it as the Harmandir Sahib, what is this meant to tell us about the story world? Is it that pro-bending is almost a religion to these people, that this is (despite appearances) like a house of worship to the populace? Is it an intentional desecration, that it is shameful to use something as spiritual and culturally significant as bending in a frivolous sport? Or is it just something that looks cool that the art department wanted to put in for no reason?

All this isn’t to say that I dislike these choices for aesthetic reasons. The Roaring 20s with flourishes from Hong Kong and Shanghai of the same era is an excellent look.

I stress that whilst the general feel is definitely recognisable, not a single one of the Republic City’s Named Buildings are explicitly based on famous buildings from Hong Kong or Shanghai skyline. And there very much are iconic buildings they can have incorporated. Which makes me wonder if they accidentally stumbled into this by jamming the EuroAmerican turn of the century stuff (especially its orientalist leanings) with more traditional Asian aesthetics.

But all this is still basically nonsense in the context of Avatar’s world as it has been established. There is just no reason within the setting for it look like this.

Hong Kong and Shanghai didn’t look like that at the turn of the century because that architecture and aesthetic grew “naturally” out of the culture before. It is a very direct product of western imperialism and colonialism. Those buildings look like that because of unequal treaties and western powers wanting a foothold there. Those are the buildings that that imperialist and colonists built there.

America’s Chinatowns, incidentally, also look the way they do for a reason. They also didn’t organically evolve from either American or Chinese architecture. The “look” came about after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed much of the neighbourhood, when white architects were specifically hired by Chinese proprietors to make something they thought be approachable and appealing. I recommend following the link to listen to that 99PI episode on San Francisco Chinatown but it isn’t a comfortable history and it is a baggage that comes with the aesthetic whether intended or not.

This isn’t to say that it’s impossible to recontextualise real world aesthetics or cultural elements in a fantasy setting, but it almost always works best when the new meanings are built on the old and where knowledge of the real world version adds rather than detracts from the experience[1].

In the case of Avatar, we have a setting that has been highly praised for existing outside of the usual paradigms of whiteness and yet when it tries to move the clock forwards, it cannot create a vision of that world’s future without resorting to the same white or western touchstones of modernity. That it cannot imagine an industrialised world that doesn’t revolve around America and its European roots is genuinely aggravating.

And I understand that The Legend of Korra is largely made for and by Americans. As such, it’s no great crime for them to create a setting that reflect themselves. I’ve loved many tv shows and books and films that are set in these America-flavoured fantasy worlds (the Hercules tv series that’s greek mythology but also high school was rather charming and I’ve never gotten Clone High’s theme song out of my head). But Korra isn’t a wholly new setting intentionally based on the intersections of between Asian and EuroAmerican culture, it is written to be a sequel to The Last Airbender and as such is building on the foundations of being without a EuroAmerica in its world.

It is doubtless less strange or alien an idea to Americans (especially white Americans) that the world of The Last Airbender should birth a new America. It might even be appealing to think that all roads do indeed lead to America and to imagine the world of The Last Airbender as an alternate past for themselves. I understand this and I’m even sympathetic to this in concept.

But I keep coming back to how The Legend of Korra takes this opportunity to imagine a future without European and American colonisation and imperialism and give us nothing but that.

And that leaves a very foul aftertaste. To suggest that Americana is the inevitable future of all worlds. That is no other possibility for modernity and progress. That westernisation is inevitable even in fantasy worlds without a “West.”

The Southern Water Tribe’s aggressive industrialisation, exploitation of their environment and creating pollution is very much part of this “inevitability of progress” theme. It’s very uncomfortable given how the Water Tribe is based on indigenous cultures (especially the Inuit-Yupik culture). In the real world these are very much the people resisting imperialism, especially ecological imperialism (which they do in The Last Airbender), and thus to cast them as the polluting villains implies that given the opportunity these cultures would be “as bad” as the West, that this is how “everyone” is.

It universalises something that just isn’t universal.

At the same time, there is no lasting legacy of Fire Nation imperialism and colonialism from the age of Last Airbender. Despite being primarily set in the United Republic, which was a Fire Nation colony that didn’t want to simply be transferred back to Earth Kingdom rule after the war (having developed something of a hybrid cultural identity in the hundred years). This is all told in the comics and only passingly referenced in the show itself, but none of the characters carry old grudges. There is no obvious disparity in power within the city that is explored or articulated. When it comes to conflict within the city, it’s all about the Equalists, who want all benders to be done away with, not just fire benders.

And that just doesn’t ring true to me. The whole arc of Republic City rejecting Earth Kingdom rule after a hundred years of being a Fire Nation colony sounds very familiar to me, as someone from Hong Kong. Colonialism shapes a place very fundamentally. The legacy of that doesn’t just go away in seventy years.

I know seventy years sounds like a long time, but it is as far away as WWII is to us now. The scars of the occupation are still very present in east asian communities. Every other east asian person I know has a parent or grandparent who has not forgotten about the war. My father refuses to buy anything Japanese made. If nothing else, you would think there might be a memorial to those who have been lost in those wars.

But no, that would spoil the “being America” aesthetic.

The American-ness of the United Republic extends beyond its aesthetics, of course. At every turn, the world building, plot beats and cultural shorthand draws heavily from that[2]. By season two, it even has an all powerful president at its leader and is repeatedly invited to interfere in world politics the way America does, deploying its armies to “help.”

Varrick and Zhuli get married. Note the white dress.

Varrick and Zhuli’s wedding is replete with modern western wedding imagery, from the white dress[3] to the way the officiant and gathered crowd are arranged. Neither of the characters come from cultures that do this. Despite Varrick being from the Water Tribe, who have previously been established as one that gifts a marriage necklace (see: Katara’s necklace and the one offered to Bolin by Eska), he goes down on one knee to offer Zhuli a wedding ring when he proposes.

Hiroshi Sato and his company, Future Industry, is obviously based on Henry Ford, from his interest in aviation and racing to, of course, the signature Satomobile. Even his rival, Cabbage Corp, has a building that is based on Boji Tower, a skyscaper partly built by Ransom E. Olds, founder of Oldsmobile.

But the real world Henry Ford was virulently antisemitic, responsible for publishing and promoting a weekly newspaper that reflected these views throughout the late 10s and 20s. He’s the only American mentioned favourably in Hitler’s Mein Kampf for this very reason.

And so one can’t help but ask if this is intentional? Are benders meant to parallel Jewish people in the Equalist plotline? Is that an intentional subtext? But benders are really the only people with political power in Republic City, with there even being a single ruling council of them. And Amon might be dripping with Japanese nationalist and fascist imagery, but what does that even mean in the context of Republic City?

It’s hard understate how frustrating this all is to me. Within The Last Airbender, I felt like I could broadly trust my instincts and that references added to the story rather than taking away. When Zuko cut his hair or when Sokka put on makeup before war, those symbols carried with them the cultural weight they have in their original cultures in the world. The narrative was not stopped to explain what these things mean, but it was also largely unnecessary as we could also just infer their meaning contextually[4].

But in Korra, things just don’t work that way anymore.

That feeling of fantasy that is trying to speak to you in your own language has gone away for me. Despite all its faults, that was a very special feeling that The Last Airbender offered. I’m very aware that for many of the asian diaspora, it was one of the first times (if not the only time) they felt that way with popular media. And I can’t help but mourn its loss.

The focus of the storytelling in Korra is very much on the movers and shakers of the world to the point of almost fetishising authority. Some of this is undoubtedly because it has in its cast many of the descendants of Last Airbender characters, all of whom attained positions of power by the end of their lives and power is hereditary.[5]

But still, Korra isn’t just a random water tribe girl. She’s a Southern Water Tribe princess. Her father is somehow chief, despite also being the shamefully exiled brother of the Northern Water Tribe chief.

Plots don’t involve normal everyday people anymore. Rarely is there the equivalent of someone like Haru or Hama. It’s now council members and task forces, kings and presidents, generals and princesses. Even Asami needs to be an arms dealer to get in on the story. Mako becomes a violent cop who throws one liners while indulging in “badass” brutality. The street urchin, Kai, stands out as the only character without such ties to power.

who even is this man? why was he following Amon? why is he even doing what he is doing?

This lack of non-leaders trickles down into the way the many action scenes as the main characters often fight wave after wave of generic uncharacterised mooks. Jet and his gang, appearing at first in only one episode, have more personality than most of the Equalists put together. The Lieutenant (aka moustache guy) has a whole important plot beat where he finds out Amon is a fraud, but we don’t get any glimmer of personality or context to him before this moment.

All these uniformed mooks don’t really add anything to the fights. They’re all in goggles and mechs and are vaguely dehumanised to the point that there’s very little personality to them. There’s no awkward banter or evolving dynamic with them. Just swirling fire balls and more punching. And that makes for far less interesting fights, even if the animation itself can be said to be better or more dynamic.

This may be how the writers of Korra conceptualise modernity, as being opposed to the heroic past where individuals can impact the state of the world, that modernity is an era where “commoners” no longer matter. Or perhaps it is just the restrictions of episode length and the lack of filler. Perhaps it is because they want every single conflict to also be filtered through interpersonal drama, so everyone must be related to everyone else, but they have written an era where the powerful and titled make decisions for other people.

Either way, it is very jarring as a sequel to a story that had themes very much to the contray.

More than just the powerful, The Legend of Korra often views the developments of the plot through the lens of how it might impact Republic City and what they should do about it politically.

Kuvira, the Great Uniter, villain of season four

This is particularly egregious in season four, where Kuvira’s conquest of The Earth Kingdom is seen primarily through the eyes of the powerful and foreign. We never meet up with refugees displaced by her war machine or come to understand what might motivate those who follow her.

It is easy to make excuses for why this might be the case, that it’s just because the season is short and the needs of the plot push on. There are already too many characters!

But it is deeply uncomfortable to me that citizens of Earth Kingdom are shown only a faceless mass of people to be acted upon. Their suffering, their joy, their humanity are nothing more but props to the narrative. These are things that drive the actually important characters to act, not of value in and of themselves. Despite finding time to give the exiled king an arc, but no one else from the Earth Kingdom itself at the point of Kuvira’s ascent is given much of a voice. Bolin is perhaps the closest to such, but he’s simply shown to be deceived and delusional. Even the destruction and violence within Earth Kingdom feels inconsequential to the narrative, especially when stakes need to be raised, it’s Republic City again that is threatened. Time and again, the conflict returns to Republic City, as though the audience is incapable of caring anyplace else.

Time and again, we are meant to ask: What is Republic City going to do about this? How is this going to affect Republic City? The Northern and Southern Water Tribes fight, but the Avatar goes to Republic City and suddenly the plot moves there and its all about schemes to kidnap the president so as to force the hand of the United Republic. Bad things may be happening in the Earth Kingdom but we must now go to Republic City, which is of course where the Earth King’s coronation is going to happen.

Contrast all this with how the cast of The Last Airbender are repeatedly inspiring others to fight the Fire Lord. They meet refugees and freedom fighters, pirates and profiteers. Many of those characters don’t stay for very long and not all are individually well written, but they add to the overall feeling that the main cast aren’t the only people in the world with agency. It is also worth noting that the main cast of Airbender are also each very personally affected by Fire Nation imperialism. They aren’t saviours from the outside; they’re people trying to save themselves.

Season four of Korra finds time to give a “rightful” playboy king an arc of coming into his own to become a “good” king, but can barely spare a moment for his subjects. His arc takes place entirely in Republic City and when the United Republic backs him, it feels uncomfortably reminiscent of the United States installing governments favourable to them during the Cold War. Yet it is somehow framed as a happy (or at least happy enough) ending for the Earth Kingdom.

It’s also interesting to note how timid Korra is about the idea of “starting a war”, as though that wasn’t the entire plot of The Last Airbender. Again it is arguably that divide between how the writers think of a heroic past and the current, modern day world.

In the heroic past, wars are cool and rebellions are just.

But in the now, the violent police and “peacekeeping” armies are the good guys and outright physical conflict must avoided at all costs. Looters and rioters are clearly just greedy opportunists out for themselves and bringing down walls is the work of evil anarchists.

And isn’t that just the whitest damn thing.

An Afterword:

Literary criticism isn’t activism and I’m very aware of that. We enjoy stories for many reasons and I am not advocating that we judge all of them based on how well they work as manuals of revolution. They often have other themes and characters and plots going on. The nature of storytelling is that we will layer these themes over each other and only some of them will be resolved by the end. There isn’t a season of Sailor Moon that doesn’t end with redemption, sacrifice and resurrection, after all, regardless of what came before. My point is that if you enjoy Korra or see other themes in it that you love, this is not meant to make you feel bad or regret that love.

But I wrote this because, The Last Airbender occupies this status for many as the one time white people wrote asian people and it was pretty okay. It is very much celebrated in those terms and to me, that means examining where they take that beloved world next is thus important. Worldbuilding and those themes of macro politics is the primary selling point of the Avatar series, especially within Korra.

Finally, if you’re of the PoC writer (especially of the Asian diaspora) and you’ve just read my long incoherent rant and feel intimidated by the prospect of writing about your own culture and experiences, I’m genuinely sorry to have made you feel that way. I have myself read many deconstructions of Asian fantasies and for all that they aren’t intended as manuals on how to write, I read them as such and it has taken a toll. I become hypercritical of my own work in all the wrong ways. I’ve written about it before, and if you have the time, please read this. If you have fallen into my old habit of reading critiques as “how to write” guides, I recommend not doing that and reading the joyously inspiring Wonderbook instead.

None of this is meant to be about how Korra’s writers “didn’t do enough research” or they’re “getting my culture wrong.” This isn’t an argument about authenticity or that cultures should only exist in fantasy settings in some sort of idealised, platonic “pure” state. I love mashups and recontextualising cultural details in worldbuilding to create new meaning. Please do draw on the myriad traditions that are around you, that inform your existence. All that very much excites me and I look forward to what you will write.

[1] I generally consider this my goal when writing anything inspired by a real world thing and I recommend it as benchmark. Would someone who is already familiar with this be frustrated or annoyed? Will they immediately know who the villain is because you’ve literally named the character “The Villain” in their non-English language? Would they get confused because you’ve dressed all your mages in priest robes of their culture but not bothered to specify at the start that they are not beholden to the same taboos as priests of the culture you’re inspired by? Or would their knowledge mean there’s an extra pun in the names that only they would get? Does it grant them a little more insight or empathy to the characters, a better grasp of certain cultural shorthands like a red wedding dress or offering incense in a bowl of rice to the dead?

[2] I will note here that Avatar: The Last Airbender did this as well. That there are four elements instead of five or the fact that dragons aren’t associated with water, for example. But those references were generally better integrated, felt less central to the overall plot and did not feel like they were as much overwriting the other cultures they were drawing from. When pro-wrestling makes an appearance, “Fire Nation Man” is voiced with a bad Russian accent despite there not being a Russia within the setting, and is obviously a reference to wrestling heels themed after the enemy during the Cold War. The entire “Aang teaches Fire Nation teens to dance” plot is obviously referencing Footloose (1984).

[3] White dresses for weddings were popularised by Queen Victoria as a ploy to promote British lace. Before her, European wedding dresses could be any colour (including white or cream) and would often be a woman’s best dress that they would then wear to church for the rest of forever. Japan does have a white bridal kimono (symbolising death of a bride to her parents and/or her purity and maidenhood before being reborn into a colourful, usually red kimono with her new husband and family) but that as a custom only dates back to the Meiji era and is born from contact with European customs. Much of China has red as its festive colour generally and applies that also brides and weddings. This footnote is getting way too long.

[4] This doesn’t always work out for me. I assumed the monks and nuns of the air nation were celibate based on their real world counterparts and that the air nomads referred to a separate population were nomadic and didn’t live in non-moving temples. But I digress.

[5] Not that it always makes sense. Toph, notable hater of both cities and laws, somehow has ones daughter who founds a city and one daughter who enforces laws. No wonder they are both such disappointments.

[6] It is actively painful watch the characters very slowly come to the realisation that being an airbender and wanting to become an air nomad and completely change their way of life is not the same thing. It is just as painful to see the plot ignore any of the other potential successors of the air nation (we never learn what happens to the Mechanist and his son Teo and none of the monks and nuns on air temple island are seen), who seem to be dismissed as Not True Heirs by the writers because they have no bending powers. Which all strangely enough reenforces Amon’s point about benders and non-benders not being equal.

novelist, hair wizard, game designer

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