All Things Sapphic: Korrasami 4Ever
by Alyssa Sileo
This blog contains spoilers of who ends up with who in the Nickelodeon series Legend of Korra (LoK). No plot is described — just basic scene information, and endgame (AKA final) relationship statuses by the series finale. I guess the blog also lets you know if two characters are alive by the end of the show.
If you’re active in either the Avatar: The Last Airbender (ATLA) or LoK fandoms (which simply means you’re a fan who may engage both original and fan-made content and perhaps create some too), and if you are in my generation (the middle part of Z), you probably know of this ship’s existence. But if you do not want to know ANYTHING about LoK that isn’t already laid out in the first episode, please bookmark this blog and return to it once you’ve finished the show!
I am a benefactor of the resurgence of ATLA content, fandom, and all the joy and personal growth from which that experience comes. I hadn’t watched the animated TV show when it was airing on Nickelodeon, which started in 2005. It was a little bit before my time, I wasn’t exactly old enough for the onscreen adventure and conflict at 5 years old. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse was a bit more my speed.
Also, I am almost exactly certain that it took one look at the merchandise, posters, or commercials for the show, with its use of martial arts and display of a central male protagonist, for me to declare to all who would listen that “Avatar’s a boy show,” which means I wouldn’t want anything to do with it. And that’s funny, because “boy show” or “boy toys” was never a phrase in my family’s vocabulary.
Turns out ATLA has the healthiest depictions of gender difference and sameness that I have ever seen in a show hailing from before 2010. I know this, because thanks to the encouragement of my friends (who wanted me to experience some quality writing after having finished The Real Housewives of New Jersey), I spent some time this quarantine to watch all of ATLA on Netflix. I guess it was the boy, and not the show, that I was averse to me as a kid (and still would be).
I’ve also dove into the content that followed ATLA, which includes the series Avatar: The Legend of Korra, which takes place a couple decades after the events of the first series. We meet the next incarnation of the liberating, peace-making cultural figure of The Avatar — she’s an Indigenous woman named Korra — and also learn more about the family, friends, and descendents of the beloved ATLA cast.
I’ll acknowledge that I don’t necessarily vibe with the writing of LoK, particularly as a companion to ATLA, and that what I loved most about the first show — the fierce anti-imperialism, story of youth power, just to name a few elements — becomes a bit foggy in this next depiction of the universe, at least from my personal one-time viewing. However, this blog piece is not about what I saw as LoK’s literary shortcomings.
It’s about how Korra and her friend Asami fall in love, a button on the series finale that every Google search hails as the first onscreen depiction of a queer relationship in a western-produced youth animation show. This is about what it makes me think about onscreen sapphism, and the shorthand sapphic viewers of all ages develop as we navigate the media landscape. This is about the fandom response to this part of the ATLA and LoK canon (which means an official, original-writer-sourced element of the story’s universe) that was so momentous and victorious that I, a non-member of the fandom and baby queer at the time of its airing, can remember crystal clear. This is about fandom, manifestation, censorship, progress, history, culture, kinship, and gifsets.
Here’s a rundown on the condition of the ship Korrasami at the time of LoK’s airing (2012–2014). (Ship is the way members of fandoms refer to fictional romantic couples…and sometimes non-fictional ones too.) Korrasami, which most viewers would have considered either out of canon or hinted at in the series, had been shipped widely and openly. Queer couplings is quite common in fandom, because there’s a firework that happens when WiFi exists and queer people do too: it allows for us to come together across time zones and shape our favorite story universes that reflect ourselves. (Writing fanfiction for a WLW (also known as “femslash”) couple, simultaneously coming out to yourself, and keeping up the fanfictioning for upwards of seven years, anyone?)
I was a Tumblr surfer and femslash shipper back in those days, I wasn’t too different from my LoK fandom comrades, so many I could safely assume were sapphic, because, like, science. We did that femslash stuff because the only media that was being made of it was from us. There was definitely adult lesbian content out there that wasn’t and isn’t for middle school consumption (or anyone’s, for that matter; objectification isn’t representation, it’s subjugation).
We were living in the gap, between childhoods, often marked by compulsory heterosexuality, and adulthoods, which could mean the promise and hope of outness and relationships. How could we learn to be ourselves with no curriculum? We wrote and drew it ourselves, borrowing from our instincts and the cultural scripts we had practiced for all 12 or 13 or 14 or 15 years of our lives.
Here’s how Korrasami was visually demonstrated and confirmed in the season finale of LoK. Korra steps away from a city celebration, and Asami joins her. They have a brief emotional exchange regarding a recent climatic event, and Korra expresses her need to get away from the city for a moment. Asami suggests joining her, Korra accepts. This is the moment: they arrive at their destination, look at each other, smile, walk a bit farther, face each other, and hold hands. “The end” is projected in Chinese characters. The series is done, and Korrasami happened.
The emergence of Korrasami into the canon is something that many folks may not have seen coming. These people could have been non-Korrasami shippers, Korrasami shippers, straight folks, queer folks. One reason is because there isn’t a massive dedication to the relationship’s development in the show’s writing. However, I will not claim it is entirely missing from the writing. I bet there’s a sapphic viewing of LoK out there, tracking all the moments that gave audience members glaring, covert, or completely untraditional cues to this ship’s endgame nature.
This following statement is coming from someone who, while two seasons into the show, openly believed there was no Korrasami content within this show that I could possibly obsess over. I argue Korrasami is there, in the writing, and not just because I knew Korrasami was coming, or because I explicitly watched LoK for the two seconds of canonical Korrasami content I knew I would get on the last episode. For one, these two characters would work so well together — with Korra’s grit, and Asami’s patience, and Korra’s resolve, and Asami’s attention to detail. So what’s up with this pervasive impression that Korrasami is out of the blue?
Listen, my best friends tell me all the time: don’t worry about straight people. But I’m gonna do it, just for a bit.
A lot of the time, straight viewers want queer relationships spelled out for them, because it’s such a deviance from the more “mainstream” forms of storytelling, which has heteronormativity baked into the plot. Here’s another thing that every individual in this queerphobic society have to acknowledge, even though its reality is more burdensome on some than others — yeah, you’re probably not going to see something like Korrasami coming. It’s for a variety of reasons.
Onscreen sapphism not something that’s going to deliberately pass one by in the channel of storytelling, that has been smoothed out by ages of hetero and cis rep gushing out of our media (because practice makes perfect makes pretend), and that becomes, on a dime, peppered with boulders, that queer and trans narratives get snagged on. Also, you’ve been trained to not see it, ignore it, and also interrogate it till it breaks down, the same way scripts poke fun at men in dresses and people whose gender are indeterminable by cisnormative standards.
You can observe, in my writing, how I’ve been talking in ifs, in the spirit of finding proof, in the attempt to make the ruling about the sapphism or non-sapphism of any element of LoK. You can grasp that so much of how we understand sexuality and gender, in a world that regulates expressions of both for social order, has to do with following strict cultural scripts. Something like the “ambiguity” of Korrasami makes me think about how often sapphics have to both deny and engage with reality in order to keep ourselves safe and happy. It makes me think about how Sapphics keep tabs about social behavior — “she touched my arm, she looked at me for longer than three seconds” — for both our own relationships and those of our favorite canon and non-canon sapphic pairings.
As for the Korrasami emanation, There’s also the fact that two main LoK writers, Konietzko and DiMartino, wanted to make Korrasami happen for an amount of time before this story moment, and Nickelodeon wouldn’t let them illustrate any more relationship in a way that surpassed the intimacy of a hand-hold or a happy gaze. These writers also published affirmations of the couple’s canonness, accessible in the above link, which was something meaningful for fans of all statuses, from the skeptics to the shippers.
I think about the pro-liberation agenda the ATLA universe is quite often (and thankfully!) centering and pushing. And it’s factual: queer storytelling is the next logical step in any narrative about revolution. The ATLA universe is being played out on screens existing in the midst of our police state, our surveillance capitalism state, our racist state. Onscreen queer liberation is but one critical aspect to the dismantling of all these campaigns.
For years, I had little or middling interest in any animated show or movie from any network other than Disney, as a self avowed lifelong devotee of The Mouse. However, I’m grateful and life-changed to say that the acclaim and longevity of appreciation for ATLA and LoK, and seeing how it held up amidst fellow college students posting Tik Toks galore of series lip syncs, memes, and inspired embroideries and make-up (our new fanart), was what let me know that these shows were worth a try. And when I came up on the final episode of LoK, after muddling through four seasons of writing I didn’t always connect to, memories of the finale’s airing shored up. It was the middle of December 2014, I was a first-semester freshman in high school, I was out for barely weeks, and I would come across the same gifset of the look-smile-handhold-look sequence, in front of the brilliant glow and colors of the background, magic only animation could portray. Post after post, the same gifset, the same final lines quoted, as if reblogging was believing. Ecstatic text posts relaying their “where I was” stories, displaying their happy tears, and fanart recreations of the handholds galore. Tumblr was not the same for the while, and it was the best I had seen it.
Thanks to my access to modern streaming services, I was able to see that gif play out in the real time of my closure with the story’s arc, closing with the smiles of these two women, widely accepted as bisexual characters by the very fandom that first thought them up and first loved them properly. No matter what I thought about the writing of this show, this ending was powerful as a moment of history. My eyes did well up, moved by the collective memory of what this meant.
It’s something Gen Z sapphics are going to talk about for a long time. I felt all of the energy spent on those animation cells by the ones who it was drawn and designed for and about.
I’m looking back as someone who now sees sapphic rep in animated shows like the inimitable Steven Universe, the delightful She-Ra reboot, and while I haven’t myself experienced it, in the iconic Adventure Time. (Huh, how about that. It’s always Cartoon Network and Netflix and Nickelodeon, and never Disney. I’m starting to think the Disney purist attitude could have been a little influenced by some internal queerphobia. Just a smidge. Too far?)
These more recent couples get onscreen kisses and weddings, lovely and real moments mirroring the ones that Korrasami gets in the canonical sequel comics, which pick up right where the series leaves off. (Comics of which I have STARED at.) Not to mention, there’s a well-loved past Avatar, the anti-fascist icon Kyoshi, is avidly bisexual in her literary depictions (and now, after her inspiration, I think “avidly bisexual” is both my favorite phrase I’ve written and the best compliment someone could be awarded).
There is something to be said about sapphism tucked into a book, and sapphism tucked into a screenplay. There’s no need for me to pit the mediums against each other, for that would be particularly ableist of me, since access to the wide spectrum of both canon and fanon ATLA content is different for every individual according to ability. But let’s think about Nickelodeon, their funders, and what they want replayed and reread, what will be replayed and reread, and the publishers of the comics and the novels. It’s not Nickelodeon.
This is how I spin it, in the spirit of the sustained struggle, and healthy skepticism around any corporate display of heavily airquoted “solidarity.” Any onscreen kiss itself is not the sole revolutionary act, rather, the revolution is in the behavior that follows it, by both fictional and real casts, and the ways in which these moments both push back against queerphobic agendas, and are also just natural parts of the stories progression, because queer folks are in stories, because, like, science.
People of all ages enjoy animation, but it’s certainly imperative that kids can experience animated series that healthily tease out and unpack big ideas. It’s not because they “wouldn’t see this at all,” due to liberation being some sort of additive or alternative to the status quo. It’s because something like the ATLA universe actively contrasts other media that would maintain the status quo which promotes the mechanisms of social control, like misogyny and transphobia and fatphobia and anti-Blackness. Yes — these things are possible to be demonstrated and challenged even in kids shows, since kids shows are in the world. And since kids live in the world.
Speaking of kids, 8-year-old me would have just been in love with both Korra and Asami. Like I always say about my baby gay self, she’s smarter than I am now. I would have tracked Korrasami from the get. Forget how compatible I believe they are — I would have wanted it because I wanted girls to love each other. Who doesn’t want what they want for themselves?
Something like that crystalline twenty sequence of the LoK finale isn’t all things. But I remember it so fondly, my warm feelings of excitement for the folks on my feed who had loved this show of theirs and got to see it get a bit more realistic. As a new fan, the experience is ever enriching. There’s something to the last moments of the series, the last animated incarnation of the ATLA universe, being dedicated to the beginning of a sapphic relationship. There’s something about the joy it generated and resonated in young people. There’s something about the memory and the channel it created for it’s animation descendents. That’s an Avatar-like move if I’ve ever witnessed one.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.