Illness is a very personal experience. Despite there being loads and loads of other people out there who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks just like me, everyone is going to have slightly different methods for coping with them. Things that work for me might not work for you; likewise, something you swear by might be no help to me at all. And that doesn’t make anything wrong, or any coping methods “better” than any others. They’re just different, in the same way as people are different. And sometimes, help can come from the most unexpected places. For me, I found strength and comfort in, of all places, Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra.
The Legend of Korra is an animated television series created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino for Nickelodeon, as a sequel to their much-adored Avatar: The Last Airbender. The first season of Korra aired in 2012 and its last season ended in December 2014. Many people my age grew up watching Avatar, and while I didn’t watch it regularly, I do remember watching an episode every now and again when I was a kid. I’d seen enough of it to pay attention, before the first season of Korra came out, to all the talk around the fact that this kid’s cartoon would be featuring a female incarnation of the Avatar as Aang’s successor. Nickelodeon was initially relucant to give Korra the go-ahead due to fears that the show wouldn’t appeal to young boys, based on the fact that the protagonist was – oh shit, son – a girl. However, this sexist bullshit was exposed as such, with Konietzko stating that in screen testings, boys were unbothered by Korra being a girl, and “just said she was awesome.”
This was what drew me to the show. Here was a series which featured a strong young woman as its central character (and not only that, but arguably the most powerful and important person in the TLA/LoK universe) – in a world where children’s programming is still dominated by male-centred shows, of course I was going to want to investigate something with a lead character I could relate to a lot more. And Korra didn’t disappoint. She was a strong, confident, intelligent and fiercely self-driven young woman. And although it was a show primarily aimed at children, Korra was seventeen at the start of Book One, so there was a lot I could relate to when I started watching the show as an eighteen-year-old in 2012.
Just a heads-up: here on out ends the spoiler-free section of this blog post. If you haven’t yet watched Korra in its entirety, there are gonna be spoilers from Books One through Four, so consider yourself fairly warned. Also, I’m writing this under the assumption that you know the premise of Korra is thus: it takes place in a world where many people have the ability to “bend” one of the four elements. They practise these abilities in a way similar to martial arts (and all four styles of bending are actually modelled off real-life martial arts disciplines). The Avatar, of which Korra is the current incarnation, is the only person who is able to bend all four elements, and acts as a bridge between the material and spirit worlds. Got it? Good. Let’s get into this.
Before I talk about why I found The Legend of Korra so helpful on my journey of recovery, I’d like to spend a bit of time on some of the other reasons why I love it so much. (I’m such a fucking nerd you guys I’m sorry, but I could write a freaking essay on this show.)
- It features a multitude of strong, complex female characters. The titular character is one obvious example. The thing about Korra is that she is not in any way restricted by any expectations placed on her by her gender. She straight up does not give a fuck. Korra is strong, short-tempered, determined, stubborn, independent, aggressive and an exceptionally talented bender. She loves to fight. In spite of this, she’s still presented as a likeable, relateable and kind-hearted character and never once (in my memory) compared unfavourably with a man. What’s more, she is not white, and she is not straight. In terms of representation in children’s cartoons, this is huge.
I can’t talk about strong female characters in Korra without mentioning Lin Beifong. In Book One, Lin is Republic City’s Chief of Police – a powerful position of responsibility, and a job that she performs very well. Lin is also a talented bender, and – much like Korra – is stubborn and strong. She’s also single – proving that you don’t have to be in a relationship in order to be a successful, valued, badass motherfucker.
Lastly, I want to mention Asami Sato. Asami is beautiful, feminine, and takes pride in her makeup and clothing. However, she is much more than her looks. Asami has a sound knowledge of mechanics and is adept at both driving vehicles and hand-to-hand combat. From Book Two onwards, she is also a determined and ultimately successful businesswoman, taking over her father’s company after he is imprisoned for criminal behaviour. In Book Three, she and Korra become good friends, despite their initial rivalry over a boy and the fact that they both dated him. They bond not over the boy, but over their common interests and values, and respect for each other as people.
- The primary antagonists are developed and well-realised characters with complex motivations behind their actions. In other words, they’re not just bad for being bad. Amon, in Book One, was the leader of the equalist movement, which sought to erase the long-existing oppression of non-benders by benders, and achieve recognition and equal status for non-benders in Republic City. In Book Two, Unalaq was concerned with restoring balance between the spirit and human worlds. Zaheer and the other members of the Red Lotus, in Book Three, sought to free the people from the oppressive regime of corrupted world leaders, and were driven by the philosophical conviction that disorder is the natural state of the world. And Kuvira, in Book Four (one of my favourite antagonists of anything ever, and also a woman let’s just mention), wanted to stabilize the Earth Kingdom from the chaos caused by the power vacuum created when the Earth Queen was assassinated in Book Three.
All of these antagonists were villains because of the extremist natures of their campaigns and the fact that they lost sight of the good in their original causes and became corrupted by desires for power and control.
- It features a groundbreaking representation of a bisexual same-sex couple. By Book Three, Korra and Asami have developed a close friendship. In Book Four, it is clear that they care deeply about each other, and fans of “Korrasami” speculated about whether this bond could be something more than friendship. The final episode of Book Four ends with Korra and Asami walking into the newly-opened spirit portal for a holiday, just the two of them. As they disappear into the light, they hold hands and turn to look at each other in a way that could not possibly be considered platonic. Though there was no confirming kiss, as at the end of The Last Airbender between Aang and Katara, this ending scene clearly mirrored that one, and in doing so did something that (to my knowledge) has never been explicitly done in a children’s cartoon before: represented a same-sex couple.
Konietzko and DiMartino confirmed, via their personal blogs, that Korra and Asami’s relationship did indeed become a romantic one, causing the Korra fandom to explode with screams of “IT’S CANON!!!!” I don’t blame them, really. I couldn’t have envisioned a more perfect ending for the series.
- Bending is fucking badass. It’s such a cool concept, and one which leant itself to many beautifully realised (not to mention fucking awesome) fight scenes, especially in Books One and Four.
I will admit that Korra is not without its faults. These faults include the very problematic relationship between Varrick and Zhu Li, and a weak (and at times downright cringey) second season. I’d discuss these in more detail, but this post is getting pretty long already, so I’ll save that for another time.
For now, though, I want to talk about the representation of mental illness in Book Four of Korra, and how it helped me with my own mental disorder.
At the end of Book Three, Korra was poisoned and almost killed at the hands of the Red Lotus. This attack did much more than physical damage, and left Korra with deep psychological scars. As the Book Three finale ends, Korra is in a wheelchair, clearly not sleeping and still very much affected by the trauma she went through.
Book Four begins three years after the events of Book Three, and Korra has been absent from Republic City for the entirety of that time. The second episode, “Korra Alone”, follows her journey of recovery over those three years. The episode opens with a bruised and battered Korra examining her injuries from the earthbending ring in a fragmented bathroom mirror. The symbolism here is obvious, but effective: Book Four will have her confront her broken identity.
At this point I have to commend the show’s writers for their consistent reminders throughout Korra (and, for that matter, its predecessor TLA), that Korra is not invincible. She isn’t a superhero. She is a flawed human being and is susceptible to both physical and mental damage just like anyone else.
As the episode unfolds, we learn what Korra has been going through in the past three years. Physically and mentally damaged from the fight with Zaheer, she returns to the south pole to heal. After many months of therapy with Katara, she eventually re-learns to walk and is then able to slowly get back into bending.
However, it is evident how much the events of last season have affected her when, in a firebending match, she experiences a terrifying flashback and collapses, unable to continue. Frustrated with her lack of progress, she embarks on a solo journey around the world, hoping to find a way to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she is suffering from. Along the way she cuts her hair and abandons her water tribe clothing in favour of earthbender colours, in an attempt to leave her past self behind.
It’s not long before we meet Korra’s main antagonist for this episode: herself. Korra is being haunted – quite literally – by the version of herself from when Zaheer poisoned her and forced her into the avatar state. She does physical battle with this mental projection of herself who, while invisible to everyone else around her, is clearly very real and tangible to Korra. For convenience, I’ll refer to this projection as ‘anti-Korra’ from now on.
The writers’ handling of PTSD was very well done, especially considering that this is a show aimed primarily at kids. The physical manifestation of Korra’s PTSD as a malevolent version of herself that only she can see was incredibly effective. Having struggled with mental illness myself (not PTSD, but anxiety and panic attacks), I definitely connected with this episode on a personal level. Korra literally fights herself, but she is the only person who can see anti-Korra – a perfect metaphor for the constant (yet invisible) internal battle that those suffering from mental illnesses are engaged with.
Korra’s travels eventually lead her to the swamp, where she stumbles across Toph (one of the main characters from TLA, now very old but no less badass), which is where “Korra Alone” ends. In the next episode, Toph informs her that she still has remnants of mercury in her body. Under Toph’s instruction, Korra is able to bend the mercury out of her body and finally enter the Avatar State once again.
Korra now believes she is finally healed, and heads to Zaofu to confront Kuvira and her army. However, she is defeated in a one-on-one fight with Kuvira after she experiences yet another frightening vision of anti-Korra whilst in combat.
After this defeat, Korra must admit to herself that, despite finally being free of the mercury, her battle with Zaheer is still affecting her in other ways. And so, after three years she confronts her biggest fear – Zaheer himself. Although he is now locked up in prison, going to speak with Zaheer is an enormous step for Korra to take, and she is understandably afraid. However, confronting the cause of her PTSD head-on is exactly what Korra needs in order to finally accept what has happened to her and move on.
Not only does this visit give her closure, but with Zaheer’s guidance, she is finally able to meditate into the spirit world, something she hadn’t been able to do since the onset of her PTSD.
At last, Korra is through the worst and well on the road to being the strong and confident Avatar she used to be. In her final battle with Kuvira, Korra is clearly much improved physically as well as mentally. Not only that, but she has a renewed understanding and compassion for others, even those who don’t extend the same to her. She saves Kuvira’s life only minutes after Kuvira attempted to take hers. When they find themselves in the spirit world together, the two talk, and Korra verbalises her empathy with Kuvira, saying they are a lot alike. Kuvira finally recognises the Avatar’s power, Korra supports her as they walk back into the material world together.
I saw a lot of myself and my own struggles in the final season of Korra. Sure, I’m not the Avatar, and I didn’t have to fight a military dictator alongside my mental illness, but The Legend of Korra‘s depiction of Korra’s mental illness as anti-Korra really resonated with me. When I was at my worst, I felt like I was fighting myself constantly in order to get anything done in life. Seeing this battle between a mentally ill person and their mind depicted in this way really made me happy, and gave me strength.
Book Four also demonstrated that recovery is a very long (sometimes on the order of years) process, which requires patience and understanding in order to get through; as well as the fact that confronting triggers or our strongest fears can be the most effective way to move forward. Furthermore, it shows that anyone – even the freaking Avatar – can suffer from mental illness. It doesn’t matter how strong and healthy you appear outwardly – you can still be fighting a debilitating mental battle. Among many other things, Korra contributes towards raising awareness of mental disorders and fighting for the legitimization of invisible illnesses.
I think this post is long enough as is, so I’ll leave it there. But finally: if you haven’t already watched The Legend of Korra, I highly recommend that you do. In case you couldn’t tell, it’s one of my faves. I recently rewatched Books Three and Four in order to write this post, and they gave me just as many feels as they did the first time, if not more. It’s a show that makes me very happy.