https://www.washingtonpost.com/arts-entertainment/2020/09/16/how-legend-korra-changed-landscape- queer-representation-animated-shows/ How ‘The Legend of Korra’ changed the landscape of queer representation in animated shows By Madison Dong September 16 at 9:50 AM In December 2014, Nickelodeon aired its final episode of “The Legend of Korra,” the sequel to “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Both shows were acclaimed as kids media that was fun but also tackled darker topics such as war. This year, both shows returned to relevance when they became available on Netflix and broke streaming records. “The Legend of Korra,” commonly shortened to LOK, most notably ended with its main female protagonists, Korra and Asami, entering a romantic relationship with each other. This was one of the first portrayals of a same-sex relationship in a popular, American animated show. It was a milestone for queer audiences in the U.S., particularly younger fans, who rarely see themselves represented in mainstream entertainment. In the years since then, queer representation has improved slightly but still remains scarce. Asami, left, and Korra hold hands in the series finale of “The Legend of Korra." (Nickelodeon) The effect of queer representation on younger audiences LOK ended on a scene of Korra and Asami holding hands with only the implication of more. The romantic relationship was later confirmed by the show creators on their personal Tumblr blogs. But, even with that subtlety, LOK was a game changer for animated kids shows. In the years since the series ended, “Adventure Time,” “Steven Universe” and “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” all featured characters in same-sex relationships, with moments such as vocalized love confessions, kissing and a wedding. “We wouldn’t have a lot of shows if not for Korra,” said Steven Underwood, an essayist who has written extensively about media representation and sexuality. “That one implied kiss changed the very landscape of what we can see in cartoons today.” Ruby and Sapphire of “Steven Universe” get married. (Cartoon Network Studios, Inc.) Queer representation in animated shows can be particularly impactful for young people. Eve Ng, an associate professor of media arts and studies at Ohio University, notes that representation can normalize queerness for everyone, regardless of sexuality, but that it is especially important for validating and helping younger audiences who are still in the process of self-discovery. “For queer young people, they’re often still coming out to themselves," Ng said. “So it’s not just, ‘I want to see myself.’ It’s, ‘Wait, am I queer too?’” Olivia R., who preferred not to give her full name, runs a Twitter account dedicated to Korra and Asami, @korrasami19. She recalls the series finale by the exact date of its airing: Dec. 19, 2014. “I remember crying after watching because when Korra and Asami held hands, I just knew their relationship was not entirely platonic,” she said, adding that she was still closeted when watching. “It meant so much to me as a person who was coming to terms with being bisexual. … I felt like I could finally exhale after holding my breath for so long.” Catra, left, and Adora grew from friends to enemies and finally to romantic partners over the course of “She-ra." (Netflix) Some fans originally thought Korra and Asami in earlier seasons were straight — partially because queer representation on kids TV is rare to see, but also because both characters had male love interests until their relationship slowly changed in the last season. This depiction is a nuance that Underwood said is important for bisexual representation. “I was surprised," he said, "But it definitely helped contextualize the lived experience of coming out and how it never looks the same.” Queer characters are still drastically underrepresented, despite robust fandoms One obstacle to representation is companies and executives who hesitate to showcase queer main characters. In his post confirming Korra and Asami’s relationship, LOK co-creator Bryan Konietzko also confirmed suspicions that parent network Nickelodeon prevented something more overt. “We approached the network, and while they were supportive, there was a limit to how far we could go with it,” he said. Ng says that this hesitation could be over the misconception that queer stories lack marketability, but that it’s necessary to allow shows like LOK to prove that they can be marketed to the mainstream. “If enough shows do it and nothing terrible happens, there’s a precedent. It makes it easier.” Marceline, left, and Princess Bubblegum embrace in “Adventure Time." (Cartoon Network Studios, Inc.) But lacking representation can also be harmful for marginalized groups. Ng describes this effect as “symbolic annihilation,” a term coined by communication studies academics George Gerbner and Larry Gross in 1976. “It’s basically what happens when you don’t show a specific group in the media,” she said. “It’s treating you as if you don’t exist.” Olivia R. said that this practice also “makes the idea of queer relationships alien and fails to present them as common and loving. … [Representation] may help young people come to terms with their own sexuality in a better, more loving way, instead of having to repress who they are.” This desire for and acceptance of representation can already be seen in fandom communities, where Ng said that it’s commonplace for fan content creators to “queer” characters and relationships in their own work, even if it never becomes official. She describes this as a way for fans to find the representation that they lack. “Because there are so few things that are specifically queer,” she said, “fans read texts ‘queerly,’ even though it’s canonically [officially] straight.” Fanfiction written about Korra and Asami’s relationship (otherwise known as “Korrasami”), for example, existed well before the relationship became official in the series finale. However, the number of stories published about the relationship drastically spiked in the aftermath of the series finale as queer fans finally saw a primarily subtextual relationship become official. In the years since, support has remained strong and is actually rising again with the show’s Netflix debut. Bafflinghaze, a non-binary, prolific writer on fanfiction website Archive of Our Own, said that representation is a way to understand their sexuality, and that they turned to fanfiction after finding mainstream media lacking. “Writing queer characters makes queerness a lot more normalized. Growing up, I didn’t get a lot of queer media. In fandom, you get queer media everywhere,” they said. “As an asexual person, fanfiction helps me better understand my relationship to romance and attraction.” Fellow writer Sophia P., who writes fanfiction under the username ysaintlorraine but preferred not to give their full name, also added that queer representation in fanfiction “goes way beyond the trope of the characters being shocked and confused about their own sexuality. … Most [fanfiction stories] treat these couples like they are norms in our society, which is how they should really be treated.” Fanfiction as a whole reflects this trend, as the vast majority of written works are queer — approximately 73 percent of all romantic stories written on Archive of Our Own (AO3) depict a same-sex relationship, despite only a handful being official (commonly referred to as “canon”). Source: Archive of Our Own Despite this hunger for content, mainstream media outlets still fail to meet those needs. GLAAD estimated in 2017 that 20 percent of the U.S. population aged 18 to 34 identifies as queer. Yet, according to their 2019 report, only 10.2 percent of characters across all TV shows, including those for adults, are written as LGBTQ. That small percentage also fails to truly represent a large, complex community of many different identities. For example, GLAAD’s analysis explains that the number of bisexual characters on screen doesn’t accurately reflect the fact that bisexual people make up the majority of the LGBTQ population. Representation within fan-created work is not necessarily perfect either. As the graphic above shows, the majority of AO3’s most popular fanfiction relationships are between white men. Watching “The Legend of Korra” nowadays is a lesson in bittersweet victories: It’s a benchmark for how far queer representation has come and how far it still has to go. “Life is complicated,” Underwood said. “We want our media to be as complex as we are.” Shelly Tan contributed to this report.