Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko deserve a lot of credit. In today’s world of strong-guy dominated entertainment, the pair are responsible for giving children many positive female role models to grow up with. Their first show, Avatar: the Last Airbender, brought audiences strong protagonists like Katara, Toph, and Suki, while at the same time providing an equally strong antagonist in the character of Azula. When the duo moved on to the Legend of Korra, it was hoped that the strong woman trend would continue. The good news is that, for the most part, it has. Legend of Korra has three main strong female characters, one of them being the titular hero, Korra. The other two, Asami and Lin Bei Fong, also feature significant screen time and well developed character arcs. As the series has progressed, more and more women characters have been introduced, and all of them appear fairly well written. Since Legend of Korra is a sequel show, some of the characters from the original have returned as well: namely Katara and Zuko. The sad news is that, the return has not been great.
Katara was one of the main characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender. She is the first character introduced to the audience Throughout the intro it is her voice narrating. She is quickly established as someone who rebels against established gender roles. Within five minutes of the show starting, Katara is calling out Sokka (her brother) for his sexism and dismissive mature towards women. This character trait continues throughout the series as Katara encounters several situations, most notably her training in the North Pole, which try to place restrictions on her because of her gender. In the face of every challenge, Katara remains defiant. She continually proves the established order wrong and demonstrates that she is as capable as any man.
As strong-willed as Katara is, it goes hand in hand with her generosity. Simply put, she is written as a character with an incredible sense of moral responsibility. There are several instances in the show where Katara goes out of her way, sometimes at hindrance to herself, in order to help those in need. In her words: “I will never, EVER turn my back on people who need me.”
Wow, you can see why she’s a positive role model. What helps keep Katara balanced is the strength of her nurturing side. In the world today, there seems to be a misconception that a “strong” woman has no maternity instincts, that caring for another only takes away from personal goals. Avatar: the Last Airbender may be one of the first shows (definitely first cartoons) to showcase the strength of caring and being there for another person. There is a power in Katara’s scenes that does not exist in any of Aang’s or Zuko’s.
All right, so far I’ve been talking up Katara a lot. I wanted to write out the strengths of her character creation. Partly to again give credit where credit is do, and partly to contrast this Katara from the older version that the audience sees in Legend of Korra. Katara, now in her eighties, returns as a minor character in the new show. This would be terrific… if she was anything like the Katara from the first series. No, the strong fighter appears to have traded in her chops for an order of elderly grandma. Good for taking care of toddlers and the sick… but not much else.
This is not an attempt to say that Katara should be more involved in Legend of Korra. She states herself at the beginning of the series that her time as a hero of the world is over. Yet there are two instances in particular where Katara’s involvement is strangely limited.
The first occurs in season two, when the South Pole is invaded by the North. Many of the Southerners revolt and there is open fighting in the streets. The North have come on the claim of ‘restoring culture’ and ‘bringing balance.’ The audience watches as many Southern Water Tribe characters fight for their personal freedom and their right to be independent. Sound familiar?
On one level, this is the same conflict that Katara faced in the first series, just on a larger scale. Here is how she reacted in the first show:
Wow, that’s really spirited, and she is just trying to prove her worth against an idiotic custom. I can’t imagine how fiercely she fights for her freedom and the freedom of her entire nation. Here is how she fights back in Legend of Korra:
“Well she’s old.”
Yes, Katara is old… and it’s not like old people ever do anything cool or active in these shows…
Yeah, that excuse does not fly in this show. Writers DiMartino and Konietzko have done too much with the older generation for “I’m old” to be anywhere close to a valid excuse. Katara did not have to win the battle single-handedly for the South, but it is against her character that she would do nothing.
Instance Two occurs in season three with the appearance of Firelord Zuko. While Zuko’s involvement is little more than fan service, at least he is seen being active (he is supposed to be at least a couple of years older than Katara btw). The head scratcher comes when Korra requests Zuko’s guidance. She is desperate for council from someone at least familiar when a past Avatar and claims that “he knew Aang better than anyone.”
Sure, cause what would Katara know really?
Now there is the argument to be made that Zuko is the person who best knew Aang who is in the immediate facility. This is true, they are not at the South Pole. It is more of a bizarre line than anything else, but it does draw attention to a weird observation: why is Katara staying at the South Pole? When did she get so passive? Her children are actively working to rebuild Aang’s culture… and she’s at home?
“Sorry kids, grandma needs to watch her stories.”
It’s just sad. Somewhere in the script writing, a decision was made that Katara would not be involved. Honestly, as harsh as it would be, it would be easier to believe that Katara had died rather than just become an old grandmother sitting by herself at the South Pole. When the audience is introduced to her, she is directly watching over Korra’s development. What happened to Katara? It is a sad day when one of the most powerful role models for young women is told to go sit quietly in the corner… and actually does so.