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Saturday, February 21, 2015

Meta: Why Korrasami Works (oh who am I kidding, this is a shipping manifesto)

A part of me can't believe I'm doing this, but it would seem I still haven't run out of things to say about Korrasami – not by a long shot.

It's been over two months now since Korra and Asami walked off into the proverbial sunset together, and there's been feedback from all quarters. Although I've been hanging out in circles where giddy euphoria is the norm, there have been other reactions too, and the negative responses seem to come down to one of three things (though there's likely some overlap between them).
There's the homophobic stance, and unfortunately I've seen at least one vile rant directed at Mike and Bryan for their decision to make Korra/Asami an official couple (I'm not going to provide a link; it doesn't deserve to be seen and I'm sorry I saw it at all).
Then there's the Mako/Korra shippers, many of whom are feeling dejected enough to construct their own alternative endings that suggest a post-show Makorra hook-up. The erasure of a same-sex couple is grating, but for the most part the ongoing arguments over shipping preferences is not a battle I'm willing to get too embroiled in (especially when canon is on my side). Ship and let ship, people.
But among other detractors of the Korrasami ship, there seems to be a fixation on the idea that their relationship wasn't built up enough. That it came out of left-field. That there was no foreshadowing; that it was shoehorned in – you get the drift. The Avatar.Spirit forum is flooded with posters holding this opinion, and in the wake of the finale I was witness to a rather extraordinary debate on Fandom Secrets in which a poster devoted a lot of time and energy into insisting that Korrasami was badly written and that everyone who liked it was stupid.
There's an articulate reviewer that I used to follow regularly (before the overwhelming negativity of his reviews became too tedious) who also took the stance that the confirmation of Korra/Asami as a couple had no resonance because of the lack of build-up in their relationship. (Again, I'm not going to link to his site as I'm not interested in dogpiling). Everywhere you look it seems that the go-to excuse for not liking Korrasami is "not enough build-up".
But my response to the "no build-up" line of reasoning is that I don't have enough hands with which to face-palm.
Obviously everyone is going to have a different response to every story under the sun, but I thought Korrasami was handled beautifully, so much so that it's worth defending against those that think otherwise.
So yes, it would appear that for the first time in my life, I'm writing a shipper manifesto. I'm even using portmanteau names, so help me.

***
First of all, let's just acknowledge that it makes perfect sense that Korra – and by extension, all Avatars – is bisexual. It's so obvious it hurts. This is an individual who has lived countless lives in both male and female bodies, and though it isn't clear how much of one individual Avatar passes down from one to another, there's enough evidence to suggest a deep connection between all of them. Not only is the spirit of Raava inherent within each one, but comments are made throughout both shows suggesting a central unity between all Avatar incarnations: Aang looking at the statue of Kyoshi and stating: "that's me in a past life," or Korra seeing Wan's old teapot and identifying it as "my teapot!"
So on some level, each individual Avatar carries the memories and experiences of their predecessors' romantic relationships with them.  Therefore bisexuality? Makes complete sense.
***
As we now know from Bryan Konietzko's Tumblr post on the subject, Korra and Asami were not conceived as a potential romantic couple until season three. But with the power of hindsight, it's amusing to look back on the first two seasons and examine their relationship, especially as it relates to that damn Love Triangle.
As is pretty obvious at this point, the Mako/Korra ship was a misfire. It's hard to pin-point exactly why fandom didn't embrace it, but I suspect a lot of its unpopularity had to do with the manufactured quality of how it was portrayed. I've said it before and I'll say it again, but I honestly think the Korra/Mako ship was designed as a response to the overwhelming popularity of Zutara back in Avatar: The Last Airbender. A short-tempered firebender boy and an equally spirited waterbender girl with an adversarial relationship that could be construed as Belligerent Sexual Tension? It's exactly how Zutarians viewed their ship, regardless of what was actually happening between them.
If there's an accurate way to predict fandom shipping patterns, I haven't found it yet – but one thing you can be sure of is this: people don't like being told what to ship. They like to work from a blank slate, free from the usual Love Tropes that are used to signal an inevitable get-together, and let their imaginations take over instead. They keep an eye out for chemistry or interesting interactions or even just a couple of really hot characters, and hitch their wagon accordingly. So many times we've watched as fandom rejects the Official Couple in favour of something completely unexpected, often because there is a standard pattern for romantic stories that writers seldom deviate from - and which is considered uninteresting as a result.
People want to choose for themselves what two characters should hook up – and the less they anticipate it becoming canon, the more invested they'll become in seeing it happen.
This, I feel, was what happened with Makorra and Korrasami. The former was pushed too hard, ticked too many of the well-trodden clichés of romantic fiction, and was too obvious in its attempts to recapture the "Zutarian" quality. But you can't capture lightening in a bottle.
In comparison Korrasami had just the right amount of screen-time, subverted most expectations in its initial portrayal of two girls caught in a love triangle with a single boy, and was given enough time and space to grow organically – in both the show and the fandom's imagination.
The great irony in Bryke trying to recapture a non-canon but fan-favourite pairing from the first series was that viewers rejected it in favourite of another (at the time) non-canon pairing, one that closely resembled Kataang in the way it gradually moved from friendship to romantic attraction across the course of several seasons.
***
The thing I love most about Korra/Asami is that it avoids practically all of the tropes that are prevalent in most romances. There are no contrived misunderstandings or any miscommunications; they're not in Love At First Sight or Starcrossed Lovers or hopelessly pining for each other for years on end. There's no Belligerent Sexual Tension demonstrated through constant bickering, explosive arguments or physical violence.
There's just time spent together, meaningful conversations, and the ability to make each other laugh – you know, just like real relationships (at least the ones worth pursuing).
There's only one familiar romantic trope that the two of them tick, and because Bryke initially had no idea they would end up together, it occurs entirely by accident. It's also one of my favourite tropes: the ironically bad first impression.
We saw it in Guinevere muttering: "who would want to marry Arthur?" a good six years before she did, in Evelyn Carnahan telling her brother "I don't like him at all" right before gaping at O'Connell as he rocks up clean-shaven and in new clothes, and in Mr Darcy snidely saying of Miss Bennett: "she's tolerable I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me," almost immediately before he falls in love with her.
As was pointed out to me in a Tumblr post, these are some of the first looks that Korra throws at Asami...


...only for her, much like Elizabeth Bennett, to one day look at her and think "till this moment I have never known myself."
A bad first impression is not to be confused with Slap Slap Kiss (another staple of romantic fiction that has since become a tedious cliché) for it allows for reconsideration and personal growth throughout the story, usually as a result of re-examining one's own prejudices.
This certainly happens in Korra's case, as she shifts from describing Asami as "that beautiful, prissy, elegant rich girl" to apologizing after realizing she's not the vapid socialite Korra pegged her as. (Though if there's one thing we can take away from Korra's first impression, it's that she immediately recognized Asami as "beautiful").
Throughout Book One, Korra and Asami do more orbiting around Mako than they do each other, with Makorra designed as that particular season's end-game. But if there's one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to that ill-fated love triangle, it's that its most appealing feature was that the girls were never pitted against each other. When Asami begins to suspect Mako has feelings for Korra, she confronts him directly on the subject, makes a point of telling him she likes Korra, and makes it clear that he alone is responsible for his own feelings. It's Mako's behaviour that Asami takes to task, not that of her would-be rival.
Personally, I think it's a little more than Korra deserves at this stage. She's not exactly an innocent bystander in all this, choosing to pursue Mako despite knowing he's in a relationship with Asami, and without much regard for the other girl's feelings. It's only when Asami is betrayed by her father and left homeless that Korra's compassion overrides her selfishness, and she encourages Mako to be a supportive boyfriend.
It's at this point that any potential rivalry between the girls ends before it even begins. For better or worse, Mako is the one with the power to call the shots on how each relationship progresses (and as we know he ends it with Asami to hook up with Korra).
But there's something interesting about Asami's conduct toward Korra in Book One that's worth pointing out. Long before the show came to an end, Bryan and Mike were both on record as saying Asami was originally conceived as an Equalist spy, sent by her father to infiltrate the Avatar's inner circle by dating one of her pro-bending teammates. It's unclear when exactly they changed their minds, but strains of this early characterization remain in the finished product.
Asami's introduction for example, in which she runs into Mako on her moped, seems less of a lucky coincidence when you consider it was (probably) original conceived as a staged accident. Which means that in the first season's original storyline, all of Asami's interactions with Mako were never about him at all. She was only ever interested in getting close to Korra.
Of course, the decision to change Asami's motivation means her place in the narrative was entirely restructured, but the shadow of that possibility remains: that Asami's eagerness to be friends with Korra, to impress and spend time with her, initially had nothing whatsoever to do with Mako.
Thankfully the reconfiguring of her character means Asami's friendliness toward Korra is entirely genuine, and she demonstrates her astuteness at reading people by offering to take Korra for a spin in one of her family's racing cars, defying Korra's expectations of her as a girl only interested in "makeovers and manicures."
With that, Asami wins her over, forcing Korra to see her as a person and not a rival. They're now established not only as Birds of a Feather, but also complimentary opposites: Asami is feminine, but with a range of what would be considered "boyish" interests: driving, combat, engineering; whilst Korra is tomboyish, though not entirely adverse to getting dressed up or experimenting with the powderpuff in Asami's bathroom (however hesitantly).
In my discussion on how to get away with love at first sight, I suggested that whatever else you do, you must ensure that your couple is compatible – and that the reader knows this long before the characters meet. An instant attraction is going to be easier to buy if it's already in the viewer's mind that two characters are perfect for each other.
Obviously this isn't a case of love at first sight, but by the end of Book One the foundations for a solid relationship between Korra and Asami have already been set up. They don't know it yet, but we the audience are aware that (despite Mako) they have the prerequisites of a healthy relationship: trust, respect, common interests and a shared sense of humour. It's up to the next three seasons to start building on them.
***
Unfortunately, one of the major problems with Book Two is the side-lining of Asami. Because the emphasis is on spirits, there really wasn't much of a role for the sole non-bender to play in the battle against a giant Kaiju. For most of the time, Asami is kept far away from Korra, and she's short-changed not only by the pointless reigniting of her relationship with Mako, but also by her severe loss of IQ points in trusting Varrick.
But there is one crucially important Korrasami scene in Book Two that often goes unremarked upon:


Korra saves Asami's life. She does it quickly, silently and undramatically, but in the space of a few seconds, Korra's reflexes prevent Asami from being impaled by an arrow. Just take a second to consider how this would affect Asami, in a way I suspect the writers never gave much consideration to.
We don't get to see much of Korra and Asami's relationship in the immediate aftermath of Mako and Asami's breakup, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say if there was any residual resentment toward Korra for dating her ex-boyfriend, it would be laid to rest after she saves Asami's life.
For the most part Book Two's love shenanigans are all about breaking up Mako and Korra, each one realizing that the two of them just aren't compatible. And it's clear that Korra has a lot of growing up to do before she's mature enough to be in a relationship with anyone: she picks fights, she has kneejerk reactions to dissention, and she wilfully misinterprets Mako's attempts at neutrality. Meanwhile, Mako is so concerned with avoiding conflict that he only ends up creating it (as his cousin will later point out: "by trying not to disappoint anyone, you end up disappointing everyone.")
Not long ago I saw a complaint from a Makorra shipper that argued Asami saw Korra first and foremost as the Avatar, whereas Mako cared more about Korra as a person. As it happens, I totally agree. I also think that's the precise reason why Korra/Mako didn't work out.
We all have an idea of what the perfect relationship should be like, and I imagine that for most of us it involves equality in all things. But it's naïve to think that any relationship with the Avatar could be a normal one – or a truly equal one. When a person is the embodiment of the universe and the master of all four elements, an equal partnership is the very last thing you should expect.
This was obvious enough in the portrayal of Aang and Katara. He was The Messiah and she was The Caretaker. He saved the world, and she saved him. Whenever she disagreed with him on something (like say, his attempt to prematurely activate the Avatar State) she was free to voice her opinion, but did nothing to prevent him from following through with his decisions.
One of them has to make choices that shape the world; the other therefore has to assume the role of a caregiver, to exist as a sounding board, to be the less dominant one in the partnership. This does not devalue Katara's character, and you certainly don't have to personally find this type of relationship appealing, but it's what a romantic relationship with the Avatar must inevitably entail.
And one of the reasons why Korra/Mako failed was that Mako couldn't separate Korra from her responsibilities as the Avatar. It's an intrinsic part of who she is, and though he could offer support, there was still a divide in his mind between Korra the Avatar and Korra the girlfriend. I don't think it's a coincidence that their breakup came as a result of Mako ranking his loyalty to the Republic City police department above Korra's attempt to get help for the Southern Water Tribe, and though I don't blame him for putting his job first, it's clear that he's unable to take an impartial position. Korra's fury at his decision is not so much that he betrayed her personally but that he overruled her authority as the Avatar.
In short, Mako had too many conflicting interests outside his commitment to Korra. He couldn't separate his girlfriend from her duties to the world – and to be fair, at this point Korra was too immature to meet him halfway.
If she's to have a significant other, it needs to be someone who grasps the magnitude of her responsibilities, who won't pass judgment on the monumental decisions she makes, and who knows on some level that any relationship she has will inevitably be secondary to her duties as Avatar. I don't think the fact that Asami is equipped for this and Mako isn't is drawn down gender lines (because I doubt I'd do particularly well in such a nurturing role either), but when one looks at the personalities of Asami and Mako, it's fairly clear that the former will do far better than the latter in that more supportive, neutral, background role.  
***
Just to wrap things up on Mako/Korra, I can appreciate the trajectory their relationship takes over the course of the four seasons. I think it's a valuable thing to see a boy and girl get entangled in a romantic relationship, realize it isn't working, and yet find a way to remain good friends after it all comes to an end. That final conversation in which Mako tells Korra he's got her back is a very sweet note for the relationship to finish on, and in many ways it reflects the (presumed) course that Tenzin's love-life took with Lin and Pema respectively.
A person's first experience of love can be a wild, crazy, tempestuous affair, but it also runs the risk of burning out quickly. In comparison, second love is calmer, quieter, deeper, and will last a lifetime. Makorra was a learning curve for both participants, and after all the abuse fandom heaped on poor Mako over the past four years, I'm glad Bryan's Tumblr post made a point of saying that his relationships with Korra and Asami made him a better man, and that he'll find his own true love one day.
And the funny thing is, after such uninspiring characterization of this guy in the first two seasons, his impending love life is now something I'd really like to see. 
***
By the time Book Three begins, we can start analysing Korrasami in earnest; through a romantic lens. Throughout the past two seasons Asami has been defined by her relationship with her father, as a young inventor and entrepreneur, and as the third point in a love triangle. Now she's been given a new role; as a confident and friend to a more mellowed-out Korra.
And almost straight away she proves herself much better at the task than Mako. When Korra is glum about her poll ratings, Asami distracts her with a driving lesson. When Korra fumbles for an excuse to stay in the Earth Kingdom, Asami smoothly provides one. When Korra is frustrated with the Earth Queen, Asami lets her vent with a bout of physical training.
And the new rapport isn't totally one-sided. Korra's arc may naturally encompass a wider range of relationships and storylines, but she's conscious of Asami's presence. She makes her laugh. She keeps her safe. She seeks out her reactions.
The movement of Asami/Korra from friends to love interests is telegraphed in two distinct ways: from within the context of the narrative, and in various hints conveyed to viewers from the show itself (which the characters remain unaware of). An example of the former, for example, would be Korra's blush when Asami compliments her hair. An example of the latter is the colours of the bisexual flag framing the two of them as they look out over the spirit portal.
An easy way of telling these two techniques apart is to call them Watsonian (things that happen inside the story, from the point-of-view of the characters) and Doylist (things that exist outside the story, noticeable only by creators and viewers). So we'll keep these two terms in mind as we work through Book Three and Four, looking at the ways Korra/Asami interact that suggests an attraction, and the way Bryan and Mike signal it through other means.
Book Three starts with the girls clearing the air in regards to Mako. Asami confesses that she kissed him while Korra was away, Korra admits she did the same while Asami was dating him, they realize the whole thing is ridiculous and laugh it off. There's a reason this episode is called "a breath of fresh air" and it's not just because of the resurgence in the air-bender population.
But Korra also says something rather poignant in this conversation: that she's never had a girlfriend to hang out with before. I think a lot of viewers constantly undermine the effect Korra's upbringing had on her when it comes to social interactions. Her lifelong seclusion made her impatient and rather clumsy in connecting to other people, and so for her to slow down a little and tell Asami "this is nice", is a big indicator of her growing maturity.
These are all Watsonian hints of their impending romance, but over the course of Book Three the most telling thing about them in a Doylist sense is simply how much time they spend together. Somebody even did the math and came up with figures. According to these stats, 66.3% of Korra's screen-time is spent with Asami, and 90.5% of Asami's screen-time is spent with Korra.
Along with time spent together is a trend of what's called "mirroring," a particular type of body language. It's usually found between close friends or those who are attracted to each other, and it's a subconscious way of demonstrating solidarity by mimicking a partner's gestures and stances. As this website puts it:
Mirroring body language is a way to bond and to build understanding. It is a powerful tool that we use instinctively without even being aware of it.... Mirroring body language is a non-verbal way to say ‘I am like you, I feel the same’. The research shows that people who experience the same emotions are likely to experience mutual trust, connection and understanding. They will also begin to match facial expressions and body language. In other words, they will subconsciously mirror each other.
Most interestingly:
Many women have the natural ability to pick up and interpret body signals. Therefore, it is not surprising that a woman is more likely to mirror another woman, than a man is to mirror another man. If you observe one woman talking to another, it will seem to you that the situations or events that she is talking about are happening to both of them. This is because of the facial expressions that the listener will mirror.
Perhaps you're thinking it's too much of a stretch to attribute this to animation – but hey, there's a very good chance the directors/animators were let in on the shipping endgame and decided to play along. For what it's worth, the mirroring technique was used in Book One between Mako and Korra, though in more overt (cough*clichéd*cough) ways such as the Sleep Cute.
As many commentators have pointed out, Korra and Asami and very in-sync when it comes to the way they interact:


We see them eating together, training together, standing together – simply being with each other and clearly enjoying each other's company. But it's not until the second half of the season (not counting their errand to fetch the fetch the Earth Queen's tax money) that we see them off on their own adventure.
The interesting thing about their Flight of the Phoenix inspired sojourn – from the moment Asami escapes the Red Lotus with unconscious Korra in her arms, to their arrival in Misty Palms Oasis on the back of Asami's sand-sailor – is that Asami is put into the role of protector. It's she that organizes their escape from the airship while Korra is strapped in the Hannibal Lector gurney, and she that constructs their mode of transportation out of the desert.
She hangs onto this role even after things have calmed down: watching over Korra's body while she meditates (which Doylistically is a task done exclusively by lovers: Aang/Katara, Zaheer/P'Li), doing her hair and pushing her wheelchair after her mercury poisoning, and – much later – bringing her hot tea when she thinks she's cold.
We've known before all this that Asami admires Korra (as far back as Book One she tells her: "you're amazing") but having seen the most powerful individual on the planet at her most vulnerable (either in the spirit world/trussed up in a gurney/physically and emotionally shattered) she takes to the role of caregiver like a fish to water.
For me at least, it's easy enough to see when and why Asami's attraction to Korra begins: it's in seeing this vulnerability within the Avatar's incredible power, and finding herself deeply invested in her ability to help. I'll get to Korra's feelings in a little while, but for now I'll say that though she's not quite as self-aware as Asami, she'll eventually look back and know that in the quiet, intimate moments of her ordeal, Asami was there lending quiet support.
If we assume that Asami has already gained romantic feelings for Korra by the end of Book Three, then there are four key scenes in Book Four that affirm this. They are all linked and they all encompass a silent dialogue between Asami and Korra that occurs over the latter's three year absence. They are a) Asami offering to go with Korra for her recuperation in the Southern Water Tribe, b) Korra writing only to Asami during her absence, c) Asami's brief flare-up at Korra after her return, and d) Korra extending an apology to Asami for her prolonged absence.
Let's go through them one by one. First of all, Asami offering to accompany Korra to the Southern Tribe is a big deal. She's ready to leave behind Future Industries for an indeterminate period of time and head to the South Pole just to keep her friend company – already knowing that her parents will be with her. One can't help but feel she's offering to go not just for Korra's sake, but simply because she wants to go as well. At the same time, Korra's response is important. She tells Asami (explicitly Asami) that she'll only be gone for a few weeks.
It's doubtful that Korra was aware of just how long her recovery process would take, but the fact remains that Korra made an implicit promise to Asami that wasn't kept. Asami cares about Korra, wants to continue taking care of her, is aware that her feelings toward her are changing (or have already changed), but just as she's on the verge of sorting out her feelings – Korra disappears. Asami is left hanging.
Asami is also the most isolated of Team Avatar: whereas Bolin and Mako have jobs that require social interaction, Asami has only Future Industries to run and a pile of unopened letters from her father. Feelings for people can change and develop even in their absence, and the fact that Asami struggles with her decisions on whether or not to reconcile with her father in a park containing a statue of Korra strongly suggest it was not just Hiroshi playing on her mind at this time.
Then we have the letter-writing business. Of interest is the fact that although all three letters from Mako, Bolin and Asami talk of their busy, purposeful lives (all part of Korra's growing concern that the Avatar is obsolete), Asami is the only one who explicitly states that she misses her and that Republic City isn't the same without her.
Before the finale and confirmation of Korrasami as canon, I had at least one person argue with me that Korra choosing to write only to Asami wasn't a shippy development but a logical one – naturally Korra would be more comfortable in divulging details of her mental/physical health to the only other girl her age she knows. Fair enough, but in the light of the finale/confirmation, I think this choice is to be interpreted as Korra realizing (even if it's just subconsciously) that Asami has an important place in her heart, and that she a) therefore deserves to know what's going on, and b) is singled out as a confidant.
Following on from this is their reunion scene. The initial meeting with the hair compliment and the ensuing blush is cute enough, but the real meat of the scenario occurs when Korra questions Asami's decision to see her father, and Asami snaps at her as a result.
That this is the first time Asami has ever lost her cool with Korra speaks volumes about what's really going on here. (Even when the Mako-centric love triangle was at its worst she never levelled blame at Korra). Asami has been left on her own, lonely and abandoned, and most of all by Korra and Hiroshi. The show makes clear on a Doylist level that her charged feelings for the two of them are inextricably entwined – recall that she is at Korra Memorial Park when she reaches her decision to visit Hiroshi, and that the girls also discuss him during the wedding reception.
So as this meta points out, her anger in this moment isn't just about her father:
A sign of good writing is that when two characters argue, the things they’re saying are not what they’re actually arguing about.  The real issue is underlying and any minor disagreement could trigger a conflict.
Korra questions the wisdom of Asami trusting the man whom despised benders and actively worked to bring harm to the Avatar. Hiroshi is the subject, but the issue is Asami.  Korra is surprised that Asami of all people would be able to forgive that.  Asami bites back that Korra has been gone for years, which she had freely jested about just moments earlier.  The absence is the subject, but the issue is that Korra lied to Asami, the only person in Republic City that Korra had actually been in contact with at the exclusion of Korra’s own family, about where she’s been.
In the past Korra has relied on Asami for support, oblivious that Asami needed it too. Asami is clearly not angry about Korra questioning her decision, only that she thinks she has a right to after such a long absence: "you don't get to disappear for three years and then act like you know what's best for me."
A platonic friend wouldn't take Korra's long absence this personally (Mako was more miffed about not being written to than the fact Korra disappeared off the face of the earth) but Asami has been thinking about her, worrying about her, missing her – and feels she was owed a better explanation than the one she got.
(On a brief Doylistic note, what are we meant to make of this magazine cover and billboard?

That it appears twice doesn't feel like a coincidence, and the two women depicted do have a passing resemblance to Korra and Asami.)
Before the finale, there are a number of little moments between them that could be construed as shippy. They're clearly feeling awkward when Mako asks: "what's going on with you two?" They're in perfect sync when they board the train (Korra automatically reaches for Asami's hand as they jump aboard, and Asami is already anticipating Korra's actions when they leap off again). Asami reasserts her caregiver role when she brings Korra a cup of hot tea. And to jump ahead a bit, Asami demonstrates what can only be described as "spider sense" when she anticipates Korra returning through the spirit portal:

Finally, it all comes full-circle when Korra/Asami talk to each other on the steps of Air Temple Island. Again, the link in Asami's mind that exists between Korra/Hiroshi is made explicit when she says: "I don't think I could have handled losing you and my father in the same day." It's at this point that Korra also extends an apology for her long absence – and as this meta points out, the reason she makes it to Asami and not Mako or Bolin is that by now she recognizes that Asami was hurt most by it. 
The offer to go with Korra to the South Pole, their exclusive correspondence, the argument at the restaurant and the subsequent apology are all very tightly connected scenes – more so than they've so far been given credit for. Say what you will about the rest, but this is very concise, carefully considered writing.
***
But what about Korra? So far all of this meta has been exploring the relationship from Asami's point of view – her feelings, her thoughts. She's the lover and Korra is the beloved. On one level, this is inevitable. Korra is the show's protagonist, which means she has a lot more material to deal with than her romantic subplot (and let's be honest here, Korrasami was secondary to the central plot-lines of defeating Kuvira and Korra's personal growth). On a Doylist level, Asami's screen-time was divided between Korra and Hiroshi, whereas Korra had story-arcs involving her Walking the Earth, training with Toph, attempting to liberate Zaofu, getting over her illness, and finding a way to stop Kuvira.  
On a Watsonian level, it's not until all the pain and suffering of her depression is behind her and the air has finally settled that she's in a place where she can properly see what's right in front of her. For me at least, Korra does not begin to realize she loves Asami until those last few moments of the final episode.
It's why she seizes so excitedly on Asami's subtle suggestion of a vacation (people have joked that Varrick hang-gliding off the tower was an excuse for alone time with Korra; but I also suspect Asami also drops the "vacation" idea into the conversation on purpose to see what will happen).
Korra knows she really, really wants to go on vacation with Asami, but in my head-canon at least, doesn't understand why until she's standing in front of the spirit portal with her. There is a huge amount of space between "not in love" and "in love". You can care about someone without being in love with them. You can love someone without realizing you love them. The movement between one state and the other can happen across several years, or in the space of a second.
From where I'm sitting, Asami has known about her feelings for Korra for much longer. For her, the falling in love process happened gradually and slowly, even across Korra's absence. But for Korra, we see the exact second she goes from unconsciously loving Asami to realizing it is so.
And as it turns out, being in a relationship with the Avatar isn't a totally one-sided experience. It's not all take from one end and give from the other. As we see here, for the first time ever, Korra is able to do something for Asami: give her a well-deserved break in the beauty and mystery of the Spirit World. This is Korra's gift to a grieving daughter and long-suffering friend, and my favourite moment is the one where Korra turns away from the portal to seek out Asami's reaction:
When I first saw that final shot, the one in which the girls turn to face each other on the brink of the Spirit World, I initially felt it would have been a more natural choice for the two of them to simply walk into the portal hand in hand, backs to the audience. That they stop, turn and gaze into each other's eyes felt like a deliberate Doylist choice; a way for the creators to indicate as clearly as they could that the two of them were now a romantic couple.
In other words, it didn't quite work for me on a Watsonian level. And I wanted it to. I wanted to understand this scene from their point of view.
So I interpret the scene as this: that if indeed this is the moment Korra realizes she's in love with Asami, then the movement toward each other and their held gaze is a response to that realization. Despite standing on the brink of another world, they have to stop and look at each other, so struck by what's in their head and hearts that they can't look anywhere else.
I mean, look at Korra's face! I'd describe that expression as "reverential".
***
Given that I've just written a giant meta on the subject, it should seem rather ludicrous that anyone could look at the way Korrasami evolves and say there was no build up. But for those few stubborn souls, here are my three big rebuttals to the "no build up" excuse:
First of all, a build up to what, exactly? Though I personally believe that Korra and Asami are in love (and know they're in love) they are still on the very precipice of that realization. This is not the culmination of their relationship – it's the beginning of it; the realization of love, not the fulfilment of it, symbolized perfectly by the fact they are literally standing between two worlds. To say there is no build up is – to me at least – patently ridiculous for the relationship is still building up when we see it last.
This is why even if Bryke had been given permission to end the show on a kiss, I'm glad they didn't. They're not yet ready for that or even to exchange "I love yous". They've only just acknowledged their attraction to each other. It's the relationship equivalent to this Makorra moment:
Recognizing they like each other that way, but not yet verbalizing it (and without all the squabbling). So really, Korrasami's on-screen relationship up until this point has just been the prologue, the opening act, the deep breath before the plunge – now they're moving onto the next chapter, and their next adventure together.
If there seems to be little build-up in comparison to Katara/Aang or Korra/Mako, that's because Korrasami moved at a much slower pace, across a much longer period of time, and ends on a very different note than the others – not with a definitive "happily ever after" kiss, but in medias res.
Point the second, I find it hugely ironic that the term "no build up" can be affixed to Korra/Asami, and not to Bolin/Opal, Jinora/Kai or – most of all – Varrick/Zhu Li. That last one in particular strikes me as very disingenuous when compared to Korrasami.
Korra and Asami have had four seasons worth of interaction with each other, with two specifically designed to suggest a romantic attraction between them. Varrick and Zhu Li's love story begins in episode five of Book Four, takes place across the remaining eight episodes, and concludes with the two of them getting married. In all their interactions before Book Four, there was not a hint of romantic sparks between them.
(For the record, I like Varrick/Zhu Li. I've seen some people act a little leery over it considering Zhu Li was in a subservient role for so long, but I'm happy enough to accept the relationship in the spirit it's given. I think Varrick has learnt his lesson and will treat Zhi Li as an equal – and even if there are a few lapses into "do the thing", she's in a strong enough position to call him out on it).
So if someone has a problem with Korrasami and not Varrick/Zhi Li on the grounds of one being rushed and the other not, my only response is to laugh. Besides, wasn't one of the biggest complaints over Book One the fact that too much time was spent on Mako/Korra? To now turn around and complain that too little screen-time was spent on a relationship is dizzying. What exactly is the precise amount of time that should be accorded to such things?
Finally, there's the "if Asami was a guy we wouldn't be having this argument" line of reasoning. At least one person has argued against this logic, saying that if Asami had been male then the love triangle as it existed in Book One and Two wouldn't have existed, thereby negating the whole argument. Fair enough, so let's just take the final two seasons, and replace Asami with a brand new male character.
Let's call him Steve. Could we say there was no romantic subtext to Steve offering to devote an indefinite period of time to caring for Korra on her way to the South Pole, going to a park containing her statue to reflect, choosing to go on a vacation for "just the two of us" and take her hand whilst staring into her eyes on the brink of the spirit world? Of course not. Bryan himself mentioned the tendency to look at the final season through "het goggles" and as has been mentioned frequently, there are plenty of other clues to denote Korra/Asami as a couple: the romantic music, the way their stance reflects former lovers on the show, the colours of the bisexual flag in the landscape – but it still remains very subtle and understated.
Which is ultimately what I love most about it. Shakespeare may have said "the course of true love never did run smooth," but Korrasami elegantly defied this: there was no miscommunication or contrived love tropes – just understanding and compassion; a smooth and easy glide into falling in love.
But I will give the naysayers one concession. I do think the show was remiss in only giving Korra/Asami one brief interaction over the course of the final episode (before the wedding, that is). A hug, or a "be careful", or even a meaningful look would have gone a long way, though at the same time I can see why Bryan and Mike would chose not to have any interaction between them. You only need to watch the Korrasami reaction videos to see why – Bryke was deliberately keeping them apart in order to heighten the suspense. Every single time we hear the words: "excuse me Tenzin?" everyone collectively loses their shit – and I don't think the moment would have had the same effect if a) the girls had had contact prior to the final scenes, and b) we hadn't been made to salivate in "half hope, half agony" by having Korra first interact with Mako and Tenzin before Asami turns up.
They're rather magnificent trolls in that respect.
***
On a final note, writing all this has made me realize something. A few nights ago I watched a young swimming protégé get interviewed on the news, and the question being asked of her: "why do you like swimming?" Her response: "I love it. It's amazing."
Obviously that's not an answer, but what else was she supposed to say? She loves swimming. She doesn't know why.
A lot of the time, it's not a matter of liking/disliking something for reasons, but rather of liking/disliking something and going in search of reasons to justify it. The real source of our like/dislike may be factors totally unrelated to the thing itself: the influence of fandom, a different shipping preference, the mood you're in when you watch it, or good old plain "just because".
In many ways the reasons behind what we enjoy, ship and scrutinize are irrelevant, for we probably have as much control over our preferences as we do over our favourite flavours, as dictated to us by our taste-buds.
So given that there is plenty of foreshadowing between Korra/Asami throughout The Legend of Korra, I can't help but feel that the "no build up" reason falls into the category of "I don't like this thing and I can't articulate why, so here's something that helps justify my opinion."
I'm not saying that people have to like Korrasami, only that the "no build up" excuse is a pretty weak reason not to. And if there had been more material between them hinting at an attraction, I'm sure those who were already predisposed to dislike it would have found another reason not to. People always do.
To sum up: if people aren't on board with Korrasami, it doesn't mean I automatically think they're homophobic or a Makorra shipper. It’s just that it doesn't "ping" with them the way it did for so many others. And that's okay. But I'm tired of seeing the go-to excuse of "it wasn't built up enough" trotted out every single time, when to me at least the attraction was crafted with a great amount of care and foreshadowing. So much so that I devoted the better part of a weekend to writing this manifesto.
But at the end of the day, I'm simply happy that I'm one of those for whom Korrasami worked. Knowing the happiness it brought me and seeing what it did to others was a fantastic experience, and I'm thankful I was part of it.

6 comments:

  1. Do you have a ladder? Cuz that was deep.

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  2. thank you for summarizing my unorganizedand wordless thoughts. beyond perfection. my shipper heart is failing. thank you! you've inspired me to make a new fanfiction.

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    1. Aww thanks. That made my night!

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  3. yay more looking deeply into little things then calling to development.

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  4. "It's only when Asami is betrayed by her father and left homeless that Korra's compassion overrides her selfishness, and she encourages Mako to be a supportive boyfriend."

    I beg to differ here; Korra's selfishness comes to an end two episodes earlier, when her attempt to win Mako over goes so disastrously that everyone agrees to just remain friends, and Korra sticks to that - notice that she makes no more attempts to win Mako over once the episode ends.

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  5. Okay, fair enough.

    Let's call this the stage when Korra actively encourages Mako/Asami out of compassion to Asami, though she still has lingering feelings for Mako.

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