As a masters student finishing up my thesis on the childhood media role models of current adults, I find myself constantly analyzing current kids’ shows and movies in terms of gender, race, and overall equality. What are our kids watching now and how can this affect the way they perceive gender—in present day and in the future?
Every character, every bit of dialogue, every plotline is under scrutiny. No kids’ show is a match for my academic background in gender communications. It’s like a switch I can’t turn off, but sometimes wish I could because of how frustrating it can be to be constantly aware of the disappointing reality. For all the progress media has made, it still seems to be changing outdated notions of gender just enough to maintain the status quo while pleasing audiences.
Either the shows are hypermasculine, hyperfeminine, or just plain dumb. Sometimes it seems impossible for kids’ shows to get it right.
But one of my favorite shows, Avatar the Last Airbender (ATLA), is one of those that hits a lot of the marks. Not only does it feature an equal number of females, it also gives them a piece of the action and agency in the plot. Three of the “bad guys” are in fact a team of three teenage girls, one of whom is set to take over as the ruler of her father’s kingdom instead of her brother. ATLA also features disabled characters and characters of color who are key to reaching goals and are not objects of pity or ridicule. One of my favorite running jokes is that the main characters keep forgetting that their friend Toph is blind.
The biggest display of nontraditional gender traits is the main character himself: a 12-year-old boy named Aang. He is gentle, caring, quiet, humble, and spiritual. Basically, everything that boy characters on kids’ shows normally aren’t. He struggles with his role as the Avatar (essentially, being The Chosen One), which means maintaining peace in his world at any cost. Although his society and his friends expect him to kill the main bad guy of the series, a merciless dictator, Aang instead finds a more peaceful solution and doesn’t compromise his values or his character.
The Legend of Korra
With two seasons of Korra already released and the third set to air sometime this summer, I thought I would see how this sequel to Avatar holds up with the original series. From the get-go, we see we’re getting a much different Avatar than Aang. Check out Korra’s first appearance:
Both Avatars are caring and strive to do the right thing. But whereas Aang was reserved, thoughtful, small, and nimble, Korra is the opposite: hotheaded, impulsive, and physically strong.
Take a look at Korra’s character design:
She is physically imposing and conducts herself in a masculine way. Unlike a lot of animated girls, she has defined arm muscles, her outfit is practical, and she wears no makeup. She does have larger breasts, but she is not sexualized with her clothing, the dialogue, or in the way she moves.
When her spiritual mentor sees Korra after a long absence, he says sincerely and proudly, “Korra, look at you. So big and strong.” When I was watching the episode, I finished that sentence like this in my head, “Korra, look at you. So beautiful and grown-up.” These words, “big and strong,” are traits that we’d normally assign to a male character. The fact that I was surprised by the way the show chose to describe its female protagonist speaks volumes for the different way gender is portrayed and vocalized on The Legend of Korra.
Korra’s physical strength is one of her defining characteristics in the series. Her feelings are relayed through her physical actions. When Korra feels an emotion, it often finds an outlet through physical expression, whether it is hugging someone when she’s happy or destroying something when she’s angry. Although I was uncertain how the showrunners would choose to portray gender now that there was a female (of color!) as the main character, I was immediately struck with how different or nearly nonexistent traditional gender roles are in this world. While her youth and inexperience are occasionally referenced, no character ever questions Korra’s capabilities because of her biological sex.
For the naysayers who say that an action-oriented kids’ show aimed at both boys and girls can’t have an interesting female lead, I direct your attention to Korra. Both Korra and Avatar are children’s television at its finest, and are just as interesting for adults to watch. Hey, I loved both shows and I’m way past the targeted age group.
My two young brothers, who love Avatar, were a little skeptical about a girl as the new Avatar, insisting they wouldn’t like it as much. But we watched the first season in one day. They made comments of their admiration for Korra and other women on the show and soon, Korra’s gender wasn’t an issue. At the end of the season, my 11-year-old brother shrugged nonchalantly and said, “I guess having a girl Avatar isn’t so bad.”
You can say that again.