In celebration of SeptBender’s YA Day, Ellen Oh, author of Prophesy, joins us to discuss why The Legend of Korra is vital in bringing equality to our culture.
Girls Can Be Heroes:
Why I Love ‘The Legend of Korra’
by Ellen Oh
Every girl hears the phrase “girls can’t do that!” many times in their life. It starts in grade school where they are told that they can’t play sports or be scientists, and continues all the way into adulthood, where the old boys network and the glass ceiling effectively replace childish taunts. Sexism is deeply rooted in our culture, something that is ingrained in both men and women. We live in a world where a mother of teenage boys will write condescending blog posts chastising teenage girls for their choice of clothing and not realize how offensive that is in a society where rape victims are blamed in court for what they wear.
But sexism is not just about putting girls down, but also coddling them. Recently, I was at a high school potluck dinner for athletes. When it was time to eat, the male coach shouted “Ladies first!” to the dismay of the boys. To be honest, it bothered me also. These were not weak or infirm people who needed to be looked after. No, these were strong, healthy female athletes who should’ve been treated equally with their male counterparts. By providing a false need to coddle the girl athlete, this male coach reaffirmed our sexist roles in the eyes of the boy athletes. They continue to be taught that girls are the weaker sex. Frankly, this message needs to end.
Yet how can we when it is our mainstream media that continues sexist and stereotypical portrayals of women? A 2012 study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center “analyzed 855 top 30 box-office films from 1950 to 2006 and found that women have been consistently underrepresented as main characters for at least six decades.” Bleakley, the author of the paper states that “Movie-going youth — the largest consumers of movies per capita — who are repeatedly exposed to portrayals of women as sexual and men as violent, may internalize these portrayals.”
I have to ask, what else is our youth internalizing? The Geena Davis Institute for Media researchers have found that “gender stereotyping is an inherent problem in today’s entertainment landscape, and children are the most vulnerable recipients of depictions that send the message that girls are less valuable and capable than boys. The Institute’s research illustrates that female characters who are lucky enough to garner speaking roles tend to be highly stereotyped.”
The blatant sexism of our media is troubling. Even when the female audience demographic makes up nearly 50% of the viewing population, women are still not being catered to. Why are shows like Buffy and Xena so few and far between? How many reboots of Batman, Superman, and Spiderman can there be before a female superhero finally gets her own movie? Why can’t girls take center stage in saving the world?
Earlier this year, I did a school presentation where I asked a large group of sixth graders who their favorite characters were. After hearing a long spate of male superheroes, I asked about girl heroes. At which point a boy shouted out, “Girls can’t be superheroes!” When I asked why not, the boy replied, “Because they aren’t strong enough.”
I decided to question the boy further. “First of all, girls are strong enough, but let’s put that aside for now. If a superhero is strong because they have superpowers, why can’t it be a girl?” He replied, “Well, who cares? Girls are boring.” The room went quiet, waiting to see how I would respond.
“Oh,” I said. “So The Hunger Games is boring?” Immediately, the entire room shouted “No.” “What about The Legend of Korra?” I asked. The room exploded with excitement. Everyone loved Korra. Even the boy reluctantly agreed. “Ok, then,” I said. “So girl heroes are interesting, right?” While the entire room was in loud and vigorous agreement, the boy was determined to have the last word. “Yeah but, there aren’t a lot of them, are there?” I nodded. “You’re right, but isn’t it time to change that?”
And this is exactly why I love The Legend of Korra so much. A room full of young boys and girls, all of them diehard fans of an animated series with a girl lead; all able to agree that Korra is a great character. An entertaining cartoon fantasy television show that is doing more for girl power than all the Gender Studies programs in all of our great universities. Why? Because it is reaching the very audience for whom these types of characterizations are most important. Our children.
Like the Last Airbender series before it, The Legend of Korra is set in a world where girls are equal to boys in every way. They can be like Korra, the Avatar, the most powerful bender in the world, or they can be Lin Beifong, a powerful police chief. But even better, they can be Asami, an ordinary girl with no magical powers who still kicks serious butt. Shows like The Legend of Korra makes the television landscape a better place. And if you roll your eyes at that statement, know that I have three young daughters and I’m also Asian American. Why is this relevant? Because not only is Korra a female lead character, but she is also a person of color. So yeah, I think The Legend of Korra is the best thing on television since I Love Lucy. I live for the day when the rest of our television and film industry will break free of their sexist views and produce more programs and films that celebrate girl power in all of its various forms.
Programs like The Legend of Korra are important for our young viewers so that they don’t continue to generalize the sexist stereotypes that still exist in our world. It shows that girls can be heroes in every sense of the word. And just maybe, when portraying girls as heroes becomes the norm and not the exception, we can finally be rid of the term “weaker sex” forever and a new generation of boys will realize that girls CAN do anything they want to do!
About Ellen Oh
Ellen Oh is the author of the young adult fantasy trilogy Prophesy, which debuted this year. Set in an ancient Korea imbued with magic, Prophesy tells the story of Kira, the only woman in the king’s army, who is forced on a dangerous journey to fulfill a cryptic prophesy. The sequel, Warrior, will be released in 2014.
A former entertainment lawyer, Ellen Oh grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Washington DC with her husband. She was inspired to write by her high school english teacher and Genghis Kahn, loves Krispy Kreme donuts, and hates liver. Find out more about Ellen on her website, EllenOh.com
check out her Tumblr, and connect with her on Twitter as @elloecho.