The final moments seemed like a dream: Two women, pitted against each other over a man so many years ago, turned and gazed lovingly into each other’s eyes as they clasped hands. They were in love, and for a moment everything seemed beautiful.
That’s how The Legend of Korra ended on Nickelodeon almost six years ago. When it played, there was a small uproar that alternately confirmed and questioned that ending: Simply holding hands was one thing, but that last shot of Korra and Asami looking into each other’s eyes — did that mean what fans thought it did?
A few days later, the creators would confirm, yes, Korra and Asami were two bisexual women in love with each other. “You can celebrate it, embrace it, accept it, get over it, or whatever you feel the need to do, but there is no denying it. That is the official story,” co-creator Bryan Konietzko wrote on his Tumblr in a post titled “Korrasami is canon.”
From the vantage point of 2020, the last beats of Legend of Korra seem like a meager offering for LGBTQ+ representation. Though Korra and Asami had grown intimate over the course of the show’s four seasons, or “books,” there was still a bit of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quality to their courtship; Konietzko himself even says it’s shy of a “slam-dunk victory for queer representation.” But Korra, which recently arrived on Netflix following its prequel Avatar: The Last Airbender this year, is a reminder of just how hard-won canonical queer characters are in family cartoons.
Hollywood has a long history of othering queerness, even (and especially) of a casually intimate nature. Among kids’ shows, homophobia has long manifested in the pervasive idea that positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ characters are something that kids are “too young” for. It doesn’t matter, of course, that heterosexual pairings aren’t held to the same age restrictions; it’s about policing existence, not kissing.
And so creators hid queerness in plain sight — with coded characterization that could either be explained away (like BMO on Adventure Time, who is a robot, and more easily defies our understanding of gender) or villainized (HIM on the Powerpuff Girls). If a show did seem to openly acknowledge a queer romance, it was possible it would be edited out: On Sailor Moon, girlfriends became cousins when imported to the U.S., while in 2011, all candid talk of romance between Adventure Time’s Marceline and Princess Bubblegum in a behind-the-scenes video.
It’s within this context that Korrasami, as the fans dubbed the pairing, was born. In many ways, Korra and Asami’s love story is set up to mirror Aang and Katara in Avatar, making it feel all the more revolutionary: Both shows were more interested in the softer love stories that blossomed out of the depths of friendship. While Avatar’s plotline left many viewers feeling that Katara and Aang felt perfunctory, Korra and Asami’s slow-boil relationship speaks to the quiet dawning of feelings that accompany a first queer crush.
As Korra progressed, the idea of a Korrasami romance “organically blossomed” for Konietzko and co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino. The couple reaches a deeper tenor of friendship halfway through the series. As Korra recovers from being poisoned, it’s Asami we see attending to her, offering to be there no matter what. When they’re apart, Korra reads Asami’s letters first, and responds only to hers, saying “it’s easier to tell you about this stuff.” After they reunite, Korra blushes when Asami compliments her hair.
But aside from the bisexual lighting on the mountains they look out on, that’s about as explicit as Korra ever gets about their burgeoning feelings. Konietzko says for a long time they felt they had to abide by an “unwritten rule” that they wouldn’t be allowed to actually depict the characters in love. It wasn’t until they were nearing the finale that he and DiMartino realized they had to make Korrasami canon, unambiguously using their body language to call back to the (hetero) wedding ceremony between Varrick and Zhu Li from moments earlier by having them face each other as they held both hands.
“How do I know we can’t openly depict that? … It was just another assumption based on a paradigm that marginalizes nonheterosexual people,” Konietzko wrote on the significance of canonizing their feelings. “Mike and I talked it over and decided it was important to be unambiguous about the intended relationship.”
But he notes that they did receive pushback from the network, which, while supportive, had “a limit to how far” they could go with it. That’s a tension that creators are still struggling with today. In the years since Korra, networks haven’t gotten much braver; they’re still overwhelmingly in favor of the path of least resistance. Even Rebecca Sugar, creator of the notably queer Steven Universe, has said that Cartoon Network at first shied away from letting the show openly portray queer romances.
Over time, Sugar was ultimately able to have the show unambiguously “come out,” so to speak, with (among other things) a fabulous and sincere wedding between two nonbinary gems Ruby and Sapphire. Ruby, the typically more masculine-presenting one, wore a dress, while Sapphire wore a tux despite her more usual feminine presentation. But she knew that choice could mean the show got canceled.
It remains a not-unfounded fear, particularly for bigger properties: More-high-profile IP can often be forced to be more mindful of offending segments of their audience — hence why Mr. Ratburn’s traditional wedding to a man on Arthur gets banned in Alabama. Or why Velma on Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated was confirmed gay by a creator years after the show got canceled. Or even why Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s relationship on Adventure Time took so long to confirm: Olivia Olson, the voice actress behind Marceline, confirmed they held off because the series aired in places where homosexual relationships are illegal.
That’s what makes a show like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power on Netflix so distinct. In the finale, Adora (who with a magic sword becomes the titular She-Ra) finally kisses her friend-turned-foe-turned-friend-again Catra. Coming from an established property (albeit lesser-known than her He-Man counterpart), there’s a world in which She-Ra was never able to make the lesbian love story at its core explicit. But, ultimately, Adora and Catra’s kiss in the finale isn’t just a neat bow on top; their complicated friendship had been the thing driving the story, central to the plot between the two warring factions they at one time represented. It’s integral to the story’s emotional climax, something showrunner Noelle Stevenson sought to saturate the show with from the jump. But it was something she only found possible because of fan response and other shows opening the door.
“Even the conversations that we were having at the beginning of our plans for including queer characters and relationships was only possible because Steven Universe had done it first,” Stevenson told Paper magazine. “I appreciate the younger fans’ not remembering or knowing how hard it was to do these things or how absent this was from our stories up until very recently. They have a clearer hope for the future that I try to draw inspiration from.”
In the years since, there has been a marked increase in LGBTQ+ representation in kids’ shows and notably different types of queer characters living freely onscreen. In 2018, GLAAD created a new category for Outstanding Kids & Family Programming and this year expanded the category to ten nominees in light of all the new representation. These days, it’s more than just a “very special episode.” Portrayals of queer life on kids’ TV has never encompassed quite as much of the LGBTQ+ initialism as it does now.
Though it’s unlikely, given production timelines, that Korra directly inspired any of Sugar’s work on Steven Universe (which was, of course, a continuation of themes she had embedded in Adventure Time at the beginning of the 2010s), there’s a chain reaction to these things that can’t be ignored. The overwhelmingly positive reception to Korra and Asami became a point for the readiness of animated kids’ TV to accept LGBTQ+ characters. It may be archaic to need those things to create, but it helps queer writers not be the only one pushing the rock up the hill each time they want to feature an LGBTQ+ storyline.
Korra, now, is a reminder that what felt like major representation in the past can still be that — a big stride that helped us cover a lot of ground. Still, it wasn’t enough, even if it helped us get to where we are now: a long way away from Korra’s finale, with even further left to go.