Thursday, January 28, 2016

Legend of Korra: The Worst Avatar

Screen Shot of opening sequence
In what unfair world do fans only get three seasons of Avatar and four seasons of Korra? They should have made an "Air" season about rebuilding in the wake of the war. The graphic novel material would have made a great fourth season! When The Legend of Korra first came out, I watched maybe half of the first season. I was told that I should keep watching: I just had to remember that it wasn't Avatar: The Last Airbender. True, I wasn't ready to let go of my favorite characters, but The Legend of Korra is objectively poorer in many other ways.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is an Americanized version of the Japanese anime format. As such, there are certain elements present in the show. Young heroes face evil while growing in power and wisdom as each antagonist is defeated. Serious themes are engaged with a large amount of comic relief. The characters are bound together by strong friendships, and relationships are characterized by trust and support. Enemies often become friends after they are defeated. The medium allows for fluidity of art styles to depict different expressions, emotions, and actions of which the human body isn't normally capable. Characters fly around, especially during epic battles, without much concern for the laws of gravity. Many of these elements are lacking in The Legend of Korra.

1. Young heroes face evil while growing in power and wisdom as each antagonist is defeated.

Konietzko's "Legend of Korra" for the
announcement at the Dark Horse panel. Nickelodeon
http://www.latintimes.com/legend-korra-season-5-
news-series-will-continue-graphic-novel-328834
The characters in Korra are a bit older than Aang and the gang, and they are already powerful when the series begins. Korra already knows water, earth, and firebending as a child; she picks up airbending quickly; and all the elements are mastered by the end of the first season. When she is introduced to metal bending, she picks it up on her first try. (Apparently, Aang never asked Toph to teach him, so Korra is the first Avatar to ever master it.) Mako already knows how to shoot lightning when we meet him. Asami is accomplished in technological inventions, physical confrontations, and race car driving.

They are also able to dismiss the advice and wisdom of their elders. Their mistakes look more foolish and their failures are more frustrating than (the real) Team Avatar's. Because they don't take the wisdom of the more experienced seriously, the show constantly has to bring back characters from the original show to give advice. Katara, Iroh, Zuko, Toph, even Aang through a vision. I think the only person we don't hear from is Sokka. So, the new team doesn't take advice from their elders, and their elders (Tenzin, Bumi, Lin Beifong) receive advice from them. Examples of children giving advice to parents abound.

Traditionally, good stories progress in a repetition of conflict. Each new conflict provides a paradigm for the next, emphasizing the final conflict that they build towards. Korra does not follow this in the same way that Avatar did. Presenting a completely new conflict and antagonist each season created a treadmill effect, where no growth occurred, no progress towards the goal was made, and the knowledge that another evil will soon arise robbed the audience of any sense of closure.

As a result of over-powered characters, their lack of growth, and the fresh conflict each season, the audience has trouble investing in the character's conflicts and battles. They seem shallow and insufficient in comparison with the original characters, and the flood of "main characters" (Korra, Mako, Bolin, Asami, Tenzin, Bumi, Lin Beifong, Jinora, Ikki, Meelo, Varrick, Zhu Li, Opal) does nothing to help matters.

2. Theme of Strong Bonds of Friendship

Screen shot Season One, Episode 2:
"Welcome to Republic City; A Leaf in the Wind Part 2"
 In Avatar, relationships are characterized by trust and support. When there are conflicts there is always an underlying issue: Toph misses her parents, Zuko is dealing with inwardly-directed anger, etc. Always, the conflict developed the characters and progressed the plot, and their friendships were strong enough to weather the battle.

Korra, on the other hand, features divisive conflict over relationships, including cheating on your significant other. In fact, the only relationships that do not feature a break up are the people who are already married. Mako and Korra break up. Mako and Asami break up. Bolin and Eska break up, get back together briefly, and break up again. Bolin and Opal break up. Zhu Li betrays Varrick (even though she was only pretending, he thought it was real). Kuvira betrays Baatar Jr. Councilman Tarrlok kills his brother Noatak (Amon). As result, the audience mistrusts the characters' feelings towards each other. The fact that many of these differences are never resolved at all contributes to the lack of character growth.

3. Serious Themes Interwoven with Comic Relief

Korra is definitely darker than its predecessor. The themes are more complex and more serious. However, more complex can also mean more controversial. Many of the antagonists' values and goals are not evil. Amon seeks equality for the overlooked non-bender population, Zaheer was concerned for the people of nations whose leaders were more concerned about their own political goals than the well-being of the nation, and Kuvira represented herself as uniting the Earth Empire and re-stabilizing its economy. True, they were extremists. It is a very good thing that someone hot-headed like Korra was the Avatar and not Aang because then someone might have had to talk to these characters and discover that their values might even be held by some of the audience.
"Taste My Fury" Screen shot. Season One, Episode 10,
"Turning the Tides"

These darker conflicts present a greater contrast between the serious parts of the show and the comic relief. The fart jokes feel out of place. A nail-biting battle is interrupted by a joke, and instead of feeling like relief, it feels odd. The tone of the show is inconstant and confusing. Is it trying to be like Avatar: The Last Airbender, or is it trying to be a more mature show about more mature issues?

Conclusion

These three elements are the big contributors to The Legend of Korra's failure as a sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender. There are others, such as the lack of consistency in the nature of the Avatar and the Spirit World; the misogynistic depiction of Kuvira, a woman in power; and the inconsistent setting that lost the charm of the original. Overall, I remain disappointed in this series, and I do not recommend it to anyone. Avatar: The Last Airbender, of course, I recommend to everyone.

"Book One: Air," "Book Two: Spirits," "Book Three: Change," "Book Four: Balance." The Legend of Korra. Writ. Bryan Knietzko and Michael Dante Dimarino. Nickelodeon, 2012-2015. DVD.

Friday, January 22, 2016

From My Bookshelf: The Enchanted Forest Chronicles

I believe I first read Dealing with Dragons (1990), the first book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede in middle school, and it shaped what I believe about women's rights and how I view the feminist movement. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has read the series, since it isn't about feminism at all. In fact, it is about a princess who runs away from home to keep house for a dragon. However, many elements of the story challenge modern feminism's extreme views.

Strong Female Characters

In addition to the main character Cimorene, the dragon she works for Kazul is female, as is Cimorene's best friend Alianora, and the witch Morwen. They are all competent, intelligent, clever, and practical, but they were all individuals as well, and they grew in different ways. The villains were all male, however, not all the men were villains, and the story did not vilify all men.

Practical Response to Oppression

The story begins with Cimorene trapped in her life as a princess where she is expected to be beautiful, obedient, and empty-headed. She finally runs away when she catches her parents arranging her marriage behind her back. Cimorene takes responsibility for her life and happiness. However, she does not go where she has no unpleasant responsibilities or where no one has authority over her. Instead, the emphasis is on going where she is free to pursue her dreams (sword-fighting, magic, cooking) and where her talents are appreciated.


My copy of Dealing with Dragons.
Of note:
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
An IRA Young Adult's Choice
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Booklist Editor's Choice
A New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age
The emphasis is not on forcing others to treat her with more respect, but on living her life among people who already do. As a young girl, this encouraged me to invest my time in friendships that were mutually edifying instead of in arguments with people who will never agree with me. It also illustrated the practical mindset that you can not expect to be treated like a princess if you run away from a princess's responsibilities, and you can not expect not to have any responsibilities at all. Cimorene still expected to be treated with respect, but she did not expect she would be waited on hand and foot, nor did she think that she would be able to do anything she wanted to do.

No "Feminist" Behaviors

Cimorene did not throw fits insisting that she be given her way or trying to change other people's behavior. She changed her own behavior to get the results she wanted. She treated the men who came to rescue her with cutesy, even when she thought them particularly stupid. Cimorene used her manners. Even when it would have been easier to get them to leave by insulting them, she treated them with the respect that she wanted in return. She did not go into a tizzy when someone called princesses "empty-headed." Although they were feeding into stereotypes with the insult, they clearly were not intending to offend her personally, and she did not deliberately misunderstand to prove a point.

A Woman for King

At about the same time that I read this series for the first time, a lesson in Physical Education centered around--no joke--"Sportspersonship." As a result, the passage in Dealing with Dragons  where Cimorene has a conversation with Kazul about the dragons' system of government impacted me greatly.
"But you're a female!" Cimorene said. "If you'd carried Colin's Stone from the Ford of Whispering Snakes to the Vanishing Mountain, you'd have had to be a queen, wouldn't you?"
"No, of course not," Kazul said. "Queen of the Dragons is a totally different job from King, and it's not one I'm particularly interested in. Most people aren't....'King' is the name of the job. It doesn't matter who holds it." (Wrede 85)
 I think this highlights how silly some of these "Feminist" issues are. As long as a woman can hold a particular job, what does it matter what it is called? As long as a woman can exhibit sportsmanship, does it matter that her specific gender is not connoted? Many "feminist" issues today are like this. At the heart, they are very silly and based on misconceptions or false evidence.

Conclusion

I believe we should be aware of how women are portrayed in fiction because there are often legitimate discrepancies and stereotypes. However, I think we should also be aware that the current "feminist" movement has fallen far from its noble origins. It is now largely a group about venting personal grievances, and getting the government to pay for it.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Jim Butcher Writes Steampunk: A Brief Review of The Aeronaut's Windlass

For Christmas my husband gave me Jim Butcher's latest book The Aeronaut's Windlass. If you read my 2015 Year in Review, you'll notice that I've read many of Butcher's books recently. His work is always excellent. The recommendations on the back of The Aeronaut's Windlass say similar things, mostly to the effect of "Jim Butcher wrote a new book!" My personal favorite was the blurb from author Patrick Rothfuss which said, "So Jim Butcher is writing futuristic dystopian steampunk? You had me at Jim Butcher, actually." But this book is not just another story written too quickly by a successful author to fulfill a quota for his publisher. The Aeronaut's Windlass is an engaging trip into a new world, and it stands up to the standards of Butcher's other books.

What We've Seen Before

Butcher always crafts complex characters that really satisfy. His worlds are
also well-developed and beautifully described. In this story, as in his others, we find his antagonists as engaging as his protagonists and quiet, confident power in leaders.

The plot is more similar to his Codex Alera series, following a group of young friends defending their home from strange creatures and a greater threat--not yet fully understood. Butcher artfully builds anticipation, then turns expectations on their heads or fulfills them to the reader's immense satisfaction.

What's New

"Steampunk" is the term for the flavor of this novel. Butcher uses the idea of a Victorian industrial world as a starting point. The class system, manners, careers, ailments, technologies, and creatures that would exist in such a world are fully realized or given in tantalizing hints.

The Aeronaut's Windlass takes a slightly milder pace than his other books. In The Dresden Files, I am always struck by how Butcher can make a situation increasingly worse before bringing his characters out again. However, when I say this story is milder, do not expect it to move slowly. The plot continues briskly, it just doesn't throw you right into life-threatening action the way some of his other stories do. Personally, I appreciated the change.

More female characters! Kitai was my favorite character in Codex Alera, but the female characters in The Dresden Files, while strong and well-developed, left something to be desired. The Aeronaut's Windlass has three female characters that are also main characters. They are each different and interesting. They are strong without being overbearing. I often find it difficult to identify with female leads, but not here. If you were wondering what I would like to have seen from Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this was it!

Conclusion

Still love Jim Butcher's work, and I really enjoyed this novel in particular. This definitely deserves a place on my shelf, and the shelf of any fantasy fan!

Friday, January 8, 2016

Mary Sue stars in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

By William Tung from USA (SWCA - Rey's Speeder [2])
[CC BY-SA 2.0
 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)],
via Wikimedia Commons

Warning: Spoilers!

The new Star Wars movie, featuring a strong female protagonist, was a great success, but “feminists” have still found something to complain about. This time Disney isn’t at fault (the cast was all-around PC)—it’s the fans!

Fans tweeted that the main female character Rey is a Mary Sue—a term that refers to a character in fan-fiction who represents the author and is usually outstanding in everything she (or he) does. The response from the feminist crowd was a smack-down of indignation. Articles insisting that Rey is not a Mary Sue are so numerous that I couldn’t find anyone writing an article claiming the original opinion (though they quoted plenty of tweets).

I liked Rey as a character and would consider myself a supporter of women’s rights (I have criticized stories form a feminist viewpoint before on this blog). However, complaining that other fans are sexist accomplishes nothing and ignores any valid points those fans might have.

Time to Get Over It: Rey Is a Mary Sue

Rey is very accomplished. If pressed on this issue, I would say that she is not impossibly so, but definitely improbably. The general opposing argument is that lots of past Star Wars characters are, too. All Star Wars characters are wish-fulfillment characters. The only thing that I have to say to that: go back and watch the original trilogy, please. Luke was constantly screwing up. He had some serious flaws and he didn’t always win. Han Solo is the poster-boy for flawed main characters--he shot first. Princess Leia was certainly competent, but she couldn’t do everything herself; she needed help from others occasionally.

Rey is not only talented and widely skillful. She also lacks a character arc. She does not have faults to grow beyond. As the story begins, she is not only likable and competent: she is patient, noble, kind, fair-minded, compassionate, and humble. Compare this to Luke’s frustrated, childish behavior in A New Hope. Or even Finn’s internal conflict about his place in the universe. Perhaps, like Aragorn from LOTR, Rey represents the typical romantic hero, superior to others and her environment, but from an industry that hasn’t produced characters above the high mimetic mode for decades, this seems like a stretch for me.  

Mary Sue Is Not a Gendered Term

Many bloggers have argued that “Mary Sue” is a gendered term targeting female characters who dare to break that glass ceiling separating heroes from damsels, but this simply isn’t true. The only difference between a male “Gary Stu” and a female “Mary Sue” is that no one throws fits about the Gary Stu’s being identified. When someone points out that a male main character is over-competent, no one cares. Either the story is good enough to carry him, or it isn’t.

In my opinion, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was handled well enough that Rey’s flatness as a character did not greatly affect my enjoyment of the film. She is not my favorite character and won’t be as the series develops unless some depth is added to her character. This is not sexist: it is a reasonable expectation for a talented team writing a good story to produce complex characters.