Five years ago, a post from an insightful Reddit user sparked a discussion that touched on many of the points raised in this piece. Check that out, too.
The Legend of Korra spoilers follow.
“You are the Avatar,” Former Avatar Aang says through rippling air. Current Avatar Korra, confused, replies, “I don’t know what that is.” By saying this, Korra actually means, “I don’t know who I am.” A simple exchange confirms what came before and hints at what follows, and The Legend of Korra fans have come to expect nothing less from a show that can condense so much meaning into a single moment.
Critics and audiences frequently laud The Legend of Korra as one of the finest examples of representation pop culture currently offers. And they’re not wrong to say so. As much a maturation as it is a continuation, The Legend of Korra avoids spotlit representation, instead opting for a more natural integration of theme and thought. This furthers the conversation in ways the former approach can’t and solidifies the show (and its go-getter of a heroine) as a staunch champion of the persecuted. And that’s just on a surface level. Dig a bit deeper and the series is an astonishingly profound remark on the regenerative power of an identity crisis. Burrow even further and the Avatar: The Last Airbender follow-up is an unflinching look at the interplay between trauma and identity.
A Prescriptive Fallacy
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson coined “identity crisis” after years of feeling ostracized on account of his Scandanavian appearance and Jewish heritage. His definition of identity developed into this:
A subjective sense as well as an observable quality of personal sameness and continuity, paired with some belief in the sameness and contuinity of some shared world image. As a quality of unself-conscious living, this can be gloriously obvious in a young person who has found himself as he has found his communality.
The first twelve episodes of The Legend of Korra focus on discovery and the foundational beliefs upon which Korra will build a life and an identity. On a macro scale, it often appears that the world she inhabits isn’t particularly intent on challenging the concept of self. The larger universe in which these characters play appears to place little value in non-benders. Characters stripped of their bending disappear from the story quickly and without fanfare, as if their only narrative worth vanished with their abilities. Despite the illusion that it diminishes these players’ importance, the show actually stresses not that non-benders are lesser, but that society deems them so. It’s a systemic issue. And through Korra, the showrunners break down why this belief structure is destined to crumble.
The series tackles a prescriptive fallacy: that human worth lies in what one can do, not who one is. This harmful ideology displaces those struggling to make sense of what they’re about and where they fit.
Incredibly, there are some who escape this. Writing for Psychology Today, Susan Krauss Whitbourne said:
An identity “crisis” may occur at any time in your adult years when you’re faced with a challenge to your sense of self. In addition, some adolescents may not go through an identity crisis at all but instead accept the rules and values handed down by parents. Other adolescents remain in a permanent state of crisis.
A Reclamation of Self and Spirit
As the series progresses, it becomes clear that the “permanent state of crisis” Whitbourne mentioned is a very real danger Korra faces. The second season finds Korra at the junction between the spirit world and the tangible one. Politics and father/daughter tensions take center stage in this sophomore outing, a somewhat welcome (but occasionally problematic) deviation from the first season’s simpler plot. And as civil war brews in the North, rampaging spirits eat boats, destroy cities, and indulge in general mayhem. It’s the weakest chunk of the series and an unfocused mess but it does further Korra’s story in fun ways.
The fourth season of The Legend of Korra concerns itself largely with reconciliation. Aided by her newfound perspective ( and by franchise veteran Toph Beifong), Korra contends with the pieces of her splintered psyche that no longer serve her. Korra’s greatest quality is that despite her hot head, impulse-fueled proclivities, and sensitive nature, she almost always arrives at a positive conclusion about the person or situation she’s arguing, struggling, or fighting with. Even more beautifully, she embraces the imperfect parts of her and settles into her skin as…just Korra.
The previous season’s baddie, Zaheer, is guilty of the most heinous crime: torturing and poisoning Korra. He is the second primary villain to toss Korra’s life into turmoil, the first being Amon. Moving into season four, she seeks a reclamation of self and spirit. Of course she finds it and of course it’s every bit the payoff fans had hoped for. But getting there? A monumental pain in her ass.
Bending Is More About Perspective Than Practice
Bending as a perspective and a practice predicates itself on the lost art of intention. Being deliberate with how one thinks, acts, and speaks can help give them some semblance of control of their situation. Like many grappling with trauma, Korra struggles with this. Luckily, she benefits from having past Avatars as a reference group. Through these spirits, Korra gains a vital power: perspective. Armed with a new lens, she’s able to conquer her demons, save the day, and once again prove her worth and her strength.
Robbing Korra of her bending violates the very nature of her relationship with herself. Amon’s bloodbending rips away the part of her she cherishes most, the aspect of her that ties directly into her self-worth. While very much a terrorist, Amon becomes something of a sympathetic character. More importantly, he represents a reckoning for Korra, an opportunity to confront her deepest fears and overcome inches-thick mental barriers that, up until (and even past) that final confrontation, hinder her significantly.
Korra’s relationship with bending is both the problem and the solution. Her identity isn’t simply tied to her abilities. It’s tethered to them. The first season establishes this in its fourth episode, “The Voice in the Night,” a thoughtful, game-changing installment in a series already brimming with profundity. It’s here that viewers get their first real taste of the obstacles Korra will face moving forward.
Low Point, Great Change
The takeaway? “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” Aang’s words hang in the air as Korra’s glowing form rises to meet and confirm them. It’s a fantastic scene made even better by its wisdom and depth. A crisis can be traumatic by itself. It’s an assault on a person’s grasp of who they are. Couple that with identity troubles and you’ve got your work cut out for you.
But foundationally, The Legend of Korra centers around a burdened young woman struggling to find her identity outside of her duties as the Avatar. Only by accepting who she is can she tap into her potential and become the best, most fulfilled version of herself.
To explore The Legend of Korra and its handling of real-world issues from a psychologist’s perspective, check out The Mary Sue’s deep-dive into Korra’s struggle. It’s the best article we’ve found on this topic.
We published an interview with Korra’s voice actress, Janet Varney, earlier this winter. Check that out, too!