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Ginie Reviews TV: The Legend of Korra (Book One: Air)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TV Show: The Legend of Korra (Book One: Air)
Creators: Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko
Years: 2012 –
Rating: 3.5

Maybe it’s unfair to review a show that has only had its first season, but I think Book One of The Legend of Korra has given me plenty of initial thoughts and feelings about the show, the characters and the direction it all seems to be heading in and I thought this would probably be the right time to get them all out.

I get the feeling I may get some flak for this, but while I did love The Legend of Korra and would definitely call myself a fan (the kind of fan that listens to Republic City Dispatch podcasts and gets into speculative discussions about who Amon might be, etc.); a part of my feels a bit let down by The Legend of Korra.

If Avatar: The Last Airbender was a show for kids that dealt with various issues and themes with a far greater sense of maturity than most adult-TV-shows; then The Legend of Korra is a show that’s clearly aimed at an older audience and yet fails to adequately tackle the mature issues and concerns that are raised by the very nature of its central premise. Namely, that there is a non-bender revolution taking grip of Republic City and that balance needs to be restored by Korra, the Avatar (and as such, the ultimate bender as she can bend all the elements).

~*Spoilers Ahead*~

So first of all, the things I loved: the animation is, as ever, absolutely gorgeous. It’s so fluid, the character expressions are great and the designs are wonderful. I loved the idea of a 1920’s industrialised Avatar world! It just had so much potential and was so awesome – not to mention the soundtrack which is also beautiful and combines traditional Chinese music with jazz. Just. So. AWESOME. Not to mention the fashion, the Sato-mobiles, Republic City itself – there’s been a lot of fantastic world-building for this city and I loved every bit of it.

And I also loved the premise, although from the start I was weary about the real-world parallels that were being drawn between The Equalists and the rise of Communism in China. Not because I didn’t think it was an interesting idea to explore – more because I wasn’t sure a Nickelodeon show (however awesome) could do justice to that kind of seriously turbulent history, and furthermore the in-universe history of the United Republic and Republic City is different to real-world Chinese history. You can’t understand the rise of Communism in China without understanding the civil war and the Imperial system that came before it. But I was willing to be open-minded and I trusted that the show’s creators knew what they were doing: that they’d offer some insight into how this world has evolved with a bending elite and a non-bending underclass who are under-represented in government, in the police (Beifong’s Metal-benders) and in other crucial areas of Republic City life. And that Korra’s restoration of balance would involve an acknowledgement of this – that it wouldn’t just be about getting rid of Amon and the Equalists, but that it would also be about re-dressing the balance so that non-benders have an equal place in Republic City’s society.

So far that hasn’t happened yet.

Now I know this is just Book One, and that maybe these issues will be addressed in the next season (I dearly hope so). But I can only assume that with Amon and Tarrlok out of the picture for good, Book Two will have to introduce a new antagonist – and that means there might be a chance that this theme is dropped in favour of something else.

I suspect this might happen because the Book One finale had clearly tried to tie up all loose ends. Korra lost her bending, unlocked her air-bending, unmasked Amon who was later killed by his brother Tarrlok, entered the Avatar state, got all her bending back and the ability to return bending to others all in one fell swoop. Not once in the entire season were the actually legitimate concerns of Equalist sympathizers acknowledged or addressed and indeed, Amon and his Equalists are nearly always dismissed as “that madman and those crazy Equalists”. Now while Amon clearly uses manipulative fear tactics and could be labelled a terrorist, I was disappointed that Korra was only forced to confront the inequality between benders and non-benders once: when Tarrlok and his task-force were rounding-up protesting non-benders (“You’re our Avatar too!”).

Not to mention I was hoping to hear more about the Spirit World (and had secretly hoped that Amon was somehow linked to Koh, the Face-Stealer – an excellent, excellent potential villain that has been totally under-utilised in both A:TLA and TLOK). Considering how much emphasis was put on Korra’s spiritual block at the beginning of the show, I can’t help but feel let down that her spiritual block had been “solved” so quickly and so effortlessly. I don’t buy that Korra losing all her other bending and sulking about it constituted some great spiritual epiphany, even if it is true that her bending is very tied up with her own sense of identity and self-worth. And while I totally bawled like a baby when Aang turned up with all the other past Avatars and Korra finally went into the Avatar-state (shut up!) I was disappointed that Korra had lost her bending, only to re-gain it all within a matter of screen-time minutes. Maybe I’m being nitpick-y, but a loss isn’t really a loss if it’s so easily re-gained (which is also why if you choose to kill off a character they had better stay dead, at least for a little while, because otherwise it’s just cheap and there was nothing really at stake).

So those were my concerns with Korra on a thematic level. But I also felt somewhat let down by The Legend of Korra on a character level.

All I can say is that while a lot of the characters are awesome and show a lot of potential (LIN BEIFONG IS MY FAVOURITE-EST PERSON EVER) so many characters have had their character development and storyline pretty much shafted (I’m looking at you, Asami and Bolin). I’m still holding out that Asami will become more than just a useful plot-device to throw in extra romantic ~tension~ between Mako and Korra. And that Bolin will evolve to be more than just a comic relief character. And I’m hoping that the romance between Mako and Korra will eventually feel natural and not so forced. But I’m not nearly as optimistic as I was at the beginning of the season. Here’s hoping things will change though, and we get to see the New Team Avatar interact with each other more and actually give us a better idea of who they really are.

So is The Legend of Korra a good show? Absolutely yes. It has plenty of tension and enough mystery and questions that you’ll keep coming back for each new episode to find out what it will reveal. Is it as good as Avatar: The Last Airbender? Still hard to say at this stage – I genuinely think A:TLA was a better show, but then I went into A:TLA expecting nothing and the show did mature a lot over three seasons. We are only into Book One of Korra, and I went into TLOK with very high expectations following my love for A:TLA. While I think I do have legitimate reasons for preferring A:TLA to TLOK, I’m also willing to admit that at least some of it may be due to my own biases.

Conclusion? Definitely go watch it! Lord knows Tumblr needs more fandom theories about what the future holds for our heroine Korra 😉

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Ginie Reviews Films: First Love (Thai Film)

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Film: First Love (สิ่งเล็กเล็ก ที่เรียกว่า..รัก aka. A Little Thing Called Love)
Director: Puttipong Pormsaka Na-Sakonnakorn and Wasin Pokpong
Year: 2010
Notable Actors: Mario Maurer, Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul
Rating: 3.5/5

~*Spoilers ahead*~

You know what? A part of me really really loves this movie. It’s funny, it’s sweet and it’s just so very Thai it reminds me of home. But it’s at about the half-way mark that things in this movie start to get a little bit awry and as much as I still love, let’s be honest: there are some pretty problematic things with this movie, not least of which is how the main character has a dramatic change in skin tone as part of her transformation:

To which I’m going to have to defer to Tumblr experts Damn, Lay Off the Bleach. The tale of the “ugly duckling” who changes into a beautiful swan and wins the prince is hardly a new one (hello there, She’s All That!); the fact that this transformation involves highly discernible skin-whitening is well, nothing short of awful. (Seriously, the first time I saw this film I thought they’d changed actress half-way through, she looks like two completely different people). More on this later.

First Love is a Thai teen romantic comedy about a girl called Nam and her crush on senior boy Shone.  The film follows her and her three loyal friend through all sorts of funny hijinks as she tries to get P’Shone to notice her while also becoming top of her class so that she might get to go to the States where her dad (who she hasn’t seen in five years) is currently working.

So far so typical right? But genuinely – but I really really loved the first half of this film. Maybe it’s because of the hilarious comedy. Maybe it’s because for at least the first half of the film a part of me genuinely sympathised with Nam and found her and her friends really sweet. Maybe it’s because for the first half of the film, Nam and her friends seemed playfully defiant of the shitty narrow beauty standards they were expected to live up to – even while trying to live up to them. (Hello “makeover” scene! That yellow stuff? Kamin? Yeah, I’ve had that used on my skin before.)

But mainly I think I loved it for the humour, especially Khun Khru Inn:

(Seriously though, I LOVE HER.)

But yeah. There was a line that stuck out to me in particular – a line that is uttered by Nam’s best friend Cheer. While they are waiting to sign up for Khru Orn’s traditional Thai dance show Nam remarks that it’s a waste of time – Khru Orn only ever chooses the most beautiful girls to perform in her show; “white skin, Chinese-looking and all those other qualities!” Her friend Cheer in response says “Hey! We still have to try – the four of us, we might not have white-skin and we might not have Chinese-looking faces. We’re dark skinned but we’re still beautiful, we can be the pioneer generation!” and I just thought that was so awesome. Of course I think the joke here is that none of these girls are remotely what would be considered beautiful by traditional Thai standards, but you know what? Screw you. Cheer is freaking fierce and I love her. And that is my massive massive problem with this movie. It takes this awkward heroine and her shameless but absolutely fierce friends and by the end of the movie manages to remove just about everything that made any of them even remotely engaging to watch.

Over the course of three years Nam changes from “ugly” duckling to beautiful swan (while also miraculously changing to a much lighter skin colour – hurrah for toxic skin-whintening products!) and in the process manages to somehow loose all her personality. While before her pursuit of P’Shone was funny and cute, towards the latter half of the film Nam takes an increasingly passive role in her pursuit of Shone and just allows other people’s actions (Shone’s friend asking her out, Shone going out with another girl) to guide her life. She moons over Shone while allowing life to blow her in every which direction without once taking charge. And that makes her considerably less interesting than the younger girl who at least planned ways in which she could bump into him or speak to him. Not to mention at the beginning of the film there’s this running joke of how girls pretend to sprain their ankles to get the attention of boys like P’Shone – it’s done so often I can only assume it must be satirical? But by the end of the film our heroine does just that (although I think we’re meant to take it that she  actually sprains her ankle rather than pretending – but still). Whereas in the beginning it was an action her and her friends laughed at (“Oh-ho, so drama!”) by the end she is doing exactly the same thing.

For these reasons the second half of the movie is pretty weak.

The ending is by far the worse though. Nine years later Nam is back in Thailand from the USA (where she met her father, did her studies and became an apparently very successful fashion designer). It is on a talkshow that she is reunited with Shone who has been waiting all this time for her to return – revealing that he too, had always been in love with her since the very beginning.

A few thoughts on this:

– She became a fashion designer?? Why? How? There is absolutely NO indication earlier on in the film that she had any kind of artistic talent or inclination outside of performing in Snow White. Shone’s love of photography and football are well-developed throughout the movie, so it is unsurprising that he grows up to become a footballer (and then after he leaves football a photographer) but seriously – there is not indication whatsoever that Nam likes fashion or loves to draw. None.
– In nine years they both loved each other but neither thought to get in touch or call or e-mail or something?? I mean I know she’s in America and all but seriously – skype is free!

But worse of all is the moral that I think we’re supposed to take from the film. Nam tells the talk-show host that all the things she’d done in her life – making herself more beautiful (more white!), studying harder, taking part in extra-curricular activities – all these things she did to “better” herself she did out of love for Shone. Now here’s the thing: I can understand the message that love ennobles us, that it makes us want to be better than who we are. I totally get that and I can even get behind that (though I usually think “bettering” oneself in terms of – oh I don’t know, becoming a more honest, caring and considerate person). But really? Bettering oneself shouldn’t have to involve skin bleach. This is especially insidious considering the massive skin-whitening industry in Thailand that consistently tells Thai women (most of whom aren’t white-skinned) that they look ugly because their skin isn’t fair enough.  Also: this was her only life’s motivation? Whatever happened to studying hard so that she could meet her dad? (Apparently that motivation is completely forgotten by this movie who decides to ascribe Nam’s academic achievements to love too).

To conclude, I do love this movie (I know, you wouldn’t have guessed it from the way I speak of it) but genuinely I do. It’s a funny and sweet movie that never fails to make me laugh, but I can’t help but feel that half-way through the director decided to make an entirely different movie, and I have to say I like the second movie considerably less. The second-half is not only boring but pretty much serves to completely undermine the confidence the four girls had in the beginning of the movie with a really awful message. It’s definitely still worth a watch for the laughs, check out the trailer and go see it for yourself (Although YMMV on the skin-whitening thing).

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Ginie Reviews Films: The Hunger Games

Film: The Hunger Games
Director: Gary Ross
Year: 2012
Notable Actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
Rating: 3.5/5

Happy Hunger Games and may the odds be ever in your favour.

I admittedly don’t have much to say about this movie that hasn’t been expressed in Nostalgia Chick’s vlog.

Other thoughts:

  •  I felt like there was a lot of relevant details that may have left some people at a loss if they weren’t familiar with the books. The fact that the Mockingjay is a symbol of subversion (and therefore not just a pretty pin that her little sister gave her to keep her safe),  or the significance of the three-finger District 12 salute, that sort of thing.
  • Or the fact that poor families can put their children’s names in for the Reaping more times in exchange for food. That seemed like a significant piece of social commentary that wasn’t really made clear.
  • Also I felt like it was much harder to feel the horror of it all because in the books you get to know most of the tributes by name, and you spend more time getting to know them. When a tribute dies, regardless of whether they were “good” or “bad”, it made an impact in the books. Few of the deaths made an impact in the film because we barely spent time knowing them as people. I guess this is a screen-time restraint, which can’t really be helped.
  • Speaking of deaths, I do wish they’d spent a bit more screen-time building up Rue and Katniss’s rapport/relationship. It just felt a little too rushed. I cried anyway, but I cried because of the character I knew in the book. If no one else, I wish the film had just given the audience a bit more time to get to know Rue and really feel the impact of the senselessness of her death.
  • Films are a different medium to books – and you can’t really get the same internal perspective in a film that you can with a book.  Jennifer Lawrence is an amazing actress, but I felt that the played-up romance with Peeta could easily have been mistaken for a real romance in the film, whereas in the book it’s a lot more clear that Katniss’s feelings and motivations are more ambiguous. Yes, Katniss cares for Peeta – but she doesn’t yet love him romantically and her romantic interactions are forced through because of her need to survive the Hunger Games. The only indication we get of this in the film is Haymitch’s note: “You call that a kiss?” which well, doesn’t say much about Katniss’s actual feelings about the whole thing or Peeta’s for that matter. I think those later scenes in the film lack the tension that I feel exists in the book as a result.
  • And yeah – the editting is a bit weird. Also, the weird censorship of the actual goriness of what is going on. You’ve got kids beating each other to death – but there’s no blood? I see. I know they did it to keep the PG-13 rating, and I’m happy that the younger Hunger Games fans will get to see it but I do think any film/book that attempts to deal with these kinds of issues does a disservice to its subject-matter when it glosses over the realities of just how horrific and senseless violence is.
  • That said, I do like the way certain things were articulated in the film that weren’t necessarily done in the books. The last quote by Cato, a career tribute, particularly: “Go on. Shoot. Then we both go down and you win. Go on! I’m dead anyway – I always was, right? Tell that to them! How’s that, is that what they want? HUH? I could still do this. I could still do this. One. More. Kill. It’s the only thing I know how to do and we pride it in my district. Not that it matters… “

But yes. Other than that – Jennifer Lawrence is stunning and the acting in this was really well-done, from everyone. Definitely worth seeing if you enjoyed the books – and if you haven’t read the books it’s still worth seeing though I’d always recommend to read the books first. My brother really enjoyed it despite having never read any of The Hunger Games, and he now wants to borrow my books. So yes. Happy Hunger Games!

^^EDIT^^
Ooh actually, this sums up most of my feels. Although I did actually quite like Peeta’s performance:

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Ginie Muses: Masculinity and Heroism in Avatar the Last Airbender

Following my previous post on women in the ATLA universe, I felt it was also important to discuss how masculinity is constructed, especially in relation to the series’ main protagonist and hero, Aang.

Discussions of mediated representations of gender usually revolve around embracing different portrayals of femininity, and I would argue that this discussion is also important when it comes to how masculinity is mediated and how rigid gender roles marginalises and (more often than not) shames the men who don’t fall neatly into those roles.

While I would argue that everyone in the ‘gaang’ are heroic and heroes in their own right (and that both Sokka and Zuko also have pretty amazing growth arcs and story-lines); I’d like to focus this discussion more on Aang as he is the only one out of the three main male gang members who I feel doesn’t conform to conventional portrayals of masculinity. This isn’t to talk down Sokka or Zuko in anyway – they’re both great characters and I love them a great deal, but they are closer to what you’d expect from male main characters and for the purposes of this discussion Aang is the one I want to focus on.

This isn’t to talk down traditional notions of masculinity in men either; but traditional masculinity in men is something that is accepted and often celebrated while different displays of masculinity are often marginalised. This post is just a celebration of a main character who doesn’t fall into what I would consider to be a traditional portrayal of what a man should be, and I think that’s a positive message for guys who don’t necessarily identify with conventional notions of masculinity.

As always, watch out for ~*spoilers!*~

Aang (Air Bender)

This isn’t to say that Aang is feminine per se, but I think Aang is usually contrasted quite effectively with Sokka, who is a more normative representation of masculinity.

He’s also a very different type of hero than what we are usually presented with, and I would argue that there are two main types: 1.) The Underdog who Succeeds Against All Odds (See: Scott Pilgrim, the Karate Kid) and 2.) The Action Man (See: James Bond, most other action movies of that ilk). Aang falls into neither of these categories. While he’s not initially as powerful as Firelord Ozai, he’s still not an underdog. We are shown right from the start that Aang is a powerful airbender; and even though he struggles with some of the other elements throughout the series, we never doubt that he has the ability to master them and that he will be good at all of them. Not to mention the fact that while he’s also at his most vulnerable, in the Avatar state he is also almost invincible.

But he’s not just an Action Man either, and his fighting style is notably defensive and evasive. Rarely does he actually attack people (unless he’s in the Avatar state, or in cases of extreme emotional duress, such as when Appa was kidnapped). The series follows his growth into his role as the Avatar, and while a large part of that growth is learning the different kinds of bending, the most important part of his growth is learning how to carry out his duties as Avatar while staying true to what he personally believes in and staying true to himself. I don’t think it’s an accident that when Aang chooses to abandon his principles (i.e. when he is asked to let go of all worldly attachments and forget about Katara) the moment he tries to actually go through with it, he is brutally brought down by Azula. Forgetting the people he loves isn’t him, and he is weaker for it. Similarly in the finale when he is asked to killed Firelord Ozai, he spends a large amount of time being conflicted between what he believes he should do and what others are telling him he should do. In the end, he defeats Firelord Ozai on his own terms, and is better off for it.

While drawing strength from emotional ties isn’t new in a hero (See: Harry Potter), I think it’s still relatively rare in an action-adventure story, especially when it comes to male heroes, who are mostly expected to be emotionally self-reliant. Moreover Aang’s extremely pacifist stance is quite unusual. While heroes are expected to be merciful, they are rarely shown to be actively pacifist and aren’t usually terribly conflicted over killing the ‘bad guy’ if their hand is pushed.  I think the fact that Aang has this conflict is an example of the show’s maturity. Killing someone, even someone who has devastated several cities, isn’t a casual matter.

Regarding gender, I don’t think the Ember Island Players portrayal of him using a female actor was an accident either. I mean aside from the obvious laughs (haha! Aang is being played by a girl!) I think the fact that the Ember Island players chose a big buff guy to act out Toph’s part and a lithe woman to act out Aang’s part actually says something about their characters. Just as Toph has elements to her personality that are traditionally considered masculine, I think there are elements of Aang that are traditionally associated with femininity.

Take for instance the palm-reading episode. While Katara gets excited and goes off to get her palm-read; Aang asks Sokka what he thinks they might be talking about. Sokka (normative male) is highly dismissive of his sister and her conversation with the palmist:

Aang: So…what do you think they’re talking about back there?
Sokka: Boring stuff I’m sure. Love. Who she’s going to marry. How many babies she’s going to have.
Aang: Yeah. Dumb stuff like that…well, I gotta find a bathroom.

This immediately piques Aang’s interest and then he is just as curious as Katara to know who he is going to marry and what his love life will be like.

Aunt Wu: Your destiny. This is incredible! You will be involved in a great battle. An awesome conflict between the forces of good and evil. A battle whose outcome will determine the fate of the whole world!
Aang: Yeah, yeah I knew that already. But did it say anything about a girl?
Aunt Wu: A girl? You want to know about love?
Aang: Yes!
Aunt Wu: I’m sorry. But I didn’t see anything… Oh, look I’ve missed something. Right here. It says “Trust your heart, and you will be with the one you love.”

We know that both boys are interested in love (through the course of the show Sokka has two girlfriends and Aang has a crush on Katara), but being seen to be highly interested in romance and actively being concerned about it (as opposed to just interested in girls/sex) is usually portrayed as something only women do (I am admittedly look at this from a hetero-centric point of view, as a lot of the media in which this dynamic plays out is hetero-centric).

Which is ridiculous of course, I know plenty of men IRL who are plenty more romantic than I am – but for some reason the admission of wanting love and romance is seen to be something that is only acceptable for women to do. (See also: the derogatory way in which we speak of boybands who mainly sing about romance; or the fact that romance fiction and romantic-comedies are seen as something only women would indulge in).

I am reminded of this article about masculinity in The Hunger Games and Peeta. Like Peeta, Aang wears his heart on his sleeve and is relatively open about his feelings for Katara. It takes a while for him to get the courage/confidence to admit his feelings to her, but once he does he doesn’t shy away from them. (I would even argue he is exceptionally-bordering-on-suspiciously mature about the whole thing considering he’s meant to be a twelve-year-old boy. I guess being the Avatar makes you grow up faster?)

Regardless, whether it is about Katara or about his flying-bison Appa, Aang is very in touch with his emotions and he isn’t afraid to show them. Once again, this is unusual for a male hero. (Because male characters are meant to be stoic, of course! Touchy-feely emotional stuff is for girls! Male characters are allowed occasionally to shed a single manly tear. Any other display of emotion must be done – with their fists.)

Aang is also remarkably comfortable in his own skin and knows who and what he is about. He does occasionally have doubts – but as we’ve stated before, he is always shown to be better off when he stays true to himself. When Sokka recommends a more macho-demeanour as a means of attracting female attention it only succeeds in doing the opposite – annoying Katara. Aang’s displays of sensitivity (which are much truer to his character) work much better and that is what Katara responds to.

This comfortableness and security in his own self also extends to when he is made to wear Avatar Kyoshi’s old uniform. Despite the lady’s clothing and make-up Aang is remarkably unfazed by it all. This is also very different to most male characters who, like Sokka, aren’t comfortable taking on different gender roles.  Men wearing women’s clothing has often been used as a comedic trope, and I would argue that while we’re meant to laugh at the sight of Aang in Kyoshi’s make-up and dress, the fact that Aang is entirely comfortable with it and the fact that the story and actions carries on (with Aang still dressed as Kyoshi) is a way of saying: it’s not a big deal. Yes, Aang in Kyoshi’s dress is an incongruous image and not what you’re expecting, but once you get over that it isn’t that big a deal. If Aang isn’t bothered by it, then why should anyone be bothered by the fact that he’s wearing a dress?

To conclude, Aang is a remarkable example of how masculinity and male heroism can be different from what it has always traditionally meant. Masculinity doesn’t only have to be the stoic, lone-wolf Marlboro Man. Male heroism doesn’t only have to be about using physical strength and violence to protect the ones you love. It can be so much more inclusive than that.

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Ginie Muses: The Women of Avatar the Last Airbender

TV Show: Avatar the Last Airbender
Creators: Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Years:
2005 – 2008
Rating: 5/5

Once again, I am several years behind fandom and have only recently discovered ATLA. To be fair – I partially blame M. Night Shyamalan for this. I may have ended up watching that terrible excuse for a film against my will, and it put me off looking into the TV show for a good few years (up until there was a lot of flurry on Tumblr over The Legend of Korra) and – having been drawn in by all the artwork and character designs – I ended up checking out the original series to see what all the fuss was all about.

All I can say is? Oh my gosh my feels. There are too many of them. How does a Saturday morning cartoon simultaneously manage to make me giggle-snort with laughter and also move me to tears? (Yes, I did. Just a little when Zuko was re-united with Uncle Iroh. Shut up.)

Basically, this show is good. Really, really good. The animation is stunning, the kind of research that went into re-creating a Sino-centric fantasy universe is impressive and fantastic and the characters are wholly believable and well-fleshed out with different motivations and conflicts; and as the series progresses they all learn and change a lot.

It’s also probably one of the few mainstream TV shows that features POC’s so prominently and also has a remarkable number of girls in the cast that aren’t merely love-interests and serve as main characters in their own right. Anyway, without further ado – here is my post celebrating the women of Avatar the Last Airbender.

Also! ~*SPOILERS*~

Katara (Water Bender)

Katara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of all the women on this show, Katara is probably the most conventionally feminine – she’s often described as motherly and caring, she has healing powers and she looks out for everybody in the group. But you know what? This is also cool. I feel too often when we think of “strong women” in the media we think of the Action Girl – she’s hot, she’s tough, and she fights and talks just like a man! And while there’s nothing wrong with this, this version of strong femininity often ignores or dismisses traditionally considered ‘feminine’ virtues such as compassion and mocks other displays of femininity, whether it be in dress or in interests. Katara takes all of that and shoves it back in their face – yes she’s motherly, yes she’s a healer and yes, she takes an interest in her appearance. But she’s also a master waterbender, a strong fighter and following the death of her mother, is someone who has had to grow up very quickly and learn to be brave very young. I also like that throughout the series she has more than one flirtation. Katara isn’t a particularly flirty character, but her interactions with Haku and Jet are refreshing in a female character aimed at young girls – finding “the One” was never her goal; she found different men attractive throughout the series and that was ok. The fact that she ends up with Aang makes sense when you consider all that they’ve been through together and the fact that they have quite compatible personalities (i.e. they’ll both always do whatever they can to protect and help people in need), that and she never really got to spend enough time with any of the other guys to see where those relationships might have led. But I liked that there was a possibility for something different, and I liked that as far as Katara was concerned, Aang wasn’t her only option.

I also like that despite all of this, Katara has her own potential for darkness: bloodbending. Although initially horrified by thought of controlling other people by bending the water in their bodies (i.e. blood – this kid’s show goes to some dark places), canonically Katara has used bloodbending twice. Once against Hamma to protect Aang and Sokka, and the second time against the man she thought killed her mother. While the first time left her anguished and horrified at what she had done, the second time she had done it was in revenge-fuelled rage, and you can see that even the best of characters have the potential to do evil things. What makes a person good is ultimately in the choices that they make, and when Katara finally comes face-to-face with her mother’s murderer, Katara makes the decision not to kill him – even though every fibre in her being wants revenge on what he had done. This level of complexity (moral or otherwise) is rarely ever shown in a female character, and for these reasons Katara is an awesome character. When people mention their favourite Katara-moment, they’ll usually cite her challenging Master Pakku to teach her waterbending (in the Northern Water tribe only men are allowed to learn this martial art) and the waterbending fight which ensues, in which Katara holds her own against a sexist waterbending Master. While that scene is awesome, I must admit that the defining Katara moment for me is when she tells Sokka:

“No! I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me… I’m going down to the village. And I’m going to do whatever I can!” – Katara, The Painted Lady (S3E03)

Because that is who Katara is. She learnt early on how to stick up for herself, but what makes her truly a hero is that she’ll always stick out for others too.

Toph Bei Fong (Earth Bender)

If Katara represents a more conventional view of femininity, Toph represents what we usually assume a strong female character to be. And just as femme heroes shouldn’t be dismissed because of their femininity, female heroes who don’t fit prescribed gender roles shouldn’t be dismissed either. She’s a tomboy, she spits, she’s sarcastic and she can kick your ass. She’s also blind and twelve-years-old. I tend to think Toph follows a more recent tradition of female action-heroes, the one where a young-harmless girl turns out to be far more deadly than anyone could ever imagine (See: Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, or Hanna). However unlike Hit-Girl (and unlike most female action heroes) Toph doesn’t need rescuing at the crucial moment by the ~real~ hero of the story. Toph holds her own in all fights, and in the season finale plays her role in defeating the Fire Nation. I must admit, that what I do love about Toph is her sarcasm. A lot of the more hilarious moments in the show are a direct result of what she says.

While being rescued from drowning by Suki.
Toph: Oh Sokka, you saved me! -kisses Suki-
Suki: Actually, it’s me.
Toph: Oh…well, aheheh. You can go ahead and let me drown now.

I also like that while on paper she is slightly in danger of falling into the disability-as-a-superpower-trope, Toph’s explanation for how she can “see” (i.e. through the vibrations she feels in the ground) makes intuitive sense considering she’s an earthbender and is used consistently throughout the show. Whenever she’s in water, sand or another element that doesn’t conduct vibrations as well as steady ground, she has trouble ‘seeing’ what she is doing and what is going on. Despite this, the show makes it clear that it isn’t her disability, her gender, her age or small stature that hold her back, but other people (most notably her overprotective parents). I think Toph’s initial clash with Katara also makes sense in view of all these things. Their personalities and experiences are very different – Katara who has had to take care of her family all her life is naturally motherly and slightly bossy. Toph on the other hand has been ‘handled’ all her life by her parents and carers and the last thing she wants when she’s finally found her freedom is to have someone else tell her what to do, even if some of Katara’s suggestions are entirely sensible. But I like that despite these differences they have quite touching moments of friendship, such as in Tales of Ba Sing Se and when they are both in prison together.

Also, Toph invents metal-bending. Basically she’s amazing.

Azula (Fire Bender)

So the first time Azula is presented to the audience, I must admit my first thought was “Wow. She is so eeeevil.” Like, I was genuinely impressed with how fucking terrifying she was, and I would happily list her as one of the most intimidating fictional characters ever created. This isn’t because she’s a firebending prodigy (which she is), or because she’s powerful (which she also is). It’s because she’s a master of manipulation, and one who knows just which buttons to push to threaten people into submission. I also think Azula is the one character who could have easily been a guy without changing a single thing to her storyline; and in any other production, they probably would have made her a guy. Tragic sibling-rivalries concerning actual struggles for power in fiction only ever seem to happen between two brothers (while female sibling rivalry is usually presented in the form of conquest over a male object of desire); and the fact that they chose to make her a girl (despite no ‘reason’ to do so story-wise) I think is a step in the right direction in terms of the way we think about representation. I think Azula presents an interesting contrast to Zuko, mainly because Azula represents what Zuko may well have turned into if he had never been banished from the Fire Nation. Of course, we’re given hints in their back story that Azula was always the more talented and the more violent one, but I think we have to remember that even though Zuko changed his mind  and decided to fight on Aang’s side in the end, he did some horribly manipulative things too. Both Azula and Zuko are a product of a self-aggrandising nation and culture that believes in its own superiority and only respects displays of  intimidation and power. While Zuko had an opportunity to experience a different kind of life, Azula did not; and moreover Azula was always rewarded for her  displays of ‘strength’, while Zuko was always punished for showing ‘weakness’. I think this is the true difference between the two siblings, and while I don’t excuse any of Azula’s actions there is something slightly tragic about her character.

The episode The Beach shows a more human side of her, the tragi-comedy of Azula trying to flirt with a boy she finds attractive while failing miserably because the only interaction with others she’s ever had has always been through coercion and intimidation. (This is also different from most female villains; while most female villains are usually portrayed as manipulative, they are usually portrayed skilled seductresses who use their sexual wiles in order to manipulate supposedly hapless men. Azula is no seductress, and at no point does she use her beauty to manipulate anyone.) The betrayal of her friends of Mai and Ty Lee drives her to near insanity; first of all because I think a part of her maybe have believed that their friendship was genuine (but how can it be when it’s based on fear?) but also because Mai’s love for Zuko outweighs her fear of Azula. Azula, who has never been able to convince anyone to love her (not even her own mother) is suddenly left in a position she has never been before: powerless. Because if love outweighs fear, than what does she have left to bargain with?

And a special shout-out…

To Suki (Leader of the Kyoshi warriors, who shows Sokka a thing or to about what it means to be a warrior), Mai, Ty Lee and Avatar Kyoshi herself. They aren’t as central to the show as the above three ladies are, but the world of ATLA has a lot of interesting women both in the lead roles and in secondary roles and that is a welcome change from the usual line-up of characters in action-adventure stories.

Things also seem set to be just as awesome in the spin-off/sequel series Avatar: The Legend of Korra which I look forward to watching and reviewing. In the meanwhile if you’re interested in exciting previews (the shows doesn’t come out until the 14th of April) sign up to Korra Nation here.

For my analysis of how Aang challenges traditional narratives of masculinity and male heroism, please click here.


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Ginie Reviews Books: The Hunger Games

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: YA/ Dystopian
Rating:  4.5/5

Like many internet denizens, it has not escaped my notice that a certain YA novel seems to be making lots of waves in the world wide web (no, not Twilight). I mean of course, The Hunger Games – a novel I’ll be honest, I’ve actually been trying to ignore for awhile now. Perhaps I should explain – as a teenager I practically overdosed on dystopian novels, and now that I’m slightly older and I guess with more things to worry about, reading dystopian novels has held considerably less appeal. When looking for leisure reading I’ll tend towards escapist fluff, especially when it comes to my YA. But what with the trailer out and all, there has been a flurry of excitement over at Tumblr and I’ve felt compelled to pick it up. And boy am I glad I did. To give you an idea of how much of a page-turner this book is, I bought the book yesterday morning at 11am and finished it the same day by 5pm. I did this when I should have been writing a 2,000 word essay.

So for those of you not in the know, The Hunger Games is set in a not-so-distant future where North America has largely been destroyed and is now called Panem. Panem is made up of 12 districts, all ruled by the oppressive Capitol who forces the other districts to give up a boy and girl each year as tribute to The Hunger Games, a gladiatorial event that is broadcast for the entertainment of those in the Capitol.

Initially I’ll admit I wasn’t sure how I felt about the narration – especially in the first couple of pages. I felt like the narrative voice was  bit over-dramatic considering Katniss has only just gotten out of bed. I think you’re meant to get the feeling that this is a character who has been through a lot (and indeed she has), but instead of the kind of world-weariness that I guess I would expect from such a character, it all just feels a bit trite, i.e. “Entrails. No hissing. This is the closest we’ll come to love”. That said I suppose the doom and gloom of the narration could be justified considering it’s not just any old miserable day in District 12, but the day of the Reaping. So maybe this is an issue that’s really just down to personal preference.

Once the plot starts moving along though, these concerns are thrown completely out the window. When Katniss’ sister Prim gets chosen for The Hunger Games there’s no more time for mere exposition – it all becomes about Katniss and her will to survive and make it out of the games for the sake of her family.

I have to say that I definitely find Katniss quite a refreshing female main character – not because she’s a warrior (which isn’t an uncommon representation of female characters to be honest), but because of all the YA novels I’ve ever read, she definitely seems to have her priorities set in the way I imagine someone in her position would. I imagine in the hands of another author the relationship with Peeta would have definitely turned romantic, whereas I felt that in this case while you feel that there’s the possibility for romantic development between the two, in the context of their situation there is no way it would have realistically come to bloom. Katniss wasn’t interested in romance, not because she didn’t have the capacity to be romantically involved with someone, but because why the fuck would you if you’re busy trying to fight everyone else in the Hunger Games to the death? Her relationship with Peeta, like her relationship with Rue, developed out of a need for basic human affection and trust; a universal need and one that takes precedence over romantic love when your situation is one of constant danger and the need to make it out alive. And I really appreciated that. I really appreciated that there is a strong relationship between two characters where the basis for the relationship is so much more complex then just attraction; it’s friendship, gratitude, relief, comradeship and very occasionally, self-interest (certainly on Katniss’s part anyway).

Which is the other thing I find refreshing about Katniss. I like that while she does genuinely care for Peeta she’s not above faking a romance if it will get her sponsors and increase their chances of making it out alive. Considering how the media usually portrays women, it’s nice to have the female character be more worldly-wise than the male one for a change (i.e. the way she understands Haymitch will only send sponsor gifts if she plays up the romance, while Peeta is happily oblivious to the strings attached to the gifts) all of this without either character presented as being any less smart or less capable than the other.

As many others have pointed out, the satire on our fixation with reality TV and the way it makes sport of human misery has basically been taken to it’s logical conclusion, with competitors actually having to kill each other to ‘win’. Just like in reality TV there’s a carefully crafted image and appearance each competitor portrays, tactical moves to win favour with sponsors, etc. which is a really interesting take. I also found the examination of class issues fascinating, especially with policies such as the tesserae: where those who are eligible for the Hunger Games get their name put in the Hunger Games lottery an extra time for each tesserae they take out in exchange for basic necessities, such as cooking oil and grain. I’m sure there are plenty of policies in real life we can think up that reflect exactly this sort of mentality, the one where certain people are expendable.

Basically there’s plenty of food for thought, and the plot is very well-paced. I’d definitely reccommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read The Hunger Games. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a trailer (the white-washing discussion will have to have it’s own post, after I’ve actually seen the movie):

Ginie

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Ginie reviews Books: The Hollow Kingdom by Clare B. Dunkle

Title: The Hollow Kingdom (Book I)
Author: Clare B. Dunkle
Genre: Fantasy/folklore
Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Warning: Possible spoilers ahead and also Trigger Warning for mentions of abusive relationships

So while I was trawling through Amazon looking for my creepy Gothic fantasy fix, I stumbled upon this little gem that had loads of rave reviews and sounded like something that would be right up my alley.

The Hollow Kingdom tells the tale of Kate and Emily, two orphaned sisters who find themselves sent off to the Hallow Hill estate to live with their aunts and guardian – the really quite detestable Hugh Roberts. While there, they discover that the lake and surrounding wilderness has a tragic history linked to their own family and that Hallow Hill is actually part of Marak the goblin king’s kingdom – and that Marak has sinister plans of his own concerning the eldest sister, Kate. Namely abduction, a forced marriage and baby-making to ensure the survival of his own kingdom underground.

My summary isn’t very good, but basically I can’t recommend this book enough. If you like Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy for creepiness or Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tale for both creepiness and the level of research done into faerie-lore then you’ll love The Hollow Kingdom. I think this might be hands-down one of the creepiest YA Fantasy book I’ve ever read and I loved it.

But back to the review. So tell me, what do you think of when you hear the words “Goblin King”? Is it…

This?

Or perhaps even…

 This?

To be completely honest with you all, when I read the description of the Marak (Goblin for “Goblin King” – all the Goblin kings are called Marak) all I could see in my mind’s eye was…

 This. (Which probably just means I’m wayy too excited about Skyward Sword and absolutely gutted I don’t own a Nintendo Wii of my own). Only instead of being kind of hot and swish, he’s more grotesque and assymetrical – which is exactly as a goblin should be:

What Marak was, Kate didn’t know, but he couldn’t be a human, not with the big, bony head and tough, wiry body. The slightly bowed legs and large, knotted hands conveyed the idea of strength without grace…His face and hands were a ghastly pale gray, and his lips and fingernails were a dark tan – the colours, Kate thought, shuddering, of a corpse pulled out of water. His dull, straight hair fell, all one length, to his twisted shoulders. Most of it was a very light beige, but over one eye a coal-black patch grew back from his forehead, the long black wisps overlaying the pale hair like a spider’s legs. His ears rose to a sharp point that flopped over and stuck out through that rough hair like the ears of a terrier dog.

Most striking of all were Marak’s  deept-set eyes.The left-eye was black; the right, emerald green and they gleamed at her as if lit from within.

Also he has six fingers. Now if that’s not a goblin I don’t know what is. It’s quite refreshing in a way, to see that in a YA Fantasy book that does feature a romance-of-sorts the goblin Marak is still very much portrayed as a goblin and not in the least bit beautiful, which I think is a problem a lot of YA Fantasy has sometimes – in that it can’t accept monsters looking like monsters if they’re meant to be a main character and have some romantic entaglements (hullo Twilight vampires, I’m looking at you).

Though I admit I’m only referring to Marak as a love-interest for lack of a better word and it’s not a word I’m particularly comfortable with in this case as The Hollow Kingdom does suffer a bit from Beauty-and-the-Beast syndrome. i.e. hideous monster abducts/forcefully holds beautiful girl against her will, she eventually discovers he’s not as bad as she first thought and they end up in love – and while I’m happy to believe that a girl (or anyone really) might end up trying to make the most of their situation as a captive (hullo Stockholm Syndrome) I can’t really accept that this can be considered love in any sort of traditional sense.

So it’s a good thing then, that The Hollow Kingdom isn’t a Beauty-and-the-Best story – it is very much more. While the premise sounds as unfeminist as I think such a story could get, I would certainly consider Kate and Emily to be very strong and capable heroines. For a good three-quarters of the book Kate spends her time out-smarting Marak and attempting to clever-her-way out of becoming a Goblin King’s bride – because understandably, the thought of being abducted and held captive for the sole purposes of propagating the Royal Goblin line – to put it quite mildly – irks her no end. She does this all the while trying to keep both her and her little sister safe, and she does this on her own as soon as it becomes clear that none of the human adults believe her – indeed they intentionally put her in harm’s way in an attempt to make her “face he fears” and persistently question her sanity.

When she does finally giver herself over to the Goblin King it is in order to save her sister – and when she becomes the Goblin King’s wife she is placed under a charm (in the shape of a snake tattoo) that will strike and paralyse anyone – including the wife herself – who attempts to harm the Goblin King’s wife. The Goblin King then has the option to do with this person as he sees fit. The device is made to control the wife and ensure that she cannot escape – and yet despite this Kate discovers a way to make the charm work for her. The charm was originally placed on her in order to remove her of her agency, and yet she eventually learns to manipulate the charm and use it as a tool to give her back control over her own life, which I love. Also she befriends the snake who has some of the funnier lines in the story:

“Charm, has this happened before?”

“Yes,” hissed the snake softly. “Two other King’s Wives have been outside without the King’s permission. One no longer had a king. He was dead, and she was awaiting the birth of the heir. The other was in danger when the Kingdom Spells gave way and her king was far from home. And one King’s Wife travelled by closed wagon with a loud, fat woman during the migration. But it is true,” it whispered,”that you are the first King’s Wife to travel by closed wagon with a loud, fat woman and without the King’s permission.”

As with Beauty and the Beast, Kate eventually discovers she quite likes living amongst the Goblins and that she has become quite fond of Marak over time – but thankfully unlike Beauty and the Best it isn’t Kate’s gentle womanly ways that softens Marak and convinces him to love her and free her – it’s the fact that she saves his entire damn kingdom while he is incapacitated and this leads to him realising he has no right to hold someone captive who had braved such dangers to save his kingdom.

Despite how strong Kate is as a heroine, there are quite a lot of problematic aspects of her relationship with Marak. Mainly that while he may treat her with respect in the end, at least for a good three-quarters of the novel he is nothing but abusive and controlling and that seems rather too easily forgotten and forgiven. Furthermore, while Marak does respect his new wife’s strength and intelligence even towards the end you get the sense that it is Kate’s baby-making potential that he admires the most and that is pretty problematic in itself, especially considering this.

This is why I can’t really accept Kate and Marak’s relationship as a love story – because I really don’t think it is. Kate makes the best of her time in the Goblin kingdom and grows to respect and admire Marak’s craftiness and magic skills, but the revelation that she has grown to love him feels pretty forced. Not to mention the hints that suggest she accepts goblin life almost because she’s come to fear humanity and how monstrous they can be – for while the Goblins are monstrous at least they cannot lie, whereas humans lie all the time, hiding their monstrousness. This is hardly the kind of ending that I would call happy and hardly the kind of situation that would lend itself towards a truly loving relationship.

As for Marak, I feel that he is very true to his character and makes a very convincing fey. Clare Dunkle has successfully presented him as a Goblin rather than try to shoe-horn in any human expectations or human notions of morality, and this is very refreshing. Faerie-type are meant to be largely amoral, which Marak is – but unable to lie, which Marak can’t – and he has his own set of principles that revolve mainly around honesty and ensuring he does right by his people, which he does – even if it is at the expense of his bride’s well-being.

That said, I am very much looking forward to reading the next book – which will focus on Emily who I felt throughout the novel might have always been the more interesting sister.

Ginie

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