Posts Tagged ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’

Recently, The Cut put out a list of 25 quotes from famous women all about female friendships. The topic is an inspired one, in my opinion, because, as the article points out, friendships between women are complex – far more complex than movies, television, or most forms of media will cover. Via the lens of Hollywood, women, as we relate to each other, are rarely depicted in a positive manner. Much of this is due to the skewed gender dynamics of any grouping of oldacquaintance-toastcharacters. Whether it’s an action movie, a television procedural, or a popular cartoon series, women are typically outnumbered two to one.  And that’s assuming there’s more than one woman in the cast. There’s a reason why “The Chick” and its corresponding trope the “Smurfette Principle” exist; the lone female character in the main cast serves as the only representative of half the viewing audience, of which the other half gets at least four characters to latch on to, and her entire reason for existing is to be the love interest/girl equivalent of the male lead or just simply “The Girl” meant to embody all things under the broad category of feminine.

So you can imagine how difficult it is to portray friendship among women with any depth when this tendency to keep to one girl per team means the lone female’s personality and drive are always dwarfed by her relationship to the male cast, specifically the leading man. Men get to “bro out” because there are just more of them while female characters are either one-of-guys or sporting the coldest shoulder in need of the leading man to thaw. The message sent to girls and women is clear; this character has earned a special place amongst this group of men, something you too should strive for but if another woman shows up you should be wary of her immediately. Think about cartoons of the 80s and 90s. One girl in this special group with mostly guys, she has doe eyes for the leading man, and then another voltron-teamwoman shows up. This femme fatale immediately zeroes in on the lead guy and openly flirts with him just for the sheer pleasure of making the girl jealous. Typically she ends up being the villain of the week defeated by the end of the episode, but that storyline shows up in just about every cartoon. Trust me. It’s a very rare thing for an extra female character to just randomly show up and become best friends with the sole leading lady…unless that’s also a ruse for the episode. Cartoons were really formulaic back in the day. The point is, girls are taught from a young age to be distrustful of other women, which dovetails into adolescence and adulthood as the media constantly pits women against each other in a way that emphasizes spite and jealousy over friendship and loyalty. And the general lack of a female plurality means women have fewer characters to identify with and emulate.

And that’s where the ultimate problem lies. Because of the gender imbalance, female characters are either written with no personality so as to be a blank enough slate for female viewers to project themselves upon or they’re written with ALL THE PERSONALITIES so as to cover every base that the writer believes to be salient to women – assuming all women go through the same milestones and experience full character arcs within a predetermined time frame. The luxury of multiple male characters is you can have varying personalities, ya know like in real life, that viewers can relate to. It’s why Black Widow’s storyline in Avengers: Age of Ultron has received so much criticism, lots-of-new-avengers-age-of-ultron-character-detailsmostly but not exclusively, from women bemoaning the romantic drama between her and Bruce Banner as well as the disclosure of her sterilization while being trained as an assassin. As the only female lead in the Avengers ensemble, some felt the romantic/can’t-be-a-mommy angle was unnecessary for Natasha and further proof of Hollywood’s systemic misogyny. In truth the absence of women creates an absence of stories, which creates a need to see those stories done correctly for fear that it’s a one-time offer.

Mark Ruffalo reiterated this point during his most recent AMA:

If anything, Black Widow is much stronger than Banner. She protects him. She does her job, and basically they begin to have a relationship as friends, and I think it’s a misplaced anger. I think that what people might really be upset about is the fact that we need more superhuman women. The guys can do anything, they can have love affairs, they can be weak or strong and nobody raises an eyebrow. But when we do that with a woman, because there are so few storylines for women, we become hyper-critical of every single move that we make because there’s not much else to compare it to. [Source: Nerdist]

WWTo put it another way, think of all the scrutiny the Wonder Woman solo movie has come under before a script has even been written. Casting decisions, Gal Gadot’s body, the costume, the director, the studio, her cameo appearance – all of it has been and will continue to be debated and picked apart until the finished product is released in 2017. And even then it will be the subject of multiple conversations, essays, and op-eds about women in the film industry, female led movies, female led action/superhero movies, and the depiction of women in comics. The scrutiny and the nitpicking will be exhaustive and unrelenting. Why? Because we’re concerned that this is it. If Wonder Woman doesn’t succeed, for whatever reason, it’s just more fodder for studio executives to proclaim that female led movies don’t sell. Thus, Hollywood continues to trudge along like men are the universal demographic, which makes it even harder for women to carve out even a smidge of safe space in the Hollywood machine.

I know I’m being hyperbolic, but don’t tell me any bit of that doesn’t at least have a grain of truth. It’s frustrating because as a woman I’ve been taught to find more sympathy and empathy with male characters purely because my choices were limited in the amount of women present in the cartoons, tv shows, and movies I watched. As a kid, and a tomboy, I didn’t think much of it, but as an adult it just doesn’t make sense to put limitations on the amount of women in an ensemble when you’re effectively closing your story off to other narrative avenues and character interaction. Pro tip: If there’s only one woman on the bridge crew of a spaceship, or a group of mercenaries, or a ragtag team of miscreants looking to raise hell maybe make one of the four or five interchangeable meatheads a woman. Hell, make half of them women. Or better yet, make the WHOLE CAST WOMEN!guardians-galaxy-walking

It’s not such a crazy idea since women generally interact in groups, so the National Geographic specials have told me. And it’s not just a case where one woman is hanging out with a group of men. Nope. Get this. Women occasionally hang out with other women. Weird, right? Sometimes a group of women can get together, all of them from differing backgrounds and life experiences, somehow stay in a room together, have a laugh or a serious conversation, and part ways on friendly terms with the desire to hang out again. But you wouldn’t know that from Hollywood where all-female casts = romantic comedy/drama/coming-of-age/Lifetime cancer movie of the week tear-jerker. We’re given the “Chick Flick” label because all other movies are for guys? Again, that’s a limitation based on the old school assumption that women have to be coerced to see westerns, sci-fi, horror, or action movies where we typically see the a significant shortage of female characters. In actuality, we love those films just as much as men and willingly go see them. But you know what we rarely see? More than one woman in those genre ensembles. And if there are maybe two women they’re either rivals, they never have a scene together, or one of them dies to further the male character’s plot.

bridesmaids_poster021-e1304923490553-700x361That’s why all-female casts like the Ghostbusters reboot, the much maligned Expendabelles, the up-coming Jem and the Holograms, and even the rumored 21 Jump Street spinoff matter. The same goes for Bridesmaids, The Heat, Rizzoli and Isles, Cagney and Lacey, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Parks & Recreation, Broad City, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra, and Sailor Moon. They feature more than one female character in the lead, if not a female-dominated cast, which allows for personalities to flourish and create differing character interactions based on those personalities. No one character has to shoulder all of femininity. Instead, all of them get the chance to showcase how nuanced women are in relation to each other.

A blog post from Amanda C. Miller about Sailor Jupiter sums this up nicely:

You see, when you have an entire team of girls instead of just one or two, it makes the writer’s job easier because they don’t have to be as worried about playing it safe with their sole precious female character, and can therefore be more nuanced and complicated in their approach. You can give them each distinct personalities, flaws, strengths, desires, POVs, etc, because you have more than just one person representing an entire gender. With proper representation, you have the freedom to just show people as human. The good, the bad, the ugly, the quirky, so on and so forth. This goes for any underrepresented group of people.

Women are funny, competitive, vulgar, emotional, intelligent, romantic, standoffish, brazen, intimidating, generous, etc. but we need more properties that emphasize these aspects through interactions with other women. We need and want an all female Ghostbusters because we had to sit through two movies where four guys with varying Broad citybackgrounds in science and psychology ran around busting ghosts but the only two women in the cast were the secretary and the damsel. You know what would be awesome? Four women from varying backgrounds of science, psychology, and paranormal studies running around busting ghosts and talking to each other like friends or colleagues would. Will one of them have a love interest? Will one of them be married with kids? Maybe. It’s always a possibility. But it’s just as possible that all of them are single, two of them are in the Illuminati, and three-fourths of them eat ice cream while watching late night B-movies on basic cable. The point is you have the option to choose without worrying about who representing “The Girl”. They’re all “The Girl” but now it’s time to figure out what that entails.

Don’t get me wrong, some headway is being made. Comic books like Batgirl, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Gotham Academy, Rat Queens, Lumberjanes, and the new Jem and the Holograms are going strong with their emphasis on girl power and the strength of friendship but it’s still a small pool in an ocean of books featuring male leads. Television and film? Yeah, needs some work, but it’s work worth doing to have an even greater selection of quality stories.

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Sam talks with Aaron Diaz, creator/writer/artist of Dresden Codak. The two talk art, Lord of the Rings, webcomics, and dinosaurs! So a little something for everyone!

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Sam is joined by Sean and Miguel to talk about The Legend of Korra finale and the series as a whole.

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Two years and four seasons, with plenty of bumps along the way, and here we are at the end of Korra’s legend. At least the part that’s animated. We’ve seen Korra grow in so many ways – as a person, a woman, and as the Avatar. From adorable prodigy to well-intentioned, though naive and hot-headed, teenager to mature adult, Korra’s journeybook four has been fraught with multiple crises. But in her persistence and resolve to prove herself Korra, and by extension her creators, have given us a story of triumph over insurmountable odds; one that embraces mature themes of class equality, spirituality, revolution, and the price paid for being guardian to an advanced world. While The Legend of Korra owes its very existence to the popularity and fantastic storytelling of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the sequel series has, in my opinion, exceeded the legacy of its predecessor, carving out its own space as an iconic piece of Western animation.

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko in 2012, Korra was originally a one season exploration of the world created in Avatar: The Last Airbender through the eyes of the next Avatar in the cycle, a girl from the Southern Water Tribe named Korra (Janet Varney). Had the show only run for the one season, I’m sure we would have looked at it as a fun trip back into the realm of fantasy where people bend the elements and the Avatar thwarts yet another nefarious plot in order to restore balance. The subsequent seasons, however, became the show’s proving ground. After some backtracking in season two, Korra forged ahead with an agenda that challenged the status quo of storytelling in animation and what is ostensibly viewed as “children’s programming” while still being an entertaining and engaging action-adventure fantasy series.

korra-all-the-avatarsThe Legend of Korra is a multifaceted show that defies simple categorization. Over the course of four seasons we’ve seen this work to the show’s advantage as it essentially grew up under the scrutiny of a generation steeped in internet culture. Avatar: The Last Airbender began and ended before Twitter, Tumblr, and a number of websites were in heavy rotation, but Korra was born within the epicenter of social media and the blogosphere, a place where representation and visibility were, and still are, of the utmost importance. But even with a woman of color as the lead, Korra wasn’t a guaranteed success especially in an environment where anything with a female lead was considered “tricky” or some kind of magical unicorn never to be seen twice. Two years later and the attitude of viewing audiences have towards properties like Korra has changed for the better and yet remained frustratingly the same. DiMartino and Konietzko, or Bryke as they’re affectionately called, aren’t responsible for all matters concerning representation, but they still took it upon themselves to make certain that Korra resonated with her audience despite consistent network interference. By ending the series with Korra and Asami (Seychelle Gabriel) holding hands and staring lovingly at each other as they enter the Spirit World for a much-needed vacation, The Legend of Korra solidified itself as a program indicative of its time and place. Having a queer woman of color in the lead role of a Korrasamifantasy action series put Korra in the unique position of taking a small, but still huge, step forward in the nuanced portrayal of women of color and the LGBTQ community in Western animation and children’s programming. Yes, I’m well aware that anime has been doing this for quite some time.

The uniqueness of the show also stems from a combination of storytelling and character development that, again, isn’t seen a lot in Western animation. For instance, the show follows patterns reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”, but goes to even greater lengths to examine those tropes through the lens of Eastern storytelling. From the beginning, Korra has been a character who embraced the call to action. In fact, it was the central conceit of the pilot and the starting point for the series as a whole. Korra is a more proactive character in her approach to being the Avatar; where Aang tried to find the peaceful route first, Korra was always ready for a fight and the storytelling reflected those traits. Avatar: The Last Airbender was all about the overarching plot of Aang and friends going up against the Fire Lord while The Legend of Korra had contained arcs for each season, which allowed Korra to go up against multiple villains. The advantage for Korra lies in the character growth achieved through her battles with Amon, Unalaq and Vaatu, the Red Lotus, and Kuvira. It’s also another means of showing that the hero’s journey is hardly a linear model with a definitive beginning and end. If legend-of-korra-series-finale-korraanything, the hero’s journey is an ongoing process with multiple starts and stops along the way. The destination is still important, but the journey matters more in the long run and Korra’s journey has been all about growth and change in a world going through the same process.

As a character, Korra has an inherent connection to the struggles of the world she protects. Throughout the series her internal doubts and conflicts are reflected externally. Season one was about elitism and equality in a technologically advanced world, season two the lack of spiritual connection as a result of these advancements, season three the chaos of adjusting to rapid change, and season four the need to control in order to combat the turmoil of chaos. All of these hardships belong to Korra but they are just as present in Republic City, the four elemental nations, and in her enemies. This grounds Korra and gives her personal stakes in the fate of the world regardless of her position as the Avatar. Even if she turned away from the problems facing the world they still live within her. That’s incentive enough to act, but Korra’s peace of mind only appears to be fulfilled when she and the world are in balance.

Season four was a dense playground of themes and ideas, the most poignant being the Buddhist philosophy of suffering. At the end of season three, Korra is poisoned and nearly killed by Zaheer (Henry Rollins). She survives but is broken by the latest in a long line of battles. For three years she attempts to regain her strength and force herself into readiness, but only by accepting the trauma, and learning from her enemies, does she truly begin to heal. Suffering leads to perspective and wisdom, which ultimately allows her to triumph over Kuvira (Zelda Williams); not through the awesome power of being the Avatar but through sympathy and empathy. It was the worst kept Legend-of-Korra-The-Last-Stand-10secret that Korra and Kuvira were reflections of each other. Hell, Bolin (P.J. Byrne) practically spells it out for the audience and I’m fairly certain that the name Kuvira was chosen to be just similar enough to Korra so we wouldn’t miss it. The point being that the similarities between the two in attitude and demeanor forced Korra to go beyond her training as a fighter and find another angle of approach. While the two have some intense and amazingly animated battles thanks to Studio Mir, their conflict ends only when Korra offers a sympathetic ear, something that season one Korra wouldn’t have considered because she didn’t have the experience needed in order to understand Kuvira’s position or her plight. By resolving the situation as peaceably as possible, Korra comes into her own as the Avatar, and the person, she wants to be.

What is specific to Korra, but still a point of connection between her and the audience, is the idea of relevancy. The entire series hinges on a single question: Does the world still need the Avatar? By series end, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” All the mecha suits, spirit kaiju, and political haranguing aside, Korra is still relevant, still necessary to the world around her. But just as importantly, Korra and other shows in the same vein are needed and necessary to the viewing audience. Korra offers something we don’t see as often as we want in the television landscape: a place where women are valued.

beifong womenI’ve written before about the amazing cast of female characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, but the final season of Korra presented a plethora of women offering sage advice or kicking ass – both in Toph’s case. While Korra had plenty of male teachers and enemies, seasons three and four tipped the scale in favor of the show’s female characters. It doesn’t make Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), Mako (David Faustino), Bolin, Bumi, or Kai irrelevant, but it shows that the creators wanted to celebrate women as heroes, villains, mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, leaders, scientists, spiritual guides, and everything else under the sun. The fact that Bolin’s hero is Toph still makes me happy because it isn’t often that we see male characters on television, animated or otherwise, showing unabashed hero-worship for a female character. Bolin, more than any male character in the series, has been the ultimate cheerleader for women. He’s the first to believe in Korra, laying out all of the qualities that make her amazing, he worships Toph, and he defends Kuvira’s cause because he wants to see the good in it before the reality of his situation sets in. Through Bolin, Bryke found their own surrogate to tell the male audience that the Avatar universe is a world of celebration for women and men. Yes, it’s a realm of fantasy, but fantasy has a way of influencing reality.Bolin and Mako

Is it a feminist agenda? Of course, but the seeds have been there since Avatar. Making the next Avatar a woman as well as the reveal that the Avatar is a literal avatar for Raava, the female spirit of light and peace, are choices on the part of the creators to enrich their world as they see fit. By emphasizing the importance of the feminine spirit alongside the extensive female cast, DiMartino and Konietzko have crafted a realm where girls and women are equal in every way. The Legend of Korra accomplishes this without ever having to explicitly state the obvious in-universe compared to the first season of Avatar that went a long way to get the point across that women could fight just as well as men. The women of Korra are, without question, active agents in their world. Youngsters like Ikki and Jinora make just as much impact as the older Lin (Mindy Sterling) and Suyin (Anne Heche) Beifong. Age doesn’t denote skill or importance, giving girls of all ages in the viewing audience a contrasting image of how to define their own value and self-worth as they grow up.

So what’s next for Korra? Not sure. Hopefully a comic book is in the works a la the continuing adventures of Avatar: The Last Airbender that bridged the two series. After the series finale and the ending that will definitely be talked about for some time, it’s clear that there’s plenty of unexplored territory to cover. As Korra says to Tenzin, she’s not done learning. But if this is the last we see of Korra and company, then it’s definitely a legend worth telling.

Cast-edited

Sam and Miguel have a chat with the voice of Korra, Janet Varney. While Legend of Korra is the topic du jour, they also cover the auditioning process, voice over work in general, and Janet debuts her impression of fellow Thrilling Adventure actor Marc Evan Jackson.

Links to Janet:

The JV Club
Janet’s Website
Follow Janet on Twitter

Into music: “French Kiss” by Mrs. Howl

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Before Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra gave us a glut of charismatic and realized female characters, before Steven Universe brought us diverse, retro-futuristic superheroes like Garnet, Amethyst, and Diamond, and before Gravity Falls and Bob’s Burgers gave us silly yet poignant characters like Mabel, Tina, and Louise respectively (two of which are voiced by Kristen Schaal), there was the first wave of female cartoon characters that influenced a generation of children, girls and boys, and paved the way for the latest Renaissance of animation where more gender and racially diverse casts are becoming the norm. Representation in media may not seem like a huge deal to some, but we often forget (some more than others) that, as children, the media we consume imprints on us in ways we don’t fully understand until well into adulthood. The goggles of nostalgia being what they are, the current generation is benefiting from what my, and the generations before me, lacked.

Animated cartoons as a medium of entertainment have roughly been around since the turn of the 20th century when the 1908 French film, Fantasmagorie, featured the first instance of traditional, hand-drawn, animation. From there, animated shorts began appearing as experimental films themselves or as shorts before features. Walt Disney and Warner Bros. both developed their signature styles and characters through these shorts. But it wasn’t until 1958 that we got the first purely animated half-hour show featured on television, Hanna-Barbera’s Huckleberry Hound. Two years later we got The Flintstones and the rest, they say, is cata_bettyboophistory. But like the history books we read, the figures dominating the scene were mostly male and white – though I have no idea what the racial breakdown is amongst characters like Wally Gator, Snagglepuss, and the cast of Top Cat.

Female characters in early animation and even in the classic cartoons from the 30s on down were largely used as nagging wives, wide-eyed innocent dimwits, or sexual objects. The 60s and 70s gave us some marginal steps forwards with Josie and the Pussycats and Scooby-Doo, but the ad hoc mystery-solving teen plus animal sidekick shows rarely produced memorable, let alone influential, female characters. As for depictions of race in cartoons, yeah we all know why Disney and Warner Bros. keep a lot of those locked away. Though kudos to Amazon and iTunes for adding a disclaimer to the Tom and Jerry cartoons. It’s a necessary step in educating people on how cartoons, like any medium, are the product of their time and what was considered acceptable.

So why am I bringing this up? Why am I adding historical context to what is ostensibly a list of favorite female cartoon characters from the 80s and 90s? Because we need to understand how the cartoons kids and adults watch now got to this point. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still the continuing tropes of the Smurfette Principle and Tokenism in many cartoons airing currently, but now more than ever are audiences likely to voice their opinions and demand change. Furthermore, creators of these cartoons are more likely to purposefully craft these new cartoons because they understand the changing climate and the need for greater representation and character types. And when you start looking at where the seeds of change were planted, it’s only a few decades back when impressionable kids like myself got a taste of what was yet to come.

 

Babs Bunny (Tiny Toon Adventures) and Dot Warner (Animaniacs)

For all intents and purposes, Babs and Dot share very similar character traits. For one, they’re both voiced by the incomparable Tress MacNeille, but they’re also characters who, like their male counterparts, are just as silly, if not sillier. It’s not a case of them being “just one of the guys”, Babs and Dot are active participants in the shenanigans of their respective shows. And they’re funny as hell!Babs

Though Babs is the epitome of the Smurfette Principle on a visual level (right down to being pink), the writers of Tiny Toons made her a character in her own right. She’s obsessed with perfecting her impressions and goes to great lengths to show her mother just how funny she is despite the lack of attention. There was also a very touching episode called “Fields of Honey” where Babs laments the fact that she has no mentor the equivalent of Buster to Bugs or Plucky to Daffy, though she ends up finding a mentor in the made up Honey of the Bosko and Honey cartoons from the 30s. It’s a bit of commentary on the fact that the Looney Tunes lacked female characters save for Granny, Witch Hazel, and the poor cat often harassed by Pepe Le Pew. Tiny Toons may have created some female counterparts to their male characters, but they made sure they were distinctive. Elmira, anyone?

dot and melDot, like Babs, somewhat embodies the Smurfette Principle, but like her older brothers she’s just as capable of being the voice of reason as she is being an instigator of their torturous fun at the expense of others. Adorned in a little pink skirt and a bow on her head, Dot also has the added dimension of acting “girly”, often proclaiming to others how cute she is, but never lacks in hilarity because of it. Her cuteness, the frequent catchphrases of her ridiculously long name, and the monstrous pet living in a tiny box, all create a complete package. And she’s just as prone to exhibiting the “female gaze” on attractive men as her brothers are on women even if the phrase, “Hello, Nurse!” doesn’t apply in Dot’s case, though that makes it even funnier. This was, of course, a play on what male characters in the Warner Bros. cartoons would do when faced with a sexualized female character, but in the case of Animaniacs, Dot could be just as obsessively attracted to someone as Yakko or Wakko. Babs definitely had her moments like this as well, but most of her efforts were put into getting Buster’s attention. Dot had no ongoing “love interest”, she was just interested.

 

April O’Neil (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)april-o-neil

Though she’s gone through as many iterations as her terrapin friends, April is usually the grounding element for viewers in case a title like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t completely prepare you for what the show was about. It’s through April (voiced by Renae Jacobs) we learn the origin story of the turtles and it’s through April that the turtles usually have reason to get involved with the plot. Saving April from whatever mess she’d gotten herself into was part of the formula of the show, but that formula also showed us that April was the type of reporter who would do anything to get her story. The whole reason she meets the turtles is because her continued investigation into the Foot Clan puts her face to face with Shredder’s goons, driving her into the sewers to save herself. Though Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was considered a boys cartoon, their main source of information and connection to the city above was an ambitious woman willing to put herself in danger because she believed in doing the right thing or getting the best camera angle.

 

Lydia Deetz (Beetlejuice)

LydiaBased, and I mean loosely based, on the movie of the same name, the cartoon version of Lydia (voiced by Alyson Court) was a breath of fresh Gothic air in the cartoon landscape. Keeping the bright, pastel settings of Tim Burton’s suburbia, Lydia continued to stick out with her black hair, pale skin, and purple eyeshadow in comparison to the perpetually tanned and blonde-haired girls that populated her middle school. Her story is not that dissimilar from other girls whose interests and looks deviate from what it considered “normal”. She’s isolated and alone and not even the well-intentioned platitudes of her parents make the loneliness go away. Fortunately for Lydia, she has a place she can go to escape the world that ineffectively forces her to conform where a friend awaits who truly understands her and cares about her for the person that she is. In the Neitherworld, Beetlejuice’s home, Lydia can be herself and through her friendship with Beetlejuice she comes into her own as a girl of intelligence and spirit willing to play along with her friend’s schemes and have fun in her topsy-turvy home away from home. It’s what we all wish for, the ability to escape for a while and spend time with a friend who brings out the best in us. Being Goth, however, though it ostracized her from the other people in her cookie cutter community, was never depicted negatively. In fact, it’s what made Lydia distinctive, an individual with a mind of her own. She paved the way for characters like Sam Manson (Danny Phantom) and Marceline (Adventure Time), showing that Goth girls are more than just heavy eyeliner and an interest in spiders. Though that red outfit…man, do I want that for Halloween!

 

Gosalyn Mallard (Darkwing Duck)gosalyn

By all rights, and I swear I’ll fight you over this, Gosalyn Mallard is the perfect example of a tomboy in cartoons. There’s honestly no other character like Gosalyn (voiced by Christine Cavanaugh), that I can think of, who exhibits the same traits and sports the same attitude. A ball of energy and spunk, Gosalyn is the adopted daughter of Drake Mallard, better known as Darkwing Duck. And while most superheroes struggle with balancing home life with their heroic activities, one of Darkwing’s greatest obstacles is keeping Gosalyn away from danger. This is a girl who thinks having a superhero father is the greatest thing ever and isn’t afraid to jump in the sidecar of a motorcycle and follow him into the fray. Gosalyn is Darkwing’s biggest fan, always encouraging him to take down the bad guys no matter how many punches it takes – to them or to him. She’s smart, quick-witted, and ridiculously adorable when she needs to be, which all feeds into her desires to sidestep Darkwing’s rules and be an active participant in taking down the criminals of St. Canard. Gosalyn has even joined Darkwing as a hero in her own right; as Yucky Duck, the Crimson Quackette, and the Quivering Quack, though never for very long. It’s also the father-daughter relationship that maintains the emotional core of the show, another aspect that isn’t explored all that often in cartoons. Many episodes made sure to show how much Darkwing and Gosalyn love each other, including an episode where Gosalyn’s accidental trip to the future showed a darker version of her father obsessed with extreme order and justice because he thought he couldn’t save her. Without Gosalyn, Darkwing isn’t the same hero, showing how important her presence and her encouragement are to the “terror that flaps in the night”.

 

Gadget (Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers)

gadget2Yet another character voiced by Tress MacNeille, this one you could say is my bias poking through because people probably remember Rescue Rangers for the catchy theme song and its titular characters than they necessarily remember Gadget. But if you do remember Gadget as being more than “The Girl” of the group, then you’re also aware of how a character like her could be inspiration to young girls who might have dreams of going into fields like science or engineering. Gadget is a genius and the resident inventor of the group, always ready to MacGyver a piece of machinery out of what we might consider junk to help save the day. Granted, her inventions didn’t always work as planned, but Gadget was always quick on her feet to repair or alter her inventions when need be. Still, she suffered from the occasional bouts of self-esteem, especially when it came to her usefulness and her place on the team. One of the more well-known episodes deals with Gadget suffering from an identity crisis after her inventions repeatedly fail, leading her to join the Cola Cult in order to find a place to belong. Of course, by the end everything works out. This is Disney. Still, episodes like “The Case of the Cola Cult” are important to fleshing out characters, even if we don’t notice it as much when we’re children. It showed Gadget on another level, a girl who could experience self-doubt yet still find a way to overcome it. Despite her failures, Gadget keeps trying.

 

Detective Elisa Maza (Gargoyles)Elisa Maza

Like April O’Neil, Elisa Maza (voiced by Salli Richardson-Whitfield) serves the purpose of being the human connection between the newly woken gargoyles and the modern world. A detective for the NYPD, Elisa is the second human Goliath encounters in New York, but she proves to be the most influential, showing him how Xanatos and Demona are using him and his clan for their own purposes. Though she often acts as the voice of reason and a source of sisterly comfort, Elisa is just as prone to impulsiveness and obsession when it comes to her job in the police department. She’s not afraid to confront those more powerful than her, especially when she sees them abusing their power at the expense of those incapable of defending themselves. Dealing with the mob, monsters, and her own family are just about on equal footing in Elisa’s world, though she’s never one to back down from a fight. And while it shouldn’t be a significant factor, Elisa’s mixed-race heritage was a huge step in the right direction for female characters and cartoons in general. Elisa is half African-American and half Native American, though she and her siblings seem to favor one race over the other instead of an actual mix. The point, however, is that Elisa being the product of a mixed-race family is important for the greater themes of representation in media. The default for female leads can’t be “white” anymore than it is for male leads and children need to be able to see themselves in the media they consume. We can all identify with a character who’s different from us, but we also need to see ourselves reflected back, to know that we’re just as important. And Elisa got to be that character for some kids.

So, yeah, that’s a lot of words about a few characters but they’re characters I believe shouldn’t be discounted for how they potentially influenced a generation of children who would or will grow up to be the next wave of creators in animation and media in general. Their impact, great or small, is still an impact worth noting.

So, who would you add to this list? I know there are more out there, but these were the characters most memorable to me. Let me know who and why!

Sam and Miguel recap the first two seasons of The Legend of Korra and dive into the first three episodes that make up the Season 3 premiere.

 

Okay, I’ve had the weekend to mull over how I feel about the Season Three finale of The Legend of Korra and Season Three in general.

Here goes…

 

 WooHoo

 

OHMYGOD! That was amazing. Not only was the finale – a one hour block consisted of episodes 12, “Enter the Void”, and 13, “Venom of the Red Lotus” – one of the strongest, most action-packed, and gut-wrenching pieces of animation produced by the series creators and Studio Mir, it’s proof that Korra will indeed live up to her title, experiencing the trials and errors, and Pyrrhic victories of being a legend.legend-korra

For starters, a little background.

If I’m being honest, and I usually am, Book One: Air and Book Two: Spirits suffered from uneven storytelling, which happens on any series. Certainly Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t perfect either; highs and lows occurred throughout all three seasons. And while Air was a great introduction to Korra and the societal unrest of Republic City, Spirits meandered for the first half of the season as it tried to recover from the rushed ending and last-minute pickup from the network. Thankfully, Book Two recovered at mid-season, ending on Korra’s game-changing decision to keep the spirit portals open and reunite humans and spirits once again. The consequences of her decision, however, fueled all of Book Three, the aptly named Change.

By keeping the spirit portals open after Harmonic Convergence, the unintended byproduct was the creation of new airbenders. Committed to helping Tenzin rebuild the Air Nation, Korra and company travel to the Earth Kingdom to find other airbenders. Unfortunately, one of the new airbenders is Zaheer, leader of the Red Lotus. Imprisoned for trying to kidnap Korra as a child along with his three equally powerful cohorts, combustionbender P’Li, armless waterbender Ming-Hua, and lavabender Ghazan, the group escapes and sets about completing the plan they’d attempted thirteen years ago: kill the Avatar and restore the world to its natural order of chaos.

Okay, now for the awesome stuff!

The-Legend-of-Korra-Book-3-Team-AvatarThis has been one of the best uses of an ensemble cast since the first season. Even while we were introduced to new characters like the members of the Red Lotus, Lin Beifong’s half-sister Su, leader of the Metal Clan, and the return of an old friend in the elderly Lord Zuko, the season never felt overcrowded. Each character got a chance to shine in his or her own way, not just through their fighting styles and bending abilities, but as emotionally maturing people. As much as the show is focused on Korra, her friends and enemies are fully realized and there was never a moment where while watching one group I wished I was watching someone else. I especially loved how Team Korra became a stronger unit. Sure there was awkwardness because of Mako’s failed relationships with Asami and Korra, but the two girls showed great maturity by becoming friends, teaming up and kicking butt like they’d been at it forever. Yes, there was still squabbling, but it felt more like a family than petty in-fighting. Everyone was engaging and entertaining, showing the combined strength of the writers, directors, and animators to deliver a fantastic third season.

The villains, by far, are some of the best to come out of the world of Avatar. The members of the Red Lotus are charismatic, thoughtful, clever, funny, and none of them slack on the fighting. For crying out loud, Ming-Hua is an armless waterbender. An armless. Waterbender. How they show her utilizing her abilities is nothing short of brilliant. All of the Red Lotus are formidable on their own, but together they’re a force to be reckoned with. At the same time, the philosophical blueprint that Zaheer follows makes for a mature look at how a “villain” can perceive theirRed_Lotus own actions as heroic. He’s definitely the smartest opponent Korra’s faced and its that intelligence and skill that keeps your eyes glued to the screen. You want to like the villains this time around. Actually, you do like the villains and you understand their point-of-view. Like Zuko or Azula, a little part of you is rooting for the bad guys. Then you realize they wanted to poison and kill a four-year-old. Yeah…But, hey, they’re still awesome and I’m not even kidding when I say that Zaheer and P’Li’s romance was genuinely touching and tragic.

Lastly, the animation, all done by Studio Mir, is top-notch. It’s why something like Avatar and Korra can never be completely replicated in live action. The animated environment is more expansive, more fantastical, than anything that can be captured on film with actors backed by CGI. None of the fights felt wasted or superfluous. It wasn’t bending for the sake of bending, it was bending for the sake of storytelling. Lin and Su’s fight over their unresolved issues, the release of each member of the Red Lotus, and the training of the new airbenders all facilitated character development. And they definitely saved the best for last. The finale features the best fights of the season. Korra, with platinum cuffs on her wrists and ankles, still shows how skilled she is even while hindered. When her father shows up to help, it’s an effective team-up complete with leapfrog bending attacks. And the end fight between Zaheer and Korra in the poisoned Avatar State is unlike anything that’s been used in the series thus far and shows how much more sophisticated animation has become. The different perspectives achieved as Korra and Zaheer fly around and battle each other is breathtaking in its scope and scale. I can only imagine what’s cooking for next season.

 

Animation

 

And now for the analytical stuff!

From the beginning of Book Three there was a feeling of purpose and focus for Korra, the series and the character. After the battle with Vaatu and Unalaq in Book Two, Korra lost the connection to her past lives, making her the first Avatar since Wan to lack guidance from her predecessors. Instead, Korra had to draw from her own experiences – and the advice of her friends and mentors – to make decisions based on what she believed was something the Avatar would do. Understandably, making decisions as the Avatar comes with its own insecurities and worries about whether one is doing the right thing and, as the series has shown, Korra’s biggest fear is failure. This is a girl who, from the age of Strong Korrafour, had practically mastered bending water, fire, and earth. Her struggle to master airbending in Book One and her lack of a spiritual connection in Book Two exposed her fears of failing to live up to Aang’s legacy as well as the legacy of the Avatar. Her need to fulfill the primary of duty of restoring balance thematically ran through the entire season and, surprisingly, managed to incorporate the plots of the previous seasons in a way that actually feels organic.

In a very strange way, it looks as if everything really has been leading to this point. After giving herself up to Zaheer in order to save the airbenders from being wiped out, Korra is poisoned so she’ll go into the Avatar State as a means of protecting herself and give the Red Lotus the opportunity to end the Avatar cycle by killing her. As she fights off falling into the Avatar State, she begins to hallucinate Amon, Unalaq, and Vaatu. Her previous foes taunt her, repeatedly telling her that the world doesn’t need an Avatar and she should just “let go”. Thankfully this didn’t turn into another Frozen parody, but the writers tapped into Korra’s longest-running opponent: the very world she’s trying to bring balance to. All three seasons have, in some way, stressed that not only is the Avatar unnecessary but that Korra has failed every step of the way. And in Korra’s mind, yes, those failures are real. She barely managed to stop Amon, she lost her connection to the past Avatars, the President of Republic City kicked her out because she couldn’t stop the infiltrating spirits, Ba Sing Se is in chaos, and as far as she knows the airbenders and her father are all dead. Instead of rebuilding, her actions have created more problems.Tear

It’s why I feel that the ending of this season, when Korra sheds a single tear when Jinora is made an airbending master, is about Korra believing that, as the Avatar, she’s a failure. Korra has always prided herself on being strong, something she sees as a positive asset for the Avatar, but after facing off with the Red Lotus she’s left physically and spiritually depleted. It’s made even more obvious when she has to witness Jinora’s ceremony from a wheelchair. Though I imagine Korra is happy for Jinora, she’s essentially watching the young girl who has a stronger connection to the spirit world, who helped her find Raava when she thought the spirit of light had been lost to Vaatu, and showed tremendous bravery and leadership in saving Korra from Zaheer become a leader among her culture as Tenzin vows that the new Air Nation will help Korra by acting as surrogates to restore balance while she recovers. Though well intended, Tenzin’s commitment to helping the Avatar practically reinforces what Korra dreads – she’s not necessary or needed.

So what can we expect from Book Four? Well, as far as I’m concerned, they should call it Balance. Both Korra and the world are in disarray and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the next season showed Korra dealing with some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other than that, I’m just looking forward to what they do next.

The only thing I want to know is: WHAT HAPPENED TO SOKKA AND SUKI?

As The Cowsills sang:

Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair. Shining, gleaming, streaming flaxen waxen..

 

Something I’ve noticed recently is the use of hair as a story-telling element for women and girls, especially in animation. This is nothing new. Hair has always been linked, one way or another, to societal position, marital status, and even rebellion, but in the visual format of film, television, and animation, hair has become the most visceral way of showing a person’s state of mind. The most recent example of this is a pivotal moment in Disney’s Frozen (2013) where Elsa, the Snow Queen, finally lets go of her repression and literally lets her hair down as she sings about embracing her true self.

No longer in the tight braid of suppression, Elsa now has a mussed up, slightly sexier braid, to say nothing of the dress she magically creates for herself with her ice-tailoring powers. The point is that this is supposed to be the moment Elsa completely comes into her own and it’s entirely linked to her hair. The minute that braid comes down, the audience immediately understands what’s just happened even if they’re not paying attention to the lyrics of the song. It’s a visual representation of Elsa’s state of mind that anyone can deduce.

Elsa, in this regard, actually has a lot in common with Merida from Brave (2012). Much of the movie’s early advertisements centered around how different Merida looked from other Disney princesses with her wild, curly red hair. The film even uses her hair to emphasize her rebellious spirit when Merida’s father, King Fergus, stands in as his daughter for a bit of role-playing to help his wife try to find an angle of communication. The king, in his best high-pitched voice proclaims, “I don’t want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.” Merida’s hair is linked to her desire for freedom from the responsibilities of marriage and being a princess. When she’s tied into her dress and her hair is stuffed into a wimple before her three suitors begin the series of games meant to win her as a bride, we’re meant to sympathize with her and her unwinnable situation. But when this happens…

It’s meant to be a moment of shock for the characters within the movie, but a triumphant moment for the audience and their attachment to Merida. The reveal of Merida’s unruly hair is an act of defiance, a statement of her intentions to be her own person by shooting for her own hand. Her feminist visualization goes even further when she breaks the stitching of her dress to give herself the proper freedom of movement to shoot her arrows, but her wild hair is the first and most obvious “moment” where Merida makes her intentions clear. The entire scene screams “METAPHOR!” but it sets the tone for Merida as a character and drives the central plot of the movie, more or less.

Disney actually uses hair in many of their animated movies as a means of visually depicting how the audience should perceive their female characters. This starts happening more during the Disney Renaissance since Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora don’t have any hair-related incidents as visual cues tied to their character development. The closest would probably be after Cinderella’s step-sisters tear her dress apart and her hair is disheveled only to be done up regally when the Fairy Godmother provides her with a new outfit. It doesn’t do much for Cinderella as a person, but it shows what a state of mess she’s in before her wish is granted and she’s off to the ball.

Hair becomes a prominent feature starting with The Little Mermaid (1989) when the animation department showed off their skills at depicting hair underwater through the long, red locks of Ariel. Her hair practically has a will of its own as it shifts and falls with the current or Ariel’s movements, emphasizing her rebellious and youthful spirit in contrast to her six older sisters who either have their hair cut shorter or done up in a ponytail or bun. In Beauty and the Beast (1991), Belle’s hair continually transforms from the bookish, yet youthful ponytail to her hair worn down as she matures in her love for the Beast or when she’s in peril. A constant tick is Belle pushing a stray lock of hair away from her face, which always seems to coincide with a major revelation she has. In Aladdin (1992), Jasmine wears her hair in a hanging, segmented ponytail, yet her only major hair change comes when Jafar makes her a slave-girl, using the higher ponytail to symbolize her change in status.

Disney doesn’t entirely have a monopoly on hair as visual signifier. The other contender would be Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) and The Legend of Korra (2012-present). In both shows, hair is used to signify the mental state and/or maturity of three characters specifically. Katara, over the course of three seasons (though only a year has passed in the world), transitions from her pulled back and braided hair on a near regular basis to consistently having it free flowing. In the first season, we only see it down when she means serious business and displays her mastery of waterbending, but in the later seasons it becomes a sign of her character growth and maturity. There are similarities in Legend of Korra in regards to the titular character. Korra, because of her athletic training, keeps her hair up, but in both the first and second season finales, when she has to fully display her skills as the Avatar, her hair always manages to come undun. By having her hair wild and free, it shows that Korra is equally as unrestrained.

The award for hair as linked to mental stability goes to Azula in Avatar: The Last Airbender. When we first meet Azula, she goes through a near perfect firebending routine, marred only by a single strand of hair out of place. The intensity with which Azula stares at the errant hair tells you everything you need to know about her. Her bullying and perfectionism come to a head when, devoid of all friends and allies, she awaits her crowing as the Fire Lord and breaks down in the process. Believing everyone is against her or trying to kill her, Azula tries to do her own hair, but messes it up. Her solution to the problem of such uncooperative hair is to frantically cut it. From there on out, she wears her hair down, uneven and disheveled. Her madness is solidified when she faces Zuko in Agni Kai. Her very movements become disturbing and erratic, made all the more so by her uncharacteristically free-flowing hair giving her a demonic presence as she attacks Zuko and Katara with uncontrolled glee.

Azula cutting her hair, however, does bring up an interesting contrast when it comes to Disney and its female leads. In most of their movies, the hair of each Disney princess has only changed in terms of how they wear it. There are two princesses, though one actually isn’t a princess but gets lumped into the category anyway, who have significant moments tied to their hair because it gets cut. It’s not as psychologically damaging, but important to their character’s nonetheless. The first is Mulan (1998). In order to take her father’s place in the Chinese army, Mulan needs to pass as a boy, leading to a very well done scene in which she cuts her long hair and takes her father’s armor, sword, horse, and summons. It’s a significant moment for Mulan not just as a woman, but as a woman in China. The men of China also have hair long enough to put in a topknot, so Mulan cutting her hair is more of a symbolic gesture, removing her duties as a daughter to assume the duties of a son to maintain the honor of her family. Though the Disney merchandise continues to depict her with the long hair she sports in the beginning of the first film, Mulan keeps her hair shorter even in the direct-to-DVD sequel, showing that her femininity and her prowess as a warrior lies in more than just her hair.

The second princess to have a significant hair cut is Rapunzel. In Tangled (2010), Rapunzel’s magical hair is attached to her freedom, though she doesn’t realize this until the climax of the film. Stolen away by Mother Gothel to continue rejuvenating her looks, Rapunzel’s hair cannot be cut or it will lose it’s magical properties. Though Gothel assumes the role of a parental figure, her primary focus is retaining her youth. To ensure that Rapunzel and her hair are never discovered, she warps the girl’s perception of the outside world as a means of keeping her in the tower. Her hair makes Rapunzel Gothel’s unwitting prisoner. When Flynn, who’s dying of stab wound, cuts her hair, he frees her from Gothel and her imprisonment at the cost of his own life. But this is a Disney movie, so you know that doesn’t stick for very long, right? Either way, when Rapunzel’s hair is cut, she’s finally free to be her own person and pursue her new dream. In many ways, it’s similar to real life.

Outside of animated movies, when a woman gets her hair cut, it’s an emotional ordeal that signifies transition or sacrifice. When Jo sells her hair in Little Women (1994) to pay for her mother’s train ticket or when Lt. Jordan O’Neill shaves her head to show her commitment to the Navy SEALS in G.I. Jane (1997), these are moments that show how far these women are willing to go to help others or to help themselves. Then there are instances like Sabrina’s maidenly and naive maturation into a sophisticated and worldly woman in Sabrina (1995) or Rebecca Warner changing from the timid farm girl into a “mature” college student in Son in Law (1993) that are emphasized through their hair going from long to short. Seems like the 90s were really into hair as metaphor.

If you’d like a more recent example of a live action movie hair transition, look no further than the upcoming Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier. Black Widow/Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson), in three movies, has gone through three different hairstyles. In Iron Man 2 (2010), she had the long, curly sexy hair that was about as functional as her role in the movie. In The Avengers (2012), she had a wavy, short cut that showed her no nonsense, yet still feminine approach to being a spy and soldier. And in Cap 2, she now has shoulder length, straight hair. Character maturity or a typical Hollywood change up? You decide.