Game of Thrones is big business, but is it breaking new ground? Guest blogger Matthew Sini takes a look at the state of fantasy on television, and the divide between the HBO behemoth and Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra.
Legend of Korra co-creator Mike Dante DiMartino posted this article on Facebook earlier today. Comparing Korra to Thrones is not something I would have thought about but is an interesting idea. One comparison I latched onto was this one about how women are depicted in the two series:
While this is all entirely understandable on an aesthetic level, it often results in very problematic politics. It’s been commented on before, but sexism is particularly egregious in Game of Thrones. A common fan reply to gripes about the show’s sexual violence against female characters is that it’s an authentic representation of a world ruled by medieval patriarchy. But this isn’t a historical drama. It’s a fantasy drama. How can you sensibly claim women getting abused or otherwise subjugated is “authentic representation”, while having no problem with dragons flying around and witches giving birth to evil babies made of shadows?
In its approach to women, Korra again outclasses Game of Thrones. The protagonist is a gutsy seventeen-year-old tomboy, quick-tempered and flawed but also the most powerful human in her world. Korra is neither a damsel in distress nor a perfect “go-girl” caricature. There are also a host of secondary female characters in positions of power and equally well-drawn (see what I did there?). Game of Thrones imagines a world where this sort of thing is unthinkable. To have any sort of “modern ideas” about female power would be “inaccurate” for the period. Yeah, that period that never actually existed!
I couldn’t resist adding to this comparison so I posted the following under the link.
As a fan of both Game of Thrones (inc. the books) and A:TLA/Korra, I find the comparison of the depictions of women in both series very interesting. Game of Thrones creates an explicitly patriarchal world that in the books is used to illuminate and provide commentary around how that world’s oppressive sexism affects the characters who are women. We see characters we are invested in (for better or for worse) struggling with the society’s sexist norms (oftentimes these women are fighting for their lives) and from there, as an audience, we develop an understanding of how sexism impacts women in this world. That being said, the GOT show undermines this quite a bit when the same sexism is replicated by the production (the aforementioned sexual violence, the camera’s sweeping male gaze sexualizing Ros’s dead body, the verisimilitude-defying character of field medic Talisa, etc.)
With A:TLA and Korra, the series’ level a critique of sexism very early on in Season 1 of A:TLA (Aang was only discovered because Katara was responding to Sokka’s sexism, Sokka’s sexism is challenged in other episodes and the impact of sexism on Katara’s studies becomes a major plot point.) But then…the show kind of stops challenging the sexism that was established in the show’s worldbuilding—unlike the Game of Thrones books, where the sexism of the world is constantly being implicitly questioned by the women protags, sometimes it kind of feels like LOK sort of just “let go.” Don’t get me wrong, Korra has some fantastic “strong female protagonists” (and so did A:TLA) but it’s also interesting to note how much has changed and how little has changed in the Four Nations when it comes to gender norms that were challenged in A:TLA, and why there is fandom critique.
A lot of it is what the audience actually gets to see (only hardcore fans know about the Earth Queen or Fire Lady from reading the creators’ tumblrs.) As viewers we’re shown that while there are women in leadership roles like Korra, Asami, and Lin, the majority of players in LOK’s “game of thrones” are still men. Even 70 years after Katara fought for women to learn waterbending, the Water Tribe leadership is dominated by men and both sides of the rebellion were driven by men; Eska and Desna’s mother is not present just as Yue’s mother was not in the story in Season One. Episode 2.01 featured an argument between two male figures over Korra’s training; Senna is shown as sort of sidelined both in her role deciding how Korra was raised and during the current conflict (how interesting would it have been if Senna had been the heir to the NWT, with it’s sexist legacy, and Unulaq her younger brother!) The Equalist movement was also led by men (Amon, Sato, Lt.). Nearly all of Lin’s metalbenders are men; when we do see women in any location (White Lotus Society, Republic City Council, Fire Sages, Air Nomads, Triads, Probending) they are still outnumbered by men. In the episode where Mako breaks up with Korra, Korra displays physical violence that likely would have had a different connotation both in the in-show world and the viewers’ world if Mako, the guy, had been the one to violently wreck furniture over being dumped. (The narrative’s framing of Eska, Korra, and Lin’s post-rejection behaviors kind of reinforces society’s gendered attitude that relationship violence from women doesn’t need to be taken as seriously or is harmless.) It’s very clear that even in the modern world of Republic City, there is not true gender equality, though it has over time become less explicit (NWT ban on women benders) and more implicit (kind of like in the modern US).
I think if there is one strength that “Game of Thrones” has in it’s depiction of sexism in worldbuilding and women characters it’s an ability to add that additional lens of commentary about how that sexism affects the characters. With the “Legend of Korra” we see a sort of “exceptionalism” and “meritocracy” attitude around the “strong women characters” which is a contrast to viewers seeing both Katara and Toph defying expectations (Katara for her gender and position as a “WT peasant”/ colonized people, Toph for her gender and disability.) So to me it’s kind of a trade-off. In “Game of Thrones” there is actually some useful commentary around sexism and sexual violence but the show clumsily undermines it because the camera is so titillated. With “Legend of Korra,” we get to see a lot of empowered women characters, but the exploration of sexism is not as nuanced and the message is confusingly contradictory: Women in powerful places doesn’t mean sexism is magically over—something the audience can see if it looks closely at the background players, but it’s not something the audience is directly confronted with.
What do you think about the depictions of gender in Game of Thrones and The Legend of Korra?
I think LoK would have far more business boasting of its feminist cred—and having it fawningly touted—if it didn’t keep undermining its female characters.
>Show where nearly every female character is downplayed or shoved aside in order to develop the writers favorite male character
>Show where the male Avatar receives more character development in one hour than Korra has in nine hours
Just because a girl is the protagonist does not mean that the show is feminist.
The women in GoT have more agency, motivation, and character development than the women of LoK. Despite the fact that they live in a patriarchal society, they exert agency more than the women of Korra do. They’re not hamfistedly shoved into love triangles centered around the writer’s pet. They’re not shoved to the side by the narrative. They grow and change as characters and as people which is a lot more than we can say for the women of Korra.
Korra has not developed in nine hours of screentime
Asami has had no character development
Kya has barely any significance
Katara is practically nonexistant at this point.
Eska’s entire character is centered around her incredibly problematic relationship with Bolin
Even Lin Bei Fong is now being made to look like a fool to shill Mako and make him out to be a super cop or something.
There are no significant female relationships in LoK
I also love the implication that because Korra is “tomboyish” that means she’s more feminist than the women of GoT. Just because Sansa or Cersei or Margarey don’t throw fireballs and like violence doesn’t mean that they’re any less feminist than Korra. In fact, they’ve accomplished more in their limited capacity that Korra has with her nearly limitless authority.
This article was clearly written by someone who has never seen either Korra or GoT.
And don’t forget: Tonraq is apparently an important character in this arc, while Senna is sidelined to the point that the staff forgot that she was a waterbender (unless that’s been retconned out, which creates its own issues). ‘Nuff said.