Friends, I have a confession: I am a nerd. One of my nerddoms of choice is anime, which has recently come to center stage as Nickelodeon has finally delivered on its promise for a second season of The Legend of Korra, a follow-up to its immensely popular (and immensely awesome) Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Fellow nerd friends, don’t argue with me right now about whether or not Korra should be considered anime. That’s not why we’re here. We’re here to discuss the disturbing trend developing in the series: abusive relationships, particularly abusive women, and how Nickelodeon is perpetuating the sick double standard that says men cannot be abused.
Take Bolin’s tumultuous relationship with the “ice princess” Eska. From the very beginning of their relationship, Eska not just dominates but domineers Bolin. “You will be mine,” she says upon meeting him, to which Bolin inquires whether she means as a boyfriend or a slave. Her response? “Yes.” Cue laughter.
Eska makes outrageous demands of Bolin’s time and energy. She is immediately jealous when he expresses affection for his closest friend—Korra, another woman—which she reacts to with physical force (encasing Bolin in ice to separate the two friends). After Bolin unsuccessfully tries to leave the relationship, he tells his brother Mako that Eska scares him and threatens to hurt him. At one point, when he attempts to end things bluntly, she manipulates him into a forced marriage. When he finally makes a physical escape on another character’s speedboat, Eska pursues using water bending. The camera zooms in on her face—enraged and violent—then pans back to Bolin, who is clearly frightened. “Is this thing fast enough to get away from my crazy, water-bending ex-girlfriend?” he asks, to which another character replies jovially, “Why do you think I built this boat?”
The gag is, admittedly, well executed, but it seems that Bolin has been put through this multiple-episode trauma for the sake of one continuous joke: Men who are abused are hilarious.
At no point does any character react to Bolin’s clearly abusive partner with anything but a blank stare while the audience is meant to laugh at his goofy, yet increasingly desperate, cries for help. After he is safely away from Eska, an incident in Republic City triggers a PTSD-like flashback to when Eska chased after him—and again, this moment is treated as an opportunity for us to laugh at his discomfort.
At no point is Eska really treated as a danger to anyone but Korra, and we are meant to laugh at Bolin’s misfortune. And, of course, the “spurned lover” is now apparently solely motivated in her actions for the other episodes by the loss of Bolin. Naturally.
Perhaps Bolin is susceptible to abusive partners because of his brother Mako, who has also thus far dominated his life. After all, Mako did scald his brother with boiling water in “The Sting” when Bolin refused to help him. Because that’s totally healthy. Again, we are meant to laugh at his expense and not consider the despicable way with how these characters are treating each other.
Mako doesn’t get off easy on most things, and many have speculated that he might have been (at the very least) manipulative and abusive towards his partners in the previous season. However, it seems that he is on the receiving end of that abuse this go-around.
The first two episodes of the season seemed to be showing Korra and Mako dealing with a very common hurdle that young couples face—”when you’re stressed, do you want advice or sympathy?”—these problems escalate beyond what should be reasonable. While Korra does not express the possessiveness that Eska does, she has Mako on edge in every episode so far this season. When she doesn’t like something he says, she starts yelling, accusing him of being out to get her, of “choosing sides” and even choosing other people over her.
This manipulation seems to come to a head when Korra discovers that Mako let someone know about her plans to get an army to go south to defend her home. She kicks in the door to his office and approaches him aggressively, hits his desk, and eventually kicks it across the room in her temper. Thankfully, she does not escalate this violence and leaves when he ends the relationship, but what we have witnessed here is disturbing. There is a very short step between hitting objects and hitting people, and Korra has been known to get physical with defenseless people before.
Nickelodeon makes this worse when the whole thing is turned into, yet again, a joke. Chief Bei Fong, Mako’s boss, comes into the room, sees the disheveled desk, and demands to know what happened. Mako tells her, and she smirks. “You got off easy. You should have seen Air Temple Island when Tenzin broke up with me.”
Okay, so you are also a psychotic bitch. Thanks for the help, Lin.
This is not okay, Nickelodeon. You cannot portray partner abuse with this kind of levity. If Mako or Bolin had acted this way to the women here, it would be a serious matter. It should be equally serious when women abuse men. End of story.
It is downright disturbing that you are having women (including heroines like Bei Fong and Korra—who I have loved and admired) get away with this egregious behavior both in the story and with the audience. The people in their world are not holding them accountable, and we are made to laugh at these men’s expense.
This is unacceptable. I hope that in the next few episodes, as Korra regains her memory, we see a fair and accurate treatment of the trauma of abusive relationships and that the women in this series get a hard, much-needed lesson about how to treat their partners. And that Mako learns not to be a dick to his brother.
If not, The Legend of Korra may end for me.