“You’re…You’re just oppressing yourself!”
As much as I love this show, this really bothered me.
Like the benders clearly had a lot of power over non benders, and a lot of the benders were using that power to oppress non benders.
But the people who try to fix that are just crazy, bender-hating evil people.
This part of Legend of Korra was not addressed with a complete understanding or awareness of how systemic oppression functions. There were chances to do so that were missed and parts that were awkward…
In the first scene, Korra is telling off the Equalist protestor. This character is small and unnamed but still kind of significant in that he lays out the Equalist position more clearly than any character in the first few episodes. Other than Amon, this guy is the show’s mouthpiece for exposition about the Equalist movement and what it stands for.
How he is presented kind of bums me out. From the way he talks to Korra he is clearly a sneering and arrogant person. The audience is not supposed to like or identify with him (and it’s difficult to like him, I’m sure he is a joy to be around.) “Social justice” (apparently a horrific word on tumblr) movements are not immune from having people who are unpleasant. In fact, usually these folks are the ones people with privilege point out when they want to invalidate an entire movement. Underneath the bombastic rhetoric protestor dude may be making some valid points, but Korra has the privilege to use this guy’s “unpleasantness” as a reason to dismiss him. (Trying to word this as carefully as I can. Tone argument is messed, but people buy it.)
The audience isn’t shown a “reasonable” Equalists mouthpiece, just this dude and Amon (who turned out to be just another bender appropriating nonbender struggles for his own power, ouch….and yet, oddly appropriate given how easily this can happen with real life -isms.)
There’s pretty much just this protestor. The official website (Welcome to Republic City game) describes him as someone who wants to be at “the center of attention.” Paraphrasing off of Avatar wiki because I don’t have Flash, but he is described a someone who gets attention by “challenging the opinion of the majority.” He pursues his “agenda” full time as a graduate student.” It notes that his parents were nonbenders and liked Avatar Aang and the protestor is contrary to his parent’s opinion. Why? Not, apparently, because of injustice—just attention.
That’s just a WEIRD way of framing this character. Like he’s just someone who is speaking out for attention and not like the presumably thousands of nonbenders who are terrorized by triads or denied representation or recovering from a bender-on-bender war that lasted three generations. (Meanwhile, lots of benders can become the center of attention just by nature of being benders.) This idea that “graduate school” is like the natural place for this guy to fester his beliefs which are just about “going against the majority” and “being a rebel.” (Or whatever people in real life who try to invalidate ethnic studies or women’s studies or LGBT studies or disability studies say about students in those grad departments/fields.)
[To add an additional meta-layer of awkward: The protestor is played by a Latino voice actor, so in this scene (on a meta level), a white woman is telling a Latino guy “you’re oppressing yourselves.” To add another layer of weird, Latino and Asian actors play the more prominent nonbenders (Asami, Mr. Sato, this protestor dude) except for maybe Gommu, while white actors play the more prominent heroes (except for Dante Basco’s one episode Iroh).]
I mean, perhaps the show is set up so we are supposed to empathize with this not-very-lovable protestor to see his point and see a balanced view of the issues (much more easily accomplished by showing some Equalists moderates or someone who wasn’t portrayed as evil or bug-eyed jerk, but sure. Gommu’s quasi-colorblind, kinda cliched, “poverty brings us together” “coexist” stuff is included but never addresses how influences from greater society were resolved in that community.) Perhaps I am supposed to be distraught when Korra roughens the protestor up, even though I get the feeling the show kind of wants me to root for Korra for standing up to him.
Perhaps the show is challenging the audience to consider what Korra is saying or challenging to audience to recognize that Korra is unaware of something big about inequality. If it is, good for it, but even if it is challenging the audience it is really ambiguous and it certainly isn’t challenging Korra in-story. If Korra had more self awareness of her privilege as the freaking Avatar and more empathy towards this nonbender inequality issue as a character, I think fans would be less critical of her. I also think if the show was more firm in presenting some self awareness of systemic inequality (the way it did for feminism and albelism in the original series) people would be less critical of the show.
tl;dr I am thrilled we are having this conversation as a fandom but I wish it had occurred in-show, too!