I am not in the Avatar: The Legend of Korra fandom, but purely through hysteria on my dash from those who are in this fandom, I can see that there is huge conflict and debate over Korra’s race/skin colour. I’m not going to give my input on the matter, because it probably wouldn’t count for anything and I’m not even in the fandom. But can I just ask a question to those who are in the fandom?
… Why is this such a big deal? Why does it matter what race she’s determined as? I’m genuinely curious why there is a need for so much dispute over this.
You tell us. B|
Honestly. I adore this fandom a lot, but then there’s the really idiotic A:TLA fandumb to deal with. For such a mature show, too much of our fandom is amazingly immature.
It’s not idiotic to want to be represented right in fan works.
This is a lot to unpack. A lot of other fans on tumblr have done a good job of explaining why racial representation is meaningful (because the absence of representation of people of color is a form of representation, one that systemically privileges certain groups over others, etc.)
Instead, I wanted to draw attention the way ablelist language is used to try and shame, discredit, invalidate, marginalize conversations about race and discrimination.
This is touched upon briefly in the Academy Awards article on our website as a critique of the “too sensitive” accusation. If an opinion is labeled as “idiotic” or “immature” or “hysterical” then the implication is that it is no longer worth listening to.
But let’s also explore the roots of those words, because our language is not devoid of historical context. For example, can you really separate society’s sexism from the way we use the metaphorical phrases “you’re such a pussy’ or “you’ve got balls” from framing “being like a woman” as a weakness, and “being like a man” as a strength?
The modern use of word hysteria stems from the Latin word hystera (which means womb or uterus.) The Greeks thought hysterikos was a condition that happened when women’s uteruses were left empty for to long. They believed that the uterus would detach from its normal position and float around the insides of women’s bodies, bumping into their livers and lungs and brains and drive women crazy, etc.
Sounds ridiculous, but the concept of hysterikos evolved into hysteria, a concept that has been used in a lot of messed up ways to disempower “uppity” women. It was used to burn women accused of being witches at the stake. Creepy doctors would claim that they could “cure” hysteria through sexually assaulting their patients. Outspoken women were diagnosed with the mental illness of hysteria and locked away in asylums.
This language was powerful, it was used to silence, disempower, and kill women. Blogger Abby Jean at FORWARD sums it up:
When I am told I am hysterical, there is both 1) the implication that I am excessively or unreasonably emotional AND 2) the implication that my condition is unique to my femaleness.
It’s also 3) implied that hysterical statements (or even statements from hysterical people) should be discounted and hysterical people need to change in order to participate in the discussion, or should be removed from it entirely.
#3 is also reflected in statements like “idiotic fandumb” and “amazingly immature.”
The word dumb was adapted from it’s original use (silent, mute, unable to speak) in Old English to it’s modern meaning today (foolish, ignorant), clearly showcasing society’s assumption that people who cannot speak verbally are less intelligent. The use the word “dumb” to demean people trying to “speak out” is pretty ironic. The word idiotis used in a similar way as the word dumb but was derived more from this idea that people who are idiots are uneducated or ignorant. (Kind of the opposite of people who are trying to engage in conversations about racism in fandom.)
The word immature comes up a lot in Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom in general, not just when it comes to discussions about racebending. For example, older teen, young adult, and adult Avatar fans are often maligned as “immature” for liking a “children’s show.” When used in a derisive manner the word immature has been used to dismiss concerns about issues like ageism and adultism.
The same goes for words like “tan.” It’s about thinking about the context behind what you say and why other people might feel strongly against Korra being labeled as merely “tan.”
This is the etymology of the word tan:
Late Old English: tannian “to convert hide into leather” (by steeping it in tannin) Medieval Latin: tannare “tan, dye, a tawny color” (c.900), from tannum “crushed oak bark,” used in tanning leather, probably from a Celtic source (e.g. Breton tann “oak tree”). The meaning “make brown by exposure to the sun” first recorded 1520s. To tan (someone’s) hide in the figurative sense is from 1660s. The adj. tan “of the color of tanned leather” is recorded from 1660s; the noun sense of “bronze color imparted to skin by exposure to sun” is from 1749; as a simple name for a brownish color, in any context, it is recorded from 1888. Related: Tanned; tanning.
Originally, the word tan was used to describe a process of darkening. First, it was through using tannin dye to darken and cure dead animal skin into leather as it dries in the sun. Later, it would be adopted to also mean the process of darkening human skin in the sun. Only after over 200 years before its original use was the word tan also used to refer to a brownish color, presumably because it was the same color as what happens when you darken skin with dye, or in the sun.
When you use the word “tan” to describe Korra, you are also carrying the baggage that comes with the word tan: this idea that light skin color is adaptable through dye or sunning, this idea that dark skin color is the result of an artificial process. This word is historically loaded. It is more than just a color.
The unfortunate reality is that the words we use in every day conversation all have history. While of course anyone can use whatever language they want, one of the least “idiotic” and most “mature” things we can do, as fans, is to try and understand why words can sting.