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In the game of fantasy, Korra wins and Game of Thrones dies

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.

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in HBO's Game of Thrones

Fantasy is like most people who say they’re gluten intolerant; afflicted by a lot of fictional bloating. Seriously, have you seen The Lord of the Rings books or later volumes of the Harry Potter series? Why are these tomes so hefty? Because fantasy is a genre that demands “worldbuilding”. It’s an aspect equally important to the rare televisual examples of fantasy.

Until recently most television in the fantasy genre was confined to animated children’s shows. There have been exceptions like Hercules: the Legendary Journeys and its spinoff Xena: Warrior Princess, or as I like to call it: The L Word: Ancient Greece. But for the most part, if you wanted knights, wizards and princesses you’d find them in cartoons. Probably because it is easier and cheaper to draw castles and dragons than it is to film them live (dragons are notoriously difficult to work with on set).

Fantasy has shifted from the margins to the mainstream. Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was a big contributor to this, but gaming too has been an influence, with MMORPG games like World of Warcraft and video game series such as Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age further popularising the genre.

No longer is fantasy solely the domain of pallid, pimply poindexters. In fact, poindexters have won something of a cultural triumph. Looking back at something like Revenge of the Nerds seems quaint now, given that nerd culture has become so ubiquitous. It’s strange that it’s taken live action television a long time to jump on the fantasy bandwagon (or band-dragon?). One of the appeals of fantasy is that it usually takes place in an entirely constructed setting. Writers think up mythical lore, histories, even constructed languages and invented names with almost as many unnecessary apostrophes as those you’d find on a suburban childcare centre waiting list. This is all for the purpose of fully realising an entirely fictional place. While the movies of The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series are long, they have nowhere near the amount of time a few seasons of television has to ‘worldbuild.’

“If your yardstick is the enjoyable goofiness of Xena — or even the unspeakably bad Beastmaster — then yes, Game of Thrones starts to look like the Twin Peaks of the fantasy genre.”

So something like HBO’s Game of Thrones seems long overdue, but its rampant success speaks to the genre’s vast popularity. This show has a pop cultural domination more far-reaching and powerful than Sauron’s flaming vagina-eye. Although not as wildly popular, the animated series The Legend of Korra (a sequel to the 2005 series Avatar: the Last Airbender) is one of Nickelodeon’s most watched and acclaimed programs. Despite being primarily targeted towards kids and young adults, there’s a lot to love about Korra, with its cracking story and Miyazaki-inspired character and creature designs. Much has been made about how groundbreaking Game of Thrones is, but it only appears so because it is one of the few examples of live-action fantasy on television. If your yardstick is the enjoyable goofiness of Xena — or even the unspeakably bad Beastmaster — then yes, Game of Thrones starts to look like the Twin Peaks of the fantasy genre. If we have a look at Korra though, we find a series that is doing much more interesting stuff with the genre.

Korra from The Legend of Korra

The world of The Legend of Korra is divided into four nations, each nation having people able to control — or ‘bend’ — one of the classical elements: earth, air, fire or water. Yes, just like Captain Planet. The “avatar” is the only person who can bend all four elements, is responsible for maintaining peace between the nations and is reborn into one of the nations when the avatar before them dies. Korra is the protagonist and current incarnation of the avatar in The Legend of Korra.

Writers Brian Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino created this world with specifically Asian influences in order to iconographically set it apart from the usual Eurocentric settings of the fantasy genre. But The Legend of Korra also distinguishes itself in its depiction of cultural, social and technological progress. The preceding series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, was set in a kind of ancient China stand-in, with other historical influences as well. Seventy years have passed between the two series. Unlike most fantasy, rather than stagnating in some ersatz Middle Ages, Korra‘s world has moved on. The main setting is a sprawling steampunk metropolis called Republic City, a melting pot of cultures from the four nations where old cultural divisions have dissolved only to be replaced by new ones. Zeppelins float around skyscrapers, cars and motorbikes buzz up and down streets not unlike those of 1930s Hong Kong. But the show isn’t necessarily championing modernity; the current season is shaping up to be about the tension between the modern and the spiritual worlds, and seems to be doing so in a nuanced way.

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For all its grittiness and “grimdark“ accoutrement and its masterful deconstruction of the “noble hero”, Game of Thrones is still stuck in the old-fashioned Tolkien-inspired milieu. The mythical history of Westeros suggests it’s been implausibly stuck at this medieval level of culture and technology for thousands of years. Though it adds more boobs and blood to the mix, the series implicitly relies on the anti-urban, anti-progress sentiment expressed in the work of Tolkien and other influential fantasists like C.S. Lewis. Though many have found the political machinations in Westeros helpful for explaining current legislative battles (please internet, no more Why the Shutdown/DOMA/Obamacare is Like Game of Thrones pieces), the show also appeals for less intellectual reasons: watching dudes with swords hack each other to bits is cool. Dragons are cool. Zombie ice monsters are cool (literally!).

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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!

Maybe most fantasy hates modernity? And maybe that’s why it’s so popular at the moment? Most of us live in cities or urban spaces, surrounded by technology and industry. It’s next to impossible to escape modernity. Even when modern city-dwellers retreat to the idyll of the country, we can’t do so without our iPhones. Perhaps fantasy answers a longing for simpler times, and a world that is certain and concrete in its parameters, and thus never changes.

However, The Legend of Korra, in incorporating modernity into its worldbuilding, shows that fantasy need not be doomed to some over-extended allegory for an idealised past. It bends the genre rules like the avatar bends the elements. A fantasy world can be renovated and it can develop in new and interesting ways, and become richer if it addresses modernity’s problems instead of shying away from them. Game of Thrones is burdened by the genre’s flight from everything that is modern.

Just to be clear, I don’t hate Game of Thrones. I actually quite like it. I just don’t think it does much innovative stuff with the fantasy genre. For me, its pleasures lie in its characters, its narrative complexity and yes, the fact it has dudes hacking at each other with swords.

Both shows’ worlds reflect our own in different ways, but we should be glad that the kid’s show is the one that approaches the complex tensions between modernity, progress, tradition and spirituality in compelling, sophisticated ways. If enough kids (and hell, even adults) pay attention to Korra’s world, maybe the brutality and violence of a world like Game of Thrones can be avoided.

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  • 1
    Altakoi
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    I think you’re right that Game of Thrones is yet to prove it is actually new. Every 15 year-old DM can write twisted political intrique and gutsy battles, but unless there is an intersting story arc then ultimately it just dissipates into irrelevance because its not actually real people geting killed or real kingdoms changing hands. The best fantasy has an anchor in what moves people in the real world; I’d say Tolkeins ring is one of the best parables about how real power really corrupts. So a cartoon about spirituality sounds pretty good, even though I like a bit of sweaty Dothraki man on the tube.

  • 2
    Bowen Marsh
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

    “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!”

    Read the article “THe Women and the Thrones” by Daniel Mendelsohn on http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/07/women-and-thrones/

  • 3
    Connie Martz
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 4:57 am | Permalink

    Legend of Korra is one of the few series that are really a good product. The Legend of Korra in 2012 had many achievements, is a Nickelodeon hit series and is a very good series, without violence. Is rigth:”Both shows’ worlds reflect our own in different ways, but we should be glad that the kid’s show is the one that approaches the complex tensions between modernity, progress, tradition and spirituality in compelling, sophisticated ways. If enough kids (and hell, even adults) pay attention to Korra’s world, maybe the brutality and violence of a world like Game of Thrones can be avoided.”

  • 4
    Tim Gorden
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    “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”

    I think we may be watching very different shows….

    Korra and the other women in the show COULD have been all those things and more, however….they’re not. The show is filled with this forced relationship drama eg. Mako dates Asami, but Korra likes Mako (for seemingly no other reason than he’s a “bad boy”) asks Pema for advice, Pema suggests Korra try to steal Mako like how she stole Tenzin from Lin. Mako cheats on Asami by kissing Korra, he never apologizes (he even tries to blame her and his brother for his actions) Mako has to choose just which lady he wants to date. He starts dating Korra.

    Fast forward to S2. Korra now yells a Mako (who is now apparently a nice guy) for literally everything. All the “development” she supposedly got in S1 is completely gone. She abandons her mentor (who has been nothing bu caring and supportive of her) for some guy she just met (who is CLEARLY evil) eventually Mako breaks up with her. Asami then almost immediately kisses him.

    Strong female characters wouldn’t fight over a man. Strong female characters wouldn’t want to be with a man who can’t CHOOSE which one of them he wants to be with. Strong female characters would’ve immediately ditched him because they both deserve better.

    Even Lin has suddenly become stupid in S2. Completely ignoring everything Mako has to say despite the fact they previously worked together to save the entire city and that he has actual evidence of. They did this just to make Mako the hero when he defies the silly police chiefs orders and uncovers the evil plot all by himself.

    The show has horribly written female characters, and it only get’s worse with every single episode.

    http://www.btchflcks.com/2013/09/why-the-legend-of-korra-is-still-a-feminists-headache.html#.Umsvsn8XzXR

  • 5
    mikeb
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    “Much has been made about how groundbreaking Game of Thrones is,”…It has? By whom? I don’t thing the author or producers have claimed it to be fantasy ground-breaking. As for gender inequality – well yes. When in history have the sexes been equal in power? Given it is a fantasy we have Brienne hacking apart a squad of goons (could never have happened in real life). We have Daenerys as the mother of dragons who is gathering an army to conquer Westeros (would never have happened in real life). I guess being a fantasy GTTM could have reversed the genders but he didn’t – and that’s that.

  • 6
    David Griffin
    Posted November 1, 2013 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Regarding progress in fantasy: I think it’s quite explicit that the setting of Game of Thrones (GoT) is medieval Europe + some magic. While modernity and progress seem very quick to us, when living in the middle ages then it would have been much harder to see.

    Once you accept that this fantasy world is based on a particular point in European history then the place of the female characters in the show is much harder to stomach.

    But the biggest problem with GoT is not what the female characters are doing it is how the TV show shamelessly exploits their sexuality for it’s own ends (ratings). I don’t see a problem with depicting sex and sexuality per se but if every single sex scene involves a female character played by a beautiful actress and the camera does it’s absolute best to make sure we see all the best angles then that completely undermines the feminist messages in the plot (Daneerys, Arya Stark et. al.). Ask yourself, how many old people have had sex in this show? How many non-perfect boobs have you seen? Why did somebody have to get tortured by naked prostitutes? Why does Little Finger have to do plot exposition in front of naked prostitutes?

  • 7
    Reechard
    Posted November 3, 2013 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    So as a platform for woman’s rights, a cartoon founded in Anime, the innocent sister of Henatai, is more significant in it’s character development that GOT, with it’s feisty women fighters, strong women characters and rebellious little orphan girls?

    Exploiting sexuality??
    You mean just like in the real world?

  • 8
    Posted November 6, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    ok so I read your article and thought that you might have some points. You’ve definitely isolated the weaker points of the Thrones series. I like anime, and maybe this is the series to take anime a step beyond the usual cliches and tropes that frame most animes. I spent the long weekend watching the first season of Korra and I have to say that I found it very enjoyable and quite a refreshing series in terms of the characters and the balance between humour and serious plot. But in terms of intrigue, in terms of politicking and manipulation, it really doesn’t stray that far from the anime playbook. Now maybe season 2 opens things right up. Maybe there’s a raft of new players to enter and change the complexion of things, but honestly this series has more in common with Dragon Ball than Ghost in the Shell. I kind of think for the argument you’re framing you could throw SpongeBob Squarepants up as a show that proves GoT is crap at representing women.

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