[Content note: flashing gifs, abusive relationships, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, violence against children, dating violence, misogynistic slurs, misogyny, racism]
Remember that time Grey’s Anatomy made physical and emotional abuse seem totally okay, as long as it was aimed towards disabled people?
Well, now comes part 2! (Huzzah). Yes, everyone, it’s time to sit down, gird our loins and talk about that time a show primarily aimed at kids turned physical abuse into a hilarious joke.
I am talking, of course, about the second season of the Legend of Korra, and the relationship between Bolin and Eska.
Now, there’s been a lot of really screwed-up stuff going on in the second season of Legend of Korra. A total lack of female characters, the disappearance of really cool characters like Katara and Lin Bei Fong, the return of the terrible love triangle ( NO ONE CARES), inconsistent characterization, nonsensical sexism, plots that make absolutely no sense etc. etc. etc.
But right up there in the Hall of Horror with the sexism and the bad writing is the way the show turned a physically and emotionally abusive relationship into a “funny” punch-line.
You may remember Bolin as one of Korra (the protagonist’s) best friends. In the first episode of season 2, Bolin becomes enamoured with Eska, Korra’s cousin. Eska decides Bolin’s cute, and hey presto, they’re dating.
Ah, young love. Sweet, adorable and…
Wait, what’s this?
… did Eska just use a wall of ice to physically drag Bolin away from Korra?
Did she seriously just physically prevent her boyfriend from touching one of his best friends?
DID THE SHOW JUST PLAY THAT MOMENT FOR LAUGHS?
Uh, not okay, Korra. What Eska did is the equivalent of physically grabbing and restraining Bolin. That. is. assault. It’s a pretty major red flag for abuse.
I wish I could say this moment in episode 2 was an isolated incident. Unfortunately, over the next few episodes, Eska becomes more and more abusive towards Bolin – and the show continues to portray the abuse as a joke.
In fact, given how the show has portrayed the relationship as *hilarious*, you may not even have realized all the gross, abusive shit that’s been happening!
Here’s a (shortened) recap:
A. Eska uses threats of violence and emotional abuse to force Bolin to stay in a relationship with her.
1. When Mako tells Bolin to”tell [Eska] you’re not into her anymore”, Bolin appears terrified, and says “”Oh no, no, no, I don’t think she’d like that.”
2. Then when Bolin takes Mako’s advice and tries to break up with Eska, she threatens to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas. In case you think this is hyperbolic, let’s remember that this woman trapped Bolin in a block of ice when he hugged his friend.
3. The next time he tries to break up with her, she forces him to accept a marriage proposal and drags him away. The image makes it clear that Bolin is in pain as she pulls him.
4. When Bolin finally manages to get on a boat and escape the southern water tribe, Eska chases after him with on a massive water wave of doom, and it’s pretty clear that she’s prepared to use violence to get him back.
B. Eska consistently humiliates Bolin, and enjoys watching him in pain.
1. At the beginning of episode 3, we see Bolin forced to carry Desna and Eska in their cart. He’s very obviously unhappy about it. When Eska makes a joke, she orders Bolin to “laugh at my humerous quip!” and we see him look terrified and laugh.
I feel like I have to make this clear: forcing your boyfriend to pull you in a cart and then laugh at your jokes is pretty fucking gross. And, in most contexts (including this one) pretty abusive.
2. Later in the season, Eska tells Bolin: “Boyfriend! Bow to me before I exit!” Looking, again, terrified, Bolin throws himself on the ground. Eska grins: “You are so sweet when you grovel.”
HILARIOUS! THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE A HILARIOUS MOMENT! AS OPPOSED TO A “HOLY SHIT THIS RELATIONSHIP IS SO FUCKING ABUSIVE” MOMENT!
… sorry. I needed that.
3. When Eska forces Bolin to accept her marriage proposal, she does not even wait for him to say yes before she puts the betrothal necklace on his neck and drags him away, telling him he can “express his joy with tears.” Crying, Bolin says “[The necklace] is really tight”
And we’re expected to laugh at all of these scenes. We’re expected to laugh at someone being forced into a betrothal. We’re expected to laugh as their partner physically drags them away and they cry in pain. This is Legend of Korra‘s idea of a joke.
[There are, of course, relationships where physical violence and humiliation are okay: consensual BDSM relationships. But what’s happening between Bolin and Eska is pretty clearly nonconsensual]
To recap: Eska (non-consensually) humiliates Bolin and enjoys watching him in pain. She controls his actions and his emotions. He’s not even allowed to talk without asking for Eska’s permission first. And she uses fear and abuse in order to prevent him from leaving the relationship.
Yup! That’s abusive! Almost any of these moments, taken in isolation, would be a red flag for abuse. Together, they’re a Massive Abuse Warning Siren that screams: “BEWARE: HERE THERE BE REALLY GROSS ABUSE HAPPENING.”
Now, I don’t actually oppose showing abusive relationships in TV shows. Hell, I don’t even oppose showing abusive relationships in children’s TV shows. What I oppose is showing abusive relationships as lighthearted and funny.
Legend of Korra isn’t trying to make a point about how gross abusive relationships are. They’re trying to make a joke.
I know this because the Avatar Universe (of which Korra is a part) has a history of portraying abusive relationship with nuance and sensitivity. I know what it looks like when an Avatar show portrays abuse with nuance and sensitivity: it looks like Zuko’s relationship with Ozai, his father.
Ozai is a horrific parent. He forces his thirteen-year-old son to duel against him when Zuko speaks out of turn. After Zuko refuses to duel his own father, Ozai burns his son’s face, permanently scarring him, and then banishes him from the Fire Kingdom. Later, he tries to kill Zuko when his son turns against him.
Avatar: the Last Airbender never turned Ozai’s actions into comedy. And it never allowed us to forget that Ozai is a terrifying, violent and manipulative parent.
In Legend of Korra, on the other hand, the relationship between Bolin and Eska is a non-stop, unrelenting joke.
There are, I suspect, two forces at work in the “hilarity” of the Bolin/Eska relationship: first, the myth that men can’t be abused (which means that domestic violence against men isn’t “serious”), and second, the “bitches be crazy” corollary (which means that women acting violent against men isn’t “serious” either).
In other words, Eska’s abuse of Bolin is hilarious because she’s a woman abusing a man.
Let’s parse these problems separately.
First, it’s pretty clear that no character in the Korra universe thinks Bolin is being abused. In fact, they blame him for his treatment at Eska’s hands.
When Bolin tells Korra and Mako that Eska threatened to freeze him in a block of ice and feed him to dolphin piranhas, they both shrug it off, and act annoyed that he’s ruining their date. Neither Korra nor Mako – Bolin’s brother – seems the least bit worried that Eska told Bolin she would kill him if he tried to break up with her, even though they’ve already witnessed her being violent towards Bolin (when Eska traps him a block of ice to prevent him from hugging Korra)
Hey, what’s to worry about, am I right?
Bolin starts to hide in order to avoid Eska. His friend Asami tells him he should “stand up for himself” – and later, when she witnesses Eska ordering Bolin to bow, she says: “Don’t LET her treat you that way.”
Mako, Korra and Asami’s reactions put the blame for Eska’s abusive behavior squarely on Bolin. Bolin should have known better than to date Eska. Bolin should “stand up for himself.” Bolin is LETTING Eska treat him this way. It’s his fault his girlfriend is violent and abusive!
Not to put too fine a point on it, but those guys are the worst friends.
They’re also doing a superb job of reinforcing the idea that abuse just can’t happen to men. In this worldview, no matter how violent or how manipulative a man’s partner is, a man just cannot be abused. Their relationships are always under their own control – they can put an end to them at any time and “stand up for themselves” whenever they want to.
No wonder none of Bolin’s friends take his problems seriously. They know that what’s happening to him isn’t serious at all – after all, he’s a man!
It gets worse. When Eska forces Bolin to accept a marriage proposal, he rejoins his friends, wearing a traditional betrothal necklace.
Korra: “I’m pretty sure the guy is supposed to give the girl the betrothal necklace.”
It’s FUNNY because Eska has forced Bolin to take on a FEMALE role. HAHAHAHA… so gross. . It’s the other side to the “Men can’t be abused” coin: if men are abused, they are like women. They become feminized by their abuse.
And we could get into the misogyny that idea implies, but frankly, we have enough on our plate.
In most of the world – maleness is defined in opposition to victimhood. Men aren’t victims. They’re the aggressors, the winners. They’re strong, in control. Our definition of manhood, therefore, leaves no room for people who are victims, who are used and abused and wounded. After all, if you can’t protect yourself, you’re not a “real” man.
In this twisted logic, Bolin – and other men and boys in similar situations – aren’t experiencing abuse. And if they are, it is either because they choose to stay, or because they aren’t “real” men.
It’s pretty clear that the “joke” of Bolin’s abuse relies on the assumption that Bolin’s relationship with Eska is totally under his control. If he were only able to stand up for himself, the abuse would just magically go away. It’s also “hilarious” because Bolin’s inability to stand up to Eska shows how incompetent he is as a man (“the guy is supposed to give the GIRL a proposal necklace”)
Moreover, if you take a wide view of the season, you’ll see that Eska isn’t the only woman who physically abuses her partner. For example, when Korra and her boyfriend, Mako, have an argument, Korra earthbends his desk into a wall. Which is pretty fucking threatening, in my opinion. And if your partner is throwing things while you’re arguing? Massively abusive.
When Lin Bei Fong, Mako’s boss, walks in the room and notices the torn-up wall and the broken desk, she asks Mako what happened. Mako tells her he broke up with Korra, and Lin smiles: “You got off easy. You should have seen Air Temple Island when Tenzin broke up with me.”
Oh, yeah, hilarious.
In both cases, we have women physically destroying things at their boyfriends. And as someone who has experienced people breaking things at me, I can tell you right now, it’s terrifying. It’s an obvious threat. I’ve been in cars with someone who starts driving really erratically when they get angry at me, and oh god, it does not make you want to make them angry ever again, because I was terrified we were going to drive straight into a tree. Which is exactly the point. It’s behavior that’s supposed to teach you not to go “out of line” again – or you’ll be next.
(As a note, abusers who throw or hit objects in when arguing with you almost always escalate to violence eventually)
All of these moments – Eska’s violence towards Bolin, Korra’s violence towards Mako, and Lin Bei Fong’s violence towards Tenzin – are meant to be comedic. Korra and Lin Bei Fong are both characters we’re supposed to like – I highly doubt the show wants us to read them as abusive, even though that’s exactly what they are, at least in these moments with their partners. It’s supposed to be funny that Lin Bei Fong destroyed Tenzin’s home when he broke up with her.
So what is with this trend of comic portrayals of abusive women?
That’s the second half of the Bolin/Eska joke – the “bitches be crazy” corollary.
This season has had a plethora of the “women are so hysterical and crazy in relationships” trope. Korra’s behavior this season with Mako is a prime example – he can’t do anything without making her blow up. And that’s an incredibly misogynistic trope to begin with. But it also has really unpleasant consequences when you line it up with abuse, because it makes it seem like Korra, Eska and Lin’s violent behaviors are just “crazy” things women “naturally” do.
Because women, am I right? They’re just “crazy.” And men have to put up with it, because women, am I right?
This narrative transforms abuse from an aberration into something “natural” and comedic.
I think, moreover, that there’s something more than your average “bitches be crazy” trope going on in The Legend of Korra. I think the show is having a hard time coping with their female protagonist.
You would not thing a strong female protagonist would be a problem for the writers of Korra, given that the previoous series, Avatar, is full of strong, interesting women: Katara, the waterbending master, Toph, one of the greatest earthbenders to ever live, Azula, who… I mean, how do you even talk about the powerhouse that is Azula? And Mai, Tai-Lee and Suki, three non-benders who could stand toe-to-toe with any bender and come out on top.
But in Avatar, unlike in Korra, there was always one male character who was theoretically more powerful than any given woman: Aang, by virtue of being the Avatar. In Legend of Korra, however, the protagonist is female. Aang is dead and Korra is the new Avatar – the most powerful person in the entire show. Once she’s fully trained, nothing will be able to stand against her. There is no male character more powerful than Korra.
People have… problems with that kind of female power. A whole lot of writers just have no idea how to deal with it, especially in the context of western patriarchy and western-prescribed gender roles (most of the characters of Avatar are POC, and the areas they live in correspond to asian and first nations locations, but the writers of the show are mainly from north america). There aren’t a whole lot of creators with the kind of talent and chutzpah to deal with a world where women and men are on equal footing – and where a woman is the “savior” of the world.
Which is where you get weird stuff like the Korra abuse narrative. The writers are unable to separate the world of Korra from western ideas about gender and patriarchal structures. More specifically, they’re unable to conceive of a world where the strength of women doesn’t come at the expense of the strength of men. They’ve moved beyond the patriarchy by flipping it.
Thus, in Korra, gender equality doesn’t mean that relationships will become healthier and more equitable. No – a gain in power by women must mean a loss in power by men, since we’re still stuck in gender hierarchies. Thus, if women are the “strong” ones – if women are captains of industry (Asami), police chiefs (Lin Bei Fong), Avatars (Korra) and incredibly powerful waterbenders (Eska) – then the men must be the “weak” ones. Thus, we get all the heterosexual relationships where the women are abusive and the men are passive.
Which, I should note, tells you a whole lot about how the writers conceive traditional male-female relationships. And a whole lot about how the writers conceive “strength.” They seem unable to conceive of a woman with stereotypically male attributes – like Korra, who is very physically strong, who acts first and think later, who is competitive and impulsive – without also making her borderline abusive. I don’t know if it’s because the writer’s vision of masculinity is so entwined with strength-as-abuse, or if it’s because they can’t help but see a character like Korra as an aberration, and thus infuse her with “bad” qualities. Whatever it is, it’s disturbing.
It’s also a pretty disturbing message about female strength. Women are only strong and in control, the narrative goes, because men have ceded the place to them. If men *wanted* to be in charge again, they could.
The other explanation for the woman-as-abuser and man-as-passively-accepting-abuse trope in Korra is the narrative of men being “whipped” by their girlfriends. In a sentence: men allow women to walk all over them because they love/admire/desire the women so much – or because they’re just too lazy/stupid to exercise their male control over the relationship. This brings us straight back to the victim-blaming: Bolin and Mako are abused because they “let” the women abuse them. Moreover, it makes it seem like abuse is the price you pay for a woman’s love. Being in a relationship and having access to women’s bodies is worth the emotional and physical abuse – a storyline that plays directly into the stereotype of men being voracious, mindless, sex-pursuing velociraptors.
(okay, so I made that part about the velociraptors up).
Oh yeah. There’s a whole shitload of toxic stuff wrapped up in the “joke” of Eska abusing Bolin.
Let’s be clear, finally, and explain exactly why the victim-blaming, misogyny and toxic masculinity at the root of the “comedy” of abuse is so disturbing:
Because abuse is a thing that happens in the real world.
And abuse is a thing that happens – in spite of the myths – to men. Often it happens to them exactly how it happened to Bolin. And often, people will react exactly the way Bolin’s friends reacted to him – with laughter, with victim-blaming, with a complete lack of support.
According to the latest study by the CDC, approximately one in seven men have experienced some form of domestic violence (compared to one in four women). 1.4% of men have been raped, while 6% have experienced some form of sexual coercion. One in nineteen men have been stalked. One in seven men have experienced severe physical violence by an intimate partner.
Abuse happens to men. Abuse happens to men a lot. And just as it’s socially unacceptable for women to talk about their experiences with rape, sexual violence, harassment and domestic violence, it’s also socially unacceptable for men to admit to being the victims of rape, harassment and domestic violence. Because we see those stories as funny.
Yes, men are threatened, stalked, hurt and emotionally manipulated, just as Bolin was on the show. It’s not funny when it happens to them. And it’s not funny when it happened to Bolin.
The abuse-as-comedy trope is particularly harmful because Korra is aimed at children and young adults. And guess who is most at risk of abuse?
That’s right! Kids.
More than one in four male victims of rape experience their first rape when they are ten years or younger. Of the men who have experienced stalking, 1/3 have been stalked before the age of 25. 53% of male victims of domestic violence experience their first incident before the age of 21.
Of the men who have experienced rape, stalking or physical abuse by an intimate partner, 15% had their first experience when they were between the ages of 11 and 17. 38.6% of them had their first experience between the ages of 18 to 24.
So when you turn abuse into a joke in a kid’s show, you’re basically teaching the most vulnerable male demographic (children and young adults) that abuse is funny, not serious, and to be expected in romantic relationships. Right as they’re entering their first dating years – and the years where they’re most likely to experience abuse.
Great job, guys. No, seriously.
Here’s another important fact: Bolin is a man of color (as are Mako, Tenzin, and every other male character on Korra). Which is great! But dismissing the abuse of men of color as “funny” carries particularly damaging connotations, since men of color are much more likely to experience rape, stalking and domestic violence than white men. Approximately 1/5 of white men reported experiencing sexual violence, rape or domestic violence. In comparison, one third of multiracial men, one fourth of latino men, forty percent of black men and 43.5% of american native and alaskan native men reported experiencing rape, physical violence and/or stalking in their lifetimes.
To put it bluntly: men of color are more likely to experience rape, sexual violence and/or stalking. So turning a man of color’s abuse into a joke? Is really not okay.
(this is not to say that 20% of white men experiencing abuse is in *any* way okay – it’s just that men of color experience higher rates of abuse)
Is this the lesson we want to teach the young audience of Korra? For that matter, is this the lesson we want to teach the older audience of Korra? That abuse is acceptable? That abuse is funny? That abuse is the victim’s fault? That men can’t be abused? That abuse is to be expected in a romantic relationship? That abuse is a fair trade for romance, love and sex? That men should fear female strength because it leads to emotional and domestic abuse?
What a toxic message.
And what a disappointing narrative from Korra, a show that follows in the footsteps of the wonderfully progressive Avatar: the Last Airbender, where abuse was treated seriously, and gender hierarchies were ignored in favor of good storytelling.
Sure, it’s just a show. But if the writers of Korra didn’t want to shoulder the responsibility of treating abuse with nuance and sensitivity, they shouldn’t have brought it up in the first place. Because it’s not “just” abuse, not when it’s happening to one in seven men.
Since I started writing this post, the show has gotten, if possible, worse on abuse. Bolin has turned from abuse-victim into rape-culture perpetrator, when he kissed his co-star, Ginger, against her will, and then told her “I think you liked it too.”Ginger eventually goes out with Bolin, because he’s rich and famous – and women don’t mind sexual assault as long as it comes from a rich and famous dude! This, again, is played for laughs, because if there’s anything funnier than abuse, it’s sexual violence.
Then Eska and Bolin reunite, and it’s clear that Bolin still harbors feelings for Eska. Which I don’t have a problem with in and of itself (often, abuse victims remain emotionally attached to their abusers). But since the show keeps pretending Eska hasn’t abused Bolin, I have no reason to believe they’ll treat the romantic subplot with any kind of nuance or sensitivity. The writers have turned what used to be a joke subplot into an actual romantic subplot. With both narratives, they’ve ignored Eska’s abusive behavior.
So since the show won’t say it, let me, once again, emphatically explain: What Eska did to Bolin is abuse. It is physical and emotional abuse. What Korra, Mako and Asami did to Bolin is victim-blaming.
And none of it is fucking funny.
1. Do not try to explain that Eska’s behavior is not abusive. It is.
2. Do not victim-blame Bolin (or any other victim of domestic violence)
3. Please don’t start blaming abuse on misandry.
If you engage in any of these three activities, I may just delete your comment, because LOL, I am not playing the “but physically dragging people around isn’t ABUSE” game.
1. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Executive Summary
2. CDC National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: Full Report
3. Domestic violence red flags: one, two, three, four, five (includes red flags specific to men experiencing domestic violence)
4. One in Six: A group that helps male survivors of child sexual abuse
5. Male Survivor: Group for male survivors of abuse
1. Domestic Abuse Helpline for Men and Women: 1-888-7HELPLINE
2. Gay Men’s Domestic Violence Project: 1-800-832-1901
3. National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: 1-866-331-9474
4. National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
5. National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233