Legend of Korra‘s Finale and the Problem With “Fan Service”

The Legend of Korra finale has come and gone, and it was an emotional ride for many. And while there’s been an outpouring or support for the ending of the show, there’s a thing I keep seeing around the internet that’s pissing me off, and I have a word or two I’d like to say about it.

It’s a lot of words, actually.

Immediate spoilers for the finale of the series below.

So… I keep seeing the term “fan service” thrown around a lot in regard to how the show ended. (That being how Korra and Asami ended up together, they are a couple, they love each other, the end.) And I feel like it’s time to start addressing the fact that calling it “fan service” and complaining about it is just another way to be casually homophobic.

Fan service, true fan service, can certainly be damaging to a creative property. If a creator spends all their time worrying about what fans want and catering only to that, obviously, they’re not going to have much of a story on their hands. It’s one of the reasons why fanfiction often centers on more domestic situations for characters—there’s nothing wrong with showing domesticity or having characters enact it, but action is required to make good drama and push a plot forward. Stories need “stuff” to happen in them, as much as we would all love to attend the party where all our favorite characters are sitting around drinking hot cocoa and having movie marathons.

Legend of Korra, Korra, Asami

But lately, whenever there is a suggestion or canonical move to show that a character originally “presented” (I’ll get to those quotation marks later) as straight is on the queer spectrum—“Fan service!” everyone shouts. “Get your fan service here!” And they’ll use all sorts of excuses, especially if it happens the way it did on Korra, because Korra and Asami didn’t get together until the very end of the show; the idea being that it was only tacked on at there to appease rowdy fans who could not leave well-enough alone.

Let’s make the most obvious thing clear: we still don’t live in a world where most creators can get away with putting queer characters in properties aimed at children, particularly when they are distributed by major companies (like Nickelodeon in this case). This not something they can be faulted for, most of the time. When show creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (known as “Bryke” to fans) started Legend of Korra, it wasn’t as though they had Korra’s love life planned out to the end. They did not forsee that the character’s sexuality would evolve this way, but had they wanted to make that shift more pronounced, Nickelodeon likely would have censored the attempt. (And frankly, they shouldn’t need to make it more pronounced—Korra’s sexuality is only a small part of her journey and the show at large.) You can take a big stand on these things, but that usually just results in your creative property getting wrestled from you. They chose to go this route anyway, and it was a wonderful way to say goodbye to the show.

Legend of Korra, Korra, Asami

But some people are calling it “fan service” because plenty of LoK fans were pushing for the Korrasami pairing, and the creators knew it. Other shows get blasted for this as well (even with hetero pairings), though not to the same extent. Every show has its ship wars, pairings that fans are pulling for. Sometimes those ships are lucky enough to become canon. But if Emma Swan and Regina Mills from Once Upon A Time decided they were done with men and would rather parent Henry together? Fan service! Because when creators consider the idea of non-heteronormative pairings, they’re only doing it because crazies on the internet told them they had to, right?

My biggest beef with this is simple: when creators are straight people themselves (and many of them are), they are less likely to consider non-straight pairings in their shows. Not because they’re jerks, but because it’s simply not what they’re accustomed to, and not something mainstream media has adopted well enough. Fans bringing the idea of queer pairings to the table can actually make for better fiction in this case—it can cause writers to go in directions they might have never conceived before. And knowing that the fans are behind them in this instance is important; when the backlash happens (because there still is backlash, always) they have plenty of voices at their back, defending the decision.

Legend of Korra, Korra, Asami

There are even those who are using the term in a way that they think is flattering, i.e. “This was fan service in the best possible way!” And that’s basically a backhanded compliment, no matter how well-meaning it is. What that says is “I don’t actually see any canonical reason why these characters should be together. I think that the creators did this to make you happy—oh, but I support it!” Which is not actually supportive in the slightest. And more to the point, isn’t it possible that the reason they don’t find the pairing “realisitic” within the conext of the show is because they are so unaccustomed to LGBT+ relationships in their fiction, and thus cannot suss out evidence of one right under their noses? Because there are plenty of people who did see this relationship coming. The subtext was there—and before you go knocking subtext over text, let me remind you that subtext was often the only possible way to have non-heterosexual relationships in fiction for centuries. So it has to count, because for so many years it was literally the only thing that did count.

More importantly, this move is also being called “fan service” because in the minds of these dissenting fans, these characters were straight. Both Korra and Asami dated men (and formed an awkward love triangle at the start of the show due to their mutual crush on Mako), so that means that having them “suddenly” like women is inauthentic. Which is a perfect example of heterosexuality being the invisible default. Korra and Asami becoming lesbians or deciding that they’re bisexual is fan-pleasing move because you are straight until proven otherwise. In actuality, none of these characters has ever discussed their sexuality in enough detail for that to be irrefutable fact—but because they haven’t, they must be straight.

Legend of Korra, Korra, Asami

It’s not fan service. It’s characters developing like real people. Some are Born This Way, and that’s an important dialogue to have because so many people will not respect queer identities unless they think all queer people are born knowing that there is something “different” about them. But you know what? Some of us don’t know. Some of us try things out, and learn and change. Some of us date boys and then girls. Some of us go back and forth. Finding it “unrealistic” is erasing the existence of so many people.

So stop calling it fan service. Instead, please just say what you mean: “I don’t like this couple on my show.” You don’t have to like the pairing. Maybe it’s because homosexual couples make you uncomfortable, maybe it isn’t. But you’re not automatically right just because it wasn’t the ship you were pulling for, and it’s not automatically “fan service” because the creators took desires of fans into consideration.

In the meantime, I’ll be over here, enjoying this expertly made fan animation:

Legend of Korra, Korra, Asami, fan-made animation


Emily Asher-Perrin is incredibly happy that Korrasami is real now, as you might have noticed. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr. Read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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