Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Legend Of Korra: “The Spirit Of Competition”

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When I was a kid, I insisted on being an extra Michelangelo at recess instead of April. (Believe that I had a costume.) The lone female character who hung out with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably wasn’t as heinous as I remember—she was probably full of girl power or whatever, and I guess she was a journalist. But 7-year-olds at recess have a way of boiling down characters to their defining characteristics, and April’s was passiveness. The job of the designated April was to hang out on the jungle gym until she was rescued, which was boring. An April couldn’t lead the gang. I could sometimes lead the gang, but only as Michelangelo.

This was the case with most of the TV shows, movies, and to a degree books I loved when I was a kid. Even female characters obviously set up to be girl role models didn’t feel as great as being Michelangelo did. Mulan and Wonder Woman operated in the same system as April and Ariel—just as anti-princesses instead of princesses. They were the weirdos, the exceptions to the rule; and without fail some character would point this out by saying, “But she’s a girl!” All the other, normal girls, this seemed to imply, were still sitting on the jungle gym waiting to be rescued.

So even while watching “The Spirit Of Competition,” in which significant time is spent on the long-dreaded romantic-polygon plot, my inner 7-year-old was still dead jealous she missed out on being Korra. Even when it comes to the mushy stuff. This episode may not end up at the top of my rewatch list, but it handles its main plot, the Bolin-Korra-Mako crush triangle, in a way I really haven’t seen before. And I thought it was revolutionary enough to give the episode an A.

First, I can recall exactly zero compliments paid to female characters of my childhood (or, frankly, my adulthood) along the lines of “you’re the smartest, funniest, buffest, toughest, talentedest, incrediblest girl in the world!” Buffest? Buffest? Seriously? That is amazing. I also actually yelped an involuntary “Oh, shit!” when Korra just pounced on Mako; it was totally unexpected, and totally awesome. (Even Mulan had to wait for the dude make the first move.)

Even better, the attraction on the part of both boys is most evident after Korra does amazing things, not when she cleans up and wears a more feminine outfit for the ball in the previous episode, the usual point in a narrative where guys notice their female buddy for the first time. Unless I’m misremembering, in fact, not a single character so far has called Korra pretty, or not-pretty. Nor has anyone even hinted at “But she’s a girl!”

That’s why Korra is so great: She’s not an April. She’s not trying to be Michelangelo. She’s not even a Buffy, playing off the contrast between ultra-femme appearance and superhuman strength. Like Azula and Toph in the original show, she’s just presented as female without that patronizing “…but she kicks ass!” qualification. She just obviously kicks ass. Why wouldn’t she?


Clearly I am extremely enthusiastic about some things in this episode, but the description didn’t have me very excited about watching it beforehand. I could not be more bored by shipping, and taking time off from the Amon plot to focus on makeouts and sports didn’t sound fun. Some of it wasn’t fun—in particular, the pro-bending matches where the Fire Ferrets weren’t getting along felt like the bottom of the second act of every sports movie ever.

But other things more than made up for it, the second of which is melodramatic Bolin, who is hysterical. (I’ll leave it to you commenters to toss around the many, many great Bolin quotes.) The one-to-one substitution of noodle joint for bar was a pretty clever way to be on Nickelodeon and allow Bolin to go on a massive, self-pitying bender and then be hung over at the match.


As I mentioned in my review of the second episode, klaxons go off on the internet whenever a love triangle seems remotely possible. I think this may be because this particular path has been taken so many times that deep narrative wagon-wheel ruts have formed—once a story falls in, it’s hard not to end up following the trail to Abilene. And once two characters are competing for one love interest, the vast majority of the time it’ll result in another spinoff of the Catfight With A Thousand Faces, which is generally boring.

But the writers seem pretty careful about staying away from that path. At the end of the episode, things aren’t exactly resolved, but Mako and Bolin are back on good terms with a simple exchange of “Girls! Seriously!” And Korra finally acknowledges Asami’s generosity and starts treating her like a human being rather than an obstacle. Here’s hoping this means future Korra episodes will start scoring better on the Bechdel Test.


Stray observations:

  • This review is brought to you by Flame-O Instant Noodles: Noodliest noodles in the United Republic!
  • Best Bolin line: “There they go, here we are… all alone in the gym. Just you and me… two alone people. Together. Alone.” The delivery just keeps getting funnier the longer it stretches on.
  • The shot from underneath the huddle is a nice wordless recap of the relationships between the three Fire Ferrets. Plus, their eyes match their elements!
  • “Hey, Makoooooooo… oh.”
  • Tahno’s delightfully fey. He’s also a waterbender, judging from his uniform, so I’d imagine he and Korra are going to tie-break it up soon.
  • Korra’s compliment that the restaurant is “totally authentic” suggests crappy Water Tribe takeout joints on every corner of Republic City.
  • Whoa, Pema’s a homewrecker!
  • Loved the pan over to the horrified people seated next to Korra and Bolin after their burping competition.
  • Glad that Korra being socially awkward enough to consider taking romantic advice from Jinora and Ikki didn’t end up in Jerry Maguire precocious-kid-fixes-relationships territory: Jinora supports riding a dragon into battle, burning down the entire country and then jumping into a volcano; Ikki’s more into making a love potion out of rainbows and sunsets.
  • Speaking of, stories involving dragon battles apparently qualify as historical romance in the Avatar universe.
  • Korra seems to be getting even better at airbending forms—she seems to use a lot of them to dodge and pull off the triple knockout in that last game.
  • Second-best Bolin line: “GAH, haven’t you hurt me enough, woman?!”