An essay inspired by binging the most recent Avatar series on Nickolodeon and it’s involvement in orientation-identity politics. Written about two years ago.
The latest Nickelodeon cartoon epic, The Legend of Korra, just wrapped. I am a big fan of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender, Korra being its sequel. The first season of Korra left me underwhelmed and I have been putting off catching up for fear of further underwhelming. However, the recent season finale has become something of a controversy, so I’ve been binging the last few days.
The controversy surrounds two female characters – Korra, this series’ Avatar and main heroine, and Asami, a daughter of an industrialist and gadgeteer. In the first and second season, Asami and Korra were rivals for a man’s affection. As of the finale, as implied in the final scene and as verified by the Word of God, the two are a couple. Controversy has ensued, though mostly of the ‘isn’t this great’ variety.
If you are not familiar with the Avatar series, it is a children’s show set in an Asian inspired world where a goodly portion of the world are benders, men and women capable of manipulating the four primary elements of fire, earth, wind, and water. Every generation, an avatar is born who is capable of bending all four elements and is tasked with keeping order in the world. The show has been lauded by many, me included, in dealing with incredibly mature themes without losing its unique quality as children’s entertainment (including the sometimes manic slapstick now required of such programming). In many ways, at its height, Avatar was a return to the children’s literature of yore wherein the fairytales were dangerous and dark while never forgetting they were playful and inspiring.
For Avatar to involve itself in the modern issues of the day such as gay and lesbian relations, while disappointing for those such as me, should not come as a surprise. Others are complaining about children’s television being politicized (it’s arguable if this is a “political” question so much as a “inculturation” question) or else attacking the creators for kowtowing to liberal politics (assuming that, because they had created such a good show for kids, they couldn’t be themselves liberal) or even bemoaning how it’s is improper for simplistic entertainment to try and influence the viewer (though these same people will lionize the works of Lewis or Tolkien because they do just that).
Truth be told, I sympathize with all these points, but I don’t feel that trying to scream “fair play” is in any way useful. I’d rather soberly point out that taking this path is subtly degrading a cultural institution which is already in tatters – friendship.
Male and Female Friendship – Ruined Model and Last Bastion
It may be a little bombastic to call female friendship the last bastion of sane, continent intimacy (what I take to be the descriptive definition of friendship). The example of the promiscuous coeds backing each other up in living lives of risky behavior seems to deny all sense of continence. The reserved acceptability of lesbian relations over gay relations implies something more insane in female friendship. And it’s often questionable if the physical and emotional intimacy shared by women is any more than a façade – the trope of hated enemies acting like best friends when everyone is watching.
However, I still maintain that, if there is a bastion left for friendship, for the sharing of sane, continent intimacy, it is probably among the female population. Among men, friendship is often nothing more than the shallow sharing of interests compounded with a denigration of intimacy through comedy. Men are terrified of muddling their relations, desiring a strict separation of sexual relations from friendly relations. Straight men deal with this conundrum by making their actions overly macho (punches and chest bumps as greetings, normalizing of only physically demanding interests, gruff and simple and unembellished language) while refraining from or else belittling with a joke any action which may be interpreted sexually (embraces, emotional language, non-physical pursuits). Gay men often deal with it by running from distinctly male culture and embracing the seemingly more accepting female culture (though other coping behaviors abound).
What this has done has ultimately worked (with other factors) to dismantle male friendship. Those acts and expressions which were classically seen as signs of male friendship are now suspect of hiding gay desires. Many a modern reader has reflected that Frodo and Sam from the Lord of the Rings may very well be gay lovers. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s close relationship with Ambrose St. John has often been whispered to be of a sexual nature. Holmes could not have as much interest in Sherlock unless he harbored romantic desires. Lacking lived examples of sane, chaste intimacy among men while developing growing acceptance of unchaste intimacy among men, modern males are left with confusion as to what male friendship is.
For women, this issue does not appear to be as damaging. Women are still exceedingly comfortable with being intimate with one another, emotionally and physically, without sexual confusion. There is some breakdown here as exampled in the phenomenon of the college lesbian, but even here the female friendship relationship is well enough defined to later correct any confusion caused during times of identity crisis – most women quickly realize this was only confusion of friendship with sexual desire. True, there is a greater embrace of unchastity among females in their language and concerns, as there are among men, but this does not yet seem to have broken down entirely women’s capacity for strong, deep, and fruitful friendships among their own sex.
However, the threat is still there, as my caveats have clearly pointed out. Why male friendship has experienced such a profound dismantling while female friendship has experienced only a wounding is an incredibly complicated phenomenon I’m not sure I fully understand. I believe it to be widely agreed, though, that female relationships are, currently, much more healthy in developing into deep and fruitful friendship than male relationships. And among the key issues is the confusion, much more strongly felt among men, between friendship and sexual relationship.
Friendship as a Weakly Explored Relationship
I want to bring these reflections back to Avatar and the controversy surrounding Korra and Asami. It should first be stated that children’s shows are perhaps one of the few places where friendship is not experiencing a great confusion. However, children’s shows are also where relationships of all sorts rarely rise to the level of complexity or descend to the fruitful depths experienced by adults. However, the best of shows foreshadow these complexities and depths – Avatar has a pedigree of doing just that.
But where Avatar fails is in dealing with the complexity of adult or mature friendship and at this moment of controversy has favored instead the predominant confusion of friendship with sexual relations. Korra and Asami are an example of this failure in its strongest form – friendship being consummated by a sexual relationship.
As I said, Avatar is not unfamiliar with dealing with relationships. Exploration of familial relationships, both healthy and destructive, is key to the show’s success. The character of Zuko from the original series, the early villain and later friend and ally, is so well loved because he struggles with an uncaring father and psychotic sister while he finds healing through the mentoring of a loving uncle. Aang, the original series’ Avatar, and Katara, his friend and traveling companion, develop a romantic relationship organically, moving from childish infatuation to mature feelings. Sibling relationships are especially important, highlighted between Katara and Sokka in the original series and Mako and Bolin in Korra. Mentors are especially well explored in the likes of Iroh, Zuko’s loving uncle, and Tenzin, son of Aang and Korra’s teacher.
While these familial and romantic relationships are well explored, upon reflection, friendship appears to be the weakest of relationships explored in the show. It is assumed and not really developed. In the original, Aang quickly becomes friends with Katara and Sokka, as Korra does with Bolin and Mako in the second. However, in these respective triads, the main character is quickly paired with their opposite gender as a romantic relationship while the third becomes something of a third wheel, the comedic sidekick for the main couple. Outside these relationships, it is mostly family relations or mentors or partnerships forged by the quest. Rarely is friendship in its deepest fashions explored.
Or more rightly, friendship is not deemed a deep relationship. It is equated with simply getting along. Everyone must be a friend because everyone should learn to live together. For deeper relationships, we must turn to family or romance. Friendship is only the starting point.
Korra and Asami reveal a conundrum, then. These are two women who have both amiably broken off relations with men and have grown close, a deep and abiding relationship. However, to term them friends seems (apparently to the eyes of the creators) to belittle that relationship, as friendship is a shallow form of relationship. Lacking a familial relationship, the creators turned to that other deep relationship, the romantic or sexual relationship. Korra and Asami, to give proper due to their relationship, must be more than friends, they must be romantic lovers.
This is systemic problem in our culture. Friendship is rarely explored or developed in itself. It is assumed as a basic thing everyone experiences and is often seen as the beginning of other deeper relationships. Friendship is often explored for its confusion with sexual relations – it appears in the variety of sitcoms where old friends are thinking about becoming lovers or ex-lovers are trying to be friends. One need only look at the classic sitcom Friends for verification.
All of this points to one of the many great problems of our time – friendship and sex have been confused.
Confusion of Friendship and Sex
As I spoke of earlier, male friendship relations are in something of a ruinous state. Among the problems is a confusion of sex and friendship. As two people get closer, it is assumed that a sexual relationship should develop – the sexual relationship is seen as deeper than friendship. Fear of a homosexual relationship – either for fear of losing face, fear of sin, fear from disgust, or fear of just confusion – keeps men from deepening their friendships. A deep friendship has been confused with a sexual relationship, thus has been eschewed.
This is the threat posed by Korra and Asami for female friendship relations. Their friendship is seen as being a relationship of a lesser dignity. For it to be really deep, it must be(come) sexual. For a show which has rarely explored the depths of friendship, a fault systemic to our culture’s entertainment, this is incredibly damning. It is basically teaching that close bonds outside the family should be consummated in sex.
Friend before Lover?
I don’t wish to only attack The Legend of Korra and popular entertainment. The problem is found also in how we see our sexual relationships, even in marriage.
It is often lauded by many to marry your best friend. Lovers should first be friends. Friendship is considered a preliminary step to the deeper relationship characterized by sex.
This is a problem.
I am not saying we go the other extreme often practiced by the “hook-up” culture – sexual relations characterized by personal anonymity even as physical anonymity is abolished. However, a proper hierarchy must be given to sexual relationship, licit only in marriage, and friendship. Friendship is higher. Further, neither is dependent upon the other.
Historically, marital relationships, those relationships which legitimized and sanctified sexual relations, were considered separate from friendship. Not irrevocably so, a man could be friends with his wife, but contracting a marriage did not require he be so. It was considered a moral failure if a husband and wife did not become friends, but it was not considered a marital failure – if the marriage was properly consummated and blossomed in the expansion of family, it was a success, regardless of the husband and wife being friends.
Now the Christian revelation does demand, in its deepest calling, for a husband and wife to be friends, but that is a claim different from their marital relationship. It is a claim laid upon all Christians, even if they are not married. However, according to the natural meaning of marriage, it is not dependent upon friendship.
More than a separation between marriage and friendship, friendship, in almost every pre-modern society, is the highest of relationships, higher even than family. It is a relationship which the parties must involve themselves in voluntarily from the beginning. It is the original meaning of “Blood is thicker than water”. A familial relationship is one made by water, a sharing of the waters of the womb. A covenant relationship, the highest ones being a covenant of friendship, is made by blood, forged in sacrifice before God as witness. A relationship by water is foisted upon one – you do not choose your family. A blood relationship is chosen by one – it is core to our identity.
For this reason, friendships are actually rarer. Family is necessary and natural. Friendship is superfluous and something supernatural. Our need for friends comes from our orientation beyond the natural.
We have inverted all this in post-modern culture. Friendship is now seen as the basic building block of all other relationships – the most natural of all relations. Relationships are not culminated in friendship but begin there. Familial relationships are more important than that forged by friends. And if two people, not bonded by family, are truly close friends, this relationship culminates in a sexual relationship.
Thus, our obsession with our wife or husband being our friend and even our best friend. A wife or husband can be a friend, yes. They should be. However, they are not so because you share a bed with them. The relationship of sex, while harmonious, even uniquely harmonious, with friendship, is distinct from it. Your wife is your wife and a friend, but one is not dependent upon the other.
Continence and Friendship
I would argue that the deepest of friendships are in fact grounded in continence. The old man and woman now past child-bearing age will grow in friendship as they move beyond their sexual yearning. The virgin is far more capable of achieving the depths of friendships. The monk and nun can be closer friends than anyone else.
The Catholic tradition is full of examples of deep spiritual friendship. More often than not, this is grounded in each member being involved in some sort of state of continence – virginity, widowhood, or vows of chastity. It is continence which allows these friends to achieve such heights.
When one lives in a state of life with the possibility of sexual relations, either as a single man or woman discerning marriage or as a married man or woman, one is always wrestling with passions brought on by sex. These are not wicked in themselves, but offer a tiring struggle. One must always seek to be sure one’s desires are not turned to self-satisfaction – a tendency of fallen sexual desire. Further, one must always be thinking generationally – sex is oriented always beyond the couple to the possibility of children. There is a tension which makes it difficult to develop true friendship.
Historically, this was overcome by separating one’s life of friendship from one’s sexual temptation – it was imperative that men and women have their own orbits in which to develop deep and abiding relations that were characterized by continence. Thus there was often the separation of sexes. The separation, in a healthy society, was porous, but still present. Those who could most easily overcome this division, though not without some difficulty as history reveals, were those who had grounded their deepest identity in continence without any possibility given to sexual relations – the celibate religious.
This also gave a special challenge to the married couple. They were tasked with fulfilling their sexual relationship by bringing about a culmination in friendship. Their sexual relationship would pass away, most probably long before life ended. Thus, they must always see their relation as aiming towards achieving a friendship in continence, a continence to be accepted as life gave it.
Korrasami – The Threat to Friendship
All of this is put in jeopardy by events like Korra and Asami’s same-sex relationship. What should be seen as a deep friendship is not allowed to remain as such.
These sorts of relationship are incredibly important to protect and nurture in themselves in a society lacking separation of sexes. It cannot be assumed that there are places in which these friendships will naturally develop. A society without distinctions of sex will become sexually charged – it’s the nature of our own bodies and psyches. We cannot allow friendship to become sexually charged without losing friendship itself.
Concern over The Legend of Korra’s endorsement of homosexual relationships should not be aimed primarily at disgust over immorality or attempts to shame Nickelodeon for brainwashing children. In many ways the problem is separate from any “homosexual agenda” (if it exists separate from the insanity which is modernity).
The problem is that Korra and Asami were not allowed to become (or arguably remain and deepen) what they were meant to be – friends. It is not a homosexual issue primarily. It is an issue of friendship and sex and is the triumph of sex over friendship. It is a far more insidious concern.