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Cartoon endings and the authorial fallacy

| Monday, January 19, 2015

During winter break, I suffered the typical post-term slump of spending untold hours binge-watching TV series I’d missed out on due to coursework. I’m not big on all of this Game of Cards, House of Thrones live-action stuff. If I’m going to inundate myself with entertainment media, I prefer to return to the lazy Saturday mornings of my childhood with some old fashion Nickelodeon cartoons.

Many of you millennials may be familiar with “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a series that aired on Nickelodeon back in our school days concerning a bald boy with arrows on his head who channels elemental powers to save the world. In the last few years, the show’s co-creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino, continued the Avatar legacy with “The Legend of Korra,” a new series that caters to a slightly older audience with its teenage romance and darker villains. Like the first series, it also seeks to challenge American cartoon stereotypes with Eastern cultural/spiritual influences and its headstrong female protagonist.

Watching the show’s final two seasons in three days was a wild (and mind-numbing) ride. As Korra and another female character entered a spirit portal following the climatic final battle, I nodded with satisfaction at a job well done — peace and friendship triumph over villainy and destruction. But according to Konietzko’s Tumblr account, I had missed something big: the final scene was actually a confirmation of the bisexual love interests of the two characters, whose Sappho-erotic romance had sprung to life as they peered into each other’s eyes in the last seconds of the series.

Per Konietzko’s Tumblr:

“You can celebrate it, embrace it, accept it, get over it or whatever you feel the need to do, but there is no denying it. That is the official story.”

In no time, news outlets from IGN to TV Guide blew up with stories praising “The Legend of Korra” for its progressively-minded presentation of an LGBT relationship.

Now hold it. Official story? LGBT relationship? When is the last time that clasping hands and eye-contact constituted a relationship? And what makes Konietzko’s word “the official story”?

First off, just because the creator of an artwork (and this cartoon counts as artwork if ever one did) says the artwork means something doesn’t mean that is what the artwork officially means. This is what we in the literary world call the authorial fallacy. This fallacy defers to the artist’s judgment, preventing the artwork from conveying its own meaning and leaving no room for interpretation. Artistic meanings spoon-fed to the viewer by the author are no artistic meanings at all, for artistic meanings are not declared but discovered. The fallacy comes down to this essential point: an author can intend for the art to mean one thing, but fail abysmally in conveying that meaning through the art itself.

This is precisely what Konietzko & Co. have done: they intended to portray an LGBT relationship, but the portrayal was so subtle, ambiguous and last minute that they had to rely on a fallacious authorial decree to grant an interpretation of Korra’s bisexuality any credence (credence which it should have been granted by ample cues throughout the series).

DiMartino clarified in his own Tumbr post that “Our intention with the last scene was to make it as clear as possible that yes, Korra and Asami have romantic feelings for each other.” Yet, the scene was anything but clear. Konietzko added, “We did this for our queer friends, family and colleagues. It is long overdue that our media (including children’s media) stop treating non-heterosexual people as nonexistent, as something merely to be mocked.”

At face value, representing the stories of the underrepresented and empowering the marginalized is a noble intention indeed. However, if the creators wanted to challenge hetero-normativity in children’s cartoons, why didn’t they design an LGBT character from the beginning rather than contriving one in the last season, nay, the last moment of the last episode of the last season (making the whole social justice project seem like a cursory afterthought)?

Lastly, if the representation of LGBT identity rests entirely in portraying romantic attractions, then doesn’t this reduce LGBT identity to only a small facet of personality, that is, to romantic tastes? This romantic reduction of identity does not present characters with same-sex attractions as people like everyone else, but rather pigeon-holes them on a basis of their sexuality. Thus, the female character who is attracted to other women becomes the LGBT character, just as the character who has dark skin becomes the stereotypical black character, defined by a singular aspect of his or her identity.

It seems to me that TV shows should depict characters with complex personalities and relationships built upon more than superficial signs of romance. And if the creators of TV shows need to write blogposts after the fact to explain what their show “officially” means, maybe they should spend more time developing meaning through the artwork itself. That, anyway, is my interpretation, not my decree.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

About Charlie Ducey

Charlie Ducey is a senior who studies English at Notre Dame. He is currently a big fan of alternative German rock music.

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  • Nathan

    “Lastly, if the representation of LGBT identity rests entirely in portraying romantic attractions, then doesn’t this reduce LGBT identity to only a small facet of personality, that is, to romantic tastes?”
    Well…yeah. I mean my heterosexuality isn’t the whole of my being, it’s just the category of my romantic tastes. Why would bi-sexuality be any different? You could say it’s tacked on, but considering that Korra is in the story for quite a bit more than to fill an LGBT quota, don’t really see how this is equivalent to the -insert token minority here- issue.

    As for it being last minute, there had been people “shipping” Korrasami on reddit and tumblr for months based on little stuff like:
    1.) Korra only writing to Asami while recovering
    2.) Korra blushing when Asami complimented her
    (You can find more info here under “korrasami” http://avatar.wikia.com/wiki/Shipping)
    Now, I’m not a lesbian/bi, so I really thought that all sounded a bit far-fetched. That said, they did end up getting it right so color me impressed I guess

    • Charlie Ducey

      Hey, Nathan:

      Ithink the whole point of the last paragraph was to reject romantic reduction of any identity–portraying a character as THE heterosexual character is just as problematic as portraying one as THE gay character. Of course, the problem to start is that people with minority identities are under-representing, and when they are represented they are pigeon-holed for that one aspect of their identity. I don’t think either Korra or Asami are inserted as minority token characters–there is much more to them than that, especially since the LGBT aspects of their identities are so underdeveloped, so much so that interpretations of their bisexuality has to defer to what the author says–and, no, the author’s view isn’t disqualified by the authorial fallacy; rather, it is NOT given final say or absolute authority. Meaning results from interpretation, not from authorial decree.

      Yeah, there are people who agree with Koniezko & co. about the LGBT interpretation. I just don’t think that interpretation holds much water. I mean, the last scene of the last episode of the last season? Some blushing, eye-contact? The problem with all of these clues is that they can just as easily be interpreted as gestures of friendship, and when viewed as a whole, the series supports the friendship interpretation on a basis of consistency alone. The bottom line is this: if the artist wants to make a statement with the artwork, he shouldn’t make it so subtle and ambiguous that his only mode of defending his interpretation is by saying “well, I’m the artist and that’s what I intended it to mean, so that’s the official meaning.” i.e., by appealing to the authorial fallacy.

      • Zach

        Charlie, Asami wrote letters to ONLY Korra during her 3-year absence. There are a myriad of hints that Korra and Asami are growing romantically close, not the least of which is the exact replication of Varrick/Zhu Li and Aang/Katara’s body language in the final shot. The creators have reserved the both-hands, eyes-locked position for those who are romantically interested in one another, and so only romantic characters take this pose.

        The subtlety should not be viewed as weakness on the creators’ part, and their blog post should be viewed as an affirmation to those who identify with that aspect of the story and gained something from it, especially LGBT viewers. It’s a kindness extended to interested viewers and not the authors exerting their interpretation on skeptical viewers.

        In addition, Korra coming to terms with her sexuality ties in beautifully with her struggle to identify as the Avatar and determine her place in the world. A more than cursory viewing of seasons 3 and 4 reveals this to be a core aspect of the plot and essential to understanding Korra as a character. Definitely not tacked on to fulfill a pidgeonhole.

        • Charlie Ducey

          Hey, Zach:

          Yes, the LGBT interpretation is a valid interpretation. I don’t think it is the most well-supported interpretation, but I can understand how someone would come to that conclusion. Again, the issue is in the fallacy: Konietzko & co. claim that their authorial interpretation is THE official and canonical interpretation, which is to say, the best interpretation. But how could it be if the ending and the rest of Korra and Asami’s interactions are so ambiguous? No one is going to argue that Mako and Korra did not have a romantic relationship, because it was clear. The Asami Korra one? Not so much. Konietzko can swoop in to clarify with authorial decrees, but the clarity needs to be in the show. The only thing that is canon is what happens in the show, after all.

          And, no, actually, I don’t think Korra’s sexuality or romantic interests are in any way essential to the last two seasons; quite on the contrary, they are jettisoned to focus on matters of self-esteem and overcoming trauma. I even went into the
          last two seasons having read an article about the LGBT ending. And I waited. And I waited. And in the last few moments I thought, wow, maybe they aren’t going to include an LGBT relationship after all. Then the two memorable, stereotype-defying heroines entered the portal, and I thought: huh. I don’t see what everyone’s talking about.

          The point is this: even going in with the presupposition that Korra and Asami would develop a relationship, the hints that were dropped seemed oblique and unfulfilled (to me, and I was looking for them). So, you would have to be trying pretty hard to read the LGBT issues into the show’s content, rather than being shown the issues by the show itself.

          And I think the ambiguity is purposeful: Konietzko & co. didn’t want to be so iconoclastic as to have two cartoon characters overtly challenge heteronormativity. So, yeah, they left it as a possible interpretation–one interpretation f many NOT the “official” interpretation of the show.

          • Nathan

            I mean, the only way you’d necessarily know that it was the “official” interpretation is if you looked into these other forms of media. Sort of the like the infamous case of gay Dumbledore.

            In any case, I agree that the author coming in and laying out an “official” narrative really is a clunky way to tell a story. If people would rather just ignore it, they’re fulling in their right to do it. I mean hard core comic books fans reject “official” canon all the time

          • Charlie Ducey

            Excellent point, Nathan. I actually think the whole idea of art having an “official” meaning is kind of dubious and hermetically suspect. There are no “official” meanings; there are only coherent and well-supported interpretations of meaning. What one can’t deny, of course, is what actually happens within the diegesis (literary word for the world that the artwork portrays) of the show.

  • Linda Vuorenvirta

    I’m late to the party here, but I just found this article and I want to say thank you, thank you, thank you for expressing these thoughts so well. I feel exactly the same way as you do about the Book 4 finale, and I’m always comforted when I find others who share the same interpretations as me. You I would certainly trust to tell a good, consistent story!