Legend of Korra's Finale and the Problem With "Fan Service"

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Title: Legend of Korra's Finale and the Problem With "Fan Service"
Creator: Emily Asher-Perrin
Date(s): December 22, 2014
Medium: online
Fandom: Legend of Korra
External Links: Legend of Korra’s Finale and the Problem With “Fan Service”, Archived version
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Legend of Korra's Finale and the Problem With "Fan Service" is an 2014 essay by Emily Asher-Perrin at Tor.com.

Topics Discussed


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.
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.
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?
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.
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.

Comments to the Post

  • [Leonicka]: "Idk why there’s even a comments section because there is nothing left to add. *drops the mic on your behalf*"
  • [Jonathan Andrew Sheen]: "There’s way more wrong with this article than I’m willing to take time to engage with, primarily radiating out from an assertion that in no way reflects the reality of anything I’ve seen in fandom, where the term “fanservice” almost universally refers to parading female characters in service of a male gaze. But this is the one I can’t let sit: “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.” Have you informed John Updike and John Cheever and Philip Roth of this? There are vast swathes of the most respected stories in the literary world that are nothing but people making their way through their domestic lives, and dealing with the seemingly-tiny details of their day-to-day existence."
  • [Empathylouis]: "I wouldn’t say that it was ‘fully’ fan-service. Personally, I would say that it was a necessary pandering towards the LGBT community, used as a final desperate attempt to mask the many faults (mostly the lack of characterization/competant writing) that this series had over the course of its run. In no possible way was the rushed implied relationship ever appropriately set up and it took away from the audience finding out more about Kuvira’s tragic backstory, Kuvira or Baatar Jr’s ultimate fate, and the effects another spirit portal would have on the concept of balance. I’ve often found the notion of ‘romantic shipping’ in a children’s show to be a ‘spin-the-bottle’ type of fan-service solely for the adult audience that, ultimately, takes away from what children love about the series (the adventure at hand). The main reason why the show was pulled off the air was because it couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be a show aimed for kids or for adults. Sadly, It became a show that was too complicated for kids, but not complex enough for adults."
  • [Bluejay]: "If Asami had been swapped out for a man, and had the exact same relationship with Korra (he says he’ll be there for her whenever she wants to talk “or anything”; he’s the only one she writes to during her absence; she blushes when he compliments her hair; their conversation ends the series; he says he couldn’t bear to lose her; she invites him and only him to go away with her; they clasp hands and gaze into each other’s eyes), it would have read as an unambiguously romantic relationship. The only thing missing is the kiss, which Nickelodeon probably wouldn’t have let happen. But the writers’ intention seems quite clear to me."
  • [mordicai]: "It’s not fan service. It’s THE PLOT. Suck it, haters."
  • [Peter D.]: "The other code-word-for-bigotry I’ve been hearing a lot is “political”, like it’s somehow being “political” to have a gay character… they don’t have a problem with gayness per se, someone might claim, but they want politics, of ANY stripe, out of their kids cartoons (apparently they were snoozing through the explicit political messages over the years in the series). Except… gay people exist. In society. And they do all the same sorts of cartoon-showable things straight people do. If a show were just reflecting life, they’d be there, maybe not at the forefront of every show, but in some, yes. To not include them, THAT is going out of your way, THAT is the political act, a political statement that’s saying “this is not acceptable for kids,” and, whether you agree with that or not (I don’t), it’s the political statement virtually every show out there is making, so when you jump on the one show that’s NOT making it… yeah, introducing politics isn’t your issue, you’re just a bigot, IMHO."
  • [ChristopherLBennett]: "If Korra and Asami’s relationship weren’t supposed to matter, the creators wouldn’t have made sure that it was the very last thing we were shown, the thing that would be foremost in our minds when the series ended. Of course it matters. Inclusion matters. That’s been the whole driving principle behind this franchise from day one — to tell stories that weren’t about the “default” type of person you usually see in Western TV, that went beyond the familiar, cliched characters and stories and myths and embraced less-explored ones."
  • [sps49]: "If I wrote about characters with sexuality other than mine, I would probably make it subtle and understated. Because I would probably get it wrong otherwise. And I thought fanservice was boobs (usually just cleavage). Anyone complaining about this part of the finale are like those who shout “Deus ex Machina!” at every plot twist, and likely deserve less attention. Love ya, Emily, and don’t let it get you too mad."
  • [Nicamon]: "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.”Reason #11,everyone!!! “IT’S NOT FANSERVICE.IT’S CHARACTER DEVELOPING LIKE REAL PEOPLE.”!!!!!!!!!!<-IN YOUR FACE!!!!!>O<"
  • [VrakeBrae]: "I love gay relationships appearing on screen, and there is a great need for more non-stereotypical representation of those of us who are not hetrosexual, but this show is a poor example. My reccomendation would be to stop blaming the people whe didn’t see this relationship developing and pour more scrutiny into the show, and into the decisions which made the relationshipmuch less visible than it should have been. Shout down the executives who made the decision to water down the message. (This is coming from a gay man, btw, so don’t try and push hetronormativity on me.)"
  • [ChristopherLBennett]: "And again, I’m not calling anyone homophobic. Don’t blame me for what other people are saying. I’m saying exactly what I mean. And what I’m saying is simply that I don’t think it’s valid to call it fanservice. Fanservice is something exploitative and gratuitous done to pander to an audience. I don’t see anything exploitative in such a subtly developed relationship, and I don’t think it’s gratuitous or artificial because it makes a lot of sense for the characters, given how well they’ve clicked since that first Satomobile race. I just don’t see any reason to dismiss it with a derogatory label like “fanservice.”"
  • [Atlas]: "Personally I think that lauding a show for paying loving attention to its fanbase and stating horrified a creative decision from this same show totally can’t be fanservice (Fanservice, by the way, doesn’t refer exclusively to gratitous titillation. The Veronica Mars movie was 99% fanservice. Toph’s appearance in this last season was fanservice- quite coincidentally, I found her appearances some of the funnier parts of a generaly speaking quite meh season. And so on) doesn’t reflect well on the “Not Fanservice” side, but that’s just me. I could elaborate furthermore about why I think this is fanservice, but in short, the main reason is that it is somewhat suspicious that after two seasons in which the romantic pieces of the series were brutally panned, two characters that previous to that had VERY limited interaction (some instances of which were straight antagonical, no less!) but who were a very popular pair among the fans of the series suddenly decide to start a “very good friendship” with enough innuendo to give Barry White lessons, ending with a full-fledged relationship. Granted, there was true chemistry. And the last three minutes of the series were positively beautiful. But still. It was fanservice. No shame on that. It was still an awesome ending."
  • [RaySea]: "In the context, when people accuse the Korra creators of “fan service”, what they’re saying is that they believe they wrote the Korra/Asami relationship specifically because fans wanted it. The idea is that they’re saying that it did not fit in the story, but was thrown in simply to appease fans. I don’t agree with that, however. As others have said, the characters had excellent chemistry over the entire series, and romantic tension has been brewing between the two for some time."
  • [shellywb]: "For those confused by “fan service”, LoK is an anime-like property. Fan service is what companies, creators, and fans in Japan call things they insert into anime or manga to attract fans who might not otherwise watch. For some, it’s putting in cute or sexy views of characters, both male and female. For fujoshi, it’s slightly flirtatious behavior between otherwise straight male characters. They’re proven ways to get viewers and increase a show’s popularity. And it’s part of why anime fans love anime. It’s celebrated, at least in fandoms I’m part of. So fan service in general isn’t a negative unless that’s how your mind works. But it is a negative here. Canonical relationships are not fan service. They’re not winking at the fans. They’re character development and story, and those calling it fan service are doing so in an attempt to dismiss what’s real because they’re uncomfortable with it. So yes, in this case I agree that it’s homophobic."