Nickelodeon’s animated hit series The Legend of Korra was always progressive. It went places American children’s television typically avoids, with an ethnically diverse cast of characters—including a number of powerful, complicated girls and women—tackling deep issues like social inequality, war, and PTSD. With its series finale, Korra went even further: It revealed that its main heroine, Korra, and another female character named Asami were in love.
In the episode’s final seconds, the two women held hands, turned and gazed at each other lovingly while romantic music played, and walked off together into the bright light of the Spirit World. There was no kiss, which (I guess) could have allowed viewers to interpret the hand-holding as platonic, but on Monday night, the show’s writers, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, made it explicit: Korra and Asami are bisexual. They’re a couple. Get over it.
“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,” DiMartino wrote in a brief post on his website. “The moment where they enter the spirit portal symbolizes their evolution from being friends to being a couple.”
Konietzko elaborates further: “As we wrote Book 1, before the audience had ever laid eyes on Korra and Asami, it was an idea I would kick around the writers’ room. At first we didn’t give it much weight, not because we think same-sex relationships are a joke, but because we never assumed it was something we would ever get away with depicting on an animated show for a kids network in this day and age, or at least in 2010.”
He was right: In 2010, there weren’t any examples of same-sex couples on mainstream children’s TV. Bert and Ernie, as Sesame Street exasperatedly clarified, are not gay. Ren and Stimpy’s feelings for each other were acknowledged only in a much later, adult-oriented version of the series. And then there was that time a network tried passing off Sailor Moon’s superpowered lesbian couple, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, as “cousins” (erasing an entire cast of queer supporting characters along with them.)
Thankfully, Konietzko eventually worked up the guts to question the “unwritten rule,” realizing that no one ever explicitly told him not to depict same-sex relationships on the show. “It was just another assumption based on a paradigm that marginalizes non-heterosexual people,” he writes. “If we want to see that paradigm evolve, we need to take a stand against it. And I didn’t want to look back in 20 years and think, ‘Man, we could have fought harder for that.’ Mike and I talked it over and decided it was important to be unambiguous about the intended relationship.”
But in a sentence that contains untold volumes, Konietzko describes approaching Nickelodeon with the idea of making Korra and Asami's relationship explicit: “While they were supportive,” he writes, “there was a limit to how far we could go with it.” He doesn’t specify where Nickelodeon drew the line exactly, but he probably doesn’t have to. Korra’s predecessor, the also excellent Avatar: The Last Airbender, ended with a similar shot, one where its (male) hero, Aang, firmly embraced and kissed Katara, his longtime friend, cementing their new romantic relationship. The same, it appears, would have been too much to give Korra and Asami. (Nickelodeon did not return a request for comment for this story.)
Instead, the writers had to rely on visual cues and ambiance. Having the women face each other holding hands directly recalled two different characters’ nuptial pose earlier in the episode. And the final scene’s animation is dazzling, with music designed to be “tender and romantic.” But to see any actual smooching, fans had to take matters into their own .gif-creating hands.
On its own, leaving out the kiss a isn’t a bad thing. Over at Polygon, Megan Farkhmanesh argues it’s better that both characters’ sexuality is acknowledged but not exploited. And certainly, Korra and Asami shouldn’t have had to kiss for kissing’s sake. But in a television landscape still so afraid of showing kids that LGBT people exist, it still feels like a missed opportunity. If a show as progressive as Korra couldn’t do it, then what network kids’ TV show would?
Konietzko admits that the scene is only “a somewhat significant inching forward,” rather than a “slam-dunk victory for queer representation.” It comes on the heels of a few more inches gained in 2014: This was the year that Adventure Time’s creator confirmed that Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen did date once, though the storyline won’t make it into the show anytime soon. (Olivia Olson, who voices Marceline, explained at a book event that in some countries where the Cartoon Network show airs, “that sort of thing is illegal”—it’s likely that Nickelodeon’s hesitance with Korra stems from a similar place.)
Sailor Moon, now rebooted as Sailor Moon Crystal, made it back to America over the summer via Hulu with its original LGBT storylines intact.
And in January, the Disney channel marked a first by introducing a character’s lesbian mothers in Good Luck Charlie. That move was followed by its own minor wave of outrage: “Disney should stick to entertaining instead of pushing an agenda,” conservative group One Million Moms said at the time. “Disney decided to be politically correct versus providing family-friendly programming. Disney has a choice whether to produce a program with certain fictional characters; the storyline could be re-written or changed. Conservative families need to urge Disney to exclude confusing topics that children are far too young to comprehend.”
That kind of response is still common, even if it’s nonsensical. (Should Disney ban calculus because it’s confusing and too hard for kids to understand?) Even if their hands were a bit tied, The Legend of Korra’s creators did the right thing in choosing to depict what young audiences are already bound to see in real life. Konietzko puts it best: “It is long overdue that our media (including children’s media) stops treating non-heterosexual people as nonexistent, or as something merely to be mocked. I’m only sorry it took us so long to have this kind of representation in one of our stories.” More of this, please, creators of children’s TV.