In the media I interact with, there’s a lot of killing. In games, it’s especially prominent, because killing is frequently used as a core mechanic for non-narrative reasons. (That’s not the only reason for the prominence of killing in games, of course: the desire of many games to appeal to an extremely skewed view of adolescent males feeds into this as well.) But it’s there in movies, in books, in television as well: sometimes with real narrative impact, more often just as part of the scenery.
The main television show that I’m watching now is the second Avatar series, Legend of Korra. I’m not sure, but I don’t think there’s been a single death so far in the series; of course, it’s designed to include children in its audience, so it’s not surprising that death isn’t a particularly prominent event, but in the original series, deaths certainly occurred, albeit generally presented in an antiseptic fashion.
What does happen in Legend of Korra is that characters have their power to bend removed from them. This only happened once (I believe) in the original series; if you want, you could see that as a response to the need to focus on the defeat of the key enemy in the series without wanting to focus on death, but you could also see it as a statement that killing is wrong, as a humane alternative to the death penalty even in response to the most serious of crimes.
In Korra, however, removal of bending takes on a rather different nature. It’s much more frequent, and it’s done by a character who is marked as evil instead of a character who is marked as good. So it’s not a sign of compassion: it’s a desire to terrorize.
But what’s interesting to me is the way that I experience removal of bending differently from death. Considered in the abstract, removing bending is not nearly as bad: the victim still lives on, and unlike a character who is physically maimed, the victim is a priori no worse off than most of the people who live in that world. (As the show makes a point of saying!) But I shuddered when I saw it happen to side characters whom I’d never seen before and will never see again, I was afraid whenever Korra and her companions were threatened with it, and when it happened to somebody I cared about in the episode I watched most recently (the next-to-last episode of season one), I, well, wow.
What’s going on there? Part of it is the lack of finality. Killing somebody is horrible, no question, and I would be devastated if to somebody dear to me were killed. But if I were killed, I wouldn’t be around to be devastated, and if it happened to somebody more distant to me, their absence would mean that I wasn’t regularly confronted by the reality of the situation. Whereas if somebody suffers a horror and are still present, then they’re a constant reminder of that horror, forcing you to empathize not just with their loved ones but with them.
And empathy plays at the situation in another way. If I were to list aspects of myself that I care about, that make me me, there wouldn’t be a single physical characteristic on that list, they’d all be mental characteristics. I can’t hurl fireballs at you with the powers of my mind, but I’m pretty damn good at math and am a much better programmer than most. I won’t say that those abilities are particularly important or good in any moral sense, and I don’t think they’re why, for example, Liesl loves me, but still: if they went away, I would have quite a bit of readjustment to do.
Maybe I like the wrong sort of art, but I don’t see nearly as many examples of this sort of empathy for the loss suffered by survivors of violence in that art. It’s there sometimes (the threat is certainly present in Among Others), but too often when it shows up, it turns out in a way that I don’t find as effective. In games, loss of powers occasionally shows up as a mechanic, but it’s always in a context where that loss is marked as temporary: see Metroid Prime, for example. In many art forms, rape is one canonical form of violence that leaves survivors; that’s tied up with so many other aspects of our society that it’s not going to have the same sort of abstract power that removing bending in Korra does. Of course, in the strongest art, that leads to it being significantly more powerful, but, a lot of the time, it seems to me to be used in ways that are rather less respectful of the reality of that violence towards its victims.
I do wonder if the verbal association between bending and being bent is intentional. Is Korra a parable against the evils of the gay cure charlatans? A statement of how fundamental our sexuality is to us? A celebration of how fabulous humanity can be? A covert conservative statement of fear against gay power? Probably not…
I’m curious where Korra will go with this. Will it decide that it’s gone too far, and end up restoring everybody’s bending power? Will it refuse to compromise, and dwell on the horrors of having a key part of your self taken away, turning that into a parable of the evils of absolute power, even if those powers are ones we associate with the avatar? Will it take a middle route, turning it into a narrative of strength and redemption without restoring powers? (I can’t imagine the character whose bending was removed in that most recent episode responding by wallowing in self-pity, or indeed not remaining a force of power.)
And yeah, the abstract nature of the violence committed does remove some of the potential power of the artistic statement here. But still: it’s a children’s television show, there’s only so far it can go in confronting you with horror! (Hmm, though Grave of the Fireflies gives lie to that.) And, given that constraint, I’m very impressed with what they’ve done: making you face real issues, react with real feelings, and doing that not just in this context but in many others.
This post has not been revised since publication.