Legend of Korra: Powerful Female Leads and Our Perception of Beauty

The Legend of Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender are two of my all time favorite shows. They are complex, poignant, adventurous, and visually striking, but on top of all that, they crafted fabulous multi-faceted characters for both genders. Don’t worry, there are no spoilers in this article. I am not discussing story lines and plots in particular here, however you might understand this post better if you are at least familiar with The Legend of Korra.

Many interviews and reviews have focused on how great it is that The Legend of Korra features a strong female lead. And it is great! This was continued from Avatar: The Last Airbender,  where there were many strong, complex female characters on both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of the conflicts (although very few characters in the Avatar world are ever really as simple as ‘good’ and ‘bad’). There was Katara, Toph, Suki, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, just to name a few. They were all girls with strong abilities and complex story lines; full bodied characters that made you feel for them at various times throughout the Avatar series. They were also all very beautiful, in the conventional sense.

Fast forward to The Legend of Korra, and the animation has changed a bit. While in the original Avatar series, Sokka and Katara were supposed to be aged around 16, Korra is supposed to be just a year older in The Legend of Korra, at age 17. However, she and her friends seem much older, and more adult in their physiques. The animators are using an edgier, steampunk infused style of animation for The Legend of Korra, and they made their teenage characters look more realistic for their ages than those in Avatar, who were made more childlike.

Development sketches of Korra, featuring her father and Mako. (click to enlarge)

Development sketches of Korra, featuring her father and Mako. (click to enlarge)

While many interviewers and reviewers have commented on the strong personality Korra has for a female lead character, what I find equally interesting is Korra’s appearance. The creators gave Korra a muscular, athletic build, with a fuller, thicker figure than women they have previously animated. She has strong arms, shoulders, and back muscles that are clearly defined, even when she is at rest and not fighting. She has a larger chest than most other characters, thicker waist, and full hips. The difference in body type is especially noticeable in comparison to her friend, Asami. Asami has the traditional ‘feminine’ body image normally thrust on women: slim but shapely build, long flowing sexy hair, and full make up.

korra all angles edited

Korra from all angles (click to enlarge)

asami side views

Asami all angles (click to enlarge)

Bryan Konietzko, one of the creators of The Legend of Korra, described his inspiration for Korra’s physique and personality in an interview with The Wall Street Journal:

I later realized she was inspired by my sister, who is pretty tough… Definitely female MMA fighters, I’m a big mixed martial arts fan, and watching women’s MMA grow was definitely an inspiration.

Now, normally I wouldn’t advocate scrutinizing anyone’s appearance, and especially not a women’s body — but I think it’s awesome that the creators designed Korra this way. Not only did they create a powerful female lead that is so lacking in today’s entertainment, but they made her body reflect her interests in a realistic way. In The Legend of Korra, bending has become a sport that mimics mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting in our world. Korra is athletic, and an accomplished bender. As such, her body reflects her dedication to fighting in a realistic way, and it’s beautiful. It’s a form of beauty that young girls should see. The more body types young girls and women are exposed to, the better. As Janet Varney, voice actress for Korra, says:

 As a girl, as a woman, it’s frankly really gratifying for me to see this new series catapult this incredibly cool female character into the minds of children, and girl in particular, who I hope will feel empowered by her, and inspired by her.

Korra bending water fire and earth

Korra bending water, fire, and earth (click to enlarge)

I think it’s very important that women and girls are exposed to this ‘alternate’ form of beauty. I use the word ‘alternate’ with unease, because there is nothing strange or different about Korra’s physique. It just seems different because we are constantly seeing skinny women with slim figures wherever we look in the media. This makes a body like Korra’s seem out of the ordinary. We need more models like Korra to reassure girls and women that all body types are beautiful. That strength is beautiful. It’s OK to have muscle tone and be strong.

We all know the media pushes slim, toned images of women to us, and that lately people have pushed back saying big is beautiful as well. We’re now testing the ideas of beautiful big butts and hour glass figures (Kim Kardashian, Nikki Minaj, and Christina Hendricks, just to name a few)), and the belief that people can be beautiful at any size. Korra gives girls the option of being muscular, strong and athletic as a form of beauty. Because while toned has always been the desire for women, you had to do it while still staying small, slim and sleek. Girls and women are always afraid of becoming too ‘big’ or ‘bulky’ with muscle training. But Korra shows that you can have muscles, a big chest, thicker waist and hips, and be beautiful, because you are healthy and strong. That you don’t have to give up sports when you reach high school to prevent developing a ‘manly’ body. And that although you are strong and independent on your own, it’s also great that the right boys will admire you for your spirit and their strength.

So thanks Korra, for showing us that not only can you be badass, you can look good doing it. 

korra smiling smug

Rock on ladies, rock on (click to enlarge)


Alverson, Brigid. (April 16, 2012) Interview: Voice actress janet varney and the secret origins of korra. http://geek-news.mtv.com/2012/04/16/legend-of-korra-janet-varney/

Thill, Scott. (July 18, 2014) “You gotta deal with it!”: The TV writers behind the powerful female character no one is talking about. http://www.salon.com/2014/07/18/you_gotta_deal_with_it_the_tv_writers_behind_the_powerful_female_character_no_one_is_talking_about/

Thill, Scott. (April 13, 2012) The legend of korra upgrades avatar’s mythic bending epic. http://www.wired.com/2012/04/legend-of-korra/ 


  1. Jasmine Sterling · October 20, 2014

    This is great! I agree with you 100% and I’m a fan of both series. This article truly shows how much I love Korra and how she represents girls/women in the media. I’m participating in Army ROTC and Aikido and I have a “strong and athletic” body “as a form of beauty” like you described but I received a lot of backlash for it because they would say I’m too pretty to be muscular. I have a little sister, 9 years old, and my family wants her to do Balley but she wants to take martial arts and be”strong and look good doing it” like her big sister. I feel so proud to be a role model like Korra, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • arielledawn · October 20, 2014

      I’m so glad you enjoyed it! And I think it’s awesome that you’re strong and proud of your body, You sound like a great role model and your sister is lucky to have you to look up to in her life. Hopefully, we’ll be seeing more characters like Korra, and future generations of girls won’t have to deal with the negative feedback that you have about their bodies, simply because they don’t match the media’s narrow view on ‘beauty.’ You’re beautiful, and don’t ever forget it!


  2. Ren Ellis · October 20, 2014

    This is a very well written article. I think both Avatar and Korra have transcended the typical ‘kids’ show’ genre in terms of maturity and quality and the fact that they can be watched by children and adults alike speaks to how relatable the characters are. I’ve grown up right alongside the characters. I was about 12 when Avatar started, so Aang’s age, then about Suki’s (still one of my favorite characters on any show) age when it ended, then a year older than Korra when LOK began and now I’m the same age as Asami. But no matter their age, the characters undergo struggles people of all ages can relate to. I’m so glad another group of kids will get to know and love this world Mike and Bryan have created through LOK and ATLA and that those kids can glean lessons of equality and empowerment from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • arielledawn · October 20, 2014

      Me too! While I know they’ve said that Legend of Korra will end after Book 4, I hope they continue stories of the Avatar World either in other shows, or at least in book and comic form.


  3. Makabus · October 21, 2014

    I don’t like how you used the term/phrase “Traditional Women.” It just didn’t sit right with me that “you think” a traditional women is supposed to be whatever magazines/TV/society is telling us. I mean from what i remember learning back in the 1920’s women changed drastically changing the meaning of what a women is supposed to be. It also happened again sometime in the 60/70’s maybe the 80’s i can’t tell/remember when “big” women were the thing and we’re now just getting back to the “Skinny’s the new thing” in my opinion because all people want right now is a healthy life as back then they probably didn’t care. Anyways not trying ot pick a fight, just wanted to vent(?)/state/share my opinion.


    • arielledawn · October 21, 2014

      I appreciate your opinion, but I think you are missing the point of this article, or perhaps did not read it all the way through to the end. I don’t use the term “traditional women,” in this article, nor do I in any way think that women should conform to what the media tells us. The closest I came to using that phrase was when comparing Korra to Asami, and I used this sentence: “Asami has the traditional ‘feminine’ body image normally thrust on women: slim but shapely build, long flowing sexy hair, and full make up.” I was saying that there is a traditional body image of the slim, skinny woman that is rampant throughout the media today, and has been for decades. Not that ‘traditional women’ look like what the media portrays. My point is that there is no traditional woman; we are all different. While the media’s image of what a woman should be has changed throughout the decades, plump has not been in style since medieval times. In the 1920s we had very thin, boyish figure flappers. By the 1940s-50s we saw the return of the very small waist but full hour glass figure (what you might being thinking is ‘plump,’ but only appears that way in comparison to the standards now). In the 1970s-80s we saw a return of the skinny and slim, but more shapely than the previous 1920s flapper style. In the 1990s until recently we returned to the ultra skinny model, which we still have except now women are encouraged to be very skinny but toned. I mentioned in the article that lately we have seen a resurgence of the ‘full figure’ hourglass model, and that we have had many movements over the past few years saying that women are beautiful at any size. But what we are still lacking is the muscular woman, and that is the point I was trying to make. That Korra is muscular, and not in a toned trim and shapely way that is pushed at us, but in a very strong and capable way. Not muscular like a yoga instructor or Victoria’s secret model or pro surfer way (not that that’s bad, it’s not), but muscular like an MMA fighter or body builder. What some would (wrongly) say is “manly” or “jacked.” And I think it’s great that young girls have an athletic model to follow, and help them realize that muscular women are beautiful women too! Just like all body types are beautiful. I hope this clears up any misunderstanding.


  4. reneelr111101 · January 18, 2017

    I was really surprised when seeing Korra the first time, something I never get about anime is how they have incredibly strong woman and yet they are so skinny, seeing Korra really inspired me to build some muscle as a girl, she honestly looks beautiful and not masculine at all, I could tell she looked different than other girls, but never was it all in my face, it took me time to realize it was because of her big muscles, she is freaking awesome


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