Kuvira was the character that got me to watch The Legend of Korra. Back around January, I was reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s roundup of Korra on his blog when I saw a screencap of a severe young woman in uniform glowering at the audience. This, I was informed, was Kuvira, the new military dictator of the former Earth Kingdom and the antagonist for Korra‘s final season. Overall, Bennett was not impressed with Kuvira, describing her as little more than a fantasy Hitler with a doomsday weapon.
Me being me, my first thought on reading this was, “so she’s a fascist…that’s interesting.” My second was “and she’s a she…that’s really interesting.”
Kuvira’s story begins back in season 3 of The Legend of Korra with the introduction of the Earth Kingdom city of Zaofu. The home of the “metal clan,” a group of earthbenders who have dedicated themselves to the difficult art of metalbending, Zaofu is a place modeled after the science-fiction visions of the early twentieth century. It is a city of metal spires and airy parks, of comfortable train rides, an ecumenical space where people of all nations can come together, forget the conflicts of their pasts, and devote themselves to intellectual and artistic pursuits. In terms of government, Zaofu is a family concern overseen by Suyin Beifong, daughter of Aang’s earthbending teacher Toph and estranged sister to Lin, Republic City’s hardnosed chief of police and Korra series semi-regular. Throughout the season, Zaofu appears as one of the few glimmering lights of progress amid the ramshackle Earth Kingdom.
Kuvira made her first appearance in this season as one of Zaofu’s guard captains, deferential and loyal to the ideals of Zaofu and Suyin. However, the assassination of the Earth Queen and the dissolution of the imperial regime led to a rift between the two women, with Kuvira pushing for Zaofu to do its part to restore order and Suyin refusing to involve herself in the situation. Matters eventually came to a head with Kuvira leaving Zaofu along with a fair chunk of the security force and a number of like-minded citizens. After restoring order to the imperial capital of Ba Sing Se, Kuvira received a mandate (and military aid, no doubt) from President Raiko of the United Republic to restore order in the Earth Kingdom in the name of Prince Wu, a feckless imperial cousin.
By the time the fourth season begins three years later, the reintegration of the Earth Kingdom has been mostly accomplished, leaving Kuvira at the head of a formidable military apparatus. However, during Wu’s coronation in Republic City, Kuvira stuns the world by deposing Wu and announcing the formation of a new “Earth Empire” with herself at its head. From there, Kuvira goes on to forcibly integrate Zaofu into the empire, pursue dangerous research into spirit-based energy weapons, as well as build a…giant…robot. The endgame for all this is an assault on Republic City and the conquest of the United Republic, a nation established on historical Earth Kingdom territory. There are battles, buildings get lasered in half, but ultimately the heroes prevail, and Kuvira surrenders herself into their custody.
In all honesty, Kuvira was not handled that well by the show. Her character had to accomplish a number of tasks simultaneously. She had to act as a foil to Korra by reflecting the aggressive uncompromising Korra of the first season. She also had appear as a ambiguous figure, one whose true motives were uncertain. At the same time, she also had to be a fascist military dictator and serve as an antagonist for an action-adventure show. Suffice to say, seesawing and contradiction was inevitable. On top of that, as I mentioned in my prior post on Korra, the writing team seemed to have some odd priorities during the fourth season, which meant a lot of the spadework that would have integrated these various elements was not done. As a result, most people watching Korra take Kuvira at face value, missing the nuances of her ideology and personality.
When discussing Kuvira, the word of choice for fans, reviewers, and showrunners alike is “fascist.” Certainly the show pushes the visual imagery of fascism, Nazism in particular, as hard as it can. Kuvira’s soldiers stand at attention in front of cities in great Nuremburg squares. Every man in her armed forces seems to have an undercut, the hairstyle of choice of Hitler Youth members. Republic City is having increasing trouble with bands of “greenshirts” harassing the exiled Prince Wu. The first full-size prototype of her spirit energy weapon is essentially a copy of the Schwerer Gustav railway gun. The banners her supporters hang up translate to “May Kuvira live for 10,000 years,” a traditional honorific bestowed to Chinese emperors that, for a Western audience, brings up associations with thousand-year Reichs.
At yet something seems off about the label. There’s a great deal about Kuvira’s army that doesn’t fit the traditional model of interwar European fascism. Mussolini’s Fascists and Hitler’s Nazis, political fascism’s two greatest successes, were combinations of political parties and paramilitary movements, not entirely unlike some of the communist and socialist parties of continental Europe of the time. They appeared in societies that, while democratic, were rapidly losing institutional legitimacy. In these environments, they appealed to people looking for radical solutions to the deep structural problems of their nations who were opposed to radical solutions offered by the left-wing movements. While they propagandized their “marches on Rome,” they were invited into power by conservative elites looking for a mass movement to legitimize themselves, only to dispose of the elites and use their party as an instrument to effect a radical transformation of the state. This radicalism usually took the form of an organic nationalism, of seeing the nation as a living being that had been “diseased” by modernity and was to be “healed” by the fascist leader. The end goal for these projects were vague; according to fascist scholar Roger Griffin, fascist projects ultimately have no end point, for the entire purpose is to preserve the endless radicalism of the movement forever.
By contrast, Kuvira’s movement seems far more modest and traditional. She spends the season primarily associated with her military, which is depicted as a normal early 20th-century army. Several characters end up traveling through towns under Kuvira’s administration, and aside from a few posters life does not seem to have been gravely affected. Even the incorporation of provinces involves little more than the current governor publicly swearing an oath of loyalty and some manner of “supervision” from Kuvira’s military. As for Kuvira herself, she is presented as an anti-monarchist, an autocrat, and a “great nationalist” that wants all of the Earth Kingdom’s historical territory reincorporated into the Empire, but her vision for this empire is not radical. The one time she speaks about her political beliefs, during Wu’s coronation, she describes hereditary monarchy as an “archaic” practice that led to the ruin of the Earth Kingdom, and that “technology and innovation should be what drives a nation forward” toward prosperity and general well-being. This isn’t a declaration of an alternative fascist modernity; it’s a pledge to integrate the Earth Kingdom into mainstream modernity.
So if Kuvira isn’t a fascist, what is she? Given the Earth Kingdom’s obvious parallels with Qing-dynasty China, it would be tempting to associate Kuvira with some figure from 20th-century Chinese history. However, most of the major names commonly associated with Kuvira are inadequate. Yuan Shikai, the military reformer who finally overthrew the Qing dyansty in 1912, is a potential candidate, but he was far more of a traditionalist that Kuvira, a fact that eventually proved to be his undoing. Chiang Kai-shek has also been cited as a model, and indeed Kuvira’s campaign to reunify the Earth Kingdom does seem to be modeled on the Northern Expedition of 1926-28, but overall Kuvira’s military seems to enjoy far greater control over their territory and popular legitimacy than the Nationalist government ever achieved. Mao is another potential, but Kuvira lacks all of the standard apparatus of a communist political party. Perhaps the best way to think about Kuvira is as an autocratic modernizing nationalist. There have been a ton of people like her throughout both Western and non-Western history, but the best model for someone like Kuvira is Kemal Ataturk. Both came of age in empires that were in deep decay, where modernization occurred by fits and starts, if at all. (Avatar: The Last Airbender presented an Earth Kingdom deeply wounded by its long war against the Fire Nation and The Legend of Korra presents that same state seventy years later, having never recovered from the damage.) Like Ataturk, Kuvira is an officer of no particular background, distinguished by her ability and lack of deep ties to the previous regime. She’s a modernizer who sees reform and industrialization as the path forward for her nation, but doesn’t seem bound to any particular ideological program. Her military is one of the key pillars of her administration, but given how little we see of her civil administration it’s impossible to tell whether the Earth Empire is a straight-up military dictatorship or whether the military is a “guarantor” to civil society that reserves the right to intervene in ordinary government if it so chooses. The long-term viability of such regimes may be variable (consider the fate of the Pahlavis in Iran), but in the medium term they can be quite successful in restoring basic civil order and modernizing the nation.
Another area in which Kuvira and Ataturk share commonalities is the fact that their actions are a response to foreign intervention. While the Earth Kingdom is not threatened by anything like the land grab Turkey nearly succumbed to after the First World War, it has problems of its own. The restoration of Prince Wu is, in actuality, a project developed by the United Republic and the Air Nation to restore order and stabilize trade with the Earth Kingdom, a project with the end goal of making the Earth Kingdom a UR client state. Wu, a man so feckless that he makes Kaiser Wilhelm II look like Frederick the Great, is nothing more than a monarchical symbol meant to legitimize the whole thing. President Raiko of the UR admits that most civil administration in the restored Earth Kingdom will be handled by UR “advisors.” While Kuvira was backed by the UR to do the hard work of stabilizing the Earth Kingdom, much about the arrangement would have rankled her political sensibilities. Working with the towns and cities of the Kingdom, developing an enthusiastically loyal military that shares her ideals, all while the few remnants of the monarchy take it easy in Republic City, it probably would not have taken much for Kuvira to come to the conclusion that, in a field with no contenders, she was literally the best woman for the job. There’s also the issue of personal safety; a new monarchical regime would probably find Kuvira and her army a problematic element. Enforced “retirement” would probably be the best possible outcome for her. In this light, her decision to form the Earth Empire seems a reasonable reaction, even admirable.
Before leaving the political sphere, some attention should be given to the most contentious element of Kuvira’s rule. Over the course of the season, various characters mention that Kuvira has been placing political opponents in “reeducation camps.” Given the tumult of restoring order after several years of civil disarray, particularly with someone with as little patience for dissent as Kuvira, something like this is deplorable but not unexpected. However, the show goes one over by revealing that non-earthbenders have also been the targets of round-ups and mass incarcerations, a revelation that is rather baffling. Kuvira herself doesn’t evince any chauvinist thoughts; indeed, she worked for several years with both Varrick and his assistant Zhu Li, both nonbenders from the Southern Water Tribe, and Bolin, a Republic City earthbender of mixed ancestry, with no complaint. There is nothing given in her background to explain when such beliefs would have developed. The strangest feature of all is that after its introduction in the story, the issue is never addressed again by anyone. In the end, it feels less like a logical evolution to Kuvira’s beliefs and more like a plot point, much like the Republic City greenshirts subplot that goes nowhere, that was introduced solely to reaffirm to the audience that Kuvira is a villain. My own reaction, grotesque as it may sound, is to simply ignore the point.
But what about beyond politics? Who is Kuvira as a person? The Legend of Korra is generally stronger in its character work than its political commentary, and there is a bit more consistency when depicting Kuvira as a character. Still, there are some problems. Kuvira is a character who does not willingly reveal much of herself to others, a woman who prefers to operate within a shell. For someone like this, a slight gesture or a shift in the tone of voice speaks volumes. Unfortunately, given that comparatively little time is spent with Kuvira outside of battle with her defenses down, it is very easy to write her off as the unfeeling, power-hungry autocrat she appears to be.
Still, Kuvira reveals interesting things about herself even when she’s wearing her armor. The first few episodes of the season focus on her fighting, both as a metalbender and in the political arena. She is, of course, supremely talented in each, and enjoys the thrill of combat and the moment of triumph. And yet a simple love of violence is not what motivates her. When she fights another person with bending, most of her style involves dodging attacks and hindering her opponent by covering their eyes or binding their limbs. On her journey across the Earth Kingdom, her standard modus operandi is to approach the local provincial governor and offer aid on the condition of swearing allegiance to her. If the governor refuses, she simply leaves, presumably to return once the province has been overthrown by bandits. While the show very vaguely suggests that Kuvira may be employing bandits to overthrow resistant governors, Kuvira comes across as someone too blunt and straightforward to have much patience with subterfuge. In both the gladiatorial and political spheres, Kuvira’s main aim as to appear as all-powerful and imperturbable, a force of nature whose victory is inevitable, but one willing to be quite generous to those who join her. While Kuvira engages in a whole lot of dominance pageantry, her actions never seem to be done in the service of mere ego. There is a certain selflessness to Kuvira’s actions that borders on depersonalization. She offers to duel Korra for the fate of Zaofu, explaining to her soldiers she would never order them to do something she would be unwilling to do herself. In the fight for Republic City, she chooses to sacrifice her captured fiancé, the only person in the world who seems to actually like her, rather than back down. There’s a very real sense that Kuvira, or her essential Kuviraness, is only a small part of her role and persona as the Great Uniter, and that it is a part Kuvira is quite willing to sacrifice.
But what caused this? The answer, of course, is childhood trauma. Right at the very end of the season, Kuvira reveals to Korra that not only was she orphaned at the age of eight, she was purposefully abandoned by her parents. It is a powerful revelation, even if it does fall into the trap of being the single trauma that explains everything about Kuvira, from her emotional distance to her fixation on loyalty oaths (after all, how can you tell that people love you unless you make sure?) to her devotion to the Earth Empire (make sure what happened to me doesn’t happen to anyone else and become the mother-father figure I never had). However, the revelation is interesting for the light it sheds on the most interesting character conflict of the season: the struggle between Kuvira and Suyin Beifong.
The two episodes dealing with Kuvira’s incorporation of Zaofu into the Empire, “Enemy at the Gates” and “The Battle of Zaofu,” are the most fun of the season for a few reasons. First of all, while the show wants to keep us on Zaofu’s side in the conflict, there are certain elements that encourage us to consider Zaofu more critically. In building her new national army, Kuvira seems to have thought of herself as expanding and protecting Zaofu’s legacy. The uniforms of her soldiers have the same green-and-silver palette of Zaofu’s robes, and her personal emblem is Zaofu’s metallic Deco-styled Chinese coin (a plain version of which was used in Avatar as the emblem of the Earth Kingdom). Kuvira herself states that she received her ideals from Suyin and Zaofu, leaving the audience to wonder whether Kuvira’s actions are a perversion of Suyin’s ideals or simply a natural application of them on the national scale. Suyin, after all, is someone who has the domes to her city’s habitats locked overnight, and has no problem with hiring a mind-reader to keep an eye on her citizens. There’s also questions of how justified Zaofu’s opposition to Kuvira is: is this a noble outpost of freedom about to be crushed by jackboots, or a little hothouse flower, built on public land filched from a corrupt monarchy in decay (and come to think of it, it’s never explained if Suyin ever paid taxes to the Earth Queen), that did nothing while the old world collapsed around them, while expecting that the new regime would continue to honor their privileges?
The two Zaofu episodes are also wonderful for integrating Kuvira into the great messy soap opera that is the Beifong family. A great effort is made to show Kuvira and Suyin as reflections of each other: they’re both hard, uncompromising women who see themselves as the guardians of their “families” (even if Kuvira’s “family” numbers in the hundreds of millions) who react to threats by doubling down and pushing back even harder. At the same time there’s a very messed-up mother-daughter dynamic at play. Suyin describes Kuvira to Korra as “almost like a daughter,” but the few scenes they share in Season 3 depict more of an employer/employee relationship, and in the Zaofu episodes she treats Kuvira as malevolent agent of corruption. Suyin describes the argument over what to do following the assassination of the Earth Queen as the event that opened a rift between her and Kuvira, but her behavior and Kuvira’s background suggests this was a rift a long time in coming. Despite this, there are a few points in the episodes where Kuvira seems to be attempting to reach out to Suyin, only for her entreaties to be ignored entirely. The conflict between the two extends down into Suyin’s family; when Kuvira left, Suyin’s eldest son Bataar Jr. went with her, eventually becoming her fiancé. (Bataar Jr. himself is something of a missed opportunity; there’s just enough in his backstory to suggest he had some of the same issues with Suyin that Kuvira had, and he is the only character that genuinely loves Kuvira unconditionally…but he also seems to have been written as the most unlikable character in the entire show.) By contrast, the other Beifong children loathe Kuvira, even going so far as to asking Korra to crush her to save Zaofu. In truth, there’s something dubious in Suyin’s character; this is, after all, the woman who became estranged from her sister Lin by working as a wheelman for some bank robbers, then slashed her sister’s face while resisting arrest. Perhaps it is not surprising that she decides to protect her city from Kuvira, the woman who “was like a daughter” to her, by taking two of her biological sons and sneaking into Kuvira’s camp to try and kill her in her sleep.
Ultimately, in spite of everything the showrunners did with Kuvira, I feel slightly disappointed with how she was ultimately handled. I understand that she was written as a foil to Korra, as a way for Korra to reconcile all the various aspects of herself. But at the same time, I feel like the deck was stacked against Kuvira from day one. She had legitimate objections to the way the world was run, struggled long and hard to do what she thought was right, even if she made many mistakes…only it didn’t matter, since all her beliefs were the result of childhood trauma and therefore invalid. Seeing the season end with Kuvira surrendering herself into UR custody, Prince Wu regaining the throne with a plan to dissolve the Earth Kingdom into a commonwealth of independent states (which, looking at the histories of post-imperial China, Austria-Hungary, and the Soviet Union, suggests a future of internecine wars, outbursts of ethnic hatred, and another Kuvira popping up thirty years down the line) just seems like the worst possible ending for Kuvira. I kind of wish the conflict with the United Republic had been the Earth Empire’s “Miracle on the Vistula” moment that halted its expansion, and that Kuvira had stayed in power, humbled by her overreach but still determined to drive her nation into the future. Who knows what she would have built.
With the end of The Legend of Korra, the Avatar universe has pretty much ended. There are going to be some comics in the future, but there’s no word on whether anything will be done with Kuvira or the former Earth Empire. I find myself thinking that I’d like to try something with a character like Kuvira, a woman who becomes a modernizing autocrat, maybe even an outright totalitarian, outside the limitations of an young adult’s action-adventure television series. It seems the restrictions of Korra always brought Kuvira down. If she was freed of them, if some work gave her the space to become herself, she could become quite remarkable indeed.
(Edit 11/25/16: Take a little gander over here for my own take on Kuvira’s lost years.)