The Legend of Korra wowed fans with its finale, finally confirming that the relationship between Korra and Asami went beyond friendship. Although the ending itself was a tad ambiguous, creator Bryan Koneitzko took to his Tumblr to ensure fans knew exactly what was up, stating once and for all that yes, "Korra and Asami fell in love."
This is something of a milestone in children's programming, and it's even more of a triumph when we look at the larger picture. Adventure Time has struggled with making gay relationships obvious in the show before, and Gravity Falls has also reached this stumbling block recently. But shows like Legend of Korra and Steven Universe have been pushing the boundaries of network restrictions, managing to slip romantic relationships between women past the censors, and in doing so they're paving the way for children's programming to get just a bit more grown up.
Struggling With Censors
In his expansive post, Koneitzko revealed that the idea of having Korra and Asami end up together was actually in the mix since day one, but they were concerned Nickelodeon wouldn't let it fly.
"I have bragging rights as the first Korrasami shipper (I win!). 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."
They did put a lot of homoerotic subtext in for the early seasons though, and even while Book 1 was airing, fans were already locking on to the tension between Korra and Asami to explain their latent attraction to one another. As time went on, creators Bryan Koneitzko and Mike DiMartino developed the relationship between the girls, turning them from rivals to friends, to something more.
"The more Korra and Asami’s relationship progressed, the more the idea of a romance between them organically blossomed for us. However, we still operated under this notion, another “unwritten rule,” that we would not be allowed to depict that in our show. So we alluded to it throughout the second half of the series, working in the idea that their trajectory could be heading towards a romance."
Eventually though, the creators decided that they wanted to make it more clear, as otherwise they wouldn't be doing the relationship justice, and they discussed the possibility with the network. Nickelodeon agreed, but imposed limits about how oblique the revelation could be. Understandably, Mike and Bryan had to work with the network, and even Bryan admits that because of the restrictions, the ending was "hardly a slam-dunk for queer representation." But it's still a step forwards, and one which other shows are still struggling to achieve, such as Adventure Time.
The relationship between Marceline and Bubblegum in Adventure Time has had a similar development to Korra and Asami in Legend of Korra, in that the idea of them being romantically involved was there from the beginning, but the creators haven't quite found a way to make it work. The issue was started by the episode What Was Missing, with this song...
The song is excellent, and definitely hints at underlying romantic tensions between Marceline and Bubblegum, which was quickly commented on by the after-episode YouTube show, Mathematical. And that's when the censors struck.
Scandals & Erasure
Mathematical was semi-produced by Cartoon Network, and in the What Was Missing episode, the presenter talked about the possibility of Marceline and Bubblegum having a relationship, as well as featuring art by Adventure Time creator Natasha Allegri.
"In this episode Marceline hints that she might like Princess Bubblegum a little more than she’d like to admit. Maybe a little more than Finn? Do you see where I’m going with this? What do you think about Marceline and Bubblegum getting together? Does that leave Finn out in the dust? Or is it just adorbz?"
However, the episode was swiftly taken down by Cartoon Network, and they later cancelled the entire Mathematical show thanks to the scandal created by the mere suggestion of a lesbian relationship in Adventure Time. It's understandable then, that Bryan Koneitzko and Mike DiMartino had to tread carefully with Korra and Asami.
The Adventure Time scandal was back in 2011, but even more recently Gravity Falls has struggled to put in a same-sex relationship in the background of their episode Love God. The women were storyboarded, but switched for a heterosexual couple in the final version of the episode...
Of course, it's understandable why Disney are hesitant to include non-heterosexual couples, even in the background of an episode. Although it was later revealed that Marceline and Bubblegum are being considered canon for the comics, Olivia Olson (Marceline's voice actress) explained why Adventure Time can't be more obvious with their representation...
"In some countries where the show airs, it’s sort of illegal. So that’s why they’re not putting it in the show."
Not to mention the fact that the debate is raging on as to whether LGBT+ people and politics should be included in children's stories (which is a debate I'm not going to delve into). Suffice to say that same-sex relationships in kids' shows are controversial at best. But times are a-changing, and Steven Universe is one show that is acing queer representation, in a very subtle way.
Steven Universe is a beautiful show aesthetically, and with a complex story full of poignant moments and plenty of heart, the show has won many fans. It has also dealt with the idea of same-sex relationships very well, as in context the Gems (the heroes of the show) are non-gendered aliens who just happen to present in feminine ways (mostly). The longest running couple in Steven Universe is definitely Ruby and Sapphire, who fuse together to become Garnet.
Although it's been made pretty clear that they're in love (especially thanks to Garnet later refusing to date someone, saying "three's a crowd"), this is still somewhat ambiguous, and ambiguity does seem to be the best way to get these kinds of relationships into kids' shows right now. Steven Universe has proved that subtlety really is the best vehicle to represent queer people, and has been making leaps and bounds not just for relationship representation, but also for non-binary people.
So what's on the horizon for this issue? Look out for the future Legend of Korra comic, which will focus on Korra and Asami's relationship, as well as the ongoing Adventure Time comic which features Marceline and Bubblegum as co-queens (Marceline & The Scream Queens is also a great comic with tons of shippy subtext). And of course it's well worth checking out Steven Universe for how they deal with this issue.
For the moment it seems like ideas are changing, slowly, but we're definitely headed towards a more accepting future in children's programming.