Contributed by Nathan G.
Though it may seem counter-intuitive, the Nickelodeon animated show Legend of Korra and the Dr. Seuss short story The Sneetches are actually very similar tales. Though they are meant for different age levels and possess very different levels of sophistication, both stories are about the tragedies and horrors of institutionalized racism, and the way to combat it. The main point of divergence between them is that while Dr. Seuss writes about the downfall of racism, Legend of Korra celebrates its survival.
Let us first examine The Sneetches. As the doctor tells us, Sneetches are creatures that live on beaches. They enjoy a simple life; barbecuing, playing ball, toasting marshmallows, and generally having a wonderful time. But this lovely life is not enjoyed by all Sneetches, not all! You see, some Sneetches have stars on their bellies, and some Sneetches are without. And no Star-Bellied Sneetch would ever even dream of having fun or spending any time at all with a Non-Starred Sneetch. So while the Starred Sneetches enjoy themselves day and not, those lacking chest ornaments are left out in the cold. So as it stands we have a classic case of racism in action. One group, possessing something that another group lacks, uses this advantage to persecute and de-humanize their fellows, keeping them segregated and oppressed. Because they don’t recognize them as equals, the Starred Sneetches have no need to share their good fortune with the Non-Starred Sneetches. Convenient for them perhaps, but not so good for their poor, plain-bellied neighbors. And this tragic situation continues, until one day a mysterious man appears with a marvelous machine. His name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean, and he is the Fix-it Chap. And he has a wonderful deal for the Non-Starred Sneetches. For only a few dollars, he can add stars to those plain bellies. In a word, equalization. Though the original Starred Sneetches try and maintain their power by erasing their stars, the Newly-Starred Sneetches merely follow in a chaotic cycle, until no one can remember who was originally what. By the end of the story, all distinction between Starred and Non-Starred is completely gone and a new era of equal campfires and volleyball games begin.
Now, Legend of Korra is much more complex, and does not mirror The Sneetches exactly. However there are more than enough similarities to warrant an examination. The setting for the show is Republic City, a place where “benders and non-benders can live in peace.” Bending, it should be noted, is a special ability that a large segment of the population possesses that allows them to manipulate one of the Four Elements: fire, water, air, and earth. Now this slogan sounds great on the surface, and up to a point it’s even true. After all, there is no official discrimination against non-benders. No, this is much more subtle than the Sneetches. Watching the show, you begin to realize something. The entire government is composed of Benders. The entire police force is composed of benders, as is the Armed Forces. The most popular form of entertainment in the city is barred to all but Benders. By and large, non-benders seem to have little say in public affairs, and their concerns are treated as less important by the show. Or to put it differently, non-benders weren’t allowed to attend barbecues or a marshmallow roasts. But a McBean is coming. Early in the series the character Amon is revealed. The mysterious leader of a group called the Equalists, his goal is simple. The eradication of Bending, and the equalization of all people in Republic City. He plans to accomplish this through the use of a most singular power that he possesses; the ability to strip someone of their bending. Of course, the establishment doesn’t stand by and let their power vanish without a fight. They quickly enact highly discriminatory laws designed to punish all non-benders, even those who are not Equalists. It should be noted that these are passed by an 80% margin, with less than a minute of debate. Over the following half-dozen episodes or so, the main characters struggle with the Equalists and become embroiled in numerous subplots too complicated to be related here. But finally, in the series climax the Equalists seize power in a bloodless coup and prepare to implement their agenda. But it is here that the series changes direction. Unlike Dr. Seuss, the creators of Legend of Korra do not have the courage to advocate the overthrow of the established order. No, instead Amon is disgraced by the plucky young heroes and ultimately murdered by his own brother. The Bending elite declare victory, and things continue on as they always have.
Now that we’ve familiar with the basic structure of the two stories, I’d like to draw special attention to several of the most important points. First of all, neither McBean or Amon is who they say they are. McBean claims to be looking out only for the Sneetches best interest, but throughout the story he displays only contempt for them. In fact, the harmonizing of their society was only a side effect of his real aim, which was to make as much money as possible. It would not be overly harsh to accuse him of being a con man. But his trickery is forgiven, as he has wrought much good. Amon claims to be a non-bender, one who was severely burned by a fire bender in his youth. In reality, he is an extremely powerful bloodbender, and the son of Republic City’s most notorious criminal. Though he truly did believe in the Equalist cause, he built it on a foundation of lies and half-truths. Is this ethically correct? Not really. But does it change the reality of what equalization would bring? No! Another point, and one that is closely related is that in both stories, the destruction of racism must come about through profoundly unethical processes. Amon’s stripping of bending makes many people uncomfortable, and with good reason. It is an incredible violation of someone’s soul, and something hard to countenance under any circumstances. Compared to the ongoing and fundamental inequalities of life in Republic City however, it begins to look a lot less bad. And though what Mr. McBean was doing wasn’t as bad, it was certainty not proper behavior that we would expect from a hero. He quite handily scams the Sneetches out of a very large sum of money; by my calculations at least $1,000. This figure should be regarded as a bare minimum; the true number is almost certainly much higher. For folks whose entire occupation is hanging out on a beach, this is not a insignificant amount! The final point that needs to brought up is that the evil is not in the people but in the system. When discussing Legend of Korra, one of the most frequent defense of Bender elitism you encounter is the character defense. Not all benders are bad people! they say. Look at this example, or that person, and so on and so forth. And to a point, they’re right. The series is full of Bender characters such as Tenzien, General Iroh, Korra, and Bolin who would never dream of intentionally oppressing an entire segment of society. But the key word is intentionally. A fundamental truth that these two stories illustrate quite well is that a good person will always be defeated by a bad system. Korra and Tenzien are blinded by the positions of privilege they occupy, making it impossible for them to realize how cruel the system they prop up is. Similarly, on the last page of The Sneetches, you observe people living in harmony who only five or six pages ago had despised each other. This is possible because once the Starred Sneetches have been broken out of the system that perpetuated their supposed superiority, allowing their better natures to become dominant.
At this point the parallels between the two stories are obvious, which begs the question: why is the reaction to them so different? The Sneetches is known by all as a great way to teach children about the wrongness of racism while the vast majority of Legend of Korra fans were delighted by the death of Amon. The answer to this question is quite simple. McBean was able to finish his work, and Amon was not. Think about the struggles against discrimination and racism in our own world. Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist for several decades, and the FBI classified Martin Luther King Jr. as a threat to the state. It was only after they’d achieved victory that their achievements were recognized. Sadly, Amon was never given this chance.