Just a couple days ago, I watched Air with three of my cousins: an eleven-year old boy, a ten-year old girl, and a six-year old boy. (Really, I only meant to show them the first two episodes! I was going to space them out! But the kids wanted to keep going till four hours later we couldn’t keep going, haha.)
When Asami is introduced, not very long after she took off her helmet — and I mean, during that scene, before the audience knows anything about her — the eleven-year old said, very definitely, “She’s a bad guy.”
"She’s not bad."
"Yeah, she is," he said, and his sister was nodding beside him.
So why, I asked (pausing the video), did they think Asami was bad?
"Because look at her," said the ten-year old, and we all looked at her.
Again, the eleven-year old said, confident, “She’s gonna be bad,” and the six-year old said, “She’s mean!”
But they didn’t know anything about her.
What they meant was this: media (and specifically children’s media, although certainly media intended for adults indulges in this too) has taught them that Certain Women Are Bad. This is something they expect now in the cartoons they watch, that a girl who wears make-up, who is very feminine, is — if there’s another girl who’s tomboyish or at least not overtly feminine — a Bad Girl. To my cousins, one of whom is only six, Asami was immediately pegged as Evil because a) she wears make-up and she’s feminine and b) she’s a rival for Mako’s affections. Thus she must be a bad guy, right? Korra likes Mako and Korra’s the Hero, thus she’s the Good Girl, so if Asami likes Mako, that means Asami is the Bad Girl. “She wears short skirts, I wear sneakers,” etc.
But of course, Asami is one of the kindest characters in all the Avatar universe. She’s friendly, she’s gracious, she assumes the best of everyone, she’s fun and sweet, outgoing and confident. When she learns that Korra likes Mako, she doesn’t turn on Korra or make demands of her. Only when Asami realizes that Mako likes Korra back does she call anyone out, and the only person she calls out is Mako. She defends Bolin from Mako when Mako gets angry with Bolin for spilling the beans re: the kiss, and she still stands by and supports Korra.
By the end of the season, all my cousins loved Asami. They were all furious on her behalf with regards to the love triangle, and her final confrontation with her father had the eleven-year old heartbroken.
Media matters. Children’s media matters. Kids learn from the shows they watch and the books they read. What they learn, often, is that there are right ways to be a woman and wrong ways to be a woman, when the truth is that there is never a wrong way to be a woman. I hope there will be more Asami Satos in the fiction my cousins consume in the future: more Asamis, more Korras, more Lins and Pemas, Jinoras and Ikkis; that my cousins won’t always need me to be there with them to explain it doesn’t matter if a woman wears short skirts or sneakers, neither or both, because these things do not define her worth.