For one to be considered wealthy they must have attained certain assets; a swelling bank account, a shiny car, or maybe even a pond to accompany their large estate – A person’s wealth is something that can be measured by a glance, or an afternoon in their company. However there are different kinds of wealth, and many different assets different people use as their currency. Individuals can have spiritual wealth, drawing upon their Holy Book and the wisdom of others. Many can have a wealth of friendship, using friends as their bargaining pin to see them through life. The most relevant however to the study of Broadcast and Television studies is a wealth in culture. Being shaped by culture is how an individual finds colour in their world, influencing how they view, how they experience, and how they engage with the earth they are a part of. Culture is relevant in the television genre as often television helps to shape it, and culture helps to shape television. For example, Doctor Who has helped to shape Britain, sci-fi television and an entire fan base of avid Whovians; much more than a mascot. As a direct contrast, a recent American television show called Selfie only exists due to the smart phone sensation sweeping across the nation. Not everything is believed to have culture, and to be culturally rich is for one to have Cultural Capital – a currency used to pay in to debates and discussions about the modern world. A problem arises however – who gets to decide what has cultural value and what does not? This is an issue to be addressed in the contents of this essay, as the idea of Cultural Capital shall be broken down and reevaluated as to whether or not it is a relevant term in the dynamic landscape of modern broadcasting using one very influential television show as a pivot to swing the debate – The Legend of Korra.
To begin, Cultural Capital is a value instilled within the very core of human interaction and is likely engrained within every person. Cultural capital is a sociological concept that has gained widespread popularity since Pierre Bourdieu coined the phrase in 1973 in his writing ‘Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.’ In terms of wider sociological context, cultural capital refers to non-financial assets of an individual or community that promotes their social mobility. Cultural Capital is also dependent on the individual’s social class, education and upbringing, as Bourdieu outlines in his 1987 book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. He uses this writing to discuss the differences of the upper, middle and working classes in France in relation to their tastes, money, education and cultural capital. His main point comes down to how each of these three social classes relate to culture, with the upper class being the most culturally informed and the working class not. It is not his only writing to inform this essay, with many of his other entries tied to culture and how one obtains it – ‘In fact, the statistics of theatre, concert and above all, museum attendance… are sufficient reminder that the inheritance of cultural wealth that has been accumulated and bequeathed by previous generations only really belong… to those with the means of appropriating it themselves,’ (Bourdieu, 259) essentially dependent from which social class they identify with – to have cultural capital is to use cultural knowledge, an awareness of education, art, speech or dress to set one above by their conferring social status.
Cultural capital is a relevant concept today, as with the widespread nature of arts and media, there are productions deemed to have cultural capital, and those that do not. This is known as objectified cultural capital; that is symbolically conveying the value attained from art or other instruments, either by owning them or ingesting their value. Bourdieu explains ‘the cultural capital objectified in material objects and media, such as writings, paintings, monuments, instruments etc., is transmissible in its materiality,’ (Bourdieu, Paragraph 14) displaying how knowledge of these arts gives one a tradable currency with which to display culture. With the advent of Netflix and other on-demand streaming services, and the ever prominent corner of the house occupied by the big black slab that is the television, more shows than ever are available to the viewer and as such, a higher demand in what is deemed watch-worthy, and what is condemned as having low levels of cultural capital. Recently, few will have escaped hearing of Breaking Bad binges and how much they need to watch Game of Thrones, as these fictional television shows are deemed as having a high level of cultural capital – but why?
Firstly, it is important to highlight there is a difference between cultural capital and critical acclaim, or at least, there should be. Critical acclaim is when a piece of work is praised and applauded by critics for its quality or content, for example, the 9.5/10 rating Breaking Bad holds on the IMDB, as opposed to being the victim of critical panning, such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, with a rating of 2.7 on the same site. Cultural capital however, should relate to the value held by the television show, about what it is trying to say and how the audience interprets this message to enhance their social mobility; for example, Breaking Bad’s stance on the American Health System, relationships under strain, ego and power. Pit this against Here Comes Honey Boo Boo for social commentary and by Bourdieu’s reckoning it would be easy to decide which should hold more cultural capital. Regardless, a shows cultural capital is also determined by its production quality as this can set it above less polished programming.
The television shows audience has deemed Breaking Bad of having high cultural capital, and those who have not watched the program, or do not enjoy it do not have the same level of cultural output, or social intelligence as those who have, lessening their wealth of cultural capital and value of their opinions in the media landscape. Breaking Bad has cultural capital because of its tightly spun narrative, complex themes, extremely high production values and lest anyone forget, an antihero. Combining this with strong leading roles led by now recognisable and popular actors, the show is a treasure trove for those seeking a cultural fortune. Game of Thrones is looked upon so highly for similar reasons; an all star cast, a globetrotting production team capable of incredible work, and a mature and adult sexually charged political narrative that all combine to create a level of cultural capital capable of weakening Pierre Bourdieu at the knees. One other factor that grants these shows high cultural capital by Bourdieu’s reckoning would be their level of exclusivity, unavailable without certain platforms, making them a privilege to watch for those who pay for the additional channels or services, such as Netflix or Sky Atlantic. Other shows of this nature such as Boardwalk Empire, Sherlock and House of Cards are thought to drip with cultural capital, allowing for discussions around their central themes, rich full characters and dark storylines and to question these factors is to question your own level of social sophistication; this all leads to one of the biggest problems with Bourdieu’s theory – taste.
Individuals have tastes and groups of people become taste cultures, and these taste cultures do not necessarily fall in line with programming that is deemed to have high levels of cultural capital. The question has been asked as to the importance of taste cultures, with Kuipers asking ‘are they ‘different tastes of equal value and worth, or are they different in a more fundamental way?’ (Kuipers, 1). As there is such a vast wealth of television shows available for consumption, there is something for everyone, and taste cultures are more important than ever – perhaps dubbing themselves as fandoms, these groups of people act as a community, crossing social groups to discuss their favourite episodes, characters or themes from within a show. With plenty of discussion forums from Facebook to Reddit individuals are free to indulge in what they watch without being reprimanded for their lack of cultural capital. With people discussing within their own groups their tastes and opinions, with fandoms for shows from Breaking Bad to Avatar: The Last Airbender, one must consider if cultural capital is relevant in a modern broadcasting landscape.
Along with soap operas, game shows and sitcoms, a genre, or production standard that is believed to have low cultural capital is animation as it is viewable by all of the social classes outlined by Pierre Bourdieu. Associated with children, weak plot lines and one-dimensional characters, these shows can be dismissed as having no value towards an individual’s cultural capital bank account. However, this dismissal of cultural capital seems decidedly focused towards television programmes, as with the recent wash of Frozen-mania sweeping the world in song and snow, animation in film seems sacred in comparison. However, whilst animation can have critical acclaim, it does not necessarily have cultural value – This would be a relevant argument had The Legend of Korra not aired and completely subverted the idea of cultural capital and what it means for a television show to have value, in accordance with Bourdieu’s outline.
The Legend of Korra is a western animation published by Nickelodeon spanning four series, known as Books, from 2012 to 2014. A successor to the immensely popular and critically acclaimed Avatar: The Last Airbender, the show began its run on Nickelodeon’s broadcasting channels before making the leap to digital distribution after ratings for Nickelodeon as a channel, and consequently, The Legend of Korra fell. Allowed to continue its run of four series, Korra had a large following, with complex storylines and rich, full characters. Regardless of whether the show has cultural capital or not, it was well received, ending with critical acclaim and a rating of 8.7 on IMDB, with critics praising the shows mature content, and for treating kids as intelligent, able to understand more complex themes, while leaving the dark undertones to connect with its older audience. The Legend of Korra follows Avatar Korra, the latest in a line of reincarnated avatars, a being of immense power that has power to ‘bend’ all of the elements, that is to manipulate and use the elements as a resource. Framed against a world of ‘benders’ who can bend one element (earth, fire, air or water) and non-benders in a utopian city falling into chaos, the avatar must seek to restore balance to the world – a whimsical and fun premise. As mentioned above, Breaking Bad has cultural capital due to the depth of its content, dealing with drugs, relationships and power. To understand the depth of The Legend of Korra’s cultural capital, one must look no further than the real world for its inspirations, and an in-depth case study of the first series.
The Digital Divide in the real world, highlighted by Paul Gorski in his writing ‘Privilege and Repression in the Digital Era: rethinking the Sociopolitics of the Digital Divide’, inspires one of the themes that emerge out of bending in The Legend of Korra. Modern day culture is based around computers and technology, smart phones and the Internet – practically all jobs demand computer use in some form, with the Internet forming a web of information essential to complete tasks and to research. If one were to lack a base level of technological skill it would limit their social mobility, and the less privileged may find themselves unable to compete in a competitive job market (Gorski, 2003). While this disparity may not be completely unfair and opportunities for jobs require many different skills, growing up without access to modern technology leaves individuals in a difficult place. Bending acts as the technological equivalent in this analogy in The Legend of Korra’s world, as in this world, access to bending abilities provides one with great social mobility and opportunity.
The difference in Korra’s world however, is that while technological parity is a privilege one can achieve, bending is a privilege that people are born with, immediately setting the bender apart, providing them with God-tier abilities which can only seek to improve their lives. Identity is an important issue in The Legend of Korra, explained by Steph Lawler that ‘the notion of identity hinges on an apparently paradoxical combination of sameness and difference,’ (Lawler, 2) and in this fictional world, bending acts as the identity to reality’s ethnicities and backgrounds, with people hailing from the Earth Kingdom, the Fire Nation, the Air Nomads or the Water Tribes. The power of bending becomes core to the identity and values of a character, making it much more than a magical power. This widens the divide between the benders and the non-benders, as they find it difficult to empathise with one another, in the same way it may be difficult for someone from the western world of technological privilege to empathise with perhaps the ideologies of Asian or African cultures. This disparity leads to classism, misunderstanding and discrimination in the world of The Legend of Korra, not unlike the cultural divisions of the social classes named by Pierre Bourdieu.
Korra, in what would typically be the underdog position in television, instead comes from a background of privilege in the Southern Water Tribe. As the Avatar she is immersed only in bending culture, living with masters of the elements, with bending informing her entire worldview. Having been raised in a community comprised entirely of benders, training in the elements delights, she does not grasp that non-benders could feel oppressed by benders, believing that benders are helping by playing out their societal roles, unaware of the lack of privilege the non-benders have. As republic city is falling into chaos, the Equalist movement emerges (appearing in a similar manner to the Occupy Wall Street movement), non-benders led by a masked being, able to remove a benders abilities, essentially stripping them of their entire identity – as if to remove someone’s heritage, background and culture, in a matter of seconds. This lack of privilege becomes even clearer when a city council comprised of benders resort to a witch-hunt to fight the Equalists, creating a curfew for non-benders with sever punishments, essentially alienating half of the population, and going against the will of what the Avatar is intended to stand for – balance. This witch-hunt leads to Korra realising that in order to fulfil her purpose as the restorer of balance, she must step outside of the confines of her bending culture – the only thing she knows – recognise she is a person of privilege, and empathise with people whose life experiences radically differ from her own. Entangled with humour, relationships, loss and fantastically choreographed battle scenes, The Legend of Korra made itself a piece of work to be reckoned with, regardless of what people believed to be its level of cultural capital.
The Legend of Korra proved in its first season its creators could handle the integration of mature themes, giving the show two levels of enjoyment, one for children and one for adults, while allowing each to enjoy both. Continuing with this style of writing the further three seasons dealt with mature issues such as the relevance of leading a spiritual life and what it means to be spiritual, the purpose of a monarchy in a season themed around anarchy, introducing on-screen death to the series, as well as giving the lead character a disability leaving her in a wheelchair for 3 years. Finally, the fourth season handled PTSD, depression and the relevance of a monarchy in a modern world, with an antagonist that made perfect sense, asking children and adults alike to question what they believe about the make-up of the real world. Whilst these are large important issues to be covered in what is believed to be a children’s show, deemed to have low cultural capital, it is arguable that the cultural capital contained in The Legend of Korra isn’t as high as the likes of Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. That is of course, until one acknowledges two of the biggest debates in culture today and realises The Legend of Korra tackles them both, and in a format that will change the future of children’s television – Feminism and Sexuality.
Lets begin with Feminism in the real world today, and try not to step on any toes. Feminism is the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes, or a movement that believes men and women should have equal rights, defined by the Cambridge dictionary as ‘the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way.’ The phrase was coined by Charles Fourier, a French philosopher, and was said to have created the word in 1837. Feminism has taken many forms across its history, with examples being the Suffragettes, First, Second and Third Wave Feminism, and more recently, Post-Feminism, although elements of each remain today, as it is a split movement. Since the Internet has become prominent, feminism has become a strange beast for anyone to tackle for the fear of the backlash an opinion on either side of the debate may end up creating. Websites such as Tumblr, and YouTube Channels such as Feminist Frequency are devoted to pointing out the flaws in the world that have lead to women being oppressed, and criminalise men as a patriarchy, who need brought down to allow women to rise up. Albeit, these are reasonably extremist channels but this has faster lead to their popularity blooming and creating what can only be described as a difficult landscape for debaters and scholars to venture.
The second of these recent debates tackled by The Legend of Korra is sexuality, and this is a mirror of recent struggles from the recent trials of non-straight people to attain equality with marriage, as well as achieving equality in all aspects of life. People who relate with this struggle work under the initialism LGBT, which stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender. To boil this the debates about the LGBT down, it becomes an issue of identity, and to question the sexuality of its members is to question their identity. While more countries are becoming tolerant and welcoming of non-straight individuals and they are allowed the same rights as straight people, there are some countries and states that are more religious in their attitude to the LGBT. For example, Northern Ireland’s DUP Political Party have presented a Conscience Clause, allowing shop owners to refuse service to customers should said customers lifestyle conflict with their beliefs. In these places the LGBT is looked down upon, and has led to, in a similar fashion to the debates surrounding Feminism, a culture of tolerance and intolerance, upsetting the balance in more religious countries and the stances of equality in the Western World. These two debates, feminism and sexuality, are difficult topics, topics that are perhaps mishandled or avoided in most television. Only recently has media truly began to look back at other controversies of the past to cast judgement and spin narratives, slavery being the most popular of recent times. However, The Legend of Korra tackles Feminism and Sexuality head on, but with a careful and respectful tone that makes it one of the most cultural and relevant television shows to have aired in recent years.
To understand how The Legend of Korra tackles feminism, one doesn’t need to look any further than at Korra herself, but it helps to. As the Avatar, Korra is an extremely powerful character, much more powerful than anyone around her, but the show does not play this power up to downplay the strength of the other characters, specifically the male characters. Korra breaks the stereotypical mould – She’s headstrong, bold, and independent, muscular, aggressive and has much more trouble connecting with her spirituality than with her combat skills. The Legend of Korra raises the power of women in the series up rather than bring the male characters down, achieving the feminist ideal of gender equality as it was originally intended. Spanning from the chief-of-police to spiritualists to killing machines to world leaders, women characters are highly respected and play important roles, fighting on the front lines as well as looking after the sick, but never to the detriment of their gender. This change in the role of women as fighters is convention breaking in itself as highlighted by April-Dawn Disque ‘the frequency of the female protagonist as a healer tells the young readers that women’s roles are more to heal and nurture, while men may use their abilities, magical or otherwise, to seek out pursuits of their own interest,’ (Disque, 45) and whilst there are healing women in the series, they are in the minority, with men joining them alongside the role. What makes The Legend of Korra different in terms of how it handles gender equality is that it never makes it an up-front issue. Women characters are strong because they are strong characters, not because they have been written to appear as strong characters.
Whilst The Legend of Korra is significant in its representation of female characters, its representation of sexuality is what makes it even more important today. For four series, The Legend of Korra taught audiences about the highs of teamwork, spirituality, determination and friendship, elements that worked together to defeat anarchy, oppression, monsters and dictators – all of these lessons channeled through Korra, the strong female leading protagonist – the bridge for young audiences and old to immerse themselves in a world with a down-to-earth, flawed character for them to empathise with; and when all is said and done, the two female leads, Korra and Asami, hold hands, look deep into each others eyes and begin a romantic relationship, ending the final season. A landmark moment, not just for The Legend of Korra, but a landmark moment for future televisions shows and what can be represented on television, especially in regards to younger audiences, and what may or may not be deemed suitable. In fact, the creators of The Legend of Korra were even restricted in what they were allowed to do lest they stir controversy, as Brian Konietzko said in his personal blog,
‘As we got close to finishing the finale, the thought struck me: How do I know we can’t openly depict that? No one ever explicitly said so. It was just another assumption based on a paradigm that marginalises non-heterosexual people. If we want to see that paradigm evolve, we need to take a stand against it. We approached the network and while they were supportive there was a limit to how far we could go with it’ (http://bryankonietzko.tumblr.com/).
While the real world over recent years has been through debates involving politics, religion and morality with the LGBT at the centre, a television show with a target demographic from 7-21 years old has made their protagonist a bisexual, with little emphasis placed upon it; in fact if it were not for subtle foreshadowing of the characters growing closeness, this moment made for two shots at the end of a four series television show – these two bisexual characters simply exist. The sexuality of these characters was simply acknowledged and given a back seat, rather than used to define them as characters or to accommodate the narrative – the audience was given the chance to watch these two characters grow as individuals before growing together. Korra has become a figure for the LGBT to look-up to, their own on-screen representation as a strong, independent character, with great power, influence and respect, a point of reference for those not associated with the LGBT – a bridge between the worlds. Now that The Legend of Korra has set the stage for LGBT representation in children and young adults television expectations will change for future shows, as people should come to expect more from their programming in terms of representation, as long as it is implemented in a healthy manner, doing nothing to detriment its still controversy-ridden real-world struggles.
To have a cartoon discuss the culturally untouchable and come out the other side unscathed and praised for its bravery speaks volume for the cultural value and respectful handling of its subject matter. The Legend of Korra holds all of its themes in a respectful and intellectual reverence, with each one etching a thoughtful reflection on modern society, and while children’s programming displaying depth beyond its demographic is not a particularly new practice, Korra focuses on the culturally relevant and in how best to portray these real contemporary issues on the small screen. Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Brian Konietzko have been incredibly brave in what they have chosen to highlight and emphasise throughout the show from death and destruction to love and beauty and regardless of its Bourdieu-esque depictions of Cultural Capital, The Legend of Korra bolsters incredible value and insight for those who choose to study it.
It is crucial to constantly reevaluate in order to find answers, so the question still remains as to whether Cultural Capital, in the conventional sense of the phrase, has any relevance in the modern and diverse broadcasting landscape. Based on evidence displayed by The Legend of Korra, a cartoon aired on the Nickelodeon platform, the answer is a resounding no, with the depth of itself and it’s much beloved prequel series, Cultural Capital is no longer a relevant phrase when discussing television shows, unless the definition of the phrase is drastically changed. Displaying issues from sexuality to feminism, monarchy to anarchy, capitalism to communism, mental health to religion, The Legend of Korra has provided a better look into culture, the past and arguably the future of representation than many other television shows aimed an older audience, while still maintaining itself as an enjoyable and technically proficient piece of media. The Legend of Korra proves that dividing content by its Cultural Capital in which cartoons are frowned upon is a fruitless endeavour, and answering the question in the affirmative that Pierre Bourdieu’s structure for Cultural Capital should no longer be applied to narrative television, as a production with a low level of ‘Cultural Capital’ such as The Legend of Korra has equally as much to say, possibly even more so, than your favourite adult drama.
-Bourdieu, Pierre. “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction.” Knowledge, Education and Cultural Change: Papers in the Sociology of Education (1973). Tavistock
-Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique on the Judgment of Taste (1987). Routledge.
-Bourdieu, Pierre. “The Forms of Capital.” Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (1986). New York, Greenwood.
-Gorski, Paul C. “Privilege and Repression in the Digital Era: Rethinking the Sociopolitics of the Digital Divide.” Race, Gender and Class Volume 10.4 (2003). UNO.
-Kuipers, G. “Television and Taste Hierarchy: The Case of Dutch television Comedy.” Media Culture and Society (2006). Sage Publications.
-Lawler, Steph. Identity: Sociological Perspectives (2008). Polity.
-Disque, April-Dawn. Warriors and Healers: Messages about Heroines in Young Adult Fantasy Novels. (2005). Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
-Konietzko, Brian. “Korrasami is Canon.” Tumblr (2014). December 2014.
Avatar: The Last Airbender. Nickelodeon (2005-2008)
Boardwalk Empire. HBO (2010-2014)
Breaking Bad. AMC (2008-2013)
Doctor Who. BBC (1963-)
Game of Thrones. HBO (2011-)
Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. TLC (2012-2014).
House of Cards. Netflix (2013-)
The Legend of Korra. Nickelodeon (2012-2014).
Selfie. ABC (2014)
Sherlock. BBC (2010-)