How "The Legend of Korra" fails to villainize Zaheer:
A case for Zaheer and the Order of the Red Lotus:
***Author's Note: I know I'm nit picky and critically engaging with a kid's show. Just humor me. Enjoy!
Season 3 of Nickelodeon's Legend of Korra is my personal favorite from the show. In this season, the show really begins to find its footing as well as explore some important themes surrounding mental health, loss, change, freedom, and equality. In particular, Zaheer and The Order of the Red Lotus are undoubtedly my favorite part of LOK's third season. I love a villain I can low key root for, and Zaheer and his team definitely fulfill my liking. Zaheer's ideology emphasizes freedom for the oppressed by any means necessary. I didn't grow up watching LOK. I've only begun watching the show after its release on Netflix. So, I don't know if its because of my own feminist ideology coupled with the current conversation of abolishing oppressive systems, but Zaheer makes a lot of good points.
The audience is introduced to Zaheer in season 3: episode 1 while he is locked in a prison (for what has been 13 years) located on top of a mountain and guarded by members of the White Lotus. Zaheer is able to free himself upon discovering he can airbend following Harmonic Convergence. He feels fate has provided him a second chance to create a world free from oppressive systems and rulers. Therefore, given his newfound freedom and purpose, he additionally frees his friends and other members of The Red Lotus: P'Li, Ming-Hua, and Ghazan.
The show presents Zaheer and his team as extremists and anarchists who seek to create chaos for the sake of chaos, similar to a villain like The Joker. However, Zaheer offers so much more than that.
The Avatar's job is to bring and maintain balance to the world. However, Korra and other political figure heads in the show uphold oppressive systems, which is highlighted in season three. Correspondingly, the Order of the White Lotus began as a secret society that transcended the boundaries of the four nations. Their philosophy emphasized beauty and truth and was created to spread knowledge across political divides and barriers. Though, over time, the White Lotus became an organization that prioritized serving the Avatar; in turn, they also upheld the systems of oppression working against citizens of the four nations, particularly in the Earth Kingdom.
Compared to Avatar: The Last Airbender, LOK shows the Earth Kingdom city of Ba Sing Se in a different light. For example, team Avatar flies to Ba Sing Se in an airship to visit The Earth Queen. Notably, when they fly over the lower ring, team Avatar collectively covers their nose in disgust at the smell. Ba Sing Se has an established three tier class system. The lower ring represents the impoverished residents of the city (who are probably also descendants of the refugees we see in ATLA). Classism directly contradicts balance, as it benefits few while oppressing many. Korra even acknowledges the lower ring looks terrible, because of the overwhelming poverty, but does nothing to provide any kind of balance to Ba Sing Se by abolishing their classist system and bringing about equality to the citizens.
Additionally, Korra meets The Earth Queen at her lavish palace located in the upper ring and quickly discovers she is an oppressive, manipulative dictator. I'm not sure why Korra never attempts to truly address the Queen's corruption and remove her from power. At one point, Korra and Asami are attacked by "outlaws" trying to steal back gold the two of them collected as tax from the citizens of Ba Sing Se per the Queen's orders. The outlaws fail in their mission. As they retreat away from Korra and Asami they shout back, "You're on the wrong side of this fight Avatar. That gold belongs to the people not The Queen." Korra later realizes the "thieves" were right. Therefore, that was her moment to rectify her stance within the overall conflict and take down The Queen as well as the Dai Li.
In contrast, the Order of the Red Lotus was founded by Xai Bau. The organization's mission is to usher in a new society by dismantling the established one and combining the spiritual and physical world. The Red Lotus was declared a terrorist organization by the United Republic of Nations. However, is it a coincidence that an organization that wants to restore power to the people are labeled terrorists?
Compared to Korra, Zaheer does the necessary work to liberate the oppressed and seek to bring balance to the world, even when it's unpopular to those in power.
Zaheer freed his friends from prison. He only commits violence when he has to. And he rightfully "removed" The Earth Queen from power, which allowed the poor citizens of Ba Sing Se to loot the palace and take back resources that were owed to them. Zaheer values the people's freedom above all and will do what it takes to achieve his goals. When we're introduced to Zaheer in episode 1 he says, "When you base your expectations only on what you see, you blind yourself to the possibilities of a new reality." Spoken like a true abolitionist.
Ultimately, the show fails to portray Zaheer as a villainous anarchist. Rather, Zaheer is a passionate abolitionist who dedicated his life to liberation efforts. Zaheer was brave; he was enduring; he was dedicated; he was selfless. I think we should collectively re-assess Zaheer's depiction on the show and perhaps even adopt some of his ideology; so, we can start examining what we can do to eradicate the fascism corrupting our own communities. Like Zaheer, we should also look towards abolishing oppressive systems by whatever means necessary. Because abolition is the only way to achieve true freedom.