Contains discussion of the series finale so be forewarned!
As you may or may not have figured out, I am a Korra and Asami shipper. Not because I am hot for two cartoon chicks to get it on (as some seem to think) but because I am a lesbian and I like to see representation showing up more and more places. Especially on my favorite shows. Watching the finale Thursday night online when it became available here in Central Standard Time, I was incredibly excited as something I had hoped for but didn't think would happen actually came true. I don't know if I had ever come closer to turning into a real life Foaming Mouth Guy. Korrasami was confirmed! Sure they didn't get a kiss but I understood there were network limitations.
In my revelry I forgot to be cynical and realize not all would take what seemed like the smoking gun of evidence, as proof. Of course what seemed like a simple ending now seems to be more in line with Inception in that everyone has an interpretation. So I wanted to kind of examine the endings. We have:
Korra and Asami Are In A Relationship
This one is the one that feels most likely to me. This is the idea that the creators unequivocally tried to present Korra and Asami as developing a relationship, that blossomed into romance in the end. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The only reason they didn't 100% confirm it with character dialogue or a kiss like every other romance on Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra, is because of restrictions by a network that didn't want that kind of backlash for a kids show.
Romances aren't all about the explicit things like kisses though, they are also about the flirty subtext and nuances. The glances, nuances to dialogue, the touches they are are all incredibly complex and difficult to pick up on or confirm they aren't imagined in real life or in fiction. If you aren't open to them in the first place you aren't going to see them. Admittedly while I shipped Korra and Asami from the start they really didn't have much subtext to them to solidify that the first season or so, it was more I just liked both of them and disliked Mako. But the 3rd and 4th season, whether in response to fan support for Korrasami or because of the creators' plans, the teasing really increased. Not only was it teased with subtext but up until the end we were given parallels between them and canon couples that seemed too deliberate to be mere coincidence in a media where every frame is painstakingly created to convey the creators' vision. Things like the similarity between Korra and Asami's final shot holding hands, and scenes with explicitly canon couples as seen above. Or the parallels between Korra and Asami's relationship and Aang and Katara's, especially in the final scene of each of their respective series. Ah, I didn't even realize till now both pairings have the same initials! That counts for something right?
If Korra and Asami were supposed to be in a relationship then the creators definitely deserve tons of credit for bringing this ground breaking portrayal to top off a great series and end of an era. It looks like major news sites have certainly interpreted it that way with Forbes having possibly my favorite summary of Korra's development ever.
The Legend of Korra now exists for the ages as a complete set, tracking Korra from being a cocky teenager with the emotional maturity of a high school freshman to her post-collegiate backpacking vacation with a lover of the same sex.
It Is Up To The Viewer
With all that being said, seeing is believing and without that concrete proof that many people need of a kiss and/or declaration of love many people do not see the ending as confirming Korrasami. Another interpretation is that the creators did not intend to have a definite resolution to Korra's romantic life and left it vague for the viewers to decide what they like best. Whether Mako and Korra hook up yet again, whether Korra and Asami are just really really good friends, whether Korra ends up with anyone at all! Does the top fall over or is Leo still in the dream world afterall? You decide for yourself!
Really the more I think about this theory the more I dislike it. Okay maybe this article is kind of biased. Okay not everyone that doesn't ship Korrasami is homophobic. Some just don't like them as a couple because they have their own preferred pairing or just didn't want them to pair up for other reasons. Others just didn't get all the subtext and felt the ending was forced. That disclaimer being said, you can't go to any discussion about the finale or mentioning Korrasami without plenty of homophobia to sort through. Yes it is the internet and such comments to be expected but with the idea that it is up to the viewer decide is simply giving such comments credence, dismissing those who do see Korra and Asami as delusional, perverted, and/or trying to force their views onto the show. With a dose of bisexuality/pansexuality erasure by denying that either could be into each other since both had dated a boy.
There is also an unfortunate double standard with this idea. In Avatar and Korra we get plenty of explicitly confirmed heterosexual relationships whether the fans shipped it or not but on this, the first same-sex relationship, they would leave it up for whatever the viewer likes best? If they could have been more explicit, and it wasn't just the network, and that they decided to leave it ambiguous for the viewer to decide? That is just insulting! It would be different if this was the 20th gay or bi couple we have had or if we had more representation overall but this is a unique opportunity.
The idea you can just interpret a same-sex couple as friends as you wish bothers me because it mirrors a real life problem. Saying a couple is just friends only is annoying and can be used to try and invalidate their relationship. For same-sex couples it is used to erase Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) peoples identities and force them into a closet to present a more heterosexual world. It is a microagression that LGB people face in their every day lives that helps reinforce ideas that heterosexual relationships are somehow superior and deserving of more rights. It has been used to erase LGB contributions to history to present a version where heterosexual people did everything.
If the goal of the finale was to leave it up to the viewers to decide, the creators don't deserve credit for breaking new ground by having the main character end up in a relationship with another girl. Of course this is subjective but this undercuts the overall legacy of the show. While Korra was revolutionary in many ways, just looking at reactions to Legend of Korra's finale through out the internet you can can see a common thread. The naysayers seem to be a minority while many people celebrate the idea the show finally confirmed Korrasami. If the ending was up to the viewer to decide then that is tarnished.
It is impossible for the show to live on a legacy of giving us a same sex relationship when every article written about the show has to hedge its language surrounding the relationship with things like "more or less" or "all but explicitly". Something you can't say about other heterosexual relationships.
Platonic Hand Holding Friends
This idea that show's ending was unambiguously supposed to show two friends as close as sisters seems the most willfully ignorant to me. Fortunately it seems to be a very minority opinion but irks me none the less. Whether or not you like a pairing doesn't matter, you can't outright claim what is on screen does not exist. Those that subscribe to this ending generally claim those that see Korrasami are just certain fans (or perverts) trying to force ship onto the show. But when the majority opinion, including ones outside the fandom like major news outlets, seems to be that Korrasami was likely to be a thing then perhaps it is time to consider maybe you are the one missing something. If Asami's scenes had been done with a guy there would be no question by anyone about their relationship. This comment on the Huffington Post article illustrates it pretty well I think.
Korra has been away from Republic City for 3 long years, and has been out of touch with all her companions there except one: Mako. With him alone does she correspond, telling him all about her difficulties in recovery and her doubts about the future...
Later, when they meet again in person, a simple compliment from Mako about her cute new hairdo makes her blush like a sunset. But then a well meant remark from Korra triggers an angry outburst from Mako that shows how much Korra's long absence has affected him.
Later still, when Korra is beset with more doubts about her ability to fulfill her Avatar duties and help the world, she of course confides in her wise mentor Tenzin, who offers sage counsel. But, the only one of her PEERS that she opens up to is Mako, who offers her tea and sympathy and tenderly consoles the distraught young woman.
Things get grim and busy for a while: not much time for shipping for the Avatar! But eventually the day is saved, and things start winding down. At the reception after Varrick and Zhu-Li Do The Thing, Asami tells her friend Korra that she'll 'always have her back'and Korra is of course touched by this display of loyalty. Thanks Asami! Then she leaves to be be herself for a while, but ends up talking wiht Tenzin instead.
Then Mako appears and tells Tenzin what is almost certainly a whopping lie to get him to leave, so he can have Korra alone for a while. The two talk, opening up to each other deeply. In a heartfelt moment, Mako tells Korra that he couldn't have stood losing her in the battle. A little later, Korra suggests that they go on a vacation together, JUST THE TWO OF THEM
(leaving all other friends and family behind them). As Korra and Mako approach the spirit portal side by side, they hold hands. Before entering the portal, they turn to face each other and gaze soulfully into each others eyes, and then...... fade to credits before we see what happens next.
Some say this is the best option because it gives us good representation of two girls as close friends, something media often lacks. And, for some, that people can't allow two girls to be close without turning them into lesbians. While I love lesbian romance, I also love platonic girl friendships. Girls being friends with girls is great as well as girls falling in love with girls. But arguing that they should remain friends cause it is rare ignores what a unique and extremely rare occurrence Korrasami is or any same sex canon pairing. Include more girls as main characters who can be friends, don't erase LGB people a chance at representation.
Word of Lion Turtle
Unfortunately the debate is probably going to be unending till it is confirmed one way or another either by the creators stating unambiguously what they intended or by how future Legend of Korra comics might handle it. So far the thing that has been offered as proof of the creators' will was Michael Dante DiMartino posting an article to his Facebook page. Given though the article was about the many ways Legend of Korra was subversive, with only a small part at the bottom talking about Korrasami, and that it was one of the first news articles about the finale I find it pretty poor proof. The fandom seems to have as well since there is still much debate about the topic.
I really do hope the creators plan to address it sooner or later, it is hard to imagine they won't given the level of visibility the issue has reached. Letting the issue stand as it is takes away some from their accomplishment and just allows discord to run rampant among the fandom. If my entire post becomes pointless tomorrow because Bryan Konietzko posts a definite answer, I would be happy.
Top picture via Minuiko