Wherein Ian Delves Into Sexism in Media, OR Why the Pilot Episode of TMNT (2012) is Highly Problematic
(Content Note: Objectification of women. Abstract descriptions of racism, fat hatred, dehumanization. Words…so many words.)
So I wrote about my thoughts on the first two issues of Nickelodeon’s new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles show. Then I went to The Technodrome.com, home of the largest TMNT fan community on the web, and shared my opinions in their forums there, particularly those on how disappointed I was at what I considered their treatment of April O’Neil sexist.
The comments were not particularly well received. This was not particularly surprising.
As someone who’s been part of the board for years, my impression of the TMNT fandom as represented by the board—and people there can correct me if I’m wrong–is that when it comes to gender, a vocal plurality of the believes that the status quo is acceptable, that a work is not sexist if there’s at least one woman in it who is not “useless” and/or can kick ass in some way, and that it’s a subject that never needs to be brought up ever, lest Venus de Milo be suddenly legitimized as a character. Or something.
As a feminist, I disagree. As both a fan of the TMNT and someone who believes that sexism helps makes works worse than they would otherwise be, I have an interest in doing what I can to help make it not be that way anymore.
That said, I also acknowledge that The Technodrome isn’t the place for a conversation on the hows and whys of “Rise of the Turtles’” problematic elements–and so instead of clogging the existing thread with my comments and making people feel as if they are being attacked, I will use my space here to explain in detail just why I feel that the episode—and its writers, who presumably did not set out with the intention of making a sexist work–fail.
First, a restatement of the thesis.
“Rise of the Turtles”, the first episode of Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, is sexist.
This is not up for debate. It is sexist in execution, and it is sexist in the way that it perpetuates long-standing sexist tropes. What’s more, even if all of my objections about the episode’s execution had been fixed, the show itself will still be sexist, because it’s the product of a sexist culture and was produced by a company that by and large has an interest in keeping it that way.
Just like, you know, almost everything and everybody else.
What I Mean When I say a Work is Sexist
When I say how I feel that a large amount of The Technodrome.com denizens are complacent regarding the status quo vis-a-vis gender issues, I do not in any way mean to imply that they are exceptional in that regard. In fact, I feel that complacency is felt by a lot a large part of the men-dominated fandoms of male dominated industries like videogames, comic books, and film. What’s more, in many cases, so do the creators.
Take DC Comics. When rebooting their line with the intent of increasing their share of the readership, they made a series of decisions which made many feminist fans see red. When several of the fans pointed out their objections, DC pretty much said that they didn’t see a problem. Apparently, the fact that during their reboot, their Catwoman title was retooled as soft-core porn, their only prominent disabled character was returned to health, and that Amanda Waller—one of the very very few women who was portrayed as feeling entirely comfortable in her fat body—was turned into yet another supermodel—had nothing to do with sexism. After all, they had five (five? I’m not really sure, but it feels right) books with female stars.
They were wrong then. They continue to be wrong now. Not being sexist isn’t just about having women who kick ass, or even simply about having female protagonists.
For the record…
Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, despite featuring two kick-ass women in Catwoman and [Spoiler](*), is being sexist when it portrays a universe in which women are the exception, rather than fifty percent of the population.
Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, whose protagonist is a woman and features a variety of different women in its supporting cast is being sexist when it argues that taking away womens’ agency is okay if it’s done with good intentions.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is widely considered the gold standard when it comes to feminist TV, is being sexist when it treats Xander Harris’ desire to forget that time he sexually assaulted Buffy is more important than Buffy’s ability to discuss it.
These things are not harmless; collectively, they contribute to a culture that continues to devalue women and anyone who isn’t a very specific form of white straight male and works to actively harm them. It’s much easier to discriminate against people when they’re dehumanized, which is just what happens when fictional works make women, people of color, and queer people invisible or treat them as monoliths and stereotypes and exceptions when they’re not.
Sure, but what does this all mean?
Since I’m all about the boiling down complex issues into simple lists (I’m not really) here are some simple hints for people who don’t wish to be sexist but don’t really feel up to delving into feminism 101.
Something is sexist when it asserts, explicitly or implicitly, any of the following:
- That men are the norm when it comes to humanity (making women exceptions) and that therefore men’s opinions, actions, and desires are inherently more important or valuable that the opinions, actions, and desires of women.
- That women are a monolith, and therefore don’t need to be treated as individuals with individual bodies and the capacity to think, feel, and act in a multitude of ways.
- That women don’t have the right to be, think, or do whatever they want however they want , even when they are not hurting anyone.
Note: The above list is non-comprehensive and a work in progress. Suggestions are appreciated.
Sure, but what does that mean?
It means that when Hollywood as an relegates people of color almost exclusively to supporting roles and/or to being portrayed as stereotypes, it is being sexist, because it is saying that the stories of white people matter more than those of people of color, half of which are women.
It means that when no American children’s cartoon features any explicitly queer people, there is sexism at work, because half of those people being made invisible are QUILTBAG (**) women.
It means that when comic books and film only feature women with one specific body shape and call that shape “the ideal”, it is very sexist, since it’s making everybody who doesn’t have that shape invisible, and because it claiming that the entire world shares the same opinions.
It means that when a work claims that men who make continuous unwanted romantic advances towards women are just being “sweet”, and that the objects of their affection need to give them a chance, it is being sexist, because it is saying that it’s alright to undermine women’s consent and will in the name of “romance”.
I could go on, but I won’t.
That’s a lot of stuff.
Well, yes, and no. In the end it all boils down to recognizing one’s privilege, and acknowledging that everyone is equally human and deserving of the same basic level of respect.
That said, it can be quite hard to make a work that isn’t in some way sexist or problematic, even if one is a aware of the issues and watching out for them. This doesn’t make creators bad people, just imperfect—and who can’t claim that? I certainly can’t. Putting aside my own history of sexual harassment and Nice Guyism, which I’m still struggling with, rule number one? The one I wrote up above in italics? I break it all the time. People say “think of the platonic ideal of a president”, and I’ll immediately think of a man. Then I’ll think “dude, there’s no reason why it can’t be a woman”, and then I feel bad. And I have no problem with people who do that–who fail, acknowledge the failure, and attempt to do better. The problem is when people don’t ever think that second thought, and insist there’s nothing wrong with what they’ve done.
So I’m not saying the TMNT writers are horrible people for screwing up or for using problematic tropes they’ve been taught by society to use. They’re human, so they’re allowed to be. However, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be called out on it.
Does this all mean that one shouldn’t enjoy any of those works, or feel guilty for enjoying them? Nope.
Just because a work is sexist does not mean you’re a bad person for enjoying it, or that it cannot be excellent in other ways.
Because frankly, it’s impossible for a show not to be problematic, because it’s impossible for a show to capture that the totality of human experience, and if “not being problematic” is the standard being applied, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy any fiction at all.
Personally, I think “Rise of the Turtles” was considerably better than I expected it to be, and has to some degree restored my faith in the future of the property after IDW’s anemic comic book take. I plan to watch it next Saturday, and hope to continue finding it enjoyable.
Likewise, those works I mentioned above? I enjoy all of them quite a bit, and have written positive reviews of a couple of them. I also know I would enjoy them more if those sexist aspects of them didn’t exist, and I spend a lot of time pointing those out because…
Just because one enjoys something doesn’t mean it should get a free pass.
Corollary: When somebody points out that a work is sexist, don’t try to deny or justify it.
I can understand why some people defend works they like against criticism; I certainly like to believe that I only like good things, and that all things I like are good, even when I know that things I like are simply things I like.
What’s more, there a very good reason why these works shouldn’t get a pass, and it’s recognizing the breadth of human diversity—portraying individual people instead of monoliths who must look or act in a certain manner–makes them better.
Putting aside that the more accurately a work represents the world’s diversity the more realistic it is (a matter of no small concern to a subset of TMNT fans) it’s no coincidence that The Wire is considered by many to be the best show on TV, and why there’s a really solid case for why the Left Behind books could be considered the world’s worst: the former argues that even with their shared circumstances, there’s no typical cop, no typical drug dealer, no typical gay person, allowing us to have original and compelling characters such as Snoop, Omar, Lester Freamon, and the children from season 4—characters which would have never appeared on “typical” TV; on the other hand the latter’s two protagonists treat everyone else as an Other turns what are meant to be heroic figures worth emulating —including the Christian God– into sociopaths, and leads to a book with characters that are only compelling due to squandered potential.
What’s more, the less problematic a work is the wider the group of people that can enjoy it, which is good if you want a work you like to be successful. Going back to comic books and the big two, part of the reason why their reader base continues to shrink is because the people in charge refuse to consider putting the effort necessary to expand their base beyond their mostly white, mostly male, mostly adult core, even though there’s scads of evidence that their properties have far wider appeal that just isn’t being harnessed properly.
Hey, wasn’t this post about TMNT?
Right you are. But first, a note. Part of why writing is sometimes considered a deeply personal act is because in saying whatever it is one wants to say, one also communicates many things about the writer. The Wire shows that its creators are smart and think deeply about the failures of modern day American society. Left Behind shows that is authors misunderstand both the world and their religion, think their reader base does, or both. Similarly, everything that is written in TMNT tells us something about the writers, artists, editors, supervisors, producers, who worked on it (at least, depending on level of involvement–voice actors don’t have much of a say on creative decisions).
Like I said before, making the TMNT into a concept that can be considered feminist is an uphill battle. And regardless of anything else, I honestly do appreciate the fact that the producers have (apparently) decided to make “Shredder’s daughter” and Karai two different people, not only because it means we add an additional woman to the cast, but because it’s nice to see a nod to the fact that Karai and Saki were not family in the original comic books. So kudos for that.
But that’s all in the future. Looking at “Rise of the Turtles,” the only person to actually air, it’s important to note that while several women are mentioned, the only woman to actually appear in the episode is TMNT linchpin April O’Neil, which makes me wonder what the thought process behind making her kidnapped scientist parent her dad. So how does the episode fare, when it comes to avoiding fail? Not good.
The Importance of Making a Good First Impression
Like the subtitle says, first impressions are important. It’s why, if you want to portray the Shredder as a serious, legitimate threat, you don’t have his first scene be of him whistling Disney tunes as he pisses in an urinal (even though that would be amazing). And if you take a look at the various characters, we can see that their introductions serve to tell us something about themselves and their personalities. Michelangelo is cocky and likes to banter. Donatello is somewhat geeky, while Raphael likes to flaunt his power over people. Splinter commands respect. The Shredder is meant to be badass and runs the kind of organization that apparently has people to google the word “ninja” 24/7. These things characterize them as individuals with individual personalities. More importantly, those moments are about them.
April, on the other hand, is introduced when Donatello spots her walking with her father Kirby, and the ninja turtle immediately becomes smitten with her. This is literally all that happens. We are not told anything about her, except that she is walking somewhere with her father for some reason, and that she is apparently a cis-gendered woman.
The various introductions throughout the episode each tells us something about the characters being introduced. This scene, on the other hand, tells us nothing about April (or rather, the girl—she isn’t actually given a name until later on, and given that she’s quite a bit younger than April usually is, people who know her from other incarnations but did not know about this version beforehand have reason to believe she might be somebody else). It tells us about Donatello. The writers have deemed it more important that we know how he—who has already been introduced and has been prominent throughout the episode—feels, than for us to get to know the character who has just appeared, and the theme song indicates is going to be important.
So, to recap: Donatello is geeky. Splinter commands respect. April is hot.
One of these things is not like the other.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with April being attractive. There’s nothing wrong with people being attracted to other people in a purely physical sense. However, in making that the first thing the audience is told about her, the writers are saying something about their own set of priorities. The men all have personalities. April has a body. What’s more, since the episode more or less implies that Donatello is crushing on her because she is literally the first girl he’s actually seen, it feels like the episode is telling me that April is interchangeable with any other pubescent girl. And the sad truth is, she pretty much is at this point, and throughout most of the episode.
On Being the Hero of One’s Own Story
When it comes to April’s personal life journey, the importance of the events in “Rise of the Turtles” cannot be overstated. In the space of a a few hours, April:
- Discovers the existence of both teenage mutant ninja turtles and alien robots.
- Is kidnapped along with her father.
- Loses her father, possibly forever.
- Is made to move in with her aunt (hey, there’s another woman being referred to).
Given how important it is, you’d showing how the sequence of events is making her feel as she goes through it would be of the utmost importance. But no: with the exception of one rather inscrutable scene, April acts as a passive bystander to everything that’s happening to her, and focus is kept away from her for most of the episode.
If writing fiction is a statement on one’s priorities, we now have an idea of what the show’s creator’s are. A senseless (if funny) scene where the turtles discover pizza? Important! How April’s feels about her life-changing day? Not important!
Now, to be fair, there is one scene where April displays agency (and isn’t it sad that I have to say that? That showing female agency once has to be considered a positive thing?) and pulls the ol’ “my stomach hurts” routine to get a guard to open her cell door, only to find herself comically unable to defeat or escape from her guard and getting herself locked up again. It’s a funny scene, but that’s about all it is. It doesn’t affect the overall plot at all, and if it is trying to tell us something about April, I don’t know what it is. Are we meant to think that she is smart for thinking of a plan that halfway works? Someone who is dumb for only thinking half of a plan? Somebody who has more guts than sense? Somebody who knows her idea is bad but goes with it anyway because she has no ideas left? Is she worried about her dad? Is she worried about herself? Is she worried about missing Fringe? Is a small part of her excited about aliens and mutants, even if they’ve kidnapped her? I want to know, and the show has no interest in telling me, even as it claims that I should be interested in April.
Frankly, I would have given that scene up, if we’d had in return gotten a scene where April actually talks with her father.
It’s weird. We are told that April’s relationship with her father—and his kidnapping—will provide the thrust for her character arc, yet despite him being nearly as prominent as April, that relationship isn’t developed at all. For all that April was almost a non-entity in this episode, Kirby was even less so, feeling transparently macguffin-ey which makes it hard to empathize with April when she loses him. Sure, she may have all the reason in the world to care for him, but I don’t, because he’s not a character
Again, the turtles’ relationship with their father? Important! April’s relationship with her father, whom we likely won’t see again for a while? Not important! And I can feel the difference; the father-son scenes between the turtles and Splinter are all well-written. So why aren’t April’s?
One could argue that hey, it’s a pilot episode: with all the characters and scenarios that need to be set up, there’s only so much of the spotlight that can be shared. Still, the idea that it needed to be her, the only woman in the episode, or that it was somehow inevitable, pisses me off, because it’s not true that this is the only way it could have gone. Sure, there’s lots of characters to juggle—it’s why the original series doesn’t really focus on the turtles as individuals on its first episode, and why the 4Kids series doesn’t actually introduce April until its second episode. Heck, even if she absolutely needed to be introduced now, there are ways that she could have easily been made more central to the episode–say, by having the turtles actually succeed in rescuing her during the original kidnapping attempt, and have her be part of the mission to rescue her father (or, since we’re wishing, her mother).
Another argument I’ve heard is that April, no matter how important, has always been secondary to the turtles, and that therefore it’s natural to expect her to be treated as lesser in importance. Still, even if the first point is true–and I’m not sure I’d agree, as the first movie and the first episode of the original cartoon are in many ways about her story more than it is about the turtles’–there’s no reason why that needs to continue being the case. While I neither expect nor want her to become a fifth turtle, I don’t think it’s out of the question to expect stories that are about her to be about her.
Sure, it’s only the first episode of a series that, if past incarnations are any indication, last for a good long while. There’s a good chance that they’ll do a better job of developing her as the series goes on. Still, if they can’t be bothered to give her a core on the most important day of her life, why should I trust them to do so? I hope they do–I love April, and want to love her here–but they’ve already disappointed once.
One of the things that has been noticed about the pilot is that the streets of NYC are unnaturally sparse, with very few, or no extras. While I understand this is a budgeting issue rather than a creative one, it nevertheless is one that doesn’t help bolster its case for not being problematic. After all, extras can say quite a bit about how the animators view people; if a show portrays the people who aren’t important enough to get names as an exclusively male or white group, then it’s a pretty damn good sign that the people in charge thinks of humanity as male or white unless there’s reasons for them not to be.
This is huge part of the reason why Avatar: The Last Airbender is appreciated by feminist groups: not only does it have various diverse women among its regular cast, it frequently showed that the world around it was one that women inhabited, as soldiers, mothers, teachers, etc. It’s not perfect—there’s that lack of gay women (or gay characters period)–but it made the attempt and making the attempt made it a better show.
In a show where the gender disparity is as pronounced as this one—and the addition of one all-original female character doesn’t help, since the show also plans to introduce several original male characters—it becomes particularly important to show that the world the characters inhabit is a diverse one, even if the characters’ circles aren’t. While the show’s lack of extras is entirely gender-neutral, but it reinforcement of the idea that women are exceptions makes it part of the problem.
On a Positive Note: On the importance of Carlos Chiang O’Brien Gambe
I’ve mentioned before that the news anchor at the end of the episode is my favorite part of the pilot. I am seriously not kidding. It’s actually the thing that gives me the most hope for the series from a progressive perspective.
Sure, one can’t deny that 80% of the joke is supposed to be “multiracial guy=funny!” —and yet I feel there’s something positive about his inclusion. First, there’s the acknowledgement that multiracial people exist. Second, he actually manages to display more personality in his ten seconds of screen time than Kirby or April do. And third, the implication—intentional or not—that he’s proud of his heritage—enough, at least, to make sure everyone knows about it, and to make it a part of his public persona. And why shouldn’t he be proud?
I hope we see him again.
And that positive feeling is why I want Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to not be fail-y when it comes to gender. Just as Carlos Chiang O’Brien Gambe sends the message that multiracial people exist and can be successful, I want girls watching this—and yes, the TMNT have always had female fans, no matter how much the people promoting it want to ignore them—to actually feel like the show validates them and their right to exist as individuals no matter what they look like and what they aspire to be. Doing so doesn’t need to take away from the ninja action or the comedy, so why not give it a try? There are plenty of places insisting that women are nothing but a pair of breasts, and this doesn’t need to be one of them.
(*) Note that if you know anything about the movie, you already know who I’m talking about. Yet another reason why it’s good to have as much diversity as possible.