(Content Note: Nice-guyism, Consent, Sexual Assault, Rape, Stalking)
I’ve mentioned that the newest, Nickelodeon produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series displayed several problematic elements when it came to April O’Neil and women in general. While some of my concerns have been ameliorated somewhat—namely, Ms. O’Neil has obtained a modicum of some much-needed focus—the show still feels like the product of people blissfully unaware of their male privilege and how it can manifest. One of the reasons why this is the case is the continued lack of women in the universe—April continues to be an exception in an exclusively male world. Another is the way they’ve turned Donatello into a Nice Guy™.
A Nice Guy—who is different from a guy who’s merely nice—is traditionally defined as a person who is romantically interested in another—let’s call hir L.I.–but who decides not to express his interest out of fear of being rejected. Instead, Nice Guys use friendship as a back-door to a relationship, thinking that if they do everything right, L.I. will automagically decide that yes, zie wants to start a relationship with them.
Until that happens—and it rarely ever does—L.I. may date a succession of other people who did think to explicitly express their romantic interest in hir. In the usual Nice Guy scenario, these are often qualified as “jerks”, and whether they truly are or not is irrelevant: the Nice Guy resents them anyway, not because of their behavior but because they took the initiative in getting what they wanted and succeeded where Nice Guy failed, and took what should have been his reward for being “nice”. Nice Guys will resent L.I. dating said so-called-jerks, and the fact that it’s clearly L.I’s prerogative to do so, and the situation continues until Nice Guy grows up or L.I. realizes that he was never really hir friend.
And that’s the crux of the matter: even as the Nice Guy plays at being a Love Interest’s friend, it’s only that—playing. A friendship that comes with strings attached or is entered as part of a larger campaign is not actually a friendship. A person that thinks of relationships as a game that can be “won” isn’t somebody who cares about other people. A person who thinks of love and sex should be handed out as rewards for not being horrible doesn’t care about agency. A person who doesn’t trust the person they’re interested in to say “yes” and thinks that it is sufficient for them to simply not say “no” is likely one who has no problem with using emotional coercion, and to ignore other “no”s. Thus, the idea of the Nice Guy—as well as related constructs like the “Friend Zone”–continues to do harm to society, as they seek to coerce people into feeling unsafe and guilty and unhappy for choosing to have agency over their lives.
Going back to Donatello, the reason I say he’s a Nice Guy is because his approach to his crush on April has had consistent Nice Guy / stalker undertones. He goes through great pains to make it seem as if he weren’t interested in April. He obtains things like her phone number under false pretenses. He makes a flowchart of every possible interaction, so that he’ll always know the acceptable thing to say, and turn every “no” into a “yes”.
It’s this last particular bit which makes me wonder if the writers are conscious of what it is they’re they’re doing, and afraid that they do. It’s presented as harmless enough, but the fact it’s a stark a display of the concept of interactions-as-game as anything, which is made all the worse when it’s presented as effective: at the end of the episode where the chart is introduced, Don asks April if she wishes to hang out with him, and she responds with saying that she can’t because she’s going to train with Splinter—a scenario which was not plausible until Splinter offered to train her scant minutes earlier. It’s apparent set-up for a moment where Donnie realizes that he can’t chart human interactions like a computer program, yet that turns out to be a head-fake: Don apparently accounted for that as well, and consults the chart for the “right” answer. It makes me wonder: Just what isn’t covered there? And does he have an argument against “I do not want to hang out with you, and I do not need to give a reason?”
Donatello explains that the chart is there so that he can have a rejoinder ready when April responds to his requests that they hang out together with stuff like “I really need to study”. No mention is made to the fact that women tend to be socialized to give ambiguous non-rejections to romantic overtures, lest they be insulted or attacked by the people who’d pretended to give them a choice in the matter, and that while some of April’s responses would be genuine expressions of regret that she has other things to do that don’t involve him, some others are likely to be the camouflaged “no’s” that she’s been trained to give so as not to seem a heartless bitch for having desires that do not involve turtles. How does the chart distinguish between one and the other? We’re never told. We’re just told that the chart is designed so that she can never truly say no, to be consulted without having to think about what either party is actually saying. Ain’t young love grand?
Now, there’s a darn good reason why Don might think that any explicit overtures would result in rejection; the whole he’s a turtle/she’s a human is bound to present obstacles for even mature, level-headed of people (see, Goliath / Elisa in Gargoyles). And, to be clear, he has every right to not make his feelings known. What he cannot do is make April responsible for figuring things out and forcing her to take the emotional risks, making her the steward for his happiness, which is what he is doing. If he wants a relationship, he needs to piss or get off the pot.
Like with most Nice Guys, little Don’s said or done shows that he truly cares for April. His crush arose before he knew the first thing about her. He actively believes she can be reduced to an algorithm he can figure out. He doesn’t trust April to say “yes”. Several of his interactions are punctuated by dishonesty. And, as if that weren’t enough, he does things like taking candid pictures of her (which he then puts as his desktop background), and using cameras to be able to watch her from afar (*1) are marvy.
Some people have or will try to defend the story, saying that Don is a teenager, and teenagers make mistakes. They’ll say that fiction often deals with flawed characters. Both arguments are sound enough, and they’re the reason why my problem is less with Donatello himself, and more with the way the story and its creators approach the character. It’s natural enough for Donatello to deal with things the wrong way—Glob knows society tends to send all the wrong messages—and there’s still time for him to actually become an actual, non-capitalized nice guy, but until that happens, it falls upon the work itself to note that This Behavior Is Wrong, lest the characters’ beliefs be conflated with the creators’.
To illustrate: Gravity Falls is another cartoon I’ve gotten into recently, and one whose co-protagonist, a teenager called Dipper, acts a lot like Donatello when it comes to his particular love interest. However, with that show, I don’t feel that the writers mean for me to agree with or approve of what he’s doing. Heck, the show’s universe doesn’t agree with him: when Dipper decides to travel back in time in order to prevent his particular L.I. from beginning to date a rival–something which he feels wouldn’t have happened but for a very particular set of circumstances—events are such that no matter what he does, the result is (almost) always the same. When he comes up with his own scenario map so that he’s able to speak to his L.I. at a party, it turns out to be far less useful than being himself. In the end, I feel the show is telling its viewers not to be like Dipper, while TMNT tells theirs that Don is harmless, when he is not.
Why does this matter? Because the views expressed in our fiction affect how we think and act in the real world.
I don’t recall if I’ve mentioned this, but I’m a recovering Nice Guy™. My victim was my then best friend. While I did manage to make my desires clear and they were, for a time, reciprocated, things eventually changed, and I did not take it well. I would attempt to make hir feel guilty for ignoring me, and for choosing to see and sleep with other people. I expected to be rewarded simply for not sexually assaulting hir, even as I would ignore all signals in my attempts to coerce hir to say “yes”. In short, I was for a time, a creepy, controlling fuck.
Now, I can’t say with certainty that I wouldn’t have turned out that way regardless of the fiction I consumed—I can’t lay all the blame for my sins on what I read and watched. However, it certainly didn’t help that even the allegedly feminist shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (*2) told me that Nice Guys such as Xander Harris are really okay people who deserve to have their actions being tolerated if not outright validated. And it’s not just Buffy, it’s Friends, Freaks and Geeks,My So-Called Life, and more movies than I can mention. Given that the Nice Guys in each of them were touted as likeable characters worth rooting for, why the heck shouldn’t people believe them? Yes, people should know better. But that doesn’t mean that fiction is blameless, and that it shouldn’t be called out when it is problematic. Fiction has power, and thus it is part of the problem.
Fortunately for TMNT, Donatello hasn’t reached Xander Harris levels of asshattery; while he’s quite the little creeper, he’s yet to attempt to police April’s sexuality, and given the show’s particular circumstances, I’m not sure the opportunity for him to do so would ever really present itself. There’s still space for course correction with the character—probably not enough that I’ll ever like the character, but at least enough so that my dislike for the character doesn’t translate into dislike for the show.
(*1): Context: The cameras were part of a mobile robot he’d built so he’d be able to fight remotely. Being able to leer at April is merely a bonus.
(*2): I say alleged as an acknowledgement not to state my position, but as an acknowledgment that there are people on both sides of the argument who can make valid cases for their respective stances.