[Content Note: Ableism, ableist slurs, hostility to consent]
With Nick’s TMNT long since having crossed the line from being “occasionally problematic” to “actively immoral and loving it”, I haven’t felt the need to try and dissect the series in any great detail recently. The problems are the same as they’ve ever been, they’ve been discussed, and there’s really nothing new to say about them.
And then came the April Clone.
In the episode “The Kraang Conspiracy”, the turtles and April discover that series baddie The Kraang, who need April (or more specifically, her genes–because why else would a girl be valuable?) in order to further their plans, have attempted to clone her many times over. While incapable of furthering their plans, these clones are, with one exception, still perfect reproductions of April…all except for one. That single clone, which the episode and Michelangelo eventually end up calling April Derp after the most frequent word in her vocabulary, is set against the turtles, whom she keeps on the ropes until she is eventually, and accidentally, killed by April, whose powers are unleashed by the stress of the situation.
Now, we can debate the etymology and semantic nuances of the word “derp” until the cows come home, and then debate the cows. We can discuss the showrunners’ specific reasons for using the term, but those would be considerably less relevant than the simple fact that they decided to use it, and that their decision has consequences. Instead, let’s talk about the character herself.
Now, we’re not told much about the clone, and therefore, we can only draw conclusions from what little we are shown. It’s a short list, which includes these particular details.
1) She is human. Despite the writers attempts to obscure this fact by making her and the other clones prone to turning into goop when hit, they can’t be anything else and still make any sense within the narrative. Consequently, a case can very easily be made for classifying her as disabled, in the sense that her body and mind do not allow her to perform things that can be taken for granted by able-bodied humans.
2) She is able to respond to stimuli in unpredictable ways. While her use of language is limited, she can intentionally use it to accurately express ideas, such as when she says “April give hugs!” as she is hugging Michelangelo. She can feel pleasure, which suggest she can also feel sadness, pain, etc. In short, she is sentient.
3) The Kraang have no use for her. Not only does she lack April’s particular genetic je ne sais quoi which was what the Kraang were trying to replicate in the first place, her appearance means she cannot be used as a decoy. Why she’s wasn’t killed immediately after being “born” is a question the episode doesn’t bother to answer, since the answer is “the writers needed a third act obstacle, logic optional.”
4) …thus, she is a prisoner. After her creation, she was placed in what the Kraang called “The Reject Bin”. She is only let out so that she can fight the turtles for them.
5) When freed, she immediately begins attacking the Kraang, before moving on to the turtles.
Yup, definitively a comedy character.
Despite featuring a top contender for the title of most tragic characters in the series so far, the episode chooses to highlight none of these, instead focusing on what it sees as the character’s stupidity, which is then played for laughs, as signaled by the use of the term “derp”. Far from harmless, the word serves as an invitation, giving the audience permission to ignore empathy and laugh at the person whose only mistake was being born in a particular way. They April clone isn’t a person, the episode argues, it’s just a derp they can kill off and then forget.
This is why “derp” isn’t just a word. Regardless of the supposedly innocuous ways it is supposedly sometimes used, the term nevertheless reinforces a narrative which argues against the idea that the mentally disabled are individual people with complex lives and histories (and who, it is important to note, are collectively underprivileged) and argues instead that they are simply punchlines for other people’s enjoyment.
It’s also important to note just who is and isn’t dehumanized in this manner. While “Michelangelo does stupid shit” is a source of a lot of the show’s humor, the show consistently—if not convincingly—argues that he deserves respect. Timothy, who is 100% responsible for his fate, is treated as someone to be pitied, even after he starts attacking April. So why doesn’t the show make the same argument here? What makes those characters different from the April clone, and why is she somehow “deserving” of a name designed to define her by her perceived lack of intelligence? My first thought: a word that rhymes with “frivilege”.
The Nick cartoon is not the only incarnation to promote ableist narratives lately. More recently, the IDW-published TMNT comic featured a scene which, while not attempting to play disabilities for laughs, or to dehumanize disabled people in obvious ways—still plays into some very harmful narratives, which are if anything more problematic than Nick’s. In it, April’s mother Elizabeth, at her daughter’s behest, secretly slips in a dose of ooze–which in this incarnation has healing properties when not in its mutagenic state–onto her wheelchair-bound husband John’s tea, which he is then made to drink. He is immediately cured.
By itself, the fact that they attempted this story at all is enough to raise some eyebrows. Stories in which disabled people instantly and miraculously manage to get rid of their disabilities, while not, as far as I understand, inherently problematic, nevertheless can often be so so for reasons that include, but are not limited to:
- Their frequency, compared with other stories featuring disabled characters.
- The way these stories by definition can’t reflect the experiences of disabled people, who generally don’t get miracle cures.
- The way this plot device is often used to further able-bodied characters’ stories, rather than focus on the disabled characters themselves.
- The way these narratives set “not being disabled” as an universal and unqualified happy ending, with everything else being undesirable.
It takes particular care to write a story that doesn’t end up being ableist in some manner. Unfortunately, no care appears to have been spent here, and in fact, feels like a good lesson in how not to do it.
The first thing of note here is how much of a non-entity April’s father is in these four issues. While the story gives the character a past connection to Stockgen (April’s employer and the company indirectly responsible for the turtles’ mutation) dating to a time before he’d had his stroke, the book has no interest in what his present-day version has to say, and his panel time before the scene in question can almost be counted on one hand. His disability seems to exist only so that there can be a nod to the original Mirage comics before being handwaved away.
The few panels in which John does appear serve as a thematic preview of his fate, as he is continuously prevented from being an actor in his own story by the writers and characters. He makes absolutely no decisions. We learn about his past from his wife (*1). When a fire breaks out at the barn, April, Casey, and Elizabeth head out to investigate, leaving John behind at the house, alone; nobody asks him what he’d like to do, or what would be best for him; nobody stops and considers that they’ve left him alone during a potentially life-threatening situation. Later, when Elizabeth returns to the house insisting that they need to leave to New York immediately—at this point, she has discovered the turtles’ existence, and has a vague idea of the threats they and April face–she treats is not as something to be discussed as partners, but as something to be chosen unilaterally: she dodges his questions, keeps the vital information which she has just learned and are behind her decisions from him, and acts as if his input is neither necessary nor desirable. Finally, we have the scene where he is made to drink an experimental and potentially dangerous substance without his consent. Despite all this, the book unambiguously treats April, Casey, and Elizabeth as good guys doing good. The book is wrong.
Yes, John’s body doesn’t work the way it once did. Yes, it’s made his and Elizabeth’s lives considerably harder in some respects. Yes, it makes John a liability, now that the O’Neils are closer to the turtles’ dangerous world. None of this changes the fact that it is his body, and what eventually happens to it should be his choice and no one else’s. The fact that the book doesn’t seem to grasp this obvious reality, and indeed, depicts this violation as a moral act by a loving person is horrifying.
A question arises: why? Why did the book and its writer feel it was necessary to deny John his ability to consent to being cured? It’s not like he’s incapable of giving it: throughout the book, he is written as capable of understanding events and responding to them (within the realm of his abilities) without much trouble, so considering the implications of taking the ooze and eventually saying “yes” or “no” shouldn’t be beyond him. Unfortunately, while several Watsonian explanations suggest themselves—Elizabeth and April could fear the fallback if the cure fails, for example—from a Doylist standpoint there’s only one real answer: the writers and editors didn’t think it was necessary. They are wrong.
One of my very favorite scenes in the TV series Switched at Birth consists of a discussion taking place a Deaf classroom about deafness, and involving various important members of the show’s cast (including one of its two co-protagonists). In it, Melody, the students’ guidance counselor—herself Deaf—moderates a discussion in which they talk about everything being Deaf has given them, and everything they’d lose if they suddenly woke up being able to hear. While none of the characters would argue that being Deaf is all kittens and grandmas, they are also quick to admit that being Deaf is a vital part of who they are, and therefore, not something to be changed lightly.
If you can think of a moral argument for covertly “curing” people who consider a disability to be a vital part of their identity, please let me know so I’ll know not to consider you a friend. And yet this is what issue #32 asserts—that such a moral argument not only exists, but is self-evident and doesn’t need to be explained.
While the differences between deafness and a loss of mobility and speech due to a stroke are numerous and vast, they are both incredibly complicated, life-changing things, and there is no one right way to deal with having it. Yes, there will be people who would do anything to wake up being able to hear or walk, and would be prepared to overlook the means in favor of the ends. There will also be people who see their disability as a vital part of their identity, not to be lightly changed, and who would be (rightfully) angry if their loved ones were to attempt to change it behind their backs. While John O’Neil may very well be the first sort of person, the book makes absolutely no attempt to establish that, or to show the people who want to “cure” him (who, it’s worth noting, cannot read minds) attempt to take his wishes into consideration before taking away his bodily autonomy–it just assumes that the fact that he is disabled makes curing him a good thing. It reduces disabled people to a monolith, and places the able-bodied persons’ wishes above those of the actual disabled person they are allegedly helping.
Another thing to note: in curing her husband without his consent, Elizabeth has effectively forced his husband into a closet, as now, in order to keep the details of his recovery secret, John now has to avoid or lie to or feel alienated from large swaths of his social circle. Say, for example, that John had joined a support group for people recovering from strokes, and had made good friends there. How are his relationships with them supposed to continue? In completely ignoring these issues, the book effectively suggests that John’s life as a disabled person can be discarded at a whim, like tissue paper (*2). Yes, it’s possible–if extremely unlikely–that John had the sort of life that would lead to these things not being a concern. It’s possible that he may have decided that yes, being able to help April was worth the sacrifice (*3). It was still his decision to make.
With the writers having argued that secretly taking control over people’s bodies in this particular instance is moral, one is left wondering just what else is justified. Secretly forcing someone to abort? After all, pregnancies are often both unwanted and dangerous. Making someone straight? After all, Gay, Lesbian, Bi, Trans, and Genderqueer people’s identities place targets on their backs, and it wasn’t all that long ago that identifying as any of those was considered a mental illness–some still are. What considerations exist in their case that are not present in John’s?
In a book that is not known for its economy of storytelling, this mini-story is a marvel of efficiency. In just a few panels, the writers manage to argue that:
- The lives of disabled people aren’t worth exploring.
- The concerns of the able-bodied trump those of the disabled.
- Disabled people don’t deserve control of their bodies.
- Being disabled is so horrible that no reasons exist to get rid of ones disability, should the opportunity present itself.
While this is in no way what they meant to say, their intentions are unimportant: in having John O’Neil as their only major disabled character, and in portraying his story in this manner, this is what they have said. Until they manage to feature another disabled character, this is the book’s official stance.
Now, it could be that Tom Waltz and company are all perfectly aware of what they’ve done, and that they actually plan to explore the implications of what they’ve written. I have no confidence this is what’s going on, however: given the way the various characters are framed, and given the story’s reluctance to give the turtles any shades of gray, there’s absolutely no reason to think that the writers meant to explore the moral implications of what they’ve done.
That would actually be interesting, you see.
(*1) There’s an interesting disparity here, as April claims that the reason she doesn’t tell her parents about the turtles despite wanting an end to all the secrets and lies is that the turtles’ secret is not hers to tell. While a perfectly acceptable stance, and one that need not be shared by other people, it stands in stark contrast to Elizabeth’s decision to tell April about John’s past—which was kept from April for a reason and is arguably not Elizabeth’s to tell—without any actual input from John.
(*2) And that’s not even getting into the logistical maneuvering he’ll have to do for the rest of his life–how do you go about saying “I was recovering from a stroke, until I wasn’t” to doctors or employers?
(*3) Not that implying that curing himself was a necessary condition to help April isn’t in itself problematic. Yes, his disability would have prevented him from being able to help in particular ways; this is not the same as being prevented from helping.