On TMNT’s Lack of Gay Characters

On The Technodrome.com’s thread on the latest issue of the current TMNT comic, a discussion sprung up over the possibility of revealing that a particular character was gay in this latest incarnation of the franchise. As my contribution, I noted that given that as far as I knew, no a character in the turtles’ quarter-century history has ever been identified as gay* or as any of the other letters in the QUILTBAG** blanket, and that I really wished that this newest incarnation could include some—possibly someone like Baxter Stockman or Karai, who are historically major characters and whose sexualities hadn’t been established yet in this version of their tale. I found the general response…dismaying.

In all honest I would just like to leave sexuality out of comic books period……unless it pertains to the story such as romance, as in Casey and April, or (If she was) Karia being a lesbian and having difficult coming to grips with it, wondering how she would tell her father or should she tell her father, will she bring shame to her clan???? Stuff like that, I dont want sexual orientation thrown out there unless it actually pertains to the story

I don’t care who sticks what where, or what have you, just tell good stories with compelling characters, dammit!

It’s a double standard mainly because (I feel) when most shows and comics that do have a character come out they’re just doing it to be edgy and take some moral stand on the matter that doesn’t need to be tacked on to the story.

I liked the whole Montoya thing in Gotham Central a lot, and Vito’s storyline in The Soprano’s was actually interesting even if it was almost totally random, but with something like TMNT… there’s enough ninjas, aliens, mutants, monsters, dimensions hoppers, and time travelers that I don’t think the “surprise gay character” card needs to ever be played to mine any extra drama.

Aside from a couple of comments by artist and generally awesome person Sophie Campbell, few of the responses really seemed to indicate that the posters saw anything positive about the idea of having more diversity in the book—at best they seemed ambivalent.  On one hand, they are, of course, entitled to their opinions, and I don’t believe they’re made out of malice. That doesn’t stop them from being potentially problematic, and in the end, if that’s the standard opinion, then I really, really hope nobody listens to it.

Now, there appear to be two arguments presented. One, that people’s sexuality isn’t relevant in a story about martial arts/sci-fi action, and so can’t come up without feeling forced. Second, that if sexuality isn’t relevant to the larger plot, it shouldn’t be brought up. But here’s the thing. If somebody doesn’t care to read a story about a characters’ sexuality, and that same somebody doesn’t feel that it shouldn’t be included if it’s not relevant to the story, then that doesn’t leave any space at all for gay characters in the story.  And that is not a good thing.

It’s true that historically, sexuality isn’t something the Ninja Turtles spend a lot of time on. Is the original Baxter Stockman gay, straight, bi? We don’t know: it’s never come up. The same can be said of Renet, Nobody, Lauren Stanton, Verminator X, Faraji and most characters which you would care to mention. More to the point, it’s also true that most of these cases, each characters’ sexuality is not something that would  affect their role in the story.

However, this doesn’t mean that sexuality isn’t something the franchise has shied away from entirely. April and Casey’s heterosexuality is confirmed in most incarnations, and their romance tends to form a significant part of the narrative. Karai’s relationship with Chaplin was an important plot point in the second cartoon, and Irma’s love life formed the backbone of her character. In the original comic book series, Leonardo and Michelangelo began opposite-sex relationships with Radical and Serilicus, respectively. So if romantic or sexual relationships are fair game, why can’t one of these relationships be between two people of the same sex? Being okay with one type but not the other smells a lot like a double standard, probably because it is.

Similarly, there is also a double standard at play when one argues that people’s sexuality should be central to the plot if it is to be included at all, mostly because it sets a standard that only QUILTBAG characters have to meet. We don’t need scenes to establish that Casey or April are heterosexual—we assume that they are until we’re told otherwise. Heterosexual characters, thanks to the privilege of sharing a sexuality that is considered the default, never have to actually meet this standard.

What’s more, people making this argument appear to ignore the fact that the TMNT has always included character development bits that weren’t crucial to the larger story. The whole non-Leo part of Leonardo #1. The revelation that Donatello plays Guitar Hero. Half the jokes in the original cartoon. Countless snippets in the 4Kids toon. Far from being pointless, these scenes allow us to learn more about the characters, and makes them more real and relatable. How is taking a moment to establish a character’s sexuality different?

I mean, aside from the fact that people’s sexualities tend to form a huge part of who they are.

I mean, suppose, for example, that the latest incarnation of Karai is gay. Writer X doesn’t want to make it a big deal—she’s comfortable in her sexuality, as are most of the people she interacts with. What’s wrong with establishing it in a scene like this?

Hypothetical conversation:

Context: Two Foot Ninja stand guard outside Oroku Saki’s office.  

Foot Ninja 1: This job keeps getting better and better–that Karai is HOT. I’d totally like to [insert sexual innuendo].

Foot Ninja 2: You must be new here.  She’s gay.

Foot Ninja 1: Huh? Really?

Foot Ninja 2: Yeah, man. She’s been out for ages.

Foot Ninja 1: I hadn’t heard. You’re sure about this?

Foot Ninja 2: Yeah, man. You know Megumi in Bravo Squad?

Foot Ninja 1: I think so. Is she the one that dyes her hair blue?

Foot Ninja 2: Yeah. Well, she told me that she and Karai got together that night after the whole fiasco with the Purple Dragons.

Foot Ninja 1: (Disbelieving) Really.

Foot Ninja 2: Yup.

Foot Ninja 1: Damn.

Foot Ninja 1:  …

Foot Ninja 2:

Foot Ninja 1: What about Lin in Charlie Squad?  You don’t suppose she’s gay too?

Sure, it’s not great writing–my strength is not in comedy–and it may not have a whole lot to do with whatever the plot happens to be, but that doesn’t mean that scenes like this aren’t worth including. After all, it’s not like this one is just about Karai’s sexuality: it also says something about how she spends her downtime, about the Foot rank and file, and even something about the organization itself–all in less than one page.

A couple of things I should make clear: I am not advocating forcing creators to include characters they may not wish to include. If Tom Waltz doesn’t wish to include a gay character (or reveal that a currently existing character is gay), then that is his right. I also believe that, absent additional evidence, the absence of members of group X from a work does not provide grounds for one to assume anything about the creator’s feelings when it comes to group X. It’d be a different thing if the creators were saying one thing and then doing another (hey, DC) but that is not the case here.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t encourage them.  In the end, there are many good reasons why the TMNT narrative should include characters who are gay, and no reasons why it shouldn’t.  And until that happens, I’ll continue to hope.

—-

* At least, unless you count Davey Jones, a fictional brother created by Casey in one particular issue of Tales of the TMNT.

** (Queer, Undecided, Intersex, Lesbian, Trans, Bi, Asexual, Gay/Genderqueer)

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13 Responses to On TMNT’s Lack of Gay Characters

  1. Supermorff says:

    I agree with so much of what you have to say, but your hypothetical conversation wouldn’t work in the way you want. If you’re going to add a LGBT character and address their sexuality in the series, you need to actually indicate that they are LGBT through their character or actions, not just by having two random people talk about it. The conversation would work well enough as a set-up for some Karai character moments later in the episode, but if you’re going to show character moments in the episode, you probably don’t need the conversation in the first place.

    Plus, the conversation seems to imply that Foot Ninja #1 (and possibly #2) is sexist, which as far as diversity/equality goes is one step forward and one step back again.

    If Karai (or whoever) is comfortable in her sexuality, why not just show her with her girlfriend? Don’t make a big thing of it. First show them together without context for a while. Then at some point:
    “See you this evening?”
    “Sure.”
    Kiss. Back to work.

    Or if she’s not in a relationship yet, she could express an interest in someone of the same sex (April? It doesn’t need to be reciprocated), either through subtle flirting or body language.

    Or, looking at it another way… think of Karai’s relationship with Chaplin in the 2003 series, then make Chaplin a woman.

    The most importantly thing is that the creators determine which of their characters are gay and then remain consistent with that.

  2. Ian says:

    Response! Yay! Thank you. 🙂

    First things first: Yes, the Foot Ninja 2 in my conversation was meant to be acting in a sexist manner. I don’t believe that having a work that is progressive is incompatible with characters who are sexist (or any kind of -ist). After all, sexist people exist in the world, and a fictional world where they do not exist would ring just as false as a world where minorities don’t exist, and also be quite problematic, in aggregate. The Wire had characters who were racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that didn’t erase the fact that it was miles ahead of any other TV show when it came to having a diverse cast and in showing people as people and not as monoliths.

    Yes, having Karai’s sexuality form an actual part of the hypothetical story would indeed be the ideal. My hypothetical conversation though, was a way of getting around the Dumbledore dilemma, where a character has a particular sexuality and no way to naturally mention it within the story (in Dumbledore’s case, the limitation stemmed from the Harry Potter series’ limited point of view and the fact that there’s no reason for Dumbledore to mention it to Harry, as it was never relevant to anything). Given that Karai role in the story is almost always as member/leader of the Foot, and given that as a consummate professional, I believe she’d be scary good at compartmentalizing different aspects of herself, I believe that her sexuality is not something that she would ever volunteer during the course of a normal story. If simply expanding the scope of the story isn’t an option–and I’m acting under the assumption that it isn’t, for the purposes of this exercise–then somebody else must volunteer her sexuality. Hence, the conversation as written.

  3. Supermorff says:

    Yes, sexist people can be included in a story without making the story as a whole sexist, but the scene you suggest had one (or two) sexist character(s) and it was not in any way highlighted that their actions are sexist. That’s the problem with privilege – unless the sexism is addressed by the show then some people will come away thinking that there was nothing wrong with it, especially on a show for kids. This doesn’t have to be someone saying “You can’t say that, it’s sexist!” It doesn’t need to be addressed directly. It could be addressed by contrasting the sexist opinions with the female characters as portrayed. But you didn’t do that, so it’s the scene that seems sexist and not just the characters.

    ANYWAY, I personally don’t have a problem with the ‘Dumbledore dilemma’. Dumbledore was gay from the start, and some parts of the books make more sense when you have that knowledge.

    You’re right that Karai probably wouldn’t volunteer the information herself, which is why I didn’t suggest that. But having other people talk about her sexuality instead of showing it (even subtly, even in the background) is, in my opinion, worse than not referencing it at all. (But either way it’s important that the treatment of the character is consistent with her sexuality). If you really want them to put a clear reference, then pick another character to be gay (instead or in addition) for whom it makes more sense to be obvious about it.

  4. Ian says:

    Ah, gotcha. In a longer work, I would have indeed tried to make sure to place the characters’ actions in some sort of larger moral context. Here, however, what with it being something I whipped up in five minutes as an illustration and not as a work, it wasn’t a priority,

  5. Ian says:

    Thinking about your post some more, something struck me: if outside-the-text statements by an author or creator–which could be overridden at any time without any change to the narrative, particularly in works with shared authorship (i.e.: mainstream comic books)–are a valid way of expressing someone’s sexuality, why aren’t third-person comments within the text? True, third-person comments can also be overridden later on if one wishes–one could say that said third persons were either lying or incorrect–but the same could arguably said of first person comments (from a Doylist perspective, Willow Rosenberg and Reneé Montoya weren’t gay until they were) and they can also be supplemented by additional context–including additional authorial statements.

  6. Supermorff says:

    That is a really good point, and I’ll confess I hadn’t thought much further on it than what I said before, so what follows might be less coherent. I also hadn’t given any thought to the possibility of the sexuality being overridden by later developments/writers, but that’s a risk you’d take no matter how it was addressed.

    My biggest problem is that a character’s sexuality shouldn’t be an Informed Attribute (I had to use TV Tropes to look up what Doylist meant, so I feel okay using this term). Authorial statements do this, but without interrupting the story to do the ‘informing’ (an Uninformed Attribute?). Is that better? I don’t know.

    The character themselves telling people that they are homosexual is marginally better, but far from ideal. They shouldn’t Tell it, they should Show it. Of course, sometimes it might be in the nature of the character to tell someone, in which case great, but that should be part of the showing, and not the only indication. The ‘telling’ could actually be a way of showing something else, like how comfortable/open they are about their sexuality.

    I just think that a character’s sexuality should only be brought up if it is natural to do so, and not in a scene with the sole purpose of bringing up a character’s sexuality without any indication of what it means to their character. I’m thinking of characters like Ivanova in Babylon 5 or Janis from FlashForward. Their sexuality comes up naturally in the story – Ivanova because she enters a relationship with a female colleague, Janis because she wants a baby. On the thread, somebody suggested that the girl who died in the Mirage Comics “City at War” storyline could have been Karai’s lover instead of her daughter – that would have been a perfect way to naturally bring it into the story (although comes with its own Unfortunate Implications).

    In your original post you commented on the double standard about including homosexuality versus heterosexuality, and specifically said the heterosexuality of April and Casey is confirmed in most series. But it’s only confirmed because they are in a heterosexual relationship. They never told anyone they were straight. Why should Karai have to tell anyone she was gay? If she is (or was) in a homosexual relationship, or tries to initiate one, or declines an advance from a heterosexual man, or even just finds another woman attractive – those are the ways to indicate she’s gay.

  7. Loudo says:

    One thing I like about your blog is your attention to how women and minorities are portrayed. And as a gay guy I’m really glad to see that this attention extends to LGBT characters as well.
    Needless to say, I completely agree with your post. I don’t think the homosexuality of a character needs to bring anything to plot to be portrayed.
    On the contrary, I don’t like when homosexuality is only portrayed as a way to bring tragedy or angst to the story. Not saying stories involving gay characters can’t be tragic or angsty, but if those are the only ones they get there’s something wrong.

  8. Ian says:

    Hello, Loudo. Thank you for your friendly replies, particularly when it comes to this particular topic. As a person at the intersection of a whole bunchload of privilege–cisgendered, male, straight, Latino in an Latino country–I’m often worried about the possibility that I have no idea what I’m talking about when I talk about oppression and representation in fiction, so I’m always glad to hear that it’s appreciated. 🙂

    And yes, I totally agree about the need for cheerful LGBT / QUILTBAG narratives. If we’re to agree that they’re people, that means there has to be the same capacity for happiness as straight people; while oppression is a huge part of the shared QUILTBAG experience, it by no means comprises the entirety of it.

  9. Loudo says:

    Thank you for your blog, it’s a very interesting reading. I hope you are going to continue to post your thoughts on the episodes beyond Season 1. 🙂
    About the topic, the one character from the 2k3 series that I passionately hoped would be eventually outed was Leatherhead, after watching the Good Genes episodes where he and Donatello seem so close. I was so surprised when he was the one who catched Donatello before he fainted, instead of one of his brothers as I expected. And he and Donatello appear together in the opening song.
    Of course I knew it was very unlikely to say the least. But this is a consequence of the scarsity of official gay characters: you tend to see hints everywhere. XD

  10. Ian says:

    Leatherhead? Huh. I tend to think of the 2k3 versions of the mutant characters (at least those who didn’t start out as human) as asexual–the fact that that’s the way the show mostly treats them (IMO) helps–but him I buy more than most. : )

    The review for season 2 is in progress. My productivity just tends to plummet a bit whenever I find myself without much to say. : P

  11. I’ve always Seen Donatello as Gay
    He’s always read as gay to me
    It’s just always been that way
    Donnie’s always come off that way to me

  12. I’ve always seen Donatello as Gay. Ever since I can remember.
    I always thought it would be cool to have my favorite turtle to be confirmed gay.
    The way he carried himself on the 03′ series just confirmed that for me.

  13. Ian says:

    Welcome to the blog, masthuggernigel06! Thank you for sharing. : )

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