The Void at The Center of One’s Being: The Karai Essay, Part 2
15 January 2013 11 Comments
One of my favorite voices in the TMNT fandom belongs to Pterobat, who blogs about whatever strikes her fancy at The Lair of the Pterobat and its associated Tumblr. Part of the reason that I like her so is, of course, because we like a bunch of the same stuff, but also because she fully groks the idea that loving something and acknowledging its issues it aren’t mutually exclusive, which leaves her free to approach works with a critical eye and thus offer uncommon insights on them. That insight also means that when she dislikes or is offended by something I like, it hurts, because I know that there’s usually a good reason behind her feelings. Like so:
The final twist of the knife is that Dr. Chaplin’s attachment to Karai is valourized, treated with gravitas, is a romance in all but explicit name. This, from his introduction as a creepy Nice Guy who made robots in her likeness but never could be honest about what it meant, and who never had any positive traits at all.
In short, Chaplin is living every creepy nerd-boy’s fantasy of being given a hot chick without doing anything. There is enough of that disgusting shit in media made for adults; we don’t need it here.
This particular insight hurts a lot, partly because this particular scene is rather damning evidence that my favorite animated series isn’t as good as I want it to be, and partly because its implications are something I initially missed, when first seeing these episodes—back then, I thought it was perfectly innocuous*. It took several years, some life-changing experiences, and a couple of reality checks before I was in a position to agree with this.
I first saw the episode in question–“Enter the Dragons” Part 2–back in 2007 (Man, was that six years ago?). I was in the last year of my first stint in college, and watched it despite the fact that it hadn’t aired just yet. I was also, in retrospect, still knee deep in my Nice Guy (TM) phase, which meant that I was in no position to identify the problematic elements in this section of the episode’s ending.
One of the fundamental myths of the Nice Guy (TM) Narrative is that women are something that can be won, and that they can be won by meeting a certain set of conditions (traditionally defined by Nice Guys as “not being an asshole”, which is especially ironic) with her actual desires playing no part in this equation. This serves as part of a broader trope, which presents sex as something that should be given as a reward, and worse still, sometimes even posits that it’s the only thing of worth that a woman has to give. A lot of fiction, wittingly or not, ends up reinforcing this–Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is probably the clearest example, but far from the only one.
As Pterobat indicates, TMNT serves up a textbook case of this scenario with Karai and Chaplin. Chaplin is introduced as a young man who is infatuated with Karai, but is self-absorbed enough to appropriate her face for use in his robots without permission, or even a thought about what she just might think about that; Karai, for her part, doesn’t care for him, and is (rather understandably) rather creeped out by his crush. This dynamic will remain throughout the show—Chaplin will remain devoted, and will do things such as risking his life for her (which, it should be noted, isn’t part of his job and pushes the narrative into rescue romance territory, which can in itself be problematic) while Karai continues being uninterested–until the death of the Demon Shredder, after which Karai decides to reciprocate. No reason is given for this change in attitude; the audience is left to conclude that Chaplin has passed the invisible threshold and now gets Karai for his troubles.
Now, it is true that Karai doesn’t have a gun to her head; if she has decided that she is willing to overlook her dislike of Chaplin, she is doing so out of her own free will. Who are we to judge her if that’s the case?
The problem arises when goes beyond what the development says about these specific characters and starts looking at what it says about the world in general and the writers’ view of it; when seen from that perspective, what we have is an ending which argues that a scenario where the male character gets the woman of his dreams despite the fact that she isn’t attracted to him is perfectly romantic. The development–and its continuation in the series finale, where it’s shown that the two are still together–is presented as a happy ending to both of them, when as far as we know, only one of the two has actually gotten what they wanted. Karai is presented not as an individual with specific needs, but as something Chaplin deserves for remaining devoted to her. Intentionally or not, the message here is basically: you too can get the fantasy of your dreams—it’s no different from unlocking an achievement on Xbox 360!
I’m no mind-reader: I can’t tell what the writers were thinking when scripting “Enter the Dragons”, Part 2. For all I know, they might genuinely have believed that the ending they wrote for Karai and Chaplin was a legitimately happy one for both of them.
I do have a hypothesis, though: I think that Karai got the ending she got because there was no other ending they could have given her.
One of the most important steps when developing a character is for the writer to establish what that character wants. It may be a potato, to take over the multiverse, or to build the tallest structure in the world made out of Legos. Said desire then helps a writer to establish—some would say discover—where the character wants to go and how the story affects hir.
For most of TMNT, Karai’s desires are concretely established. During her introduction, she wants to bring the New York underworld under her control. From the moment The Shredder returns until his exile, her wish is to be able to keep her mutually-exclusive allegiances to both the turtles and her father. Afterwards, she, much like Inigo Montoya, wants her father back; failing that, she’ll settle for revenge on the turtles.
But then, a snag. The story is nearing its end, and the writers want a happy ending for Karai. However, giving her what she wants is impossible, and simply having her abandoning her vendetta (which is different from a out and out reconciliation with the turtles) isn’t sufficient; it’s not the sort of thing that would make her happy in a manner that can be portrayed in five seconds of screen time, and arguably leaves her in a worse place than she was when she debuted. So in the end, the writers go for their version of making Ty Lee a Kyoshi Warrior at the end of Avatar: The Last Airbender—they simply didn’t know what to do with her—and like that show, it raises eyebrows rather than feeling like an appropriate conclusion.
Now, the fact that there wasn’t much else they could have done at this point doesn’t mean that the writers shouldn’t be held responsible for their work—nobody put a gun to their heads, either, and if they wanted a happy ending for Karai there were a million ways they could have developed the character to make one plausible. And the possible lack of malice or awareness doesn’t make the actual result any less problematic.
…and yet, despite all of this, I’m am still rather okay with the pairing. I think it says some very interesting things about Karai.
First, let me be clear. Despite what the creators may have meant to imply, I don’t think Karai and Chaplin ending up together constitutes a happy ending for either character, at least in the short term; after a brief honeymoon period, I don’t see how they won’t eventually realize that they together are less Lois Lane / Clark Kent and more Don Draper / anybody*. Chaplin more or less fell in love with the fantasy of an awesome ninja anime girl, without an inkling of who Karai really was, and immediately set about making her his own; he has yet to realize why the Amazon Blade Bots were wrong or apologized for it. And Karai…well, I don’t think she has any idea who she is or what she wants. I don’t think she has any idea what she believes.
What Karai believes
One of the interesting things going on beneath the surface during Karai and Leonardo’s season 4 confrontation is the idea that Leonardo believes that Karai’s revenge attempts mean that she is without honor, which for someone who strives to follow the teachings of Bushido, is getting things almost exactly backwards.
I’m no expert, but everything I’ve read about Bushido—or at least the popular perception of Bushido, which is what the series deals with–says that loyalty to one’s masters is one of the code’s central tenets. A true samurai warrior should be loyal to the point of death, even when one’s master is morally corrupt. What’s more, avenging one’s fallen master was also considered honorable—it’s why we’re meant to see the turtles in the original Mirage book as the good guys instead of just murderers. Similarly, Karai’s attempts to kill the turtles and avenge her father are completely morally justified, from her point of view.
So what does this mean? Basically, that Karai can’t abandon her vendetta without laying aside a huge part of who she is and what she believes or considering herself a huge honking failure. And for most people, that’s not something to be done lightly.
So, with her father lost and her belief system compromised, what else does Karai have, that we know of? Well, we know that she eventually repairs her relationship with the turtles, or is at least on warm enough terms to be able to score an invite to April and Casey’s wedding, but we have no idea when that’s supposed to happen, and is the sort of thing I would imagine happening later rather than sooner: there’s too much history, too many things said for them to immediately be able to start over again. Aside from that…nothing. A Karai without her vendetta is a person without passion, projects, or even substantial human relationships—nothing, in short, to give her any joy. Given such a bleak panorama, falling in with someone who claims to love you** can start sounding pretty darn inviting.
If there’s one thing Karai has, it’s the resources that make it possible for her to do whatever she wants with her life, or to experiment until she finds out what that is. The question remains: can she do it? Can Karai find the strength come to terms with her past in a way that will allow her to build a foundation for future joy, and then effectively rebuild her life? I don’t know, but I like to think that she can. Either way, I think the story that would come out of her attempts to do so would be fascinating.
* With Karai being Don, obviously.
** And who already knows a lot of her secrets, which is a detail that is far from insubstantial. Yes, Karai would probably find no shortage of men—or women—able and willing to share time with her. A a person around which she can be truly herself, and acknowledge that she a) leads one of the world’s most powerful crime organizations, b) is an unrepentant liar, thief, and killer, and c) her father was an alien bent on world conquest would be considerably rarer.
Part 1 of my series on Karai.