The Void at The Center of One’s Being: The Karai Essay, Part 2

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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:

Pterobat:

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.

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11 Responses to The Void at The Center of One’s Being: The Karai Essay, Part 2

  1. Pterobat says:

    Thank you for your compliments: awareness is what I strive for, after seeing too many other nerds be blind to the faults of what they take in, or the road their mind takes them.

    And I do understand how Karai’s relationship with Chaplin can be seen representing a positive new life direction for her, of letting go of hate and vengeance to live for common human values. Really, I do.

    But I can only go with what we’ve been given. It’s fine to speculate on deeper motives and meanings in a series, but that can’t affect another person’s reaction to what is actually on screen.

    And in the canon, I can’t see anything strong enough to transcend the awful values suggested in the Karai/Chaplin pairing, or anything that suggests we’re not meant to take the relationship as 100% solid. It’s not going to go south, and there’s nothing more complex than what we see.

    And honestly, another reason why the relationship is unsettling is that it suggests blind devotion is also a good foundation for a romantic pairing. It’s a bad scene all around.

    All can hope that Karai moves away from a life full of hate and vengeance, but not like this.

  2. GregXB says:

    The Lost Season was a mess, I warned Pterobat about this going in. How do I think it could have been better, and better for Karai? Honestly, I would have had Karai become the new host of the Tengu… she wants vengeance so badly, she gets consumed and destroyed by it. Yes, it would have been a very sad and tragic ending for her, but it would have given the character far more dignity than walking off into the sunset (sunrise) with Upchuck.

  3. GregXB says:

    I couldn’t resist, I entered the fray at my own blog: http://gregxb.blogspot.com/2013/01/stepping-into-debate.html

  4. Yarp says:

    [I disagree.] Nine times out of ten in non-romance cartoons/anime the writers pair up characters simply to end a series or season on a happy note and or to appease the shipper portion of the fandom. There are dozens of examples of characters eventually getting married or falling in love despite earlier episodes indicating little to no romantic interest or one character pining for the other and the recipient is oblivious or doesn’t reciprocate. I sincerely doubt most of these writers are unconsciously or consciously pushing some dumb agenda that unhealthy relationships are actually good, all women are damsels in distress who need saving or nerdy guys should have hot girlfriends as rewards.

    Like most action cartoons of its ilk, 2K3 treated romantic relationships as afterthoughts. Even with the most prominent relationship in the show (April and Casey) the writers never really delved that deeply into how characters interacted with each other during normal everyday situations that didn’t involve the turtles or some danger. You get some comedy bit or a quick “aww, that’s cute” scene but that’s it. Relationships don’t receive that much focus and substance because this series isn’t about what Casey, April, Chaplin, Karai or whoever else does during social lives. Same goes for the characters goals and ambitions that don’t involve the conflict of the day. We rarely got a look into what the villains and side characters did during their spare time.

    I also find the creepy nice guy labeling of Chaplin to be a big stretch. The few scenes he appeared in portrayed him as nothing more than a wacky scientist who was extremely loyal to the Foot and had Karai as a love interest. The Karai robots served as obstacle for the turtles to defeat and to make a quick point that Chaplin liked Karai. It’s harmless idol worship similar to how millions of people collect photos merchandise or clothing of athletes and celebrities and say how they would love to marry them despite not actually knowing them. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Playmates suggested the robots inclusion as as means to promote potential toys.

    (Post edited by Moderator to remove dismissive language; original unedited comment available here.)

  5. Pterobat says:

    Actually, complaining about this kind of thing *is* fun. Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it.

    But really, a deliberate agenda on the part of producers isn’t a requirement for making a complaint, and nobody who makes these complaints actually *believes* a real agenda was involved.

    It’s just the same people perpetuating the same annoying tropes without thinking about it. They don’t have to think about it–but the audience doesn’t need permission to react.

    Likewise, even if this is a show for kids that doesn’t have the time or the interest to concentrate on romantic relationships, there’s no reason not to react what we *do* get.

    Dr. Chaplin was a bland and inoffensive character between his first appearance and the reveal of his relationship to Karai, but, dang, he’s still off-putting between that.

    If you want to get technical, Chaplin is a “Nice Guy” ’cause apparently hanging around and showing pupplike devotion to his “Mistress” was enough to endear him to Karai, while textbook Nice Guys are supposed to do exactly that: wait around, never ask the girl out, and then…magic!

    Like so: http://xkcd.com/513/

  6. Ian says:

    While I appreciate your continued input on this space, Yarp, I need you to please familiarize yourself with my Comment Policy! before you post again. While this should be a place where fans are free to disagree with each other, it is not meant as a space where people talk down to or try to silence others, which is what your reference to “making mountains out of molehills” and “unclenching buttcheeks” does, and why that content has been removed from your post.

  7. Ian says:

    Hello again, Greg. I read your post, and will respond to it as soon as I manage to summon the words. While I don’t quite agree that season 5 needed changing to that degree, your idea is intriguing: I’d be interested in seeing what changes would be made on the road to making that plotline plausible. As things stand, all such an union would provide is power, and that’s something Karai isn’t exactly lacking in. More thoughts on your blog. 🙂

  8. Ian says:

    And to deal with the rest of your post, Yarp

    Yes, hooking random characters up at the end of a story is the sort of thing tons of works do without thinking; so was, once upon a time, the idea that white people could portray black characters (or, often, caricatures) by smearing some makeup on. That doesn’t make the ideas presented any less harmful, and the fact that it’s very likely done without thought or malice is precisely the reason why it should be called out. The hope is that people who think this sort of thing is fine will take a look, notice “huh, I never thought of it that way”, and do better next time.

    As pertains to Chaplin himself, the use of Karai’s face on his robots is far from harmless. From an in-universe perspective, it shows a lack of respect for Karai, her feelings, or her consent, since he didn’t ever consider asking her if this sort of thing was okay; to him, it was more important for him to be able to show his devotion than it was for Karai not to feel uncomfortable–heck, he doesn’t even apologize, once he notices that his gesture is not appreciated. This would be bad enough on its own, but its made worse by the fact that we know from “City at War” that Karai faces a continuous uphill battle when it comes to people acknowledging her authority as The Shredder’s second. Dealing with this likely requires Karai to keep a certain level of control of how she presents herself and is perceived, which is undermined by Chaplin’s robots without consequence; in choosing to present his devotion in such a manner, Chaplin could very well have made her job harder–not something you’d do to someone you supposedly love. From an out of universe perspective, the fact that the show presents that sort of objectification as something harmless that makes a character worth rooting for is extremely problematic.

    What’s more, it’s not like the robots were essential if what the writers wanted from them was to show that Chaplin had a crush*–there are tons better ways to show that, as has been done in every other work ever. Those might not have made Chaplin any more likeable, but it would have almost certainly reduced the ick factor.

    Note that none of this means that I don’t like Chaplin, or that I don’t like the pairing (although my reasons are almost certainly not the creators’ reasons); however, liking something doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t be able to view it critically or note when it is problematic.

    * Note that I don’t believe that this was their sole or even main purpose–they’re also there to show that Chaplin has no idea how he is perceived by others.

  9. Ian says:

    Thank you for your compliments: awareness is what I strive for, after seeing too many other nerds be blind to the faults of what they take in, or the road their mind takes them.

    And I do understand how Karai’s relationship with Chaplin can be seen representing a positive new life direction for her, of letting go of hate and vengeance to live for common human values. Really, I do.

    But I can only go with what we’ve been given. It’s fine to speculate on deeper motives and meanings in a series, but that can’t affect another person’s reaction to what is actually on screen.

    And in the canon, I can’t see anything strong enough to transcend the awful values suggested in the Karai/Chaplin pairing, or anything that suggests we’re not meant to take the relationship as 100% solid. It’s not going to go south, and there’s nothing more complex than what we see.

    And honestly, another reason why the relationship is unsettling is that it suggests blind devotion is also a good foundation for a romantic pairing. It’s a bad scene all around.

    All can hope that Karai moves away from a life full of hate and vengeance, but not like this.

    Hello, again, Pterobat; I’m glad you liked my (much-deserved) nod. 🙂
    To be clear, part of my point was that I don’t think the relationship is a good step for Karai in and of itself, which is the show’s argument–the comparison between Karai and Don Draper isn’t meant to be a flattering one. At best, the relationship does no harm; at worst, it’s like giving morphine to someone dying from a gunshot wound, masking the problem while doing nothing to solve it. Personally, I feel the latter is far more likely than the former, and that’s how I plan on looking at it, because it’s far more interesting when it comes to writing stories about them that follow the established canon.

    Of course, as you note, what might happen is moot if one cares solely about what the actual text that actually made it on screen says, which is a perfectly acceptable way to approach the show. It’s not my way–the blog is, after all, based on the premise of playing Robotech with Gargoyles and TMNT, which involves deciding how every character will end up long after their respective series have ended–but that doesn’t mean I can’t acknowledge it or the fact that by that standard, the situation can be rather unsatisfying indeed.

    (I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with people who don’t look at works critically; it’s when they insist that everybody else do the same that I get annoyed.)

  10. Pterobat says:

    Well, I understand extrapolating and speculation when it comes to other works of fiction–I do write fanfic, after all. (I’m even working on a Turtles story). I just don’t, personally, find that such speculation has a place in a non-fiction piece about a series, unless the essay is defined right off the bat as “what I’d do” or “what they should do”.

    So yeah, I can’t see Karai and Chaplin’s relationship as anything but the positive turn I thought the TV series was presenting it as. There’s nothing wrong with writing fan fiction to the contrary, or speculating to the contrary, but it’s not part of the way I approach that material.

  11. Pingback: Trust, OR You’re An Asshole, Matt Bluestone: “Revelations” « Monsters of New York

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