Looking Back: TMNT (2012) Season 1 (Part 2) : TMNT’s Women Problem
8 August 2013 6 Comments
[Content Note: Rape, Rape Culture, Nice Guys (TM), Sexist Tropes]
When I initially wrote that first post about how the pilot for Nick’s TMNT treatment of April O’Neil was problematic, I did not expect writing about gender to become a regular thing. Given that those first two episodes had somehow managed the unlikely feat of making April an irrelevant part of her own story, it seemed to me that there was nowhere for the show to go but up.
That sort of optimism seems funny to me now.
The Ninja Turtles franchise has never been terribly progressive when it comes to gender, so expectations regarding its treatment of its female characters have never been high. That said, even the original cartoon managed to make April feel like an actor (albeit an inconsistently-characterized one) in the story, which makes Nick’s failure to do the same especially glaring. In fact, their treatment of April reminds me less of her past incarnations and more of another show entirely: Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who. In particular, it reminds me of the way that show handled its own redhead, the Doctor’s companion Amy Pond.
Some context: Introduced as a seven-year old with a lot of charm and odd circumstances, Amelia Pond was offered the opportunity to join the Doctor in his travels through space and time after his ship was fixed. Unfortunately, circumstances meant that the wait, instead of lasting moments, lasted twelve years, which Amelia–eventually “Amy”–spent growing up into Karen Gillan. While she waited, the idea of the Doctor, a man who seemed too fantastic to be true, became an obsession, and took over her life to such a degree that her aunt (her only guardian—we’re not told what happened to her parents) forced her to see psychiatrists who tried to convince her that what she’d seen wasn’t real. By the time she was nineteen, the whole sequence of events left Amy with severe commitment issues and a desire to run away from her life.
The Doctor eventually returned, and Amy got her chance to travel with her “Raggedy Man” across space and time. As she did so, several important things happened, the most important two being:
- It was eventually revealed that her parents had been erased from space and time, and that she only escaped the same fate because of some innate specialness. When the Doctor rebooted the universe (it had stopped existing as we knew it) he brought them back to existence.
- Some time later, a pregnant Amy was kidnapped by a group called The Silence and held in a facility, where she was forced to give birth to a child her captors would later take. The Silence kept Amy unaware of this by shunting her mental faculties to a synthetic version of her body sent to live her life, with the effect that it would be nine months before she actually knew that she had been kidnapped and pregnant, despite the fact that the Doctor had learned about it sometime along the way.
Despite these two massive, life-changing events, their cumulative effect is nil, and Amy continues to be the same character we met when she debuted. In the end, her parents’ return turns out to be trivial, and the trauma of her kidnapping is forgotten by the following episode. Absolutely none of these developments are used to give us any insight on who she is or to further her characterization.
You can tell where I’m going with this.
Like Amy, April has gone through a lot this season. In the space of a few months she’s:
- Lost one home and been forced to relocate twice
- Had to deal with not knowing her father’s fate
- Had her life threathened several times
- Learned that the Kraang need her for some unspecified reason.
- Learned that she may not be entirely human.
Like Amy, none of this appears to have stuck, and the writers have yet to explore how these things affect her. Twenty-four episodes in, none of her relationships has been sketched out in anything but the most superficial terms. Twenty-two episodes have passed since she was forced to live with her aunt, and we still don’t know the first thing about her. Is she an alcoholic who only barely tolerates her niece? Or is she what Splinter is to the turtles? She could be either, and the distinction is important. When she mentions the loss of her mother to Karai as part of a litany of things that she’s been dealing with, is she talking about a fresh wound or one that time never quite managed to close? We don’t know, cause she’s never mentioned her before, and no elaboration is made. As TMNT fan Acara notes, every episode involving a drastic change in April’s status quo–usually in the form of a cliffhanger–is followed up by an episode in which April is completely absent, robbing fans of her reactions.
But hey, we got an episode about Raph’s fear of cockroaches!
Yes, yes, CGI limitations are a concern, I know. But it’s not an excuse, particularly since the show has set up for itself a nifty device that could have been used to learn about April without having to create new assets, had they cared; Donatello’s crush on April provides the perfect avenue for the show to keep tabs on how she’s dealing with things, and help their friendship progress in a manner that is respectful to both.
And yet, instead of doing anything that would develop that relationship, the writers seem perfectly content in letting it marinate in a stew of problematic romance tropes.
Throughout the season, Donatello has set off lots of alarm bells that suggest that he cares more for his crush on April than he does for April herself. Those warning signs include his continued use of possessive phrasing like “my April” and “my sweet princess”; using Metalhead to not-so-covertly leer at her; and his initial happiness at April being forced to live with him. Additional behavior April doesn’t know about include the org-chart and his willingness to put her father at risk in order to score points with her. His brothers continuously enable him, either because they don’t see a problem with his behavior or because they consider his right to delude himself to be more important than April’s comfort, a la how they don’t mention Leprechauns don’t exist in front of Michelangelo.
That said, this in and of itself isn’t necessarily a problem. Protagonists don’t need to be paragons, and having a hero start out as Nice Guy can be the basis for a perfectly good story. What’s more, given that the turtles were raised in an all-male environment by a father who did not expect his children to interact with other people, it even makes sense as a storytelling decision. However, in order for the work not to be another statement on why Nice Guys (TM) are special butterflies who need to be coddled and protected, it actually needs to show why that sort of behavior is problematic. And the best way to do that is by making April’s discomfort—which canonically exists—an equally legitimate and prominent part of the narrative.
Unfortunately, that discomfort exists only as hints and denials, as April attempts to convince Donatello that she doesn’t find his behavior bothersome. It’s a realistic enough response, developed due to the fear that candidness, however justified, will result in violence or abuse, but the show doesn’t establish a context for it to be useful. Aside from those, April’s point of view is absent from the narrative, which not only deprives her of some much-needed characterization, it ends up portraying Donatello’s behavior as harmless, when what it does is prioritize Donatello’s right to make advances over her right to not be made uncomfortable.
This, in turn, is a problem.
One in six women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Most of these assaults will be by people whom they know. These two facts have led to formation of the idea of Shroedinger’s Rapist: that given the challenges women face due to our rape culture, it is necessary to think of all men as potential rapists, and to be especially attentive to warning signs, even if they only come about because the man making a pass is awkward and lacks confidence.
And you know what, I honestly think that’s the case here: even if we disregard things like the show’s content rating and the fact that he’s coded as a hero, I don’t think there’s a chance that this version of Donatello would ever assault April. However, that doesn’t matter, because April has no way of knowing that. Given that many people who at first seem harmless turn out not to be, she has to treat these warning signs as hints of potential danger, making their trivialization—their depiction as inherently funny and innocent and harmless–play into a narrative that shames women for being cautious, which usually goes hand in hand with the narratives that then blame them if they are raped.
Now, I can assure you with absolute certainty that the writers had none of this in mind when developing the series, because taken as a whole, Nick’s TMNT has quite a lot of gender fail, strongly hinting that they do not spend a whole lot of time examining their male privilege. Between its low number of female characters serving as agents in the story–April, Karai, Ms. Campbell, and the wasp from “Parasitica” ( and it’s important to note Ms. Campbell, as we find out, is a Kraang robot drone and arguably non-sentient, while the wasp is a wasp and is definitively non-sentient)—and the way it portrays them, there’s quite a lot to unpack—far more than I would normally expect from a cartoon aimed at children.
Let’s begin with Karai, who is, the better written of the women, by dint of the fact that she actually has agency over most of the plots. A combination femme fatale / manic pixie dream girl under a Strong Female Character veneer, her role is to serve as seductress while bringing light into Leo’s life.
It’s worth noting that Leonardo’s crush on Karai, while less overtly creepy than Don’s—in large part because Karai apparently likes Leo to some degree and indicates this by flirting with him—also has some rather problematic elements to it. First, there the fact that, like with Donny, Leo develops his crush mere seconds after first meeting Karai. Like with Don, Leo does not actually attempt to get to know Karai better, and yet by their second meeting, he’s already convinced that she’s lying to herself and that what she truly wants is someone to rescue her from the Foot Clan. And while the series to some degree appears to believe that Leonardo made a mistake in attempting to befriend her, it acts as if his error was in trusting her, effectively blaming Karai for Leo’s disappointment. In reality, nothing is farther from the truth, as Karai is nothing less than completely honest with Leonardo, and if the ninja turtle believed her to be someone she wasn’t, it’s because he preferred to create a version of her out of whole cloth rather than wishing to interact with the person that actually existed.
Our hero, everyone!
And while I’m on the topic, I want to note that in both “The Alien Agenda” and “The Enemy of Our Enemy”, Splinter refers to Karai as kunoichi, and characterizes them as essentially deceitful, which is a weirdly gendered way of looking at things. Sure, female ninja can be characterized as deceitful, but that’s 100% because they’re ninja, not because they’re women. Bradford has been considerably more dishonest than Karai, so where’s Splinter’s statement that male ninja are deceitful?
Among the various bits of information leaked about the show’s second season, one of the most talked about is the fact that Irma Langstein will be making her Nick debut after a more than a decade in limbo (not counting a cameo in Turtles Forever, notable due to the fact that it’s the only reused asset in the film not to come from the 1987 show’s first season). And while I’m glad to see more female characters in the cast, I am also deathly scared about how she’ll be treated, because her original concept of a woman made pathetic and worthy of ridicule because of her desperate to avoid spinsterdom (and she’d probably use that particular word, too) is already deeply problematic. While there are ways to shed those elements while still keeping her core, I have no confidence that the writers will be able to do so, leaving me with the perverse hope that they’ll discard her personality completely and essentially create a new character with an old name. And when cynical appeals to nostalgia appeal more than the alternative, there’s something deeply wrong.