Why I Like Elisa Maza
22 November 2013 5 Comments
I fear I have been neglectful. Despite this space’s attempt at being equal parts a TMNT (2003) and a Gargoyles blog, a cursory look at the actual posts would be enough to tell anyone that the amount of material on the turtles (or, more properly, the franchise as a whole) surpasses the amount of material on the gargoyles by a rather steep margin. While this is to some degree inevitable–Nick continues to produce new TMNT material, meaning there’s an ongoing conversation which gives me quite a bit to talk about, in a way that Gargoyles can’t–the fact that this is the case upsets me.
Thus, this little side-project, which draws more than a little bit of inspiration from Cameca‘s Why I Like Doctor Who Tumblr. Like that page, the idea is to simply write a bit about Gargoyles characters and concepts I like and feel like talking about, with a mostly positive slant. And to begin with, we have series costar Elisa Maza.
Elisa Maza is, in a word, transgressive. In 1994, when the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was entering its twilight, she took the role played by April O’Neil, smashed it, and used its skeleton to build something new and fantastic.
Like April in Fred Wolf’s TMNT (*1), Elisa is the first major character we meet in Gargoyles . Immediately, three things about her stand out: she is a biracial woman of color, being both Native American (Hopi, mostly) and African American (ETA: of Nigerian ancestry); she is our point of view character; and neither of those things is considered remarkable by the narrative.
Except it is. Seven years prior to Gargoyles, Fred Wolf whitewashed Baxter Stockman and ignored the way April O’Neil had been depicted for most of the original TMNT comics in favor of the much more white look of her first two appearances (*2) . The Disney Afternoon block, which Gargoyles called home, was no stranger to depictions of People of Color that were problematic at best and just plain racist at worst. Here, now, in 2013, shows like Elementary and Sleepy Hollow are considered noteworthy in part because of their willingness to place women of color as their stars, which is essentially Elisa’s role: when the World Tour begins, the other gargoyles, barring show star Goliath, are considered expendable, characters with whom the series can do without for an extended period. Elisa is not.
Elisa Maza also stands out because of her profession: she is a cop, a role that, like April’s career as a reporter, allows her to be in the center on the action but unlike it implies not passive observation (*3), but active involvement–she is always attempting to be part of the solution, and the show gives her plenty of space to do so; throughout the show’s run, she finds the gargoyles a home, rescues them more than once (“Awakening“, “High Noon“, “The Price”), calls them out when they’re wrong. What’s more, she enjoys her job–she’s very good at it, too–and treats her charge to protect and serve as her calling, positioning her as the gargoyles’ moral equal: while she’s flawed and can make mistakes, she is willing to recognize when she’s erred, and will always work to try and make things better.
As the audience identification character, it is Elisa’s role to be “normal”, something she does very well. While there have historically been problematic elements to the trend of taking a show’s most prominent female character and making her “the normal one”–it effectively makes “being female” her distinguishing characteristic–the act takes a distinct shade when we’re talking about a woman of color. In an environment which white show-runners and producers often only allowed Women of Color to embody stereotypes, Elisa gets to just be herself. And who she is is someone who is brave, dedicated, self-confident, inquisitive, clever, adaptable and friendly to those who haven’t gotten on her bad side. She also cosplays, which is a bit I absolutely love.
Telling stories with people belonging to under-represented groups, as stars, and doing it right, tends to present special challenges; success is never assured, and failure is often blamed on the group itself or, the world, than anything having to do with the production itself. If Elisa somehow turned out to be not a good character, who knows when we’d next to see someone like her in a starring role? Fortunately, Greg Weisman and company decided to undertake the risks anyway, and it’s a good thing they did, because by most measures, they succeeded splendidly: Elisa Maza is fantastic. I really like her.
1) Okay, technically, Bebop and Rocksteady appear before her, in their non-mutated forms, but given that they’re unremarked upon–they’re just two more members in a gang of street punks–I’m not counting them. 😛
2) Which to be clear is also whitewashing–just done under more complicated circumstances and with an added layer (or veneer, if you’d like) of legitimacy.
3) At least the way Fred Wolf April did it.