Holy Metaphor, Batman: “Mark of the Panther” (Post 1 of 2)

“I loved you once. But for what you did to me you won’t live through this night.” Tea

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Written by: Lydia Marano

Original Air Date: February 8, 1996

Introduces: Tea, Anansi, Fara Maku,

Timeline placement: May 16, 1996

Location: Nigeria

TMNT episode I could make a forced comparison to: “Return of the Justice Force”

Content Note: Rape, Abuse, Assault

(Note: This is one of two posts on “Mark of the Panther”, as there are elements within the episode that deserve particular attention. Part one will discuss those elements, while part two will be a more general post.)

The Deets:

  • Avalon has dropped the world tourists on a turbulent river culminating in a waterfall. Shaken, stirred, wet, but alive, they head to land to dry off. Elisa determines that they’re in Africa, possibly in or around Nigeria, where her mother is from, and which she once visited. They don’t get far before they find an unpleasant sight: the corpse of a panther, stripped of its skin. Angela is especially disgusted by this, especially after she is told that poaching is a common practice. She suggests that stopping the practice may be the reason for the their arrival, and the world tourists move on.
  • In what is totally not a coincidencethanks, Avalonthe tourists arrive at a nearby village, where Elisa’s mother Diane regales a group of children with the tale of the proud panther who was turned into a human woman by Anansi the spider god.  Diane’s effortsshe’d been preparing for monthsare complimented by Fara Maku, a local who played some role in having her here.  Elisa steps out into view, greets her relieved mother, and comes up with a terrible and unconvincing excuse for her disappearance from New York and presence in Nigeria.
  • Elisa and Diane’s reunion is interrupted by the arrival of a trio of poachers, there for the caged panther held inside the village. The group includes a woman with a high-key hate-on for panthers. It turns out that this woman, Tea, is known to Fara Maku, before she moved to the big city and allegedly changed.
  • One of the poachers suggests killing all the witnesses. The gargoyles, watching all this go down, decide to intervene just as the stress of the situation causes Fara Maku to convulse and turn into a panther. This causes Tea to come to a realization, and she shoots the newly feline Fara Maku without hesitation. Elisa’s interference allows Fara Maku to escape into the woods, and Tea follows, leaving her men to deal with the witnesses.
  • The poachers prove no match for the gargoyles. After some quick and rather strained introductions, the Mazas and the gargoyles agree to go after Tea to save Fara Maku.
  • Tea has once again found Fara Maku, but is herself found by Goliath, who grabs her and takes her into the air. As she struggles against him, she herself turns into a panther and slips free.
  • The world tourists and Diane use Bronx to follow the scent of the panthers to the lost city of Kara Digi, created, according to legend, by the panther-turned-woman and her clan as a boon to Anansi.  They split upElisa with Angela, Goliath with Dianeto explore the city, but find their progress stymied by booby traps. As they work to escape, the pairs talk about their various issues with their parents / children. Specifically, Angela wants Goliath to acknowledge his biological parentage of Angela and treat her accordingly, while Elisa has always felt smothered by her mother.
  • Tea finds Fara Maku once again, but is once again stopped by the gargoyles, who demand an explanation. She explains that she and Fara Maku were once lovers, before she decided to move to Abuja. During her journey, she was attacked by a panther, who marked her the same way the legendary panther queen marked her human son. This mark made living in Abuja impossible, since it caused her to turn into a panther at unpredictable moments, so she returned to her village as a poacher, until she found out that it was Fara Maku himself who marked her.
  • Pressed for answers, Fara Maku explains that he did indeed mark Tea, since he loved her, felt she was wrong for her to leave and did not wish for her to do so. He believed that if he turned her into a panther, like the legendary panther queen did her son, the two could remain together. This explanation does not convince, nor does it answer everything: how did Fara Maku obtain this ability in the first place?  Enter the Spider God.
  • Anansi offers the final set of explanations: some time ago, Fara Maku had found him, and made a bargain: he would hunt for the god in exchange for the ability to bind Tea to him. Now, however, it is time for renegotiation: if one hunter was good, seven hunters would be even better.
  • Tea, angry at Anansi for starting the chain of events that ruined her, attacks Anansi. She is joined by the others, and while the combined forces of the World Tourists and the werepanthers are not enough to harm the Spider God while he is on his web, they are enough to bring down the web itself.  Helpless on the ground, Anansi is vanquished by Goliath.
  • The danger past, it is now time for decisions. Tea and Fara Maku, having agreed that they have both done wrong, decide to work together to protect the jungle from poachers and the like. Meanwhile, Elisa and Diane and Angela and Goliath agree to try to be more understanding of each other.

Mythology and Continuity Notes:

  • Diane Maza was last seen in “The Cage”.
  • Abuja, the city Tea moved to, is the capital of Nigeria.

—-

When rewatching this episode for the first time, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it; I’d never really thought about it as a particularly memorable episode or as one worth revisiting, and yet, upon review, I’d consider it one of the stealth highlights of the series. It does interesting things with the medium. It is easily the best exploration of a non-white culture that we’ve gotten so far, and the one that feels most relevant, being connected to a central character. It highlights some interesting character dynamics and relationships. It’s among the most complex stories the show has done, with many interesting angles and complications, where lots of people hold lots of different views, views that go beyond right or wrong. And it does all of this, without feeling overstuffed the way episodes like “Golem” were, even though a good chunk of the episode is spent on exposition.

On the other hand, my satisfaction at rewatching the episode was tempered by that one big spider in the room: is it just me, or is Tea’s story a big honking rape metaphor?

We have a woman, Tea, who is about to leave her significant other, Fara Maku, and move to the big city. Fara Maku, who claims to love her, attacks her in a way that leaves permanent physical and psychological marks, to the point where she cannot coexist with her attacker, and cannot live the life she wanted—all in an attempt to keep her with him. Do a search / replace of several key words, and this would be indistinguishable from a rape scene. Even if we stick strictly to the text and removed the sex, she was still assaulted and violated.

And yet, the episode doesn’t seem to think this is the case, in the process giving us a story that feels backwards. The first half of the story—the half designed to give us our first impressions, and in which we decide whether we like a character or not, and especially crucial when talking about one-shot characters—is designed to make us see Tea as the aggressor and Fara Maku as the victim. While the episode eventually makes it clear that this is not accurate and that Tea has reasons for her actions, the show is still far more concerned with his thoughts and feelings than Tea’s. When the truth is revealed, no one—not even the two black women next to her, who should understand more than most how rare it is for black women to obtain justice for sexual assault*—has any sympathy of comfort to spare for her, instead being more interested in explaining to Fara Maku that rape is wrong, and asking why he became a panther in the first place. Then, when Anansi stands revealed, the show has Tea actually absolve Fara Maku of any responsibility by decidinghttps://vraikaiser.com/2016/01/10/mark-of-the-pantherpendragon/ to turn her anger towards Anansi instead, even when he had nothing to do with the assault or with making Fara Maku decide that hey, it sure would be swell to destroy the life of the person he allegedly loves. Finally, the story ends with Tea and Fara Maku reaffirming their love and getting back together, which, as Vrai Kaiser notes in their review, is what Fara Maku wanted in the first place. Worse still, it is Tea who suggests it. While abuse victims remaining with their abusers is common, the episode treats this as appropriate and not worth remarking upon.

We’ve seen it over and over this election season: attempts by various parties—and especially the media—to portray both candidates for the U.S. presidency as somehow equivalent, either out of cynicism, privilege—they have concluded, perhaps correctly that a Trump election would not affect their lives personally—or out of the mistaken notion that not rendering judgment is the same as being fair. And thus, the narrative: they are both equally dishonest. They are both equally racist, queerphobic, and misogynistic. They are both equally bad for the country. And they’ll claim this despite the hundreds upon hundreds of basketfuls of evidence to the contrary.

The same occurs here. Let’s be clear: Fara Maku and Tea’s offenses are not equivalent. Fara Maku here is guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend, who was guilty of nothing except wanting to live her own life, in order to make her incapable of living the life he wanted all because, like many deplorables, he has no respect for boundaries or consent. While it would be wrong and inaccurate to suggest that Tea is guiltless hereshe did not push back when her poacher companion suggested murdering innocent bystanders**, and while I’ll make the argument that she deserved to take the matter of reparations for what Fara Maku did to her into her own hands (the chance that anyone else would have given her justice is precisely zero) ruining someone’s life is still not the same as murderthe episode is far more concerned her poaching, with Angela suggesting that that is the reason Avalon sent them, and with nothing really contradicting her. Poaching, while terrible, is less terrible than harming humans, and in equating the two, the episode is effectively claiming the opposite: that harming humansharming womenis the less significant of the two. This, in turn, colors Tea as the worse of the two, and this is reflected by their fates. Tea is made to remain with her abuser, whom we’re meant to believe now feels contrite—despite absolutely no evidence to that effect but his word, which is worth…what, exactly?—and this is somehow appropriate, despite not being at all what she wanted to do with her life. Why? How? Why? Fara Maku’s karmic fate, meanwhile is…feeling remorse?  If the crime is equivalent, why isn’t the punishment?

Muddying the waters is the story of the panther, which is explicitly a parallel to Fara Maku and Tea’s, and features a similar attempt to transform a loved one. While the Panther’s attempt to transform her son is equally as immoral as Fara Maku’s, the episode doesn’t treat it as such, making the panther the sympathetic hero of her story. This dissonance is never brought up, which makes the fact that it is Diane who tells Fara Maku off rather ironic. Had she never questioned the story or its message, or had she always understood what it implied and simply remained silent? In any case, this element has the effect of making Fara Maku seem more sympathetic than his actions merit: of course he understood his actions to be loving; it’s what his people’s folklore—or at least, the only part we get to see—has been telling him ever since he was a child.

If one were predisposed to be kind, one might argue that this is all accidental, that the writers did not see the rape parallels—which fair enough, as not all transformation narratives invoke it, even if this one does—and did not intend to say anything about it. And heck, were it not for the part of the episode that explicitly deals with consent, I might be willing to chalk this episodes’ missteps to that.  Except, this isn’t the first time. Everything that is wrong with “Mark of the Panther” on this particular score was also wrong earlier on, in “Revelations”. Like “Panther”, that episode featured a conflict between a man and woman (Matt and Elisa), and like “Panther” it tried to argue that their two missteps were comparable, even though Elisa’s involved keeping a secret she had every right to keep, while Matt’s involved putting Elisa’s life in danger so that she’d reveal her secret. Like “Panther”, “Revelations” featured a resolution in which the two characters made amends, but which allowed the man to get what he wanted in the first place without being held accountable, while the woman is simply made to accept things as they are. The only real difference between the two episodes is that the scenario in “Revelations” is, on the surface, not sexual, but this in turn makes “Panther” look worse: even if you could argue that the episode isn’t actually about rape, we are still dealing with a story that rewards misogyny and displays female agency as something to be punished. Even if this is done unintentionally, it’s still worth noting, especially for a show whose reputation is partly built on its relative progressiveness.

—-

Footnotes!

* This also marks the second occasion where the series has Elisa encountering someone with whom she by all accounts should have affinity with, but doesn’t.  It’s less icky than the “maybe you should get new beliefs” moment in “Heritage”, but that’s largely because the themes here are nowhere near as explicitly expressed. While Elisa has every right to feel however she feels like feeling that the writers have taken this road twice now is worth mentioning and dissecting.

** At the same time, one could make a case for mitigating circumstances. It is worth noting that it’s possible for her to do nothing while still disagreeing with their compatriots’ actions. After all, they outnumber her and have just displayed a willingness to kill.  Saying nothing could indicate agreement, or simply a desire not to die. We can’t know for sureshe’s distracted by Fara Maku’s transformation before she can ever really have an opinion on the matterand while  her later order to “deal with them” is suggestive, it is not conclusive.

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