Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Teenage Racist Ninja Turtles

So . . . there's going to be a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie released in 2014, starring -- among others, Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, and Whoopie Goldberg, and written by TMNT creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird.

There are a bunch of people who are excited about the prospect. I'm not one of them.I'm not going to see it.

I've never gotten over the original series which was originally shown on television in the late-1980s through the 1990s. It was racist. And it was shown on national television to our children. Wait, let me go further . . . it wasn't just racist, it was subliminally racist; which is the worst kind of all.

Yeah, I know . . . people are tired of folks accusing of movies or television series of having racist content. Because, come on, if you look hard enough you can convince yourself that anything can be racist. Right?

Well, that might be true. But I'm not changing my opinion about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

The protagonists are Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello -- turtles who were mutated into superhero ninjas after swimming in some kind of goo. They're trained and mentored by a rat named Splinter.

Two of the foes who appeared the most in the cartoon were Rocksteady and Be-Bop; former gang members who volunteered to become mutants so they could fight the Ninja Turtles. They are portrayed as bumbling idiots who are ridiculously strong, but so stupid they can barely walk and talk at the same time without nearly killing themselves. They are the underlings of The Shredder.

Do you see it yet? Okay, let me break it down for you further. 

Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael versus Rocksteady and Be-Bop.

Still not getting my point?

Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni,  Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (better known as Donatello), and Raffaello Sanzio (better known as Raphael) are all giants of the European Renaissance -- and are universally considered among the greatest artists ever known.

Rocksteady is a form of music which originated in Jamaica in the 1960s and was the precursor to Reggae. Be-Bop is a form of jazz (which most people acknowledge has African origins) that was made popular by African-American jazz artists like Coleman Hawkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk -- universally considered among some of the greatest jazz artists ever known. 

So, I repeat . . . Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael vs. Rocksteady and Be-Bop.

Get it now?

Agile, intelligent, energetic superheros -- named for European Renaissance figures,
fighting two ridiculously strong but totally stupid bad guys -- named for genres of music with African origins. 

European art culture heroically stamping evil and stupid African art culture. 

And it's subliminal, because most of the children watching wouldn't yet know about the renaissance, or yet be familiar with names of music genres like Rocksteady and Be-Bop. But they will eventually learn . . . and though they don't know why, in the back of the minds they will equate European culture with good, and African culture with bad. 

Yeah . . . that's how subliminal racism works, folks. 

While working as a reporting intern for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the early 1990s, I approached an African-American editor about doing a  story on the subject -- outlining how I would interview children's psychologists, cartoon writers, entertainment experts, etc . . . but he shot me down, saying he didn't agree with me that there was racism involved. I became even more excited, and said I would stay objective in regard to the story, and would report only the facts . . . but he still shot me down. He said no one else had said anything of the sort, and it wasn't the Philadelphia Inquirer's role to start controversy where there was none to be begin with. 

I should have gone over his head, but to do so would mean going to a white editor to ask for the go-ahead. I truly didn't think the white editor would have turned me down (I still don't think he would have), but I didn't want to be in that kind of a position. Yeah, that whole thing about Black women having to make sure the Black man's ego stays intact. 

There are few things that I regret in my life . . . my failure to push for permission to write that article was one of them. I've never seen any article, or heard any commentary, that talked about the racist subliminal storyline in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I even did an Internet search before writing this blog post. Nothing. Am I the only one who has come to this conclusion? Personally, I don't think I'm that smart. Yet . . . I don't know why I haven't found anyone else who has pointed it out.

So, okay, if you still think that I'm being over-sensitive, so be it. But me? I've finally written about how I feel on the subject . . . and I feel the better for it.


Vernon Taylor said...

I never looked at it that way but this has made me think.

Camille R. Quinones Miller said...

It's subliminal, so that's what makes it realistic to the era we live in today. in the yesteryears it was direct and blunt in your face.

Camille R. Quinones Miller said...

It's subliminal, so that's what makes it realistic to the era we live in now. In the yesteryears it was direct and blunt in your face!

nmetzger said...

i agree with Karen...the cartoon was racist and as she said, i think that subliminal racism is the most insidious and dangerous sort because it seeps into your mind and into your subconscious and poisons you without you even knowing it...you wake up thinking (subconsciously) that white culture is better, white people more beautiful, white hair more desirable, white neighborhoods safer and better, etc and don't really know why-it's like toxic waste in the soil in which a plant is growing, it kills the plant by feeding it poison in its food and without the plant "knowing" it. is america racist? yes. do children (and adults too, really) need to be exposed to the mechanisms, means and modes of racism? ABSOLUTELY. does that make them more resilient, aware, and prepared? WITHOUT A DOUBT. the key to understanding those mechanisms, means and modes is not just exposure to racism though (if it were, we would all be awake and aware), it's POINTING OUT and EXPLAINING the racism, the mechanisms, meanings and modes, thereby hopefully negating or neutralizing the deleterious effects that were intended by creating the racist crap in the first place. i talk to my students about this all the time-it's not just about knowing racism is "out there" it's about being able to actually SEE it, what it's doing, how it's moving and the potential effects it could have on you so that you can work around it to whatever degree possible. also, i am rarely in a "save the world" mood...but i am NEVER in an "ignore racism" mood-especially when the climate in this country is so disgusting...more and more white people are able to live their protected fantasy, while continually generating more racist, classist and sexist institutions, yet pointing the finger at people of color, the poor and women and labeling them the racists, classists and sexists...this is a tactic used by systems of oppression to deflect attention from their machinations which i will never sit idly by and observe and will always strive to undermine in whatever ways i can in my day to day life-so yes, by all means boycott the teenage racist ninja turtles and tell some more people why

Anonymous said...

Also they yell out TURTLE POWER a lot , like they are at a clan rally

Anonymous said...

I see your point but I grew up in a bad urban area littered with gangs. If one of those gang members became a mutant villain what would they call themselves without it being pointed at minorities. I would probably name myself something that can be interpreted as something racist. Maybe it was done deliberately but maybe it wasn't for diminutive purposes. It doesn't bother me much.

Anonymous said...

The more recent reboot of the series is even worse! Baxter Stockman's character is not an evil genius anymore - he was fired from an office job for breaking a copy machine. He wants to get revenge on his boss for firing him for being incompetent. He got lucky and stumbled on some advanced technology the turtles found and that's the only reason he's a threat. If anything, this treatment is even worse than the 1980's version departing from the comics and making him white.

Joanna said...

Karen, I have just read your very interesting and thought-provoking post, and I entirely agree with you about the insidious, subliminal racist message of the cartoon. I watched the cartoon as a little girl, when I did not know what be-bop and rocksteady were, but I hated the fact that the characters Rocksteady and Bebop were portrayed as repulsive idiots. Only many years later I realized that they were deliberately named after Black musical genres !

bobcat303 said...

They literally had a rat do yellowface and be a Japanese martial arts master how much more racist can you get