Sunday, May 17, 2015

Open Letter To Nickelodeon's Ninja Turtles: You Have Failed Our Children


I really should have known better than to watch TV at a time when I'm supposed to be studying for my final exam--by which I mean, literally at the same time as I studied--and not just because it isn't a very healthy, efficient habit.  I had the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode, The Deadly Venom, DVRed; I could have waited to watch it until my final was over.  Having instead watched two hours ago, I erased it in a fit of vengeance, and it still is wasting my time, because it filled me so with the narrative equivalent of diarrhea that I feel the need to squeeze it out here before I'm capable of focusing on anything else.  So to Nickelodeon, Ciro Nieli, and Alan Wan, I know what a whiny, cliched, paternalistic moral-guardian I sound like now, but please think of the children, because you've just unloaded onto them one of the foulest bits of anti-education I've seen in years.

Asian mysticism: With how anchored it is in the mindsets of a more ignorant era, the amount of times it's been humiliated under the scrutiny of modern, scientific thinking, its endless obsession with elder-worship flying in the face of modern egalitarian politics, it's confounding how much our popular culture just won't let it go.  It's almost certainly too much to ask for it to vacate entirely from shows dealing with Asian subjects such as martial arts, but here it reached a level of presumptuous arrogance for which almost nothing in the recent past could prepare me.  In Dragonball Z, Jackie Chan Adventures ("Magic must defeat myagic."--Shut up Uncle, you reactionary old fart!) and Naruto it worsened-to-ruined my enjoyment (though with Dragonball, I'll confess I had no enjoyment to begin with), but in those series, at least they were so heavily invested in creating a world run by those kooky old superstitious rules that they had a go at erecting a unique sense of style and spectacle to justify it.

The short version is the show-runners didn't think a human female toy would sell.
In The Deadly Venom, for those who haven't seen it--and I strongly recommend that you don't--Shredder infects Karai, his adopted (stolen) daughter who has mutated into a human-snake hybrid and rebelled against him (If I have to keep providing background for this, I'd be here for hours, so I'm going to assume you have at least passing familiarity with Ninja Turtles mythology) with a worm that allows him to control her mind.

(Show-runners, can we at least agree that you've beaten the mind-control trope into the ground?)  Karai (being brainwashed and crazy), goes on a rampage, and (being, once again, a snake mutant) bites people and turtles to infect them with her titular deadly venom.  As April O-Neil falls under the care of the Turtles and Master Splinter, the latter hits the audience with the mystical ass-pull that comes to resolve this conflict, as he falls back on some ancient mystical Asian secret for suppressing poison.  Not merely content to show him meditating and entering a position to stop the flow, they have him reciting some Japanese incantation, which causes a magical aura to surround the infected.  Not only that, it is stressed multiple times that Splinter's mystical secret is infinitely more effective than western scientific approaches to medicine.  As stated above, at least in past series, obsession with trite-old cabalistic philosophies drove creators to fill screens with flashy, explosive, dramatically-superpowered effects, but here, it is merely a passive, slow deus ex (anti) machina, and it practically screams "Hahaha; our culture is better than yours, gaijin devil!"

That sort of cross-cultural hostility is irksome enough on its own, but the spell of negativity such tradition has inflicted on the world boosts its presumptuous presence in children's entertainment straight into repulsive territory.  In the centuries leading up to what is considered modern Asian history, China and Japan had become so up themselves in officially-sanctioned, parochial traditions, that they lagged behind the West in infrastructure and technology, and suffered horrific defeats in such incidents as the Opium Wars.  Nevertheless, before the introspection of "Make your enemy your teacher" swept Chinese intellectuals, their ingrown superstitious culture uttered a brutal last gasp in the form of the Boxer Rebellion, a virulently racist and terroristic campaign against all things foreign, driven by an ideology that presumed martial arts granted magical superpowers to their practicioners, which would allow them to stand up to western military technology in the future manner of Naruto and Dragonball.  Though destructive, the Boxers were utterly mistaken in that delusion.

Yet Asian superstition has continued to wreck havoc.  Its institutionalized Celestial Cult of the Dragon Emperor subjected the Chinese people to millennia of mandatory inequality, propelled Japanese imitators to commit atrocities in World War II, was repackaged as communism by Mao Zedong, with genocidal results, and persists to this day in North Korea, which predictably has become a political and economic backwater.  Traditional Asian medicine motivates poachers to slaughter endangered species in alarming numbers so that their body parts can be used in Chinese quack remedies, still endorsed by a society that has grown richer faster than it makes social-political reforms.  On occasion, a brainfart of fraudulent martial arts strategy even dredges up from the discredited Boxer era, leading its practicioners to similarly humiliating defeats. (Though fortunately with much lower body-counts.)

I am not trying to argue that Asian superstition is necessarily any more cancerous than that of my own culture, or anyone else's.  American fundamentalist Christians get no shortage of scorn from me, but the difference is that they also get plenty from their peers.  They're the imbeciles calling pop-culture satanic and protesting outside its exhibitions, and our culture has thus turned its hatred back onto them.  Yet the superstitions of Asia continue to be garnished with a manufactured patina of mysterious romanticism that popular culture is at best unwilling to dissect, and at worst, celebrates and reheats in endless new media.  To see this sort of affront to enlightenment preached by a character held up as a wise and benevolent authority is sickening, and I'm calling it out as a veritable mental assault on children.

Such rants are uncharacteristic of me.  I'm against the very concept of thought crime, and I'm strongly against the policing of adult media; by the time people are old enough to watch Natural Born Killers or play Grand Theft Auto, they're old enough to know where the line is between fantasy and reality, but children don't.  They see model rockets and think they can reach the moon, they see propeller beanies and wonder if they can fly, they see something done on TV and they wonder if it can be done in reality.  This show is undeniably pandered to children, presenting what it thinks are valuable lessons and hawking toys at them with its infamous "Mutant Of the Week" formula.  This show, along with probably every other action-adventure cartoon, is supposed to teach children right from wrong; yet here it is spitting in the face of verifiable Western science in favor of giving them fruitless faith in hokey old reactionary quackery.  To all involved, you failed in your responsibility to our children, and you're part of an ongoing problem of media romanticizing something that is, in fact, disgusting when examined in more detail.  Here's hoping your show won't sink to this level again, but even with my opinion of it steadily declining, I can envision myself  in the future looking back on it and recognizing this as the place TMNT2012 jumped the shark.

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