by Mashoed Bailie
Cut, no. 38, June 1993, pp. 4-8, 95
I viewed TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES with ten children, five boys and five girls, ranging from age 5 to 14 in the summer of 1991. The children had all seen the film more than five times; some had seen it ten times. Prior to this viewing, they had constructed meanings of the film through negotiation with each other. They all told me the following interpretation (though the 5 to 7 year-olds were apt to follow the cues of the 8 to 15 age group): the film was about a group of ninja turtles; their mentor, a large rat called Splinter; and their struggle against an evil ninja master called The Shredder. During the time that I gave them to construct their interpretations of the film, not once was the only female character mentioned. I then asked them "How did you feel about April O'Neil?" (the name of the only female character). Their subsequent response raises questions concerning the hegemonic function of women in the text.
The children described April O'Neil (Judith Hoag) as ineffective, weak, and expendable. They reasoned:
One of the two fourteen-year old girls in the study admitted:
The other teenager further blamed her for giving in to Casey Jones, the male lead in the film who, following a series of abuses, wins April at the film's close.
The children remember the fighting scenes and clearly identify the Splinter and the turtles as "good" and the Shredder and his gang as "evil." However they voice confusion about April's role; not knowing if she is a television news person, a sex object, a mother, a lover, or a girlfriend. Indeed, April fills all of the above roles. Where stereotypical male roles in the film are played by individualized characters, women's roles are condensed into one character, who must embody mother, lover, employee, and wife.
In the analysis that follows, I argue that April's success in overcoming various obstacles of male domination and aggression (a story which has to be pulled together from the paradigmatic structure of the text) remains narratively concealed behind the recurrent episodes depicting good and evil males struggling for power. For children watching this film, the latter makes up an easy story line. They are building, as David Bordwell has suggested in Narration in the Fiction Film, a mental story (fabula) from various plot (syuzhet) devices which, in this film, marginalize O'Neil by denying her participation in what the children perceive as being the main story: the fight between the turtles and the Shredder, between good and evil. Further, the inability of the audience of children to construct the story of April's struggle is largely due to their expectations — not only of the film, but of the hegemonic cultural role of women.
The film opens with a montage sequence of a crime wave which has hit the unprepared victims of New York. We are introduced to the "image" of April O'Neil, a news anchor for television station WTRL 3, as April appears on a television screen on a newsstand on a busy New York street corner among copies of familiar magazines. The image is framed by the television set (within our television set), separating her from "real life."
April O'Neil's voice-over and her image projected across the television screen are powerful, interpretive and omnipresent. She has a voice of authority and, equally important, she calls for accountability from City Hall. However, the power granted her as an employee of the television station, is limited to a specific place and time. The television image confines April to a small square box (we never see her in the studio during her broadcast), a box which we can turn off when we've had enough, or change channels when she is no longer useful. A box, in fact, which can be stolen (as a TV is in the opening sequence).
This first image of O'Neil as a powerful, "official," and knowledgeable news anchor is easily lost as the text progresses. This ideological "forgetting" speaks to the children's interpretive abilities and the confusion I saw the young viewers experience when faced with a condensed version of womanhood. For example, twelve year-old Sarah, when asked about April's image said:
Sarah explained that her impression was that the news reporter would read the introduction to the story and then leave:
ONeil's image as powerful was also questioned by a reviewer who suggests that while she appears to be an independent woman who pursues an active career and makes her own sexual choices she is, nevertheless, "...a figment, an object of pubescent desire who remains unthreatening and unreal" (Leayman, C. 1990). April's "unthreatening" and "unreal" image in a television monitor plays off against the older children's interpretation that April has an "important job at the station." While the two oldest girls felt that a television newsperson had an important job, the contradictions fed by later plot developments prevented them from maintaining this image while constructing their early version of the story (fabula).
According to later syuzhet (plot) devices April is far from an independent woman. She is dominated by her boss Charles Pennington (Jay Patterson), physically abused by a young male called Casey Jones (Elias Koteas), whom she describes as "a boy in a man's body" and to whom she is later attracted. She also becomes the object of desire for four pubescent turtles.
For example, April's position as a successful news anchor is suddenly brought into question as the audience is introduced to Charles Pennington (her boss) and his son Danny. The confusion centers around the site for their meeting, April's home. We see Charles Pennington saying,
Rather than presenting this encounter as the meeting of employer/ employee, the scene goes out of its way to present a confrontation which looks like a fight between husband and wife. The camera establishes Pennington's relation with April through a mirror shot. April's back is to the camera in an extreme close up, while Charles is seen through the mirror in a medium shot. The boss is angry with April because, on the one hand, she failed to notify him that she'd been attacked by a group of youths the night before and, on the other, because she's not following his directions to "go easy" on the local Chief of Police whom she'd questioned about a gang of thieves robbing the city.
The children viewers voiced confusion about this scene because of the presence of Pennington's son. We see the boy when the scene cuts from the living room where Charles and April argue to the kitchen where Danny sits at the breakfast table. While the older children (the two 14 year-olds) were able to extract the surface structure from the verbal text (Pennington says, "You're my star reporter"), the other eight children missed this cue and considered the scene a mother/ father fight. During their discussion after viewing the film, the children pointed to the discussion between the adults about Danny as part of a family argument:
The function of the script and staging here seems designed to compromise April's role as a legitimate employee in the public sphere. Her relation with Pennington has been redefined as one of husband and wife. The boss's dominant position goes unquestioned by the children viewers. In their interpretation of the pairs, employer/worker and husband/ wife, the children assume a hierarchy in each set of relations. With the plot's introduction of Casey Jones, a failed hockey player-cum-vigilante, further contradictions become apparent. Until now, April has been understood as a news reporter and/or wife and mother.
Casey's presence created for some young viewers an uneasy sense of the potential relation between a prominent, highly intelligent news anchor, and a failed, uneducated macho male. The children's uneasiness may be more heightened since some of them already perceive April as Charles' wife and Danny's mother. What the children failed to comment on was the underlying violence between April and Casey. This violence, which the children interpreted as "Casey just trying to show that he cares," is actually woven throughout the text. April is continually faced with violent reactions to her personality, ability and attitude. All of the main male characters, at one time or another, exhibit violence, overt or covert, against the female lead. Yet none of the following examples, all leading up to the relationship between April and Casey, were construed by the children as being potentially violent in nature:
A) April's boss warns her against pushing the Chief of Police too far:
The children explained this scene as being representative of
1) the way a boss talks to an employee who is not doing what they are supposed to do; it's her fault; or
2) the way a husband tries to protect his wife from getting into danger or difficulty when he knows she's going too far.
Again it's her fault. None of the children saw the scene as threatening to April nor an infringement on her personal liberty. Only when I raised the question "Do you think that April should be shouted at like that?" did the children re-evaluate their original statements to say that they would not like to be spoken to in that manner.
B) The Shredder, the arch-enemy of Splinter and the turtles, gets angry at April when he hears her on TV questioning the Chief of Police about the Foot Clan:
Here, the children were split into two groups. The youngest members, between five and seven years old, said the Shredder was angry at Splinter and the turtles [even though, at this point in the film, Shredder doesn't know they exist]. The older children, after correcting the younger ones' mistake, said that it was not the woman per se with whom Shredder was mad, but that she was getting too close to the truth about the gangs. Their interpretation of this and the two following scenes led to their conclusion that she ought to follow her boss's advice to "lay off the Chief of Police."
C) In the next scenes, April has just finished interviewing the Chief of Police and is called into his office: "ONeil, get in here!" Chief Stems' voice is reminiscent of the voice of Fred Flintstone. The camera cuts to a medium close-up of Chief Stems (followed by a series of shot-reverse shots between Stems and O'Neil) and slowly dollies in while he takes off his tie, undoes his top shirt button, and yells:
April O'Neil is then seen in close up, apparently enjoying her ability to anger the Chief, followed by Stems' yelling,
The camera cuts to a long shot down the hallway as April skips from the Chief''s office smiling. The contrast between the Chief's anger and O'Neil's lighthearted attitude left the children thinking April didn't know "what she was getting into." They perceived her as being rude to the Chief, but they failed to see the contradiction inherent in his demand that she let him do his job while, at the same time, he would define her job for her.
The children have sensed danger in April's continued refusal to "do what she's told" by the chief and by her boss. The danger they have perceived is now realized in the following scene (which, incidentally, takes place following April's interview with the Chief).
D) The camera has cut to an extreme longshot of April standing on the underground platform, where she just missed her train. As the camera cuts to an extreme close-up of April's face, voices are heard in the background. April turns quickly. The scene cuts to a medium shot of a group of men dressed in black and wearing masks. One of the masked gang members tells O'Neil,
Again the emphasis on April's "mouth" as the source of all her troubles; The gang member continues: "I deliver a message." We see a medium close up of the ninja as he holds out a clenched fist, slowly opens it to reveal an empty palm, and then violently slaps April's face. Cut to a medium shot of O'Neil as she attempts to fight them off with her handbag. She fails in the effort and is slapped to the ground.
All of these scenes convince the children that April is ineffective in "fighting evil." They succeed in constructing the storyline (fabula) from manifest plot cues related to strength, membership, and gender. They fail to see the latent message of a woman's struggle and defiance against a system that has attacked her on all fronts. Strength, from the children's perspective is the ability to use physical force in overcoming the enemy.
Important to this is membership in some group. Here it means being a turtle, a ninja, or a member of the Establishment. Gender has importance for both group membership and physical strength — since these are bestowed only on male character here. April's membership in the establishment (as a news reporter) stops when her boss fires her for not following his instructions to "take it easy on the Chief." This leaves her without either "strength" or "membership," and her lack can then be seen as the result of her gender.
E) Casey Jones is the character who informs April that she has lost her legitimizing group membership. During a fight scene at April's antique store (which had belonged to her now dead father) Casey overhears a recorded message from April's boss telling her she's been fired. Later, when April, Casey and the turtles are at a hideout (April's old summer home), Casey informs her carelessly that she no longer has her job. He tells April that she's lucky (the truck has broken down at her dad's old farm and the nearest phone is four miles away) because she won't have to make an eight mile round trip to phone her boss since she's been fired.
Here the children viewers interpreted April's response as being insensitive. They felt empathy for the Casey character. They said Casey had caused none of April's troubles, and yet she treated him badly for trying to help. Such an interpretation laid the groundwork for why they would interpret another scene as "loving" when it had an underlying violent sexual message embedded within it.
F) The camera has cut to a long shot of April walking out from the house toward the camera along the z-axis. She is looking for a turtle to help her with a plumbing problem in the kitchen. Casey enters the frame from screen right and offers to do the job for her.
Again, the children see Casey here as attempting to be helpful, even charming in his approach. April's response that she wouldn't let him help now if he were the last "thing" on earth, seems to the children an aggressive, although funny, response.
G) The scene, sets up a situation where April has rejected Casey's advances. Her outright rejection is going to be overcome by Casey in the next scene. The camera cuts to a medium shot of Casey sitting in the kitchen chopping food at the table. April walks in rubbing her shoulder; she has attempted to do the plumbing job herself.
As April moves into frame in an extreme close up, she begins to apply ointment to her shoulder. Casey moves up behind her and reaches for her shoulder. April responds by pushing him away. Casey then grabs her shoulders and violently forces her into the chair. He begins to massage her shoulders, in the process getting extremely close to her breasts. April melts with a slight groan and collapses back into his body, enjoying the experience.
The children read this scene as Casey's apology for not finding the right word to call April in their previous encounter. One of the older girls (S.P.) suggested,
None of the children read this scene as suggesting that a woman means "yes" when she says "no." And S.P. refused to accept that the scene suggested that a real man continues to insist even after his initial attempts have been rejected.
The other teenager (P.B.) had a different reading of the scene. Both older girls discussed their views: P.B said that while she agreed that "that's what guys do..." she didn't believe that it was right.
S.P. responded that April was just being overly worried about "women's issues." When I asked what "women's issues" were, she said that
P.B. countered that immediately by asking if S.P. would like to be called "toots" or "sweetcakes." S.P. laughed,
P.B. concluded their brief discussion by saying that she would be angry if any of the guys in her class tried to call her by those names.
S.P. then agreed that she too would rather be called by her name and that those other names would not sound so funny if directed at her.
Interestingly, both girls drew on their own experiences in understanding the scene, interpreting the argument between April and Casey as one between two young people. It seemed to them, that April's character had lost her status as a mature, employed woman, and she had become a young "girl," fighting with a prospective boyfriend. Indeed, April's role seems to have been continuously redefined by the children viewers in terms of her relationship to the male characters in the text.
The plotline continued to emphasize the struggle between a variety of predominantly male institutions in the City. The presentation of this plot line supports unquestioned assumptions about a woman's role in society. While each of the male characters throughout the film has systematically violated April O'Neil sexually, physically or verbally the closing scenes work to reproduce the males (with the exception of the Shredder who is manifestly evil), as really "good" after all and legitimize their positions in the eyes of the audience.
Following the apparent death of the Shredder, the camera cuts to a medium shot of Danny running toward the site of the final fight scene. As the camera pans to follow Danny's movement, it ends on an extreme close up of the back of April's head. The camera remains fixed on April as she stands in the crowd of on-looker. Danny walks back into the scene saying "April, here." The camera cuts to an extreme close-up of Danny's hand placing a $20 bill into April's. From the earlier scene, where April and Charles were arguing over Danny, we recall that the boy has stolen $20 from her purse. In this image are juxtaposed the small, fragile hand of the young Danny against the large hand of April. It suggests a vulnerability in Danny. It is easy to forgive him for his "mistake" and reevaluate him as an honest, trustworthy boy. There is a cut to a long shot of Danny's father as he spies his son in the crowd. An emotional stirring is built by soft sentimental music building in the background. Pennington shouts to his son,
Danny hugs his father, insists that he's all right and asserts,
Pennington, looking proud and smug, as he tries his son's "new" name on for size: "Dan ...eh?"
Danny can become "Dan" because he has learned from a mistake; he has returned to April what belonged to her. However, He can do this without the forgiveness of the victim of his crime. April was not aware that "Danny" had stolen her money in the first place. She is confused that the boy should give her $20 without an explanation. The text works hard to reinvent the character without holding him responsible for his actions or without giving April power to forgive him. In fact, it is Danny's father who gets to forgive his son's acts and to accept "Danny the boy" as "Dan the man."
As April walks away with the boss and his son, the boss has a turn to reinvent himself without much effort:
That's as much as April will receive in explanation for Charles' actions against her: "There were circumstances." The three characters walking together again represents a replay of the earlier "family" scene in April's apartment. Charles is the husband/father figure with control over April and his son. This time, however, he acts like the benevolent husband. April responds,
Charles says "You can have your own office." Charles "gives" April her own corner office and "makes her" one of the highest paid reporters in New York City. He is a nice guy after all.
With Danny and Charles reinvented, there is only Casey Jones left. April is fixing her makeup in a car mirror in close up as Casey appears at the edge of the screen. April says, "Oh, hi," and Casey walks around and protests,
The camera cuts to a close up of April's glowing face as she responds with wide, vulnerable eyes:
Casey becomes confused, with a "lost little boy" look: "No, but I was..." In an over-the-shoulder shot of April from Casey's perspective, she says "Will you just shut up and kiss me." Casey smiles "I love it when you're pushy." With a broad smile, April moves her head from side to side and then forward to kiss Casey. The ninja turtles in extreme long shot far above from a city building, scream, "All right, April, all right, Casey!" April and Casey embrace.
This last sequence was essentially lost on the youngest viewers. They explained that the important part of the ending was that the Shredder had fallen from the building top into a trashcan where he was crushed. When asked about Charles and Danny, the children agreed that they were really 'good," and that Danny didn't really mean to take April's money. They said Danny's relationship with his dad was "back to normal," for which they were glad. Two fourteen-year old girls also found the character of Charles Pennington and his son Danny to be redeemed. They suggested that Charles had only been looking out for April because she hadn't realized how dangerous the situation was. Since the danger had now past, it was safe for her to return as a newscaster, They said Charles was especially nice in giving in to her "demand" for more money and an office since she had done nothing to deserve the rewards.
Most of the children didn't like April getting together with Casey at the end — without attempting or being willing to explain why. The two oldest girls went further. They didn't like the Casey Jones character (decided following their discussion about the massage scene) and were annoyed that April would give in to the young man's "obvious" desire:
The younger children left following the end of the discussion to play "turtles" in the garden. Interestingly the two older girls remained to continue talking about the film. While the initial response of one of the teenagers (S.P.), was favorable toward Casey and negative toward April, her perspective changed completely over the course of the film and ensuing conversation. The argument between P.B. and S.P, became a negotiation that resulted in S.P. changing her mind about April's attitude toward Casey's advances.
The questions I had asked about the nature of the male "attacks" on April were integrated into the girls' new perspectives. Following the conversation, S.P. said,
P.B. agreed and said that many of the questions (which uncovered potential, latent readings about aggression toward the female character) dealt with things she'd missed when she first watched it, but that she believed that they were "really there in the film."
While TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES provides children with a manifest story of good and evil struggling for power on the New York streets and in the sewers, it has a latent story which young viewers will become aware of only through a systematic critical analysis. The story of April's exclusion from membership and power because of her gender, resides below the surface structure of the text The dominant plot line continually provides information used by the children to build their own fabula (storyline) about good and evil male institutions that struggle for power. The result is that the children leave the text "feeling" that they really didn't like April very much but not knowing why. The younger children tend to focus attention on the fighting scenes and explain away their dislike for April as due to her inability to fight. The older children, after being asked systematically to isolate and analyze the situations in which April is placed, come to see their anger at April as deriving from the aggression aimed at her by the other characters. Both of the oldest teenagers concluded that they were angry because April didn't do what they would have wanted her to do, or what they would have wanted to do under the same circumstances.
Texts such as TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES have the potential, if used critically, for providing children with popular cultural material from which to become aware of stereotypical relations that they generally do not notice. By encouraging young people to engage the popular texts and relate them to the texts of their own ongoing lives, it is possible to heighten theft awareness about discriminatory actions and assumptions and to provide them with the tools for overcoming their own misconceptions about gender, race, and power.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of WI: 1985.
Leayman, C. "In a World of Bumptious Hi-jinx Is a Galaxy Far, Far Away." Cinafantastique 21(2): 55.