A few weeks ago, I commented on the piecemeal improvements of both The Flash and Arrow. One of my criticisms regarded The Flash‘s “chest sport”―the show’s concerted effort to display bare chest, particularly of its female characters. The body part on display isn’t the focus of this criticism, nor is the sexualization of characters in and of itself. The problem is the show’s circumvention of real world conventionality, be it social norms, rational behavior, practicality, physics, etc., for the sake of endowing characters with sexuality. When a show does this for its own sake and not in service to the story and/or when the writing can’t provide a reasonable context for its presence, a transgression occurs. It’s called objectification, and it’s called a sexist double standard when that objectification is done disproportionately to female characters (however, arbitrarily objectifying both sexes equally isn’t the right solution). Shows need to be called out when they commit transgressions like this because they reinforce dubious gendered stereotypes. This is why I need to call out Nickelodeon’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012-present) for its sexualization of April O’Neil.
From its first season to the present three episodes of season 4, TMNT has exhibited an inappropriate fixation of April’s posterior, inappropriate because she’s supposed to be 16 years old. Time and again the show sexualizes April via camera position and visual signifiers which direct the viewers’ attention. As you’ll observe from the screen captures below, the camera is level with April’s gluteus maximus, which itself is foregrounded. And depending on the angle, there is either her key chain or a little Pixar ball button to attract the eye. In some cases, she’s be bent forward with an exaggerated arch in her ridiculously small lower back in order to bring her posterior closer to the viewers.
To be fair, the show uses the some of the same camera angles with the male counterparts. However, you’ll see the male characters always have their buttocks and groin conveniently covered or noticeably lacking accentuation. No cleaving contours as is the case with April. The disparities between the males and April betray the show’s compulsion to constantly remind the viewers that she’s a female and it does this with skin-tight outfits, framing, posturing and midriff. The show makes it a taboo to sexualize its male characters while making it acceptable to do so with female characters.
This instance is particularly awful. It’s bad enough that she has to be bound, but notice here that as April dangles above a vat of mutagen (an alien substance that mutates any organism it comes into contact with), the rope is knotted at her lower back, marking where the center of gravity is. So why is she hanging horizontally? Her legs and pelvis should be weighing her down, making her vertical. The obvious answer is that the show needs to circumvent physics in order to depict April in a pose unequivocally one of bondage and “presenting.”
Unfortunately, sexualization in kids cartoons is nothing new. Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-2015) is probably the worst offender in this regard in recent memory. Sexualization is rampant. Whether it’s the caked-on makeup of Padmé Amidala, her malnourished body, the sex slave Twi’leks and droids that populate any episode with a cantina or a hutt, the lewd posters of women on the walls of any dive or the ridiculous outfits of some its female characters, you can be assured this show doesn’t miss an opportunity to re-enforce sexist stereotypes.
It’s really sad that I have to pick apart kids cartoons like this. I shouldn’t have to. But when compared to shows like The Flash on networks like the CW, TMNT‘s objectification is much more egregious for the fact that it’s a kids cartoon show on a network that markets primarily to kids. When kids watch a show that presents its protagonists as heroes, the type of people they should look up to and idolize and model themselves after, they’re going to do just that. They’re going to internalize the attitudes of those protagonists. And they’re also going to absorb subtle visual cues. What is normalized on the show becomes proper and fitting for the real world. And when this results in the reinforcement of negative stereotypes and sexist notions, the show becomes harmful to kids of both sexes, and honest people have known this for a long, long time.
These are strong words, and I wish to emphasize that I’m not saying TMNT needs to be canceled. I love the show. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be watching it and therefore wouldn’t be able to present to you this criticism. What am I saying is that the show needs to knock it off and start exercising more discretion with its handling of April. Girls and women watch the show too, and it needs to better reflect that. April needs more agency and she needs to have an identity that isn’t constantly subordinated to the show’s (and Casey Jones’s and Donatello’s) male gaze. Otherwise, Nickelodeon should just get it over with and re-script April as Vivian James.
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