Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles


Elizabeth Grosz in her study of “freaks” defines the term, in one way, as beings of the outside or escaping standard categorization, such as animal-human hybrids. Her definition of freaks closely resembles Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s theory of monsters as “the harbinger of category crisis.” These definitions aptly describe the “freaks” of the popular franchise Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The four main protagonists are human-animal hybrids—mutated turtles that had gained human abilities due to exposure to radioactive “ooze.” Their adoptive father, Splinter, is also a hybrid between a rat and human. Their monstrosity is also tied to their mutation. George H. Lewis cites Stephen King when he states that mutation is a challenge against the status quo. Although the Turtles and Splinter are repeatedly called “freaks of nature” by many characters in the film, there is little horror of their abnormality in the series. In his analysis of radiophobia in the TMNT series, Nicky Falkof states the reason for the audience’s disposition to look past the Turtles’ abnormality is tied to the way the Turtles are first introduced and the positive, relatable image they maintain throughout the series. He states, “[O]ur first introduction to [the Turtles] is as heroic ninjas rather than as unsettling mutants…Rather than being marked as mutants, a category that bears the weight of association of decades of nuclear paranoia, they’re made as much like telegenic 1980s teens as possible” (Falkof 941). Their mutation is effectively masked by their teenage characteristics.

The hybridity of species and transgression of categorization that the Turtles and Splinter physically represent can also be extended to include the characters’ hybridity of cultures. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is full of social commentary about race relations in America and attitudes toward Asian Americans, especially the Japanese. From their fighting styles and weapons to their upbringing and values, both the protagonists and antagonists represent Japanese culture. However, the Turtles and master Splinter are very distinct from Shredder. Although the protagonists represent Japanese Americans, it is quite evident that they have been heavily Americanized, observable through the stark contrast in mannerisms and speech between the protagonists and Shredder. Whereas the Turtles enjoy everything American, from pizzas to music, Shredder is still holding onto his Japanese roots by continuing the Foot clan in America. When he crossed geographical barriers by immigrating from Japan to America, he brought with him a force of evil, his Asian culture, that the good Turtles try to repress. A connection can be made to state that the Turtles represent the “good” model minority while Shredder represents the “bad” minority of American society. Why then, are the good protagonists portrayed as monsters while the evil antagonist as human? Nora Okja Cobb explains that their monstrosity is due to the ambiguity of their cultural categorization–an ethnographical monster. This ties into the reason for the Turtles’ necessity to reside in the underground sewage pipes, separate from humanity. Cobb expands on this to state that the TMNT franchise reveals the unfortunate fate of model minorities–rejection from society no matter their constant struggles to integrate themselves into American society through Americanization.

Works Cited

Cobb, Nora O. “Behind the Inscrutable Half-Shell: Images of Mutant Japanese and Ninja Turtles.” The Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS) 16.4 (1990): 87-98. JSTOR. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.
         Nora Okja Cobb analyzes the TMNT series and studies its racial implications in her paper, “Behind the Inscrutable Half-Shell: Images of Mutant Japanese and Ninja Turtles.” She delves deeply into the series and characters, going past the obvious racial pertinence and connection to Japanese culture, to reveal series’ influence of societal attitude toward Asian Americans. She makes the important observation of the Turtles’ roles as the model minority and the model minorities’ roles in American society, which is to combat the threat of the bad minority groups in society. She also notes that although the turtles are seen as a “good” model minority, they are still seen as monstrous because of the ambiguity of their categorization. Their separation from society makes allusions to the model minority group’s exclusion and denial of true integration.

Falkof, Nicky. “Heroes With A Half Life: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles And American Repression Of Radiophobia After Chernobyl.” Journal Of Popular Culture 46.5 (2013): 931-949. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
         Nicky Falkof makes analyses of the series that are tied to the current social attitudes toward nuclear warfare and technology that were prominent at the time to create true understanding of mutations and the role of nuclear power in the series. Falkof addresses the topic in multiple angles—from social context to mise-en-scene of the film. She first explains societal fears in the 1980s surrounding nuclear power after the devastating Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the US’s need to repress these fears to uphold American dominance in technology. Through this context, it is easier to understand the Turtles’ mutation, which is a result of exposure to nuclear waste. Their mutation is often masked by their qualities as true American teens, and at times when their mutation is brought up in the series, it is portrayed as a blessing rather than a curse. They provide a complete contrast to the evil mutant villains in the series that are created by Shredder, who is often seen as a representation of communism. Falkof claims that the series makes the assertion that nuclear power is only dangerous in hands of evil communism, which she claims is a dangerous attitude that ignores the true dangers of nuclear power.

Grosz, Elizabeth, ed. “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freaks As/at the Limit.” Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. New York: New York UP, 1996. 55-66. Print.
         In her study of freaks, Grosz explains that the horror surrounding freaks is mainly due to the ambiguity in categorization. She explicitly explains who can and who cannot be considered freaks, which are beings that dwell in the “impossible middle ground between the oppositions dividing the human from the animal.” In combination with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Seven Theses of Monster Culture,” their definitions of monsters and freaks allow for the understanding of the Turtles’ monstrosity.

Kinder, Marsha. Playing with Power in Movies, Television, and Video Games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print.
         In her book, Marsha Kinder studies various pop culture franchises, such as the Nintendo Super Brothers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and their influence and power. She spends one chapter specifically on the TMNT series, analyzing reasons for their explosive success. She points out that one reason is the Turtles’ ability to assimilate and accommodate as great transformers. They are an amalgamation of different cultures, crossing borders of not only species, but also race and generation. However, the human and mutant species are kept distinct in by immediately eliminating potential of “transspecies romance” between the only female character, April, and the Turtles. Instead, she is paired with Casey Jones, a friend of the Turtles. Kinder also studies the heavy Asian influence on the series, claiming that the film makes allusions to “Japanese invasion of American markets.” Instead of the traditional approach to orientalism, the TMNT movie makes adaptation to become the Other instead of opposing it through displays of fluidity and assimilation. This approach, Kinder claims, is used by Japanese corporations in the world market.

Lewis, George H. “From Common Dullness To Fleeting Wonder: The Manipulation Of Cultural Meaning In The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Saga.” Journal Of Popular Culture 25.2 (1991): 31-43. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.
         George H. Lewis explores the TMNT series’ play on the “American monomyth” and deviations from the monomyth through cultural inversions to challenge adult pop culture. The TMNT series follows the American monomyth very closely, except for key deviations, such as a male character as needing rescue (in contrast to a helpless young woman) and mutants as heroes and not villains. He places importance in the mutant-hero identity of the Turtles because mutation is deviation from normal, which emphasizes and creates immense room for symbolism and social commentary. Lewis also comments on the racist appearance of the series that many critics misunderstand. He states that the “racist” references are satire, made intentionally as one of many cultural inversions. 


2 responses to “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

  1. I feel like your analysis of the ninja turtles and race relations in the United States was very insightful, especially the part about the “good” and “bad” model minority. Whereas the ninja turtles are very often accepted as being American due to the aforementioned mannerisms, many people often forget about the oriental influence that you have refocused on. One thing I have always found interesting and perplexing is why the ninja turtles have Italian names, something that inevitably furthers the idea of them as “beings from the outside”. I have heard that by giving them the names of famous artists, the show retained some intellectual value. However, might there be more to it than that?

  2. I really enjoyed your analysis of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, especially because of its relation to Japanese popular culture. The fact that these ninja turtles were made from a radioactive spill connects to some kaiju formation and kaiju social significance. I am very interested in your description of the protagonists as “heavily Americanized”. As I do understand where you’re coming from, I wonder how Americanized culture effects the overall traditions of Japanese ethnography.

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