Ninja Turtles: Commercial Hype on the Half Shell

Rethinking Schools Movie Review

By Bob Peterson

“The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are teaching us how to fight and do bad things,” wrote seven year old Katie Castañeda when I asked what the Turtles were teaching children. She added, “Kids are learning to buy the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I do like them.”

And so do millions of other children in the nation, thanks to a huge media barrage promoting the film and the increasingly popular CBS cartoon series. The four talking turtles, mutated in some radioactive goop in a New York City sewer, have caught the imagination of the nation’s children. Many educators and parents are wondering if the Turtles are not mutating the imagination of our children as well.

The film grossed $25 million in its first weekend, second only to “Batman” in the history of the US film industry. Over 1000 related products have been produced by some 200 companies. There are turtle trading cards, turtle cereal, turtle air fresheners, stuffed turtles, plastic action turtle figures, turtle pajamas, and turtle toothbrushes. Burger King is selling 200,000 Turtle videos a week all laden with Burger King commercials. Total revenue for turtle paraphernalia sold in 1989 approached $250 million. (Not including sales of real turtles which pet store owner say have surged.) Ron Hingst, spokesman for Domino’s Pizza told Newsweek, “You can be turtled from the time you brush your teeth in the morning until you go to bed at night.” Revenues in 1990 are expected to be much greater.

The movie which took $12 million to produce was actually one component of a several year marketing scheme to increase “turtle mania” among our nation’s children. The Ninja Turtles originated in 1983, when two struggling cartoonists, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman of Northhampton, Mass. produced their first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” comic book. They named the Turtles after Renaissance artists: Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello and Leonardo.

Mark Freedman, of the Long Island-based Surge Licensing, bought up exclusive rights to the turtles and began an aggressive marketing campaign. By 1988 an animate TV cartoon series was started by Group W Productions and Archie Comic Publications was printing over a half million comics a month. Toy companies began to swing in production. New Line, the independent film company that produced the “Elm Street” series took on the project of making a feature length movie. Working closely with Golden Harvest, the producer of Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon,” and Jim Henson of the Muppets, New Line produced a non-animated children’s film. Just the cost of making the radio-controlled turtle suits was $5.2 million.

I did not find the film boring or particularly offensive. It had features that reminded me of both Star Wars and Batman. Star Wars, because the turtles’ “father” figure, Splinter, is very similar to Yoda. Splinter is an anthromorphized rat that had been the pet of a ninja master and was later subjected to the same radioactive goop as the turtles. Also, Shredder, the evil villain in the Turtles movie is almost identical to Star War’s Darth Vader, down to the black metal costume and aerated voice. The similarities with Batman revolved around the decaying state of the two cities, Gotham and New York, and the fact that the antagonists seemed to be able to beat each other to a pulp and yet always get up and keep on fighting.

Anti-Asian Prejudice

Before I went to the movie a group of fourth graders at the school where I work put on their own mini performance of the show, despite the reluctance of their teacher. The children’s performance intrigued me because it consisted of some opening dialogue with a news reporter and then about 15 minutes of kicking, hitting, rolling around and shouts of “cowabunga” and “hey dudes.”

The children’s rendition was actually fairly accurate. In the movie New York has been hit by a crime wave by an adolescent “Foot” gang, while a lonely reporter and only woman in the entire movie, April, is out to break the story and save the city. By chance the Turtles save her from a mugging and they become her friends. The movie proceeds as the turtles fight the evil gang and try to rescue Splinter, their mentor and father figure who has been kidnapped. The gang is led by an evil Japanese ninja master and many of his henchmen are Asian, Black and Puerto Rican in appearance. The teenagers who join the gang are homeless and spend their time smoking, drinking and playing pool and video games when they are not picking pockets or stealing merchandize.

On a superficial viewing this movie actually appears refreshing. The turtles are adorable fighters of evil. The dialogue is witty with popular cultural references that make it fun for adults. There are no gun and no blood, and only one person gets killed — well, maybe killed — perhaps he’ll be back in a sequel.

On deeper reflection, however, the movie is troublesome, particularly in its treatment of the Japanese. Having the main villain and many of his henchmen Asian will undoubtedly foster anti-Japanese sentiment, something which may coincidentally be in the interest of big business as economic competition heightens. Further, he portrayal of various martial art forms as used by ninjas does a disservice to an accurate understanding of Asian culture. Phil Tajitsu Nash, a professor at CUNY Law School and member of the Board of the Asian-American Legal Defense Fund, pointed out in an interview with Rethinking Schools, that the original derivation of martial arts is an approach to building character and strength, and fighting capabilities that could be used in a defensive manner. Its use in the film as the main means of offense by a gang is very unrealistic. He contrasted it with the portrayal of martial arts in Pat Noryuki Morita’s Karate Kid. “In Karate Kid- I the approach to martial arts was to build character and body. The one wh misused it — the villain — was actually an Anglo Vietnam War veteran.” Nash went on to say that he fears that the Ninja Turtles will, “contribute to anti-Asian prejudice and violence that has been on the increase in recent years.”

Another problem is that there is only one female actor in the movie — something characteristic of many of the children’s war/action cartoon series. In the movie April is a brave, yet defenseless woman who hides under tables or on top of shelves, only once engaging in fighting. She can’t even wield a hammer for a home repair job. All this is not lost on children. Amidst an enthusiastic class discussion about the Ninja Turtles in a second grade, Alyssia Hanstad stated, “I don’t like teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because boys talk about them too much, they have lots of weapons, and they fight.”

“Yeah, they’re just for boys,” another girl volunteered.

Another criticism of the film is its nonstop violent character. While not being unique to the children’s movie or cartoon industry, in some ways it epitomizes a growing, and disturbing marriage between the children’s TV and film industry and the toy industry.

Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor of early childhood education at Lesley College and co-author with Diane E. Levin of a new book entitled Calling the Shots? How t Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play and War Toys. (New Society Publishers, 1990), has interviewed scores of parents and teachers in recent weeks concerning the effects that Ninja Turtles is having on their children. “There is an overwhelming outpouring of concern,” notes Carlsson-Paige. “Kids are running around classrooms, kicking each other imitation of the film’s characters, and in so doing are acting out in ways which are completely disconnected from meaningful play or their own past experience . Teachers tell us that the children are often out of control, expressing gratuitous violence, without any relation to their own needs.”

Levin emphasized that the Ninja Turtle phenomenon is only the culmination of a now well-established trend of corporate linkups between the media and the toy industry. “Children are already geared up for the movie by years of Rambo and G.I. Joe adventures, all made possible by F.C.C. deregulation of children’s television under the Reagan Administration.”

The deregulation of children’s television came to us courtesy of the Reagan administration. His Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Mark Fowler, called the television just another “appliance” with pictures, and he proceeded to change regulations in ways that have had a profound impact on the consciousness of our nation’s children. Arguing that only the market place should determine the public interest, Fowler and Reagan led the FCC into eliminating the requirement that television stations limit advertising on children’s television and that broadcasters offer some educational programming. Levin and Carlsson-Paige report that “by December of 1985, all of the ten best-selling toys had television shows connected to them; and in the fall of 1987, 80% of all children’s television programming was produced by toy companies.” Many networks dropped their higher quality shows, report Levin and
Carlsson-Paige, and “all twenty people who had worked on children’s programs in the CBS news department were gone after deregulation.”

Children watch on the average four hours of television a day and see between 350,000 and 640,000 TV commercials by the time they are 18 years old. One result of the increasing collaboration between toy companies and television producers has been what Nash calls “the hunger for consumption” on the part of our children Children need entire sets of each of the TV or movie related toys because they are action-specific and only do one thing. Thus sales of TV-linked toys skyrocketed from $7 billion in 1980 to $14 billion in 1988.

The other, even more worrisome result, has been the reshaping of children’s imagination and play. All children imitate things in the adult word and this is natural. Healthy imitation is transformed through play and becomes something meaningful to the child. What early child educators are increasingly seeing, however, is that the combination of media saturated children with action-specific toys encourages children to become fixated on imitation and not transform what they are doing into play. Instead of using a generic doll or even a water pistol in a variety of creative ways, today’s children use single-purpose toys to imitate the specific actions of their media heros.

Some have argued that the Ninja Turtle film isn’t “that bad” because the violence is not bloody or fatal and that the Turtles do not use guns. Levin notes, however, that[t]he lack of weaponry means that film presents brute physical aggression in ways young children can more easily imitate.” She goes on to say, “Our research consistently indicates that young children are more likely to focus on salient and aggressive violence when presented to them in this form. The film is also insidious because, since its is not presented in cartoon form, it adds to young children’s confusion of fantasy and reality and what constitutes acceptable behavior. We cannot but see how films of this kind can do anything but contribute to a cycle of violence among our children, a cycle aided and abetted by corporate America’s and the media’s quest for profits, even at the expense of America’s children.”

How Can Teachers and Parents Respond?

There are no simple solutions to the growing control that the media and toy industry have over the minds of our children.

On a political level people can pressure Congress to reinstitute the protective regulations taken away by the Reagan administration. Reagan vetoed one such attempt, the Children’s Television Act of 1988, right before he left office. In the classroom and home it is important to discuss cartoons, movies, and war toys with children. They should be provided with opportunities to use dramatic play that is not tied so intimately to television characters. Providing children with old clothes and simple props can stimulate valuable dramatic play. Teachers could organize discussion and writing activities in which children are asked to reflect on provocative questions, such as “What are the Ninja Turtles teaching you?” or “How do think they feel when they hit and fight?” or “What are other ways they might solve their problems without fighting?”

One parent told me that she plans to take her two kindergarten age daughters to the Chicago Art Museum to introduce them to the four Renaissance artists whose names they now know by heart. Teachers could use their students’ interest to do a similar study of art.

Other educational activities for parents and teachers to deal with war toys and television are contained in three fine books: Calling the Shots? How to Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play and War Toys, by Nancy Carlson-Paige and Diane Levin (New Society Publishers, 1990) , Unplugging the Plug-in Drug: Help Your Children Kick the TV Habit, by Marie Winn (Penguin Books, 1987), and What to Do After You Turn Off the TV: Fresh Ideas for Enjoying Family Time, by Frances Moore Lappé and Family (Ballantine, NY 1985).

Finally, to encourage children’s imagination while keeping in the genre of animal mutation, the 1972 Newbery Award winner, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert C. O’Brien (Atheneum, 1972) is a delightful fantasy about a group of extremely intelligent rats who escape from the National Institute of Mental Health and go about setting up their own peaceful society. Yes, you can get it in video form, but for the sake of your children’s imagination, I recommend the book.

Bob Peterson teaches at Fratney Street School.