A brief interlude: TMNT & Muppets

The graduate CSCT (cultural studies and critical theory) kids at Mac have set up a fairly informal cultural studies reading group of which I am a part. Over the past ~10 months we have taken up themed readings on the contemporary definition of cultural studies and on cultural studies and its intersections with science. As we embark on our third installment this summer, we begin by looking at two articles from The Journal of Popular Culture:

John Bisges – “Turtle Power!: How Four Mutant Teenagers Nuked the Entertainment Industry” 41.6 (2008)

Michelle Ann Abate – “Taking Silliness Seriously: Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, the Anglo-American Tradition of Nonsense, and Cultural Critique” 42.4 (2009)

We meet later today to discuss the merits (or lack thereof) of this scholarship. For the time being, my initial thoughts:

Bisges reads the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles texts as “the latest in a long line of cultural texts that put a positive spin on the effects of radioactive materials” (918), citing their “sense of humor” as “one of America’s most effective psychological self-defense mechanisms against the apocalyptic threat that nuclear weapons still pose” (931). Having never thought in any depth about TMNT (beyond nostalgic reminiscing of how “tubular” it was/is and how much I enjoyed watching it as a kid), I did appreciate Bisges’s reading of its nuclear spin. I do not agree, however, “that the careless disposal of nuclear waste into the middle of a populated city is NOT a negative action in this story,” nor that “the presence of radioactive waste in the heart of New York leads to its salvation” (922)…at least, not entirely. I think Bisges deserts his most compelling argument in its nascent form when he very briefly addresses the question of the Ninja Turtles’ sex:

…all four of the Ninja Turtles are male. In all the Turtles’ films and associated spin-offs the issue of sex is never discussed, a strange and interesting omission for works of fiction about four teenagers. This was a purposeful act on the parts of Eastman and Laird [TMNT co-creators] when they created the characters: they wanted the fact that the Turtles could never reproduce to be an important part of their psychology. Although they are infinitely more powerful in mutated form than when they had not been exposed to nuclear materials, the Turtles’ procreation has also been rendered impossible by their contact with the radioactive ooze. (929-30)

Myself a young viewer who was in some way attracted to the Ninja Turtles without ever quite understanding how that attraction could (physically) work, the fact that the Turtles, for instance, can never satisfy the sexual tension between themselves and April O’Neil (intrepid reporter and the Ninja Turtles’ human [girl]friend), remains a glaring omission, as Bisges’s continually notes, in a series essentially about party-loving teenagers. The Turtles eat pizza, they fight crime but they definitely don’t get laid (or anything close). It seems to me there could be no greater embodiment of the threat of nuclear power and its related apocalyptic fears than sterility and the impossibility of reproduction.


Abate’s article explores “the importance of taking silliness seriously;” in it, she describes “nonsense” as a “seemingly innocuous entertainment style” that “routinely embeds powerful social, cultural, and political commentary” (590). Her close reading of the critically potent nonsense of several Muppets skits is convincing, though I wonder if “social, cultural and political commentary” is nonsense’s only use, or, rather, if nonsense is only of use when it provides such commentary. What of nonsense for nonsense’s sake? Why is the non-important only important if it’s secretly important (i.e. nonsense only [critically] sensical if it’s sensical)? While I certainly agree with the quoted statement from Tim Conley (a former professor of mine!) that nonsense belies “the very basic and apparently well-fortified supposition that ‘sense’ is a good thing and to be sensible or to make sense a noble characteristic” (quoted in Abate 591-2), I wonder if the somewhat opposite assumption proposed by Abate – that nonsense is necessarily subversive – might not be equally limiting.

I guess we’ll see where the discussion goes from here.

~ by pamelaingleton on 16 June 2010.

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