Friday, May 29, 2009

"COLOR RANGERS" Color Coding Race in TV’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers

In 1993, a popular children’s television program aired and became an overnight pop-culture sensation. The name of this show was Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Originally based on a Japanese television franchise, the show was filled with fantasy, action, comedy, and drama. The program followed the story of a racially diverse group of teenagers who were given extraordinary powers and weapons in order to battle an ominous galactic force attempting to take over the world. With the help of an ancient dimensional deity known as “Zordon”, these teens were given the capability to “morph” into futuristic warriors with flashy multicolored costumes and technologically advanced weaponry.

Despite its appearance in the early 1990’s, the series could be considered what Vincent Brook terms a “Neo-Platoon Show”. He describes this phenomenon as a type of programming “formed around a tight-knit or fatefully intertwined cohort of ethno-racially diverse characters, with a complex, soap-like narrative structure, significant interracial romance, and a sophisticated televisual aesthetic” (Brook 1). He further explains that this type of ethnically diverse television programming in the multichannel age “comes from the increased pervasiveness and acceptance of multiculturalism in U.S. society, especially among the younger, consumerist audience advertisers” (Brook 3). As opposed to creating numerous individual shows that showcase and isolate the conflicts and relationships of specific ethnic groups, these neo-platoon shows allow programmers to more efficiently and effectively showcase diversity. Power Rangers is consistent with this definition and successfully exhibits racial differences simultaneously with racial cooperation.

Contrary to Brook’s model, however, the show differs with the neo-platoon show in one significant way. Despite the show’s clear attention to color, the interracial reactions and conflicts completely avoid the issue of race or racial tension. Just like the television program Julia (1964-1971), race in Power Rangers is essentially an invisible issue. As this is a children’s program, the show’s producers most likely intended to avoid addressing racial issues altogether in order to make the show less controversial and more palatable for young and impressionable minds. But while race issues were never verbally expressed or addressed, the issue of race and ethnicity was clearly cultivated subliminally in the visual and cultural cues of the cast and the characters that they portrayed. What went unnoticed by the majority of viewers was that each character epitomized the racial and cultural stereotypes typical of their specific ethnicity. The costumes are a clear example of how the writers of this program decided early on to engrain each character with elements of their ethno-cultural stereotypes.

The Red Ranger, Jason, was a Native American who spoke with a deep and almost mystical wisdom as he led his team into battle. Though he never outwardly admitted his Native American heritage, it was clearly inferred by his appearance, attitude, and uniquely red costuming. The color red has long been associated with Native Americans as a racial stereotype given to them based on the darkness of their skin in comparison to white settlers. They were in fact often referred to as “red men”. Jason’s strong leadership and wisdom along with his headstrong and savage fighting skills associated him with Hollywood’s image of the “Noble Savage”. Throughout history, Native Americans have held many images in the media. During the golden age of Western films, the American Indian was portrayed as a particularly dangerous and savage opponent to the otherwise good-willed American cowboy. But more recently, the image of the Native American in film and television has changed. In movies such as Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre 1998), the headstrong and wise Native American male plays a sort of countercultural hero. Characteristically, he is unspoiled, noble, and spiritual, proposing a reclamation or trusting of old ways but at the same time confronting or adapting to the new. At the same time, this mystic and noble persona is contrasted by a boldness and savageness that allows Jason to take charge and lead his team to victory. He is usually the one who leads the charge against the team’s opponents, which is done in a similar manner to the way American Indian braves would lead the charge against their enemies in the old west. Not only does Jason fully embody this characterization of the noble savage, but the fact that the actor who played him is of Native American decent gives the characterization added legitimacy.

The Yellow Ranger, Trini, was an Asian American and a martial arts expert, with a thick Asian accent, long straight black hair, and an uncanny ability to translate highly technical language into common speech. As the only Asian American in a team of martial artists, she was particularly skillful in terms of her technique. She is also commonly heard shouting “HI-YAH” when striking opponents. This detailed attention to her form and Kung Fu style made her fighting reminiscent of that of other Asian martial artists such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. This character trait reinforces her Asian ethnicity as martial arts prowess is a fairly common Asian stereotype. Additionally, Trini is book smart, family oriented and politically active. In fact, during the episode “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, she leads a protest to prevent a historically significant statue from being torn down by city planners. Activities like these associated her with the Asian stereotype of the “Model Minority”. Representations like these are typically described as those that adhere to the Confucian cultural ethos; essentially the Asian equivalent of the protestant work ethic. Characteristically, this model follows a strict code of conduct, priding above everything, sobriety, frugality, family ties, respect for authority, and education. Trini is also highly trained and learned in the field of technology, which came in handy when dealing with her high-tech weaponry. Her technical expertise stems from the stereotype of the ‘educated middle class Asian’ typically from nations like Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and the Philippines. They are often the ones employed in high-tech professions that require advanced technical skills in the fields of computers, electronics and mechanical engineering. This is depicted in the show by the highly technical language she uses, especially when discussing issues involving the Rangers’ futuristic machinery. Finally, the color of Trini’s costume draws a direct connection to American media’s historical representations of Asians. Not only is ‘yellow’ a derogatory phrase directed towards Asians and Asian Americans, but it correlates with the stereotype of the “The Yellow Peril” which was the media personification of American anti-Asian sentiments during the nation’s numerous conflicts in Southeast Asia. The fact that they made Trini the yellow ranger reflects this clear racial and cultural connection.

The Black Ranger, Zack, was an African American practical joker, who spoke slang and incorporated hip-hop dance moves into his martial arts sequences. In one episode titled “The Itsy Bitsy Spider”, Zack teaches his unique style of hip-hop Judo to a class of young white children. In his dialogue with other characters, he constantly uses slang words like “fresh”, “fly” and “jammin”, which are specifically written into his speech to exemplify his hip-hop culture verbally as well as visually. In addition, Zack frequently wears African and Jamaican styled shirts when he is not in his Ranger uniform. This small costuming detail emphasizes his African heritage and consequently, his blackness. Besides the clear racial connection to making the one African American in the team the ‘Black’ Ranger, his personality traits are similar to those of certain black stereotypes from American history. More specifically, he resembled the image of the childlike buffoon or practical joker. His overall presence represents the way African American male teens were portrayed in the early 1990’s in shows like Family Matters (1989-1998) and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996). Being the black member of the team immediately associated him with music, pop-culture and what was considered to be ‘hip’. The notion of black culture has, ever since the golden age of jazz, been associated with this abstract idea of ‘hip-ness’. In an attempt to emulate Zack’s hip nature, the other characters made feeble attempts at copying his mannerisms such as engaging in complicated handshakes, dance moves or mispronouncing ‘jive’ speech. All in all, the emphasis on Zack’s blackness went much further than the color of his outfit.

The Blue Ranger, Billy, played the part of the unconfident and fidgety Jewish member of the team. His costume was colored blue and white, coincidentally the colors of the Israeli flag. But more important than the color-coding of his costume was his character’s personality traits that lead critics to acknowledge and identify his Jewish ‘otherness’. “The Jewish male has been held to ‘resemble the homosexual’ through physical imputations of effeminateness tied to his stereotypically small stature, bookishness, and aversion to physical labor” (Brook 614). This characterization of the Jewish male is consistent with the way Jewish men were portrayed on television and is also a fairly accurate description of Billy, as his character had always seemed to be the skittish, nervous and weakest member of the Power Rangers’ team. The character of Billy was the epitomal representation of the typical Jewish male that became more and more visible in the media during the early 1990’s. This period in time experienced a huge rise in the appearance of Jews on mainstream television. With the introduction of “Jewish” sitcoms like Seinfeld (1990-1998), Mad About You (1992-1999), and Friends (1994-2004), the inclusion of and popularizing of Jews in mainstream television was considered a response to the contradiction of both isolating and incorporating the Jewish ethos into American popular culture. Billy became the children’s programming equivalent of Jewish characters like Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David. The novelty became trendy as these Jewish oriented sitcoms achieved major success. “The increased amount of critical acclaim and even comparative ratings success of recent cable programming is another encouraging sign of the perpetuation of the ‘Jewish’ sitcom” (Brook 615). It can thus be inferred that the character Billy was depicted this way in order to harness some of the popularity associated with this newly media-embraced ethnicity.

The Pink Ranger, Kimberly, was a gymnast, into fashion and beauty, and espoused the typical valley girl attitude. She essentially epitomized the typical white teenage girl, accompanied in an almost “Barbie-esque” way by her bright pink costume and mini-skirt. As the only fully Anglo member of the Power Rangers, she not only represented her unique ethnicity, but actively symbolized the so-called normality of the white race and its reaction to other more ‘exotic’ races. This stemmed from the stereotypical Caucasian’s inherent need to assuage the guilt of past mistreatment and persecution of other races. This humane desire to reach out to non-whites certainly would explain Kimberly’s choice of friends on the program. Additionally, her superficiality is not only a commentary about her, but on the stereotypical image of the 90’s white female whose primary focus was on her external appearance. She behaves as a slightly subtler version of the character ‘Cher’ from the popular teen comedy Clueless (Amy Heckerling 1995). Slightly aloof and into typical teenage girl activities like shopping and dating, it is easy to draw this comparison. Kimberly uses her beauty and feminine wiles as an advantage. It is her defining characteristic, just as hip-ness is for Zack, savageness is for Jason and braininess is for Billy. Her power, however, is derived from her appearance. Most enemies underestimate her because of this, but many times over she has proven why she is a force to be reckoned with. Her costume differs from that of the other rangers as it is complimented by a matching miniskirt. This small stylistic detail of her uniform emphasizes her obsession with fashion and preoccupation with her external appearance. The color pink was an appropriate color choice for such a character as it resonates with the Barbie-esque materialism and superficiality of 1990’s femininity.

These externally color-coded symbols set the mood for each character and how they were meant to act and be perceived throughout the rest of the series. By imprinting them with these clear racially biased color schemes, the viewer is meant to identify each character racially as opposed to identify them on the basis of their character. From these initial implications and the character development of the cast, this program has successfully reinforced racial stereotypes in the media. By analyzing character representations, relationships and conflicts throughout reruns of the series, one can better understand the extent to which these characters had been influenced by the ethno-cultural stereotypes in the media predating this program. It is very interesting that while this program was extremely popular in American culture, its clear ethnic, racial and cultural connections were never fully acknowledged by the mainstream media.

Works Cited:

Ø Brook, Vincent. "Convergent Ethnicity and the Neo-Platoon Show: Recombining Difference in the Postnetwork Era." Television and News Media (2009): 1-32.

Ø Brook, Vincent. "Virtual Ethnicity: Incorporation, Diversity, and the Contemporary 'Jewish' Sitcom." Emergences 11 (2001): 603-19.