As I wrote yesterday, male/female interchangeability is the default form of characterization in modern fantastical fiction, especially action adventures. It doesn’t matter whether it’s live-action film, video games, or anime and manga — wherever you have action adventure, you must have guys and girls that act largely the same except for a few superficial gendered trappings like skirts, heels, or swimsuits, as well as a kiss or a sex scene.
The most recent Power Rangers continues this trend in full force, presenting us with three mopey guys and two mopey girls who could be exchanged for two more mopey guys with few rewrites to the script. In doing this, the creators seek to demonstrate correct attitudes for the audience.
As the heroes of the movie, the Rangers are carefully crafted to present an idealized progressive image. It’s why there are five of them introduced at roughly the same time: the characterizations have to be thin and shallow so as not to distract from the image. To show racial equality, each Ranger has a different skin tone and racial background, with the white male in the lead representing “white privilege.” To show gender equality, the two girls on the team are written as tomboys, with only the smallest token gestures toward their femaleness. Furthermore, there is no romance not only because it is seen as a type of sexism, but also because the crowded cast leaves little room for it.
Even their pasts are part of the image. A variety of modern teen issues such as autism, homosexuality, and cyberbullying are represented because those are current-day social controversies that civic-minded people pay attention to. By incorporating those issues into the Rangers’ background, they cement the Rangers as modern heroes fit to instruct 21st-century Americans on the proper attitudes to hold. They are the current-day equivalent of the square-jawed GI on World War II propaganda posters, fighting the good fight against the forces of reactionary thought. Like plaster saints, they cannot be shown to speak or do the wrong thing; even their flaws are not allowed to detract from their progressive, socially conscious patina, lest they lose their usefulness as role models.
Which brings us to Rita Repulsa.
She is in every way the direct opposite of the Rangers’ carefully molded image. Where the Rangers stamp out all vestiges of their sexuality beyond a few brief mentions, Rita swings her hips and caresses her victims’ faces. Where the Rangers maintain a grungy and dirty appearance, Rita shows off her body in flattering green tights. Where the Rangers have default “good guy” personalities that are careful not to offend, Rita shouts and threatens and misbehaves in every way, utterly proud of herself. Where the Rangers see each other as equals, Rita knows she’s the baddest girl in the universe and won’t let you forget it. Where the Rangers share everything, Rita is openly and shamelessly greedy. While the Rangers were aimed at children, Rita most certainly was not.
This is because Rita is not the hero, but the major villain. Since she is the evil the Rangers must defeat, her character is not burdened with any expectation of being a “good role model” for anyone. Since she is not expected to demonstrate proper attitudes and behavior, she has far greater freedom to act. Her outlandish and dangerous behavior shakes up the dour seriousness of Angel Grove, and of the Rangers.
Also note that unlike the tomboyish female Rangers, Rita is unabashedly feminine in her appearance, mannerisms, and behavior. While she is good at hand to hand, she usually uses magic to fight. During the final battle, she did very little fighting on her own, opting instead to send the Putties and Goldar after her enemies. In other words, she took on a feminine role in the battle, protecting herself with her army of monsters.
Note that among Western cultural institutions, femininity is derided as reactionary and misogynistic, a product of a sinister culture that must be suppressed at all costs. In light of this, Rita was the perfect foil to the Rangers, for she quite literally represented everything they were not, in every way. When the Megazord slapped Rita out of the atmosphere, the Rangers were symbolically slapping away the vivaciousness and sensuality that they lacked. The pristine image is blemished no more.
While I always knew that modern entertainment often propagandized its viewers, this movie showed how manufactured, how on-the-nose, how pervasive it truly is. Reading older works and seeing how things were done there really does change one’s mind.
On your way out, pick up my novella Sword & Flower. It’s nothing like that Power Rangers movie, I promise.