Manufactured Heroes: The Case of the Power Rangers

The Power Rangers, suited up.

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.

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.

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11 Responses to Manufactured Heroes: The Case of the Power Rangers

  1. Nathan says:

    I am curious to see what will happen in the new Valerian movie. In the comics, Laureline is essentially a Good version of Rita’s portrayal. Will she remain so in the movie?

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      Judging from the trailer (which I commented on in the post prior to this one), I don’t think it’ll carry over into the movie. I believe that at best, there will be one scene where Laureline does something flirty, then they will make her into the kung-fu ninja babe that modern fantastical movies often have.

  2. The Mixed GM says:

    Is it wrong that I wanted to know what kind of universe Rita was intending to create if she won?

    I am afraid it may have been a good one.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      We don’t even know that; the lack of a defined goal beyond “for teh evulz” could be a blog post all its own.

  3. Actually I liked that they all had problems with themselves. Since the beginning, they were supposed to be “Teenagers With Attitude”
    Jason wants to be a real leader, a real hero, which is why he so quickly goes for being a Power Ranger. And why the film begins with him destroying his football career. He could sense the difference between fleeting, shallow “glory” in his small town, and the real deal, and violently rejected the former.
    Kimberly is feminine, her duplicitous behaviour, her conniving, that is part of her backstory, is part of a high school social jockeying through gossip & sniping is uniquely feminine. And she feels that her ‘sin’ is what has doomed the team to failure. (Kind of he heart of the movie, Zack a reckless coward who’ll throw himself into chaos so he doesn’t have to think about the lingering death of his mother, Trini’s growing inability to relate to her family is compounded by her inability to grow roots as they move about. (And weren’t her parents suspiciously caucasian looking?))
    The *become* Power Rangers by getting over their mopey $#!+
    By getting their $#!+ together, putting their $#!+ in like, a backpack, and dealing with it. Take their $#!+ to the $#!+ store and sell it. But just deal with your $#!+.
    The armor is agency, adulthood, and they get it by understanding their weaknesses and overcoming them. (This is also why Billy, the most analytical, detached & self-aware, is first able to Morph. He understands his $#!+ better than anyone else there, and isn’t hiding from it.)

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      A good counterpoint; I do agree that Billy was the least bad of the group, but Kimberly was not at all feminine; they made it a point to make her rough and tough. She even cut her long hair at the beginning of the movie — a clear sign of her rejecting femininity.

      Zack is easy enough to understand, but Trini’s problem isn’t really shown that well. In fact, only Jason and Zack’s problems are shown to any real extent; the movie would have benefited from a smaller main cast, but then it wouldn’t be a Power Rangers movie.

      Also, as I said, even their flaws are crafted to be non-offensive and socially conscious. Only Jason and Zack have something that isn’t quite like that, but the mopeyness of the whole cast makes it almost not matter.

      They were only able to morph because Rita kicked them down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and scared them into morphing; self-preservation comes first, and against someone like Rita, morphing is the most efficient way to accomplish this. Though the Rangers felt a sense of accomplishment in the end, only Billy’s problem is conclusively solved — and that happened well before Rita showed up in Angel Grove.

      I would have to watch this movie again on DVD or streaming to truly pick it apart.

      • And that will make for some damn fine podcasting! Unless you wanna talk about this live sooner.
        But yes. There’s a part After School Special-ness to the plot.
        Then they karate and blow up Krispy Kreme.

        • Rawle Nyanzi says:

          Yes — Rita just walking in and eating Krispy Kreme was another funny scene. I’m willing to watch the movie again for Rita alone. 🙂

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