Technology and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Posted on December 22, 2010 by


A few nights ago, in the middle of a Seattle-like downpour in LA with a few post-undergrad friends, got done playing a re-vamped, re-newed version of a video game that I played obsessively as a kid:  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Ultra or something like that.

There was absolutely no complexity involved in the game at all.  The premise is the same it was a a kid:  you go through a bunch of stages fighting a bunch of robotic soldiers called the foot clan on your way.  There is a boss at the end of each level that you must hit a certain amount of times to win.   This amounts to there being really only two buttons you could use, “attack” and “jump.”  The only real tests in this game are seeing how many times I could press the attack button and how much I could avoid getting hit.  So yeah, a game, I’d probably enjoy as a 7-year old, and one time as a “naturally” drunken 26-year old.

The original version of that video game was something I played obssessively as a 7-year old  and I got only because I really liked the TV show.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Turtles in a half shell, Turtle Power!

I organized my young life around these characters.  There were these two family friends from San Diego who I thought would make good ninja turtles.  I thought one of them named Jon-Jon would make a good Michelangelo and Mikey would make a good Donatello, and I’d be Leonardo, though I could switch between Leonardo and Donatello.  The brown women around me would just be either April O’Neill or Shredder or someone else.  So I thought of lots of people around me in terms of the Ninja Turtles.

I could distinguish between cartoon and reality, it was nothing more than similies and associations I made between people in real life, and the Ninja Turtles.

Almost 20 years later.  A Donna Haraway class, “Science as Culture”, a Lisa Rofel class, “Narratives of Popular Culture” class and an Anthropology B.A. later, I revisited the meanings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in a restaurant with a fellow UCLAer in the midst of a busy visit to a restaurant in San Francisco where all the UCSF students hang out.

We got to thinking:

The Ninja Turtles that I watched on cartoons and played in video games basically fought against the embodiments of the excesses of technology.  They did a lot of ground fighting against a roboticized foot soldier clan who’d never had any faces or any emotions.  According to the Ninja Turtles wikipedia entry, that the foot soldiers were roboticized was actually a shift from the comic book series which had made them human foot soldiers, so that itself was an interesting shift.    One of the villains was Baxter Stockman, a mad scientist who could turn into some kind of fly.  The main villain who was controlling all the technology was an annoying talking brain inside this he-man body.  The talking brain encapsulated himself in this other underground mobile fortress called the technodrome.  If these villains ever needed to travel to the outside world they would use the drill module which would drill through pieces of the earth.

In contrast, the Nina Turtles themselves lived relatively simple technology-functional lives.  They lived in a sewer.  Their weapons were the same each time:  the crossbow, the sword, the sais, the nunchucks. They traveled in a slightly souped up 60s era Volkswagen ca lled the Turtle Mobile.

The Turtles didn’t totally shun technology, perhaps just the over-use and excess of that.  “Donatello does machine” and the fact that they had helicopters (perhaps a shout to Da Vinci, Leonardo) and the turtle mobile are proof that they didn’t shun technology. They also watched some TV.  Embodiments of fitting in and connecting with a middle-class American audience.

In Donatello doing machine, Donatello was more “bricoleur” and artist diametrically opposed to the lab-coated mad scientist that was the driving force behind the conflicts represented in the show.  “Bricoleur” in this context takes on the meaning of artist, making the best out of what he has versus the “mad scientist” who are under orders to create devices to destroy shit.

However, those technologies were ultimately submissive to the place or context in which they primarily placed themselves in:  the sewer, the central place of urban waste and runoff.

I wonder if they were a sign of gentrifying times or perhaps the inspiration behind it.

This collection of facts, events, perhaps the roots of my anarcho-primitivist sympathies.  I wonder how people who liked the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles then think and use technology now.