Monday, July 25, 2011

"He's a tin can!"

Another weird thing about the morality of Saturday morning cartoons is the special vengeance reserved for robots and, occasionally, cyborgs. In most action-adventure shows aimed at children, the villains will frequently or primarily use robotic or otherwise artificial henchmen. The first time I noticed this trope was in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, wherein the Foot Clan will be staffed primarily by human ninjas if the film is rated PG (see: live-action movies) but they will be robots if the show is intended primarily for children (see: the various animated series). 

You figure out pretty quickly that the Shredder isn't using robots because they're better at combat than human beings, or even more hardy. Quite the opposite: as a rule, robotic opponents are easily bested and they tend to come apart with the slightest effort. Their arms and legs are easily torn off, their heads removed casually, their bodies cut in half (vertically or horizontally) with even the crudest weapons. The Shredder isn't using these things, in other words, because they work. He's using them so the Turtles can destroy human forms guilt-free.

To return to the example of X-Men, there's a moment that happens fairly often wherein Wolverine realizes that an opponent is, in fact, a robot. Usually he figures it out by severing one of the thing's limbs. The obviously-robotic arm or leg will fall away, sparks shooting out this way and wires jutting here, the camera lingering lovingly on this image of dismemberment. Then we cut back to Wolverine, whose facial reaction makes it clear he sees what we see: this dude is a robot. Then he has to verbally acknowledge the situation, just in case anybody missed it the first time: "He's a tin can!" is the go-to line. Then, we go back to the severed robotic limb, looking especially robotic in case we didn't notice any of the other things that just happened. Then back to Wolverine, who smiles a while longer before closing in for the kill. He removes another limb or cuts its torso open.

The dominant emotion in these moments is clearly relief. Wolverine, who has been trying and failing to stab dudes all day, finally gets to really go for it. He can't believe his good fortune! The kids at home are supposed to be cheering also. Finally, they get to see some real action. And it's hard to blame the characters or the audience if they're maybe a little too excited at the chance to finally blow off some steam; as a rule, when it really counts, Wolverine can't seem to stab anybody. 

In some ways, this is a legitimate solution to the problem of how to resolve high-stakes dramatic tension without warping the minds of young children. You can question the prevalence of action shows in children's entertainment, but once you're committed to making such a series, you're going to need a work-around for this problem. However, with even a little scrutiny, the solution breaks down and becomes, in my eyes, more troubling than the problem it was meant to address.

For one thing, the heroes usually learn that they're fighting machines only after they've used sufficient force to kill what they believed at the time was a person. Wolverine cuts off the arm, watches it fall to the ground, and then sees that the dude is a robot. No wonder he's relieved: he thought he was doing something awful! Now it's okay. His attempted murder is retroactively justified. (We see again how this model requires that intent become a non-issue.)

Secondly, this moment requires that the robots are simulating humanity. It wouldn't bother me if Wolverine were to dismember, say, a rogue backhoe, but neither would Wolverine express such delight and relief in the process of doing so: it would pass without remark, and (precisely because the object he murdered was strictly an object) it would carry little or no dramatic weight. The Foot Clan do not behave like things, however. They are not efficient, their movements are not stiff, they do not broadcast their machine-ness to the viewer in any way. Rather, they go out of their way to simulate humanity. They are often comedically clumsy. They sometimes seem to be afraid. They seem to react to their environment emotionally, rather than treating it as purely instrumental. They do all of these things so that we can enjoy the experience of watching violent murders on television, even if those murders officially deny themselves. To the extent that they behave at all like machines, it is their willingness to launch themselves in wave after wave at the Turtles, their clear superiors, which really only establishes them, within the genre's conventions, as henchmen. We've watched dozens of fat guys (actual people) charge blindly at a rampaging Chuck Norris; to the extent that this behavior defines the Foot as mechanical, it applies to dull-witted human beings across the board. If anything, it only seems to reinforce our suspicion that henchmen are not human.

In X-Men it gets weirder still. While the closest equivalent of the Foot and their only recurring robotic enemy, the Sentinels, are more convincing as non-humans (they evince emotions, but these emotions are so clumsy, broad, and inappropriate that it only reads as slapstick) but there are a number of peripheral characters, especially certain cyborgs, that make the trope especially troubling. We have to remember that this is a highly unrealistic sci-fi world wherein Turing-proofed AI is not only likely, but sort of mundane; there aren't any foregrounded mechanical characters (at least at this point in the series) but if we saw a thinking and feeling machine it wouldn't be even a little surprising. We assume they're out there, among the various aliens and mutants and superhumans and deities and so on. And occasionally it seems likely we're dealing with one: at the close of the Dark Phoenix Saga, Wolverine ends up fighting robots who profess pride at their mechanical nature, asserting that "organics" can never defeat them. Of course these are still, in spite of their intelligence, legitimate targets for maximal violence, presumably because they don't feel pain. Their intelligence doesn't give them a right to their bodies, it only makes them more interesting conversational partners during a fight.

In the case of the occasional cyborg characters, dismemberment (but only of the clearly-robotic parts) is not only normal but practically required. This is the weirdest thing of all: the characters clearly experience fear, if not necessarily pain, when their robotic arms are removed. And it's not like these are extraneous parts: these are replacements for their organic arms, which were presumably amputated to make room for the new, mechanical ones. Conceding for the sake of argument that they don't feel pain in these, or that such pain is so diminished as to exist in a different moral category from our own pain, the implication seems to be that it would be morally acceptable to dismember a paralyzed person so long as you knew he or she would survive: after all, he's not going to feel it. Even human beings have no right to their presumed-numb mechanical body parts. The difference between a robotic limb and a paralyzed limb is of course that you can repair the robotic arm more easily, but even if we could effortlessly regrow our paralyzed limbs should they be removed, I doubt we would consider it moral to thoughtlessly remove them.

The project, then, is not to allow the guiltless destruction of inhuman objects, but rather to get as close as possible to a human being and then destroy that. The clear implication is that there are subhuman categories that do not deserve our sympathy or any sort of human rights. And this is what concerns me: that children (and adults) exposed to this entertainment are being trained to think like killers. They are being taught that there are classes of people, or almost-people, that have no right to their bodies, that do not feel authentic pain. These are the people we can treat however we want.

The relief Wolverine feels at discovering his enemies are machines -- are not authentically human -- strikes me as a species of the relief people have felt in the establishment of slavery, in launching wars. The pleasure of discovering a category of person that can be freely exploited and broken seems to be intense.

It's not that I'm especially concerned that these stories create killers. The sort of people who are devoted fans of X-Men and Ninja Turtles are not widely known for their violent tendencies. It may be that externalizing and processing this impulse through narrative is good for us. But I have to think it would be better still for us not to replicate the ways of thinking that create armies. Children are thinking about violence and death all the time. This isn't because the popular media has foisted it on them: rather, violence and death are all around us, and exploitation too. Growing up is, in many ways, learning to see and then sublimate these things. By teaching that violence can be justified -- that there are good and bad categories of violence, important and expendable categories of people -- we trivialize it, and perpetuate things we should prefer to end. I would rather that we acknowledge, in our stories, and especially the stories for our children, what violence really is, and how much its victims (deserving or not, if such can be deserved) really suffer.

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