A Political History of the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’
For some, the Ninja Turtles were crime-fighting brothers. For others, those ninjutsu-proficient reptiles were nefarious liberal propaganda.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles means a lot of things to a lot of people. It was an international pop-cultural fixture of the late 1980s and ’90s. The four crime-fighting brothers were featured in comic books, several TV series, feature films, and a toy line worth the GDP of Guinea-Bissau. And the franchise even spawned Vanilla Ice ninja rap.
But to some people, those ninjutsu-proficient teen-turtles also meant nefarious liberal propaganda.
“If you thought the only drawbacks of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were that they cause your children to demand toys, whack each other with sticks and talk like surfers who have been in the sun too long, you’ve been deluding yourself,” syndicated columnist Stephen Chapman wrote in 1991. “The muscle-bound little reptiles, I regret to inform you, have a political agenda, which is the same color as their shells: green. Not content with entertaining children, the Turtles want to indoctrinate them in environmentalist dogma and put them to work spreading it.”
This reads as somewhat ironic given that the popularity of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inadvertently sparked an environmental crisis in England in the ’90s. (For the full Daily Beast rundown on this, click here.) However, his environmentalist-turtle paranoia aside, Chapman did have a point: TMNT did indeed dabble in environmental politics, both in print and on-screen.
“Write to your government leaders at every level—city, county state, and federal,” the TMNT Random House kids’ book ABC’s for a Better Planet recommends. “Don’t buy or use products that hurt the environment. Get your folks and friends to do the same.” The book also took aim at farming practices and pesticides.
This call for political action among elementary school kids didn’t find much love in op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal, either, where it was slammed as outrageous propaganda. The American Farm Bureau, a powerful agriculture-lobbying group, expressed their concerns that Random House “would stoop to using a children’s publication to advance such a biased and incorrect view of American agriculture.”
Furthermore, several issues of the TMNT comic-book series make the case that humanity’s last hope lies with people who are deeply committed to environmental politics and activism. In certain storylines, illegal industrial pollution is just as much a villain as the vengeful monsters it creates. Catastrophic sea level rise is depicted in the comics in a terrifying, bleak future. And there’s this helpful PSA from our four heroes on how not to kill birds and sea creatures with your six-pack holders:
But the Ninja Turtles’ sneaky leftism didn’t stop at environmental issues—and, sometimes, things got pretty damn dark. In the 1990 comic book Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures #14, the New York City-based mutants travel to a jungle and battle a band of rainforest-destroying, journalist-kidnapping, trigger-happy mercenaries. The hired guns operate like a South American anti-communist death squad, seeing as how they assassinate a local union leader.
On the lighter end of the spectrum of mutant-ninja-turtle political commentary, the animated protagonists weighed in on U.S. drug policy. Well, not exactly. But they did tell 6-year-olds that smoking pot is lame.
"Drug dealers are dorks; don't even talk to ’em!" one of the turtles declares in an ad sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for a Drug-Free America. It’s like Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, but starring crime-fighting, activist reptiles:
The new TMNT movie, produced by Michael Bay and starring Megan Fox, hits theaters on Friday. The film does appear to peripherally involve corrupt politicians. But from the looks of it, you should expect all the explosions, and none of the civics.