Saturday, February 13, 2016

It's Morphing Time: Transgender Lessons from the Power Rangers


"I think they learned their lesson"

The Mighty Morphing Power Rangers
S1.E8. Switching Places 
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A Valentine for My Daughter and Hero, N. Bahr
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Lessons for Viewers

As I sit on the couch after dinner watching episode seven of season one of the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers with my six-year old, she asks me, "Why aren't there three girl Rangers and two boy Rangers?" I love this child I thought. "That's a great question!" I say. "Well, let's pretend there are three girls. Who would you like to be girls?" I ask her. She thinks for a moment then responds, "well the Pink Ranger, she is the girl who is good at gymnastics. The Yellow Ranger, she is good at fighting. How about the Blue Ranger? She would be the girl who is smart." As if responding to her question and supposition, as episode eight begins to play it announces itself as "Switching Places." In the episode, the Pink Ranger, Kimberly, (Amy Jo Johnson) and the Blue Ranger, Billy, (David Yost), switch bodies. The central struggle of the episode then becomes dealing with what it is like to be a boy trapped in the identity and embodiment of a girl and a girl trapped in the identity and embodiment of a boy. What a perfect opportunity for us to discuss gender! As a trans mother to a young butch daughter, who just the day before cut her own hair again, because "I want to be like a boy," I'm constantly on the look-out for children's or child-friendly media that reflects the transness and queerness of our family. Towards this end, the Power Rangers offers lessons on transgender, feminism, and queer sexuality, but perhaps not the lessons the writers of the show intended.

From the surface, the episode does not appear very deep or live up to the potential the premise of the gender swap allows. This is a frequent problem in literature and film, especially aimed at young adults and children, where the writers are afraid of going deeper because of the questions of sexuality, gender, and social imbalances (such as sexism, stereotypes, privilege) that would inevitably arise if such plots were taken seriously. As a result, as when the Animorph books involve gender morphing (which only happens twice but for which the premise of the series seemed to offer infinite opportunities and motivations), the gender switch is not only surface level comedy but abortive in how little the plot deals with the issue. In the episode, the central problem becomes rather how to deal with an attack from multiple enemies at once and an enemy who can't be defeated directly. As a result, in the twenty minute episode which is book ended by the gender swap scenes, only a few minutes are actually devoted to the matter and it in no ways relates to or is explored in the rest of the episode. Billy and Kimberly try an invention designed that allow telepathy (the power to read each other's minds), they switch bodies instead, Billy struggles to be a girl (i.e. wear make-up and cook), Kimberly struggles to be a boy (run basic computer programs), and in the end they switch back. All in all, the issue is treated as a joke, depending on tired gender stereotypes usually reserved for satirical drag performances. It seems almost as though the writers could not come up with material that wouldn't "go too far" on any number of matters (i.e. sexuality, gender, social inequalities), material which would likely be censored. In the end, as far as the narrative goes, the gender swap was an utterly insubstantial and abridged gimmick.

So what can "Switching Places" on Power Rangers teach my daughter? As it happens, even when storytellers try to not talk about transgender, feminism, and queerness, they end up supplying any number of suggestive lessons in the wake of their evasive dancing around the topics. Marginalized people have long had to appropriate places and things that are not made for them in order to survive. Watching TV shows as a queer and/or trans youth often means having to translate characters and scenarios designed to be about straight cisgender people and made it connect to their experiences. The hyper campy Mighty Morphin Power Rangers from the 1990s is well suited for this sort of cross-cultural reading against the grain. The show preached diversity, through its rainbow of Pink, Yellow, Red, Black, and Blue colored rangers. The diversity in the cast was meant to reflect this and did so in a transparently problematic way. The Black Ranger was African American and the Yellow Ranger was Asian American. The Blue Ranger was a man and the Pink Ranger was a woman. Even if the execution was stereotypical, Power Ranger clearly intended to be read by a diverse audience, each of which is bound to read the show in their own way. Whether or not the show had queer and trans families in mind, it nonetheless remains open to alternative ways of approaching its stories of gender. Yet as a critically trans reading of "Switching Places" demonstrates, there were undercurrents of queerness and feminism in the shows own production that disturb its over-determined and over-wrought normative conclusion.

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Lessons for Kimberly
(Amy Jo Johnson)

Twenty-some years later, Amy Jo Johnson still recalls "Switching Places" as one of her favorite memories during her tenure on Power Rangers and one of the most impacting on the development of her character, Kimberly. During a 2014 Question and Answer Panel, a member from the audience states that "Switching Places" is a fan favorite and asks Johnson what she learned from it. "I had some fun episodes with David," responds Johnson, referring to David Yost, the actor who performed the role of Billy. "Those were the most fun episodes... the switching places" (Lexington Comic and Toy Convention). Throughout numerous interviews, especially regarding Power Rangers, "fun" is a key word for Johnson. Noting that Power Rangers did not hire from the actors union, Johnson observed that the conditions on the show were frequently less than hospitable. In another interview, Yost, who would later leave due to the toxic environment of show, observed that the head producers of the show did not regard the story or the actors as significant. "Saban," said Yost of the Power Ranger's longtime show runner, "regarded the show are merely 30 minute toy commercials." The quality and conditions of the show were thus secondary. "The message was clear," said Yost, "any of us were replaceable." In this context, perhaps Johnson's emphasis that the swapping episodes were "fun," especially with Yost, are particularly significant. Indeed, as two of the only professional actors on the show, Johnson and Yost both cherished opportunities to derive lessons from the scripts they were given and develop their characters.

"I like when I got colors," says speaking Johnson to her fans on Youtube about how the switching episodes gave her a chance to add levels and depth to the character of Kimberly. "I got to be evil. And David. It was fun" (Youtube). Once again, "fun" appears to mark a significant point of departure for the actor and character alike. In the case of "Switching Places," audience and actor alike recognize how living for a time in the gender of another developed the character. Fans such as the questioner in 2014 have noted that at the start of the first season of Power Rangers, Kimberly was often written as a two-dimensional caricature of a valley girl, a ditzy, popular high femme. Over time, however, Kimberly moved from unintelligent to sarcastic, even witty, and from borderline shallow and materialistic to caring and empathetic. Many, including Wikipedia, note "Switching Places" as one of the first places where significant changes developed in the character of Kimberly. After living as a teenage boy for an undesignated amount of time, says the fan-edited entry, "She also displays a cunning, clever and intuitive side, also inherited from her time in switching bodies with Billy." While the shift from a stupid woman to a smart male reeks of chauvinism on the level of the show-running, the fact that a fairly shallow, straight, cisgender girl became more insightful, empathetic, and intuitive because of what could be called a "transgender experience" is critical. Even if it is only intended as a plot device, the transgender experience of a kind of gender dysphoria is being recognized as offering unique insights for the cis-community; so much so that people may change as a result.

"That machine blew up," says Johnson in an interview describing how the prop would spark and malfunction, dangerously burning them and the crew. In many respects, the detonation of the physical set-piece was indicative of the machine's part in the queer undoing of the shows normative operations. After the end of the episode as the dysphoric plot device that had allowed for a trans experience to break into the mainstream was never again seen. Within the narrative world of the Power Rangers, the elimination of the gender-switch machine was to close off the radical possibilities and undercurrents that were already brewing in the show. If the machine continued in working order, would characters be drawn to use it again for tactical purposes? It's potential for a radical sharing of skills and embodiments are predicted by one of the Power Ranger's bullies, Skull, asking if he could us the machine and Billy's brain to get him through an upcoming exam. The possibilities for cross-utilizing abilities also suggest queerer potentials for cross-identification. What if someone wanted to switch bodies not for strategic or utilitarian purposes but for the sake of trans and queer desires. Characters could change bodies in order to access other genders. Likewise, people could switch places in order to experience new sexual pleasures. The machine had powers to transform characters and the social environment beyond a single plot line. Indeed, while it was never again used on screen, the show never confirms that Billy did not keep it or use it again. Johnson confesses that a single use of the machine was a turning point for her character. What about the actor and a character of Billy who continued to subversively, subtextually persisted with alterity hidden in the background. For David Yost and Billy, more queer explosions were to come.


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Lessons for Billy
(David Yost)

My butch daughter's decision to welcome Billy the Blue Ranger into womanhood before even seeing episode eight is significant not necessarily of a nascent femininity but of an accessibility that allowed her to identify with him. The character did not police the boundary between genders and sexualities. As a gay man, still discerning himself, David Yost instilled the Blue Ranger with an openness to the trans, queer, feminine power of our family. Whether it is his lack of refusal or his active disturbing of divisions from the trans-masculine and trans-feminine, Yost as an actor and Billy as a character were able and willing to cross the boundaries of gender executed in "Switching Places." It was imaginable that Billy could be or become transgender, as well as invite others into the trans experience. For months later, my daughter names this episode as her favorite and asks to watch it again and again. The episode offers the possibility for her say, "Hey, that is like me!" Does it speak to her own transgressive mode of gender? Does it remind her of her trans lesbian parents? The episode also offers other chaotic and undetermined potential for meaning, embodiment, and perspective. Does the episode simply speak to her of queer alternative possibilities that aren't nameable but they aren't predictable by Power Ranger's producers or its audience. In the end, perhaps it is the inability to know what the show and characters mean to her that makes them so dangerously, subversively powerful. The story of characters like Billy and actors like Yost demonstrate the brave, transformative ability to take the social positions and scripts we are given, then switch them around.

Off screen treatment of Yost affirmed that the homophobic misogynist producers of Power Rangers used the show to control gender and sexual minorities and the cultural power they represented. By shutting down the queer, trans potentiality of Billy's gender swap machine, erasing it from later episodes, mirrored the desire among Producers to limit or eliminate queer lives. "I felt like I continually being told that I am not worthy of where I am because I am 'a gay person,' that I am not supposed to be an actor, and you can't be a superhero," confesses Yost. "That's sort of the vibe I was getting," (No Pink Spandex). The producers at once needed Yost's talents to embody Billy, who became increasingly popular because of episodes like "Switching Places." Yet the show also feared, even hated Yost and the cultural power he represented and wielded. The problems Yost faced personally embodied a tension in the wider system of the show. On one level, Power Rangers profited from using queer talents and preaching diversity. Yet on another level, it worked tirelessly to control or expunge non-normative alternatives through over-wrought messages on gender and sexuality. Power Rangers at once needed and hated queer agents, it allowed for diverse trans experiences of genders even as it worked to shut them down. This conflict, however, is not without casualties. Eventually Yost left and Billy was written off the show. Yet the elimination of the character suggested more deadly real world consequences for this kind of homophobic trap for queer actors. "I was worried about my life. I was worried I might take my life," admitted Yost on his emotional state after years of being used and abused by the show's producers. "I needed to leave when I left" (No Pink Spandex).

Despite the overbearing hetero and cisgender programming for the characters on the show and the oppression of actors behind the scenes, episodes like Switching Places offered windows into the alternative lives, potentials, and lessons that could not be beaten out of the show. For a long while after performing an exchange of embodiments and characters, Yost and Johnson had a special connection that undermined the supposed separation of their characters along terms of gender and sexuality. Kimberly was the object of desire for prominent male characters like Tommy the Green Ranger but was not supposed to have a closeness to Billy who was effectively neutered and desexualized over the show. Despite this hetero-sexist division, Yost and Johnson maintained a subversive humor. "Amy Joe and I would get the giggles, we would just look at each other and we would start laughing," recounts Yost. "She is just a close person to me. She is almost like a sister to me. She and I always had a great chemistry together,"(No Pink Spandex). Because of the unexpected, unintended alliances and sympathies of these two actors, episodes like "Switching Places" arouse. This connection affirmed not only the connection between the actors but audience members who identified with Billy, Kimberly, as well as the trans and queer audience members who identified with Billy as Kimberly or Kimberly as Billy. However the show tried to script gender and sexuality, an undercurrent of queer and trans humor continually pointed to alternative possibilities.


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