In Praise of Optimus Primal

I like cartoons.

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit watching shows like ReBoot, Roughnecks: Starship Troopers Chronicles, Justice League, Gundam Wing, and Yu Yu Hakusho.  Epic battles, powerful attacks, cunning strategy—it all thrills me to no end.  I derive great joy from absurdist yet political comedies like Rocko’s Modern Life and light, cheerful fare like Toradora!, but there’s a special place in my heart for shows about heroic struggle, deadly peril, and defeating enemies in violent and explosive ways.

But I have a problem with a lot of those very same shows (animated and otherwise), a problem that’s separate (but intertwined with) their often rampant sexism and erasure of just about every minority.

They’re not shows about heroes winning.  They’re shows about villains losing.

Think about it.

What’s the plot of every Superman story?  The villain du jour is trying to do something ingenious, and Superman shows up and stomps all over it.

GI Joe?  Cobra Commander is trying to do something ingenious, and the Joes show up and stomp all over it while issuing increasingly nonsensical catchphrases.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen?  Moriarty is trying to do something ingenious, and the League shows up and stomps all over it, only this time with various British accents and nonsensical catchphrases.

Very, very often, the most intelligent, complex, or interesting character in the entire cast is…the one whose downfall we’re supposed to be cheering.

That never sat well with me.

I was the child who watched episodes of Superman and marveled over and over at Lex Luthor’s amazing plans, almost hoping they would succeed so the world would recognize his genius.  Here was a person so intelligent, so improbably creative, that he could find ways to alter the world’s weather patterns, take control over various robotic decoys Supergirl was using to cover for Superman’s absence, grow and army of Superman clones, and not only utilize but weaponize the radioactive space rocks that kept his nemesis at bay.  Yet this triumphant example of human ingenuity and the power of invention was not celebrated, not rewarded, not even the protagonist of a story that should have been his.

No—he was feared.  Loathed.  Defeated.  Regularly set below someone whose primary contribution to the advancement of the human condition was punching things really hard.

And I saw it again and again.  The villain is a sophisticated genius who likes cats and classical music and rotating chairs, and the heroes are the people who show up uninvited to his party, hurl his cat across the room, smash his record player, and beat him senseless with his chair.  The villain is a scientist and an inventor.  The hero is just some guy.

And I had to remind myself every time a new episode came on that Lex Luthor was the bad guy.  That what he was planning to do with the menagerie of wonders he worked his mind to create was the problem, that Superman wasn’t acting out the villain’s role in every high-school drama on purpose.  Because if I ever forgot that, the show I was watching suddenly became the story of someone doing something absolutely amazing, something that should have gotten him several Nobel prizes and a universe’s worth of slack-jawed awe, and then watching every molecule of that invention get pulverized by a jingoistic bodybuilder in red underwear.  Whom the world thanked afterwards.

I looked for heroes, and I got hulking brutes elected to the task of squashing whatever spark of genius they encountered.  I got people who did absolutely nothing until summoned to demolish some grand construction somewhere and imprison whoever had had the gall to actually build something.

I looked for villains, and I got Lex Luthor and Megabyte and Rasputin and Ra’s al-Ghul—geniuses with goals and desires and plans, out to radically change the way their world operated with the power of their minds.  I got people who would have gone down in their world’s history as the most noteworthy of all time, who became mere footnotes because someone nearby could punch really hard.

The lesson was unmistakable.  My work would be my minds work, so I would be someone that other people feared.  Not because I wanted to be, but because that’s what happened to smart, ambitious people.  And I would spend my years watching this or that hulking brute see the things I wanted, and take them, and earn praise by doing so.

I probably still would have had a long, misanthropic adolescence without that lesson, but it definitely didn’t help.

We see that same anti-intellectualism splattered all over politics.  People have the idea that someone who is smarter or more competent or more knowledgeable about anything than they are is the villain in our story.  We get elections won because the candidate seemed more like the kind of person an “everyman” would meet in a bar.  We get ideologues like Rick Santorum insisting that university education is evil because it makes people smarter, and getting a national stage out of it.  An entire American political movement is built around the idea that they’re the meathead heroes of their story and the country’s educated class is their cat-stroking villains.  And why wouldn’t they?  Learning how things actually work is the most corrosive possible antidote to religious fervor, economic conservatism, and warmongering alike.

It’s an old American story—the intrepid, independent, do-it-yourself pioneer who ventures into an unforgiving world to bring it into line and who both resents and constantly outdoes the “tyrannical” eggheads who tell him that it’s a ridiculous idea to build houses in the middle of forest fire zones.  And who donates liberally to the church roof after it inevitably burns down.

That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with Beast Wars as early and as thoroughly as I did.  It was Beast Wars that finally showed me that this raging anti-intellectualism didn’t have to be.  Beast Wars’s Megatron is one of the most impressively intelligent, conniving villains of his time, and he spends the better part of three seasons trying to stop the heroesfrom accomplishing things.  What a concept!  And the heroes are a research and exploration team who spend most of the series severely outgunned and who rely on their wits as much as their weapons.  Figures the show is Canadian.  (Also figures the sequel is a woo-soaked paean to organic food.  No, seriously.)

We need more stories about heroes who are heroic because they are doing something good, and not just because they stopped someone else from doing something bad.

And we need more heroes who celebrate what’s truly great about being human—our capacity to think and learn.

Else our cultural narrative will keep on praising the ignorant for being loud and the smart for being meek, and nothing will ever change.


In Praise of Optimus Primal

8 thoughts on “In Praise of Optimus Primal

  1. 1

    I have the same feelings when I read that fictional book “The Bible”. I can't understand how Satan is being portrayed as the “Evil” one. So unfair! He is the first with the courage to question God's universal truth like “Don't eat that Apple!” He's the superhero for me!

  2. 2

    Helps that God is such a disagreeable character otherwise 😛 Prometheus got a pretty bad rap too. This theme is pretty ancient, alas.

  3. 4

    Hey Alyssa, great article again. Once again your usage of words has an easy elegance and pleasantness about it. Nothing is forced, everything flows smoothly. That being said, (lol) I do have a problem with your usage of Superman to make the point of anti-intellectualism in cartoons and I guess TV in general.
    To be perfectly honest I haven’t watched very many cartoons as a kid because my parents didn’t let me watch them but I have seen Superman.

    Superman’s actions were driven by a sense of gratitude, duty and obligation towards his foster parents and his foster planet – earth. He didn't just go about stomping on every clever persons idea just because they thought of something clever. He stomped on Lex Luthor's plans because his plan was essentially to wrest control of the world through often if not always violent means. I think that the Superman comic firmly establishes the fact that superman doesn’t just have super strength but is also blessed (lol) with super intelligence. The way I think of it, why would Superman put time and energy in constructing an anti-missile to destroy Lex Luthor’s missiles when it would be much simpler and faster to do so by using his physique? Lex Luthor on the other hand is driven by the insatiable desire for power over all things. He does come up with clever schemes but they are directed towards an immoral purpose.

    Therefore, by dissociating both Superman and Lex Luthor from their positive and negative traits respectively you have given into the straw man fallacy and then proceeded to flagellate Superman for the ills of anti-intellectualism on TV.

    Also, I think that cartoons shouldn’t just promote intellectualism but also physical courage. Physical courage is polymorphic. For example, devoting your mind to an intellectual pursuit through spending all your waking hours doing just that, which is what Madame Curie did, is essentially requiring physical courage to do so. Taken together intellect and physical courage provide the most adaptable combination, to speak of in evolutionary terms. There are plenty of examples from human history and pop culture that meet those criteria. Richard Winters of the ‘The Band of Brothers’ fame graduated at the top of his class in business school and earned a bachelor’s degree in science and economics. He then went on to participate in WW2 and use his intelligence and sound judgment along with his physical courage to do achieve remarkable success. Another example would be in Russia, where the Bolsheviks through their ideology and thought experiments alone didn’t accomplish anything until they exercised their physical courage. Now I don't like what they did but they did accomplish something using both their intellect and physical courage.

  4. 5

    Ending paragraph: Emphatically agreed.

    The rest: I made a point to discuss why the Superman narrative is not in fact the story of a super-scientist unfairly villified. That was kind of the crux of half of this essay. I was also not impugning Superman's motives, which are of course above reproach. Part of what makes the Superman character work is that he's practically a saint, after all. Even if he wasn't, his villains being genuinely villainous would make up for it. There are definitely Superman stories that don't fit this anti-intellectual narrative, and the series I watched had enough creative twists that it's a poor example compared to, say, the Superman comic books. Any episode with Dr. Hamilton in particular shows Superman in a more cerebral light, and the Apocalips plot arc shows him as a tormented, emotional figure on top of that. Nevertheless, as I discussed above, the basic, everyone-knows-it Superman narrative provides an easy cultural touchstone on which to hang the fact of anti-intellectualism in visual media.

  5. 6

    Yay, go Beast Wars!

    Me and my friends loved this series so much, and I think it’s largely due to what you describe.

    I never really minded the supervillains losing in the end, but what I did mind were that:
    A) Even though we are always told heroes have a positive presence, there seems to be a never ending supply of street muggers/assaulters for heroes to beat down on without any fear of hurting real people. There never seems to be any real change between society through their presence. Now some series address that, but most really don’t care.
    B) This always comes back to bite those series when they do their “aliens take over the world” episodes, because why would I care about the world as it is when it produces so many super villains and small time crooks.
    C) Somehow, alien dictators, both at home and in different countries and planets are always easy to overthrow, getting earth right back to where we were before the invasion, yet somehow making any additional improvements is just outside the realm of abilities. Also when that stuff happens humans and freedom are suddenly all super great and unified and stuff, but the day after everything is back to square one.

    The justice league cartoon was at its best when it explicitly addressed these things, but even that series was full of that kind of storytelling.

    This was a great read. I’ll be sure to send it around.

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