Halfway through my work day, I looked at articles coming through my Reader and realized it is International Women’s Day. I had an idea I was going to sit on until Breast Cancer Awareness Month rolled out in October, but today seems appropriate anyway. This is getting a bit off of my usual topics, but my tag line mentions Turtles, so it’s about time we had some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle topics up in here.
So then, welcome to Transition Theater, where I will be discussing April O’ Neil, as she has developed and grown throughout the Ninja Turtles franchise and her role in pop-culture today.
April O’ Neil started in the second issue of the Ninja Turtles comics by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, not as a reporter, but a programmer and assistant to Baxter Stockman. When April discovered Stockman’s goal of using his mouser robots to rob banks, he turned them against her. She escaped to the sewers only to be rescued by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
As the comic progressed, April served as the Turtles primary contact with the human world, though this meant that she was usually conveniently left out of any extraterrestrial encounters. She also spends sometime away from the Turtles during the City at War saga, as does her compatriot Casey Jones.
This rendition of April, at least from what I’ve been able to read, is a girl a little ahead of her time. This being the mid-eighties, strong feminine figures were hard to come by, and a female programmer, at the time an engineering field, was rare. It seems that once April was rescued, Eastman and Laird didn’t exactly know what to do with her, so she mostly played a supporting role in the story-arcs she was involved in.
To their credit, however, she does not play the damsel in distress terribly often, her opening role being an exception. She also is not tied to the Turtles or even Casey in a romantic sense. There is some sexual tension between Casey and April, but these are not resolved within the pages of the first run of the series, only left within an amiable situation between them to leave to the reader’s conclusion. The only major flaw is that her character stays pretty static and one dimensional throughout and does not experience much in the way of growth overall.
This leads us to the next iteration of April O’ Neil: the cartoon series and Archie comics. This is the April O’Neil most of us are familiar with, and is quite a departure from the April from the original comics.
This April is a news reporter who runs afoul of a crime syndicate headed, unknowingly to her, by the Shredder. She is saved by the Ninja Turtles in similar fashion to the comics and befriends them, unwittingly volunteering to become their liaison and advocate on the surface.
Unlike the April O’Neil of the Mirage Comics, this April was much more significant to the series. Having access to the latest scoops gave the Turtles quicker access and response time to the Shredder’s underhanded schemes. She even had a handful of side characters (Verne, Vernon, and Irma) for her to interact with, and which later added to the madness as the series progressed.
April’s personality was far more fleshed out here as well, being headstrong reporter always on the go and ready to get the next big story. This served as both her strongest asset and her biggest flaw, as her drive to get the best shot or biggest story, usually landed her in a mess the Turtles would have to get her out of.
This suggests that she is, of course, the prototypical damsel in distress — in fact, the Turtles Forever full-length feature supports that notion. However, filing her away as such misses the entire point. April’s capture is usually due to her own stubbornness, not her weakness of being a woman. Yes, she struggles fighting against the villains of the show, but there is never a time she resigns herself to her fate. She is smart and resourceful. She frequently uses her feminine whiles against her adversaries, if only to get out her communicator and tell the Turtles what’s going on.
While the cartoon started to use April less as the setting became more dramatic, the Archie series expounded on this idea, allowing her to dabble in ninjitsu training herself, as well as move onward in her career as an independent news caster.
This April O’ Neil is the April many fans know and love, not just because she was hot, but because she was a strong and distinct character that many cartoons of the day were missing.
This brings us to the original trilogy of movies April O’ Neil. The first was Judith Hoag, who I prefer most of the two personally — mostly because she captured much of the essence of the character. Judith Hoag’s April was an ace reporter, much like the cartoon at the time. It was obvious the script and Hoag herself took this as their starting point. Hoag’s April is not only strong-willed but downright brazen in her attempts to seek and reveal the truth. Her pursuits over the police department’s reluctance to interfere with the Foot’s dealings — a clever stab at police in super-hero stories being worthless — result in her losing her job. This steels her convictions, however, as she devotes the rest of her screen time aiding the Turtles in blowing the cap off the Shredder’s evil schemes.
The changes to the character and the more realistic repercussions of her actions makes this the definitive April O’ Neil in my mind. Though not strong by any means, she is clever, resourceful, and focused. When the Chief of Police tries to give her the brush off, she just presses the issue further. She helps the Turtles escape from the burning build through a secret crawl space, and even when offered her job back she continues to make demands.
Even though her relationship with Casey is far more romantic in this one, April makes it clear that she wears the pants in this relationship, calling all the shots even to the final kiss scene. April may not be able to knock you down, but you don’t want to get on her bad side of an arguement. These are the qualities I think of when thinking of April O’ Neil, and these are qualities subsequent iterations will try to follow.
Paige Turco took over the role for the subsequent movies. In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: Secret of the Ooze, Turco certainly does well, but the character at this point has been sidelined for the most part to allow new blood Keno to do his thing. She does help the Turtles uncover the mystery behind the TCRI, but otherwise she gets very little to do in the movie.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 gives Turco’s April a lot more to do, for better and worse. Her attitude toward the daimyo was certainly the strongest Turco got to play the character, though taunting with empty threats is not exactly April’s style. For the most part, she’s simply reacting to the wacky hi-jinx of feudal japan and mutant turtles. The movie also tried to imply a sexual tension between Whit and April much like the chemistry Casey and April had in first film, but it falls flat on a number of levels, not least of which being that this is not resolved once she returns to Casey at the end of the movie.
While I don’t find Turco’s rendition of April offensive, it did little to expand the character, and the fact that she was given little to do in the films didn’t help.
April thankfully was not present in the Next Mutation series, so our next major rendition comes in the form of the 2003 series April O’ Neil.
I stated before that April O’Neil in the original comics was ahead of her time in some respects. Well, the 2003 April was just about on time. With the technological climate changing and women becoming more prominent in technical fields, April was able to come into her own more in this series. Her back-story remains mostly the same as the original comic. However, with writers being more familiar with technology, she became a more prominent member of the Turtles team. She is able to help the Turtles, particularly Donatello, with various technological endeavors, as well as being one of the Turtles major links to the outside world.
However, by rewinding April back to the days of the Mirage comics, it also meant that she was not the head-strong April of the 87 cartoon. This meant that she was not captive as often, since she was more careful to avoid such predicaments, but she also had little initiative of her own. She is given opportunities to be resourceful, but tends to be overshadowed by Donatello in that department. She does reopen her father’s antique shop, but it rarely comes into play much in the series.
The show inevitably covers this up by giving her a relationship with Casey, so that a good portion of her story-arc is spent following her man, not exactly a feminist’s ideal. It’s almost as though the series knew this and tried to over-compensate, with the next entry in the series.
In TMNT as well as the short lived “Back to the Sewers” cartoon, the writers seemed to want to make up for 2003 April by making this April the “perfect” woman. In TMNT, April has a successful career in archaeology, an apartment, and has a live-in boyfriend who wants to marry her and potentially have kids. That’s not enough though. In order to make sure she is the perfectly perfect modern woman, she also trained with splinter to use a katana. She is so well-trained in fact, she can match Karai — a ninja who could use a katana before she could walk — blow for blow in the movie’s climax.
While this is certainly a stroke for female empowerment, it’s also a penalty, as April embodies the state femininity so well, as to make anything less seem inadequate in comparison. In essence, instead of the strong, yet flawed character seen in the 87 cartoon and first movie, we get the cult of True Womanhood’s version of April O’Neil. While impressive, she fails to be a character in her own right, as she is just too perfect, at least for my tastes.
This brings us to April today. April in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon that started last year has shown some promise thus far. Being made younger eliminates her from being pigeon-holed into a particular role, while making her more easily relateable to the Turtles. The strange relationship with Donatello, her eagerness to learn ninjitsu, and gung-ho demeanor in the search for her father leave me sceptical how this incarnation will pan out.
In the meantime, Meagan Fox will be playing April O’ Neil in the upcoming Ninja Turtles movie, and I fear what this will mean for the character. Given the types of movies Micheal Bay has been known for, and the range of acting (or lack thereof) Meagan Fox is known for, I fear April O’Neil is about to be backpedaled into oblivion. As stated, the true essence of April has never been about the sex appeal, that was only a part of it. Her depth, resourcefulness, and fearlessness are what stuck with us throughout the years, and I’m afraid those characteristics are far beyond the scope of this upcoming movie.
So, here’s to you April O’ Neil! May your pizzas be cheesy, and your next transition be less so… Please, let it be less so.
Pictures taken from http://www.mikeystmnt.com/characters/profiles/april.htm, http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-talk/teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles-creator-slams-megan-fox-202123158.html, and http://kidstvmovies.about.com/od/tmnt2007/ig/TMNT–2007–Photo-Gallery/April-O-Neil.htm