From the November 1994 issue of TLD


A Clutch of Nettles
By Virginia Dare


The East is green (Mao, come back!)


The Young Pioneers, the Hitler Youth, and the Red Guards need to move over and make room for the newest kids' club on the block. Parents and teachers who fail to toe the party line, listen for that midnight knock on the door. The Gaia Guards are on the prowl, and neither your charcoal grill nor your can of aphid spray are safe from those little greenwashed brains.

Forty years ago, children's TV programming consisted mostly of puppets interacting with people: Beany and Cecil, Howdy Doody, and Kukla and Ollie ruled the airwaves, interspersed with cartoons with low animation standards. Or there was live action: I loved the Little Rascals, and my husband and his brothers practiced for hours — on each other — to perfect their Three Stooges techniques. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

By the time I got to be a parent, things had gotten more civilized. Housebound with two infants, I spent a lot of time letting Mister Rogers reinforce my self-esteem, and even if Sesame Street's hyperkinetic alphabet didn't have any long-term effect on the kids' reading skills, at least it was silly fun. It wasn't easy being green back then; but the times, they are a-changin'.

A few weeks ago, I botched the timer settings on the VCR; I thought I was settling down to drink my after-dinner absinthe with Rush, and instead, I was treated to the clumsiest piece of propaganda I've ever seen. (And yes, I did see Bill and Hillary's send-up of Harry and Louise.)

"Captain Planet and the Planeteers" opens each episode by explaining how Gaia (a foxy babe with dramatically white-streaked hair), watching the Earth being destroyed by industrialist scum, recruited a nifty multicultural set of five adolescent storm troopers, each of whom was given a magic ring that harnessed a specific element. (Five elements? you ask, O Best Beloved? 'Fraid so: Wind, Earth, Fire, Water — and Heart. But wait. It gets worse.) The characters are a Russian girl, an African boy, an Asian girl, a South American Indian boy, and a WASP-ish North American boy. They're an extraordinarily healthy-looking bunch, with even features and athletic physiques that suggest eugenic tampering. Whatever left-wing agenda is being played out on their stage, anti-lookism isn't part of it. Nor are they, bless their wholesome little hearts, Differently Abled in any way.

Except for the possibility that one of the crew is intellectually challenged, that is. In a neat little undercurrent of white-male-bashing, the North American kid is an Archie Andrews wannabe who thinks with his gonads, never uses finesse when force will do, and is virtually inarticulate. In contrast, the other four speak fluent English with just traces of the accents of their mother tongues, and they can think rings around their hapless American colleague. The girls treat him with complete contempt, and the guys patiently explain things to the poor dimwit until he finally catches on to whatever is happening and starts swaggering. In many episodes, the female troupe members demonstrate a solid bonding mechanism that at the very least glorifies the tenets of feminism and even leads me to wonder about their sexual orientation. (I hasten to add that after 20 minutes of this brain-numbing left-wing barrage, my internal color controls start tinting everything on the screen pink. Probably I bring it on myself by eating too much red meat.)

When overcome in battle with their enemies, our five heroes combine their powers and summon Captain Planet, a green-tinted superhero with the usual run of powers — flight, strength, and a self-righteous sense of humor — and another blue-ribbon genetic showcase.

The enemies, of course, are Evil Incarnate: industrialists, scientists, and real-estate developers out to rape the spotted owl and plunder the rain forests. Unlike our Cleen Teen protagonists and Captain Planet, the heavies are weasel-featured or porcinely gluttonous. In case the repulsive physiognomy or slovenly table manners or brutish business practices of the villains don't tip viewers to their essential nastiness, the show's creators have christened them with a heavy hand: Hoggish Greedly, Mr. Sludge, and Dr. Blight. Makes you yearn for the subtlety of Dishonest John and Phineas T. Bluster, doesn't it?

One episode had the villains pulverizing trees to make mass-market dining-room suites. The Planeteers were particularly irate about the composition-wood dinette sets, because the old-growth trees used to construct them were being sacrificed for something so cheap. One wonders what lower-income consumers are supposed to be using for furniture — have you noticed the inflated price tags of "environmentally responsible" goods lately? — but I guess we should be grateful for the opportunity to make these sacrifices.

And the peripheral heroes! Just as we judge a man's worth by his enemies, so we catch hints of the program's political bias by studying the principal figures' friends. A newscaster crusading against offshore dumping is captured by the evil industrialists and nearly eaten by a mutant squid before Captain Planet rescues him. A government inspectress is held captive by an evil scientist until Captain Planet rescues her. And the cure for a plague spread by the bite of mutant rats is found in a compound from a plant in the Amazonian rain forest. (Look, if reading a summary of this stuff makes your flesh crawl, I watched the damned thing for weeks, risking precious gray cells to bring you the truth, O Best Beloved.)

Interestingly enough, the Planeteers are vague or downright evasive about real-life solutions; sources of low-cost furniture aside, we never find out what to do with toxic waste. In one episode, Captain Planet takes several barge loads of nasty ooze and goes flying off into the horizon to "deal with it safely." We never find out what he does with it — it would be fun to think that he's advocating lunar landfilling or is sending it into solar orbit, but no! The waste just goes away. So much for teaching the possibility of responsible decisions based on careful analysis of the alternatives. Nobody ever said logic was a component of the ecological arsenal.

Each episode ends with a call for viewer action. You can help to save the planet by circulating petitions or by writing to your Head of State (note the impeccable One World touch), and by getting your parents to help you do these things. I anticipate future episodes telling infant viewers how to call the envirowatchers to turn their parents in for using ozone-depleting Freon in their air conditioners.

This, then, is children's programming in the era of the Global Village. If we're lucky, maybe the Greenhouse Effect will kick in before the Gaia Guards can head it off, melting the polar ice caps and shorting out the animation studios in the subsequent deluge.

Can it be that today's kids are so lacking in moxie that they actually enjoy this stuff? Supposedly, the average American kid spends upward of 40 hours a week watching television. Please, God, let him be watching American Gladiators, or Beavis and Butthead. I have to retain some faint hope for the future of civilization. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk.

Virginia Dare writes from the Old Dominion, whose heroes have always known how to take out the trash.

© 1994, 2002 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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