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Movie Mom

Movie Mom

April O’Neil: Feminist Progress or Passive Object?

posted by Nell Minow

Photo by David Lee - © MMXIV - Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Photo by David Lee – © MMXIV – Paramount Pictures Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Could it be possible that Megan Fox as April O’Neil is the strongest heroine in any of the big summer blockbusters? Despite the title, April is in many ways the main character in “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” The film starts out focusing on her story as an intrepid would-be investigative reporter frustrated by the low expectations of her bosses (including Whoopi Goldberg) as she bravely pursues the big story. She continues to show courage and integrity throughout. Amanda Hess writes on Slate:

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Yes, the new movie is truly awful, but the gender politics, at least, have improved.

When Megan Fox was cast as April, [co-creator Peter] Laird complained that there were “hundreds of better choices for the role.” But Fox—the actress Bay previously hired to play an animated wet dream in his Transformers movies, then fired for being too sassy—is actually perfectly cast as a woman who’s long been dismissed as just a pretty face, and is itching to step into a more challenging role. In this iteration, April still ultimately chooses to team up with the ninja turtles instead of exposing them to make her name as a serious journalist. But this time, the movie actually writes April her own superheroine backstory (as a little girl, April bravely saved the mutant baby turtles that later grew into ninja teens) and gives her a real motivation for compromising her career (she does it, naturally, to avenge her father’s death). Along the way, she’s allowed to push some big buttons, flip some important levers, and drop-kick some evil villains as she fights alongside the turtles to defeat a corporate terrorist hell-bent on chemically attacking New York City in order to secure some government grants. It’s all incredibly stupid. But at least it’s equally stupid for girls and boys.

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On the other hand, my friend Sandie Angulo Chen wrote in her insightful Washington Post review:

Although the character of April was attractive in earlier “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” iterations, it’s disappointing (if predictable) that she’s overly sexualized in this installment. Mikey (Noel Fisher), he of the aroused carapace, is supposed to be smitten, but must he talk only about her hotness? Meanwhile, April’s loyal cameraman, Vern (Will Arnett), is perpetually ogling her body — even in moments of extreme peril. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by such fare from producer Michael Bay, but the character — not to mention young viewers of this Nickelodeon co-production — deserve better…Unfortunately, even during crowd-pleasing thrills, the comic relief once again circles back to the script’s favorite topic: April’s sex appeal. “Yes, that’s good,” Vern says, leering as she attempts a daredevil pose in a moving car.

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Fiona Duncan looks at this version of April in the context of the previous Turtle Tales.

“We took the archetype of April O’Neil,” says [director Jonathan] Liebesman, “the damsel in distress, and really molded it specifically to Megan… April is a character with a lot to prove. She’s beautiful but everyone doubts her, so we needed an actress who could literally give that sense that there’s far more there than meets the eye.” His latter claim fails in this film, as there’s not a single scene where there’s not a big deal made out of Fox’s hotness. Hotness is the butt of every April joke, including a couple, well, on her butt.

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The most feminist (as in, most believable as a human) April was Judith Hoag in the 1990, first live-action Ninja Turtle film. HOAG’S APRIL was smart, determined, and permed like an Adrian Lyne working woman; sometimes sexy, but not always. Predictably, Hoag was replaced by a more bubbly actress in the sequel (Paige Turco). “That was New Line’s call,” Hoag recently commented.

Looking at all the Aprils, we time travel through, not a history of American women or feminism, but of American entertainment media, including Hollywood’s move to fantastical franchises. April O’Neil is a damsel in distress now that she’s bound to Banal-lywood, which is distressing (Fox is a far cry from the independent arguably woman of color O’Neil started as), but what else is new?

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They’re all right. I was glad to see April showing some spirit in this film, but sorry to see that one of the many disappointments of the film was the way that Liebesman and producer Michael Bay tried to have it both ways, with April asking for respect but the men making the film not willing to give Megan Fox any.

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