Teenagers With Attitude (and Spandex): Behind the Scenes of the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers"

Controversy

Just a Lil' Casual Racism

The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers had your typical high school stereotypes: Jason, the jock; Kimberly, the hot popular girl; Trini, the hot girl's more grounded best friend; Billy, the nerd; Zack, the dancer; Tommy, the brooding badass; and Bulk and Skull, the dumb, bumbling bullies. That was nothing new. However, the show took it a little too far, albeit unwittingly, by having the Rangers' colors correspond to racial stereotypes. That is, Zack, the African-American guy, was the Black Ranger, and Trini, the Asian girl, was the Yellow Ranger. 

Levy: It wasn't intentional at all. At that time, Haim and I were new to this country. We didn't grow up in the same environment that exists in America with regards to skin color. We grew up in Israel, where being a black person is like being any kind of color. It's not something we talked about all the time. It wasn't a big issue. And that's also how I felt in Paris, where we lived for seven years before coming here. 

Fielding: It wasn't until 10 years ago that everybody started to make fun of Zordon's pigeonholing all these characters based on their skin color, and I was like, "Oh, wow." [Laughs.]

I got a chance to talk with Tony Oliver, a voice actor on the show, not long ago. We were onstage together at a convention, and it even caught them by surprise. The producers didn't even realize it until the maybe second season when they saw that the Rangers were color-coordinated.

The first time I saw College Humor's "Zordon Is Racist," I thought that was hilarious. But it was totally innocent on Saban Entertainment's part. 

Johnson: It's hilarious. Walter Jones used to crack good-humored jokes about that. I think it's funny if it was done unintentionally by the big bosses. But really? Come on. It wouldn't happen today.

Goodson: If they didn’t do it, people would say, “Well, why didn’t they make the Black Ranger a black Ranger?” You could get criticized either way. The girl who played the Yellow Ranger after Thuy wasn’t Asian, she was black. You could find something to scoff at everywhere.

Keeping It PG

When you're a superhero, it comes with the territory to blow stuff up and beat up bad guys. However, that didn't fly with some parents. In Canada and New Zealand, the show was banned for its violence amid complaints that the show encouraged kids to resolve conflict through physical fighting.

Levy: Those challenges started at the very beginning of the show, long before Lord Zedd and all of that. Power Rangers was almost like a live-action cartoon. In cartoons, the Road Runner, Tom and Jerry, they blow each other to pieces. The truth is, there was never any physical interaction between a human and another human. It was always volence between silly-looking monsters. You could see the zippers on the costumes if you looked hard enough.

At the same time, we wanted to influence kids in a positive way. That was important to Haim Saban and me. We came up with an idea of making the Power Rangers the ambassadors for D.A.R.E. 

Wasserman: The White House, especially Tipper Gore and Al Gore, were starting to come down on Saban about all this "evil" rock music I was doing for kids. Kids were hearing the word "fight," and it made them violent. That's ridiculous. Of course it's the song's fault and not the kid's fault, so they came and said, "Guess what? [The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: A Rock Adventure] album is going to have to have dialogue all over it in order to tone it down." It was politics.

Saban came to me and said, "Here's some words we don't want you to use anymore. We don't want you to use the word fight, never use the word hit." They said, "If possible, everything has now got to be in major chords." In other words, happier chords, not minor chords, which are considered to be dark.

 

Saban came to me and said, 'Here's some words we don't want you to use anymore. We don't want you to use the word fight, never use the word hit.' —Ron Wasserman

 

People only focus on what's wrong and negative. I remember one press conference where Haim Saban was saying he had grown up watching Cowboys and Indians stuff, and yet he didn't have any friends that were shot in the head with arrows. It's up to the parents to teach kids that violence is bad. I could see why Shuki would be upset about that. I know karate classes were filled across the country, but how could that possibly be bad? That was getting kids off their asses to learn a few moves. But nobody ever focuses on the positive message. 

Frank: I was the first one to do any interviews because I've done public speaking before about D.A.R.E. America, drug use, and violence. Violence was created long before the television camera. Could karate be dangerous? Yes. Everyone looks at me to say, "Well, what do you mean?" Your kids have to be educated in what karate is all about. That's why we did public service announcements.

I wish TV was what it was 20 years ago. Now you got movies like Kick-Ass, you got bad guys called "Mother-effers," you have people saying the B-word on the radio, you've got B-words on television. My little girl can't even listen to a song without sexual references.

The Power Rangers, to me, were role models that kids could look up to. It could tell kids if you're like Billy and you're calculating everything, you can be a Power Ranger; if you're a loner like Tommy, and don't have friend, you can make friends; if you're a valley girl like Amy Jo Johnson, a popular girl, you can hang with the non-populars.

If you watch our very first interview in the fan club package, you see that we're being interviewed in character—you never see our real names. They didn't want our real names. They wanted us to be Tommy the White Ranger and Green Ranger. One time, one of the kids asked: Where were the Power Rangers during the Oklahoma City Bombing? After that question, I told Haim Saban and everybody, "You better let the kids know that we're actors, because what's happening right now is that these kids think we're real, and I don't want to feel like I'm letting them down."

These kids needed to understand the facts about truth and reality. I got 500 kids looking at me, and I'm in my superhero costume. No one has trained me how to do this. You have a kid that raises his hand and says, "Jason Frank, Tommy, I have a question: Is smoking a drug?" And, quick, you've got to think about how many people does this kid know that smokes. So of course I say, "Yeah, it's a drug. Nicotine is a drug." "Well, what can happen if you smoke?" "People can get lung cancer." "Oh my gosh, my mom's going to die because she smokes." And I'm saying, "No, buddy, listen—smoking is very bad for you, and as a kid you can remind people not to smoke because it will help them." These are the things I've been dealing with for years with Saban.

Johnson: People are allowed to have their own opinions and probably for some people's taste, the show was too violent and for others they can see the positive messages delivered in each episode. I think Power Rangers helped motivate a lot of kids in a lot of positive ways.

Goodson: When I started, my son was in preschool and I wanted to give the preschool all these toys as a way to fundraise. But they refused them. They thought the show was violent. I would argue, saying that kids were kicking the air. Everyone’s got an imaginary bad guy. They all wanted to be the good guys and they’re all fighting the Putties. Everyone was defending good. Everyone wanted to be a Power Ranger, not a villain.

I can see where, without parenting, maybe it wasn’t a good thing. You need a good parent to tell kids about the rules. I didn’t let my son watch some shows that I thought were too dark for his age. Or I would watch them with him and then tell them what not to do.

Fielding: A lot of people overlooked the fact that the Rangers were in a defensive posture. We weren't attacking, we weren't taking the fight to anybody. It's only when we were threatened, or our friends were threatened, that we did that kind of thing. I think that kind of got lost on a lot of parents, especially when you have an 8-year-old kid running around the house kicking stuff. In his mind, he's doing what the Rangers are doing: fighting the bad guys.

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