Ep. 26–Empathy, cross-dressing, and stench-plants

Let’s check back in on Ash as our protagonist. If you recall, very early on I noted that Ash faced a choice to imitate the total domination of non-humans that Kanto media seems to push or to continue to choose unconventional, less socially acceptable, potentially more open relationships to non-humans. I’ve also noted that Ash can be kind of sexist.

This arc of development makes sense, since Pokémon is, at its heart, about living amidst extreme and abundant difference. Sometimes the difference creates conflict. The show’s underlying message is that empathy, developed through first-hand experience, is how one navigates this difference. We see this with the Sabrina arc, ultimately about how a non-human learned to relate to an unstable young woman no one else could or wanted to deal with. Episode 1.26, in which Ash is explicitly called out on his lack of empathy, is a good place to check back in with our main character. Does Ash actually learn anything?

Misogyny

Episode 26 starts, more or less, with Ash being a sexist jerk. Arriving in Celadon City, “the great metropolis,” Brock and Misty are curious about the city’s famous perfume industry. Well, okay, Misty and Pikachu are into the perfume.1 Brock wants to stare at the parfumiers (gross Brock is back). Ash thinks that it’s a boring tourist activity, but instead of going off and doing his own thing, he bursts into the store and basically yells that Misty shouldn’t buy the perfume:

Perfume’s just a waste of money, and it stinks! … All perfumes are a rip off, because all they do is turn guys into zombies. Like this! [Points to Brock, who’s still ogling.]

So, to clarify, Ash hates perfume because “it’s a waste of money” (a very subjective opinion) and because he blames the perfume for Brock’s male gaze (instead of, say, Brock’s tendency to objectify and/or fethishize women).

What might otherwise have just been a way to humorously show Ash’s immaturity becomes more of a “thing” later in the episode when his insult to the parfumiers prevents him from fulfilling his glory-quest. Celadon gym, it turns out, is run by the very women he just insulted. The manager and inventor of Celadon’s best perfumes is the gym leader, Erica, who specializes in grass-type ‘mon. Erica and her parfumier/trainer bffs refuse to allow Ash to enter the gym because of his childish, insulting behavior in their shop.

Meanwhile, Team Rocket is trying to steal  the valuable perfume formula. They’re rebuffed by Erica’s gloom, a pokémon based on a corpse flower, whose main defense is a debilitating smell. They agree to help Ash get into the gym, Photo 2015-07-04, 9 00 55 PMhoping to use Ash’s battle with Erica as a cover for their own thieving. Ash, after a brief side eye, goes along with their plan which, in a lovely little twist, is to dress Ash up like a very girly girl. When he declares he can now “show [Erica] who’s the boss around here,” Jesse warns him that “That doesn’t sound very lady-like!” That is, Ash must perform a stereotypical mode of femininity similar to the one he so vocally despised in the perfume shop. Will this lead to Ash learning to be more understanding?

Empathy

image

Erica’s gym

Let’s all take a second to enjoy Erica’s gym, unlike any we’ve seen before. It’s a series of indoor biospheres, like a really homey botanical gardens. We see one of Erica’s entourage leading a little cluster of grass ‘mon in pok-aerobics while Erica tells a story about a prehistoric omanyte. Her gym aligns well LeftRightLeftwith my theory of gyms being centers of ecological control and imitation. Erica, though, does so not to display power but to create, in the ultra-urban space of Celadon, an open, inviting green space. When “Ashley” is enrolled in a “training class”, we see that the gym is a place of community engagement, an eco-cultural hub that actively works to create a safe space of interspecies interaction and to keep out those who aren’t respectful of others–people like Ash.

Her desire to foster understanding even of much-maligned ‘mon is inspired by the backstory of her own gloom. Erica’s gloom has been with her since she was a child, when it rescued her from a threatening grimer. She has since dedicated her life to understanding and living with grass-type ‘mon. Sure, she battles, but she also takes her perfume inspiration from them, taking what is usually a very human cultural practice and involving the non-human source of that decoration much more visibly and explicitly in the process. That is, Erica doesn’t just use grass-types but seems to work with them.2

When the Ashley disguise fails, Ash gets his battle with Erica. Her opinion of his battling technique is that he “lacks empathy” with his ‘mon. Her gloom’s stench attack is threatening to utterly defeat Ash and his team when everything goes wrong. Team Rocket, nabbing a vial of something from the secret safe, makes a big scene and blasts their way out of the gym, setting the place on fire. Gloom is trapped inside, and Ash rushes in to save it. When he finds Gloom, he hesitates, fearing Gloom’s stench will overwhelm him; leaping across a wall of flame anyway, he finds thatPhoto 2015-07-03, 2 26 11 AM Gloom isn’t stenching. Gloom must feel safe. So… has Ash demonstrated empathy through earning Gloom’s trust?

I’m not sure, because Ash doesn’t seem to have learned to be more respectful of women, and he never had any particular animosity toward Gloom. Erica clearly grants him the rainbow badge out of gratitude. We don’t get the sense that Ash has significantly changed. After all, he’s always been brave and willing to risk his own safety to save others. This self-sacrifice is noble but not necessarily based on empathy. Instead, in this episode we see Ash dismiss certain kinds of “femininity” and then perform (read: appropriate) them for his own ends, later casting them aside as a “stupid costume” as soon as it’s no longer useful. Since he was never particularly prejudiced against Gloom, rescuing the stinky shrub doesn’t show change. In fact, when he emerges from the flames with Gloom, he’s wearing his “battle outfit”–cap turned backwards, game face on. He’s an okayish person, but on his own terms, in his own way.

I think we have to accept that Ash will always act on his own terms. He’s consistently rude about accepting help/advice, he’s reluctant to admit his own faults. If “empathy” is what Ash learns, it’s not empathy through flexibility. Early on I mentioned how Ash’s willingness to do things his own way was an ambiguous trait, potentially making him either a really positive or a really flawed character. I don’t think that’s going to change. Ash is always going to be a basically decent but flawed character. With Brock and Ash both being characters that are coded good but still relate to Others (i.e., pokémon and females) in problematic ways, maybe the thesis of the show so far is hashtag YesAllMen, or at least YesAllTrainers?

1. Once again I’m just going to take a moment to appreciate, deeply, how overwhelmingly Pikachu adores Misty. He loves her, he follows her around, he goes out of his way to avoid coming into conflict with her. He seems to really like Ash, too, but once again, my ideal spin-off series would by Misty and Pikachu just running off to be bffs in some small, seaside town, leaving Ash and Brock to bro around being offensive.

2. The reward for beating Erica is the rainbow badge–fittingly, I watched this ep. around the time when the SCOTUS legalized gay marriage. The parallel may not be intentional, but the rainbow as a symbol of prismatic coexistence certainly aligns with the ethos of Erica’s gym.

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Ep. 7– Misty

Welcome back! This time we’re briefly touching on Misty, femininity, body-shaming, and the competitive drive in Kanto family dynamics.

Quick summary: Ash and co. arrive in Cerulean. Ash goes to the gym to challenge the leader, finds it’s three young women who are more into synchronized swimming than battling, realizes Misty is their younger sister, battles Misty, stops Team Rocket, gets a badge because of course he does, everything is handed to Ash, the end.

Misty

he may have imprinted on humans?

Who doesn’t love a good synchronized swimming team? I guess?

Misty’s sisters are much better at the performing arts than the art of battle. They run a synchronized swimming show which, apparently, fills a lot of seats, and let me tell you, Pikachu is into it in a big way. It’s kind of weird. Ash doesn’t get it.1

Misty doesn’t get it any more than Ash, apparently, because we find out she left “to become a great pokémon trainer.” Her sisters tease her, saying that she’s not one of “the Sensational Sisters” (crappy swim team name) but “the runt.” They also laugh at her because 1, she’s only been gone a few weeks, and 2, she’s not as beautiful as they are. They’re actually really mean. Sample dialogue–

Lily: Misty, you left here pretending you wanted to become a Pokémon trainer because you couldn’t compare with us. Because we’re obviously much more talented and beautiful than you are!
Ash: Uh-oh.
Misty: That wasn’t the reason!
Daisy: Well then, I guess, like, you came back because you couldn’t make it as a Pokémon trainer.
Misty: … The only reason I’m here is because he wanted to come!
Daisy: Well, he’s totally not someone I’d choose for a boyfriend – but you’re no prize yourself!

God, no wonder she left. I can’t help but wonder how much Misty is driven by the twisted and emotionally abusive body-shaming she gets from her sisters. Misty clearly admits she’s trying to prove something to them: “If I battle [Ash], that’ll prove I’m not a quitter and I’m just as good a trainer as you three!” I’m not convinced that Misty actually feels inferior to her sisters, but she does want to make them realize that she isn’t.

I mentioned in the last post that a culture of competition had affected Brock’s life– his desire to be a breeder and his father’s absence. Here we see that there’s some pretty toxic sibling rivalry behind Misty’s drive to be a trainer. They tease her because she can’t even compete when it comes to their swimming, and she leaves to be a trainer. The show doesn’t spend a lot of time on either Brock’s or Misty’s family issues, and we aren’t obviously meant to consider how battling has affected the characters’ home lives; but any consideration at all leads us to realize that the culture of competition has created lasting scars in two out of the three families we’ve encountered.

Also, I think we could read Misty’s desire to prove herself specifically at battling as motivated by her sisters’ mean girling. Unable to perform (attain? model?) the normative beauty standards mastered by her sisters, Misty instead seeks social standing/worth, not in the way she presents her own body, but the way she controls the bodies of others (i.e., pokémon). This also supports the idea that in this world there’s often an extension of a trainer’s social self (social standing, self worth, professional aspirations) into their pokémon– literally, in Ash’s case (see the last post), more metaphorically in Misty and Brock’s.

PikachuDelight

Pikachu, on the other hand, is still *really* into the whole thing

And here’s where it gets even sadder. So when we finally get to see Misty battle Ash, she’s good. It’s more satisfying because Ash has been sexist from the start of the episode. He assumes the town’s gym leader is a man several times and is shocked when it’s three sisters (see the picture of that moment of discovery that girls can be in positions of power, too). Later, when Misty sends out Staryu and the Pokédex tells him that many people use the cores of staryus as jewelry, Ash quips, “Just like a girl to show off her jewelry.” It’s misogynistic (that subtext of scorn and disgust is just, ugh, I cannot even, Ash) as well as obliviously mean, since Ash just saw the way Misty is put down by her sisters. It’s also completely unwarranted as, in the end, that “girl” has a better handle on strategy and does objectively better than Ash, and you’re pretty close to going on my list Ash you do not want to be on that list.

Ash’s attitude toward Misty as “a girl” (not “the girl,” not “my friend who happens to be a girl,” but the dismissive, reductive, generalizing, stereotyping, erasing, nearly-dehumanizing category) underscores Misty’s motivations and choices. As ostensibly as this episode follows Ash, Misty is the star(yu). The pokémon Misty controls are not cute, either– staryu/starmie are faceless and fight like spiked and demented frisbees. Misty’s training style is… professional? Utilitarian? She’s a good trainer, but not as emotionally engaged with her pokémon (that we can see) as Ash. She doesn’t have Pikachu as her cute little friend, and Misty seems to be (purposefully?) avoiding coded-feminine markers in the same way she scorns synchronized swimming. Misty has been constantly reminded  that she can’t be what her sisters define as the “best kind” of girl– beauty queen performer. She has decided to perform her gender in such a way as to escape the paradigm/category in which she would judged as “a girl” and evaluated in comparison to her sisters. And still Ash continues to see her as “a girl.”2

Conclusion: Misty is pretty complex, and her temper makes sense– she prob. has some baggage from living with her terrible sisters who bombard her with body-shaming for years. She and Pikachu actually have a lot in common– both react pretty violently to irritations, (maybe) both have painful pasts– and Pikachu loves her so, so much. He misses her when she isn’t with them at the beginning, his little eyes light up when she comes back to battle Ash, and he refuses to battle against her because she’s his friend. I’d love an alternate series where she and Pikachu just take off together and live in Fuschia City and help each other heal and maybe run a bike rental service. Pokémon indie flick meets Studio Ghibli film. Somebody make that, please. Or do a comic? I’d settle for a comic.

And that’s it! Thoughts? Something to add/nuance/correct about my framing of  bodies/gender politics? Do comment.

1. I’m pretty sure he actually says “I don’t get it.” I might start a counter, because I think he says that a lot. I wanted a video, but if you google “Ash I don’t get it supercut,” instead of a humorous video of Ash being repetitively clueless, you get a bizarrely high number of hits for a Supercuts in Ohio. So cool, maybe this blog is filling *some* kind of void, I guess? UPDATE: Ash actually says “I can’t understand it,” but sadly that phrase doesn’t turn up any funny videos, either.

2. When my sister was little she couldn’t pronounce the “sh” sound so she talked about “Ass Ketchum.” Little did she know how right she was. href=”#ref2″>;↩

Eps. 1-3: Environmental Mediation and Engagement– Pokommodification, Ash as a transgressive figure, and PokePrivilege

There’s a lot to say about Ash as a character. I’ll write an entirely different post about the Pokémon characters in the first three episodes, but for now, let’s jump into what we’re shown of Ash.

(How to read: Sections can be read on their own if you don’t want to read it all; links are to pictures, gifs, or definitions. None of them are necessary, all of them are wonderful, and the alt text is always a joke. See also the note on the text.)


The Mediation of Merchandise 

Wow, okay, from the first we get a lot of imagery of commodification of Pokémon Pokommodification. (Pun train! Hoothoot!)

In the first few minutes of ep. 1, we see that Ash’s room is filled with random Pokecrap. The merch that Ash has ranges from kind of cute—Snorlax beanbag chair—to really chintzy—a voltorb that opens up into a clock with a spring-bobble pidgey cuckoo, which makes no sense at all and is the kind of crap you get for nephews you don’t like. Ash very literally buys into the Pokémon obsession, which (as someone with a plush woobat hanging three feet away) I get. It’s interesting, though, that there is very clearly an in-world industry of IMG_8569Pokémon merch not dissimilar to the industry we see in our world*.  This is clearly not presented as product placement for real-world merch– I’m pretty sure they never made a poliwhirl pencil sharpener or a glass zubat mobile. So the toys are there to signal… what, that Ash, like the viewers, loves Pokémon and Pokémon  toys? Or can we read it as a sign that Ash’s society is heavily invested in Pokemon as entertainment objects, that Pokémon have been turned into commodities in the entertainment industry (and, I’m suspecting, the food industry, the energy industry, the tourism industry– we’ll see). Ash is at a remove from real Pokémon, something that becomes abundantly clear through his vast knowledge gaps. Ash surrounds himself withPokémon simulacra as he hopes/waits to encounter actual Pokémon. The result is that he has no idea how to interact with living Pokémon. CeciNestPasUnPidgey

Another way we know immediately that Ash has engaged with Pokémon  primarily through media representations—the first shots of the first episode directly mirror the grey, pre-game scenes of the Gen I games, then turn to full color, exciting shots of what seems to be an actual and immediate fight, and then fade again into the flickering grey of a television screen as we pull back to find that Ash is watching a televised battle. What’s more, some of  this battle makes up the theme song footage of the show’s first season. This draws our attention immediately to the fact that Ash, like us, is watching  filtered, fictionalized representations of Pokemon, even though Ash (unlike the viewers) plans to dedicate his early years to interacting with the real thing. (Some of us also planned this, settled for literature instead. Pokesigh) His rote memorization of his choice of starters, also learned through an educational broadcast (maybe some kind of MOOC that Oak teaches?) is obviously the excitement of the inexperienced.

Educational Mediation– Oak and Pokedex

I’m gonna say up front that I think Prof. Oak is hella shady. A lot of information and power is given by Oak and for various reasons  I’m somewhat suspicious of him as an objective source of information. (More on this later.) When Ash receives a Pokédex from Oak in the first episode and then begins to rely on it for information, I’m immediately wary. For one, it’s apparently an identification device registered to Ash and only Ash, although Ash himself isn’t aware of this. (We see this in episode 2 where Ash basically gets asked for papers at a police checkpoint.  Flagging this, what is up with the political situation that they’d both allow a ten year old to wander, sans guardian, but also demand to see his papers?)

Worse, though, the ‘dex is simply more mediation that gives Ash information about Pokémon that is highly questionable. For example, when Pikachu comes under attack from a spearow after Ash throws a rock, the ‘dex explains that “Wild Pokémon tend to be jealous of human trained Pokémon.” Let’s unpack this:

Actually, no, you know what, I straight up call bullshit, because Ash just threw a rock at the spearow. The spearow is not jealous, it’s angry, possibly frightened, and we know (because the Pokédex told us moments before) that humans have to weaken wild Pokémon by using their own Pokémon. Wild Pokémon aren’t jealous, it’s just that the real threat to the spearow is not Ash but the Pokémon Ash is (in theory) controlling. Do wild Pokémon follow the “battle rules” that you don’t attack people but instead displace aggression onto Pokémon proxies? If so, then human-Pokémon interactions have drastically influenced the behavior of wild Pokémon. (I know that there’ll be instances of Pokémon attacking humans directly, but I’m flagging this as a running concern–do wild Pokémon usually ignore humans and focus on the domesticated Pokémon?)

Transgressing Boundaries, Ritual Aggression, and Ash’s Revolutionary Potential

smdh

Ash’s inexperience is clear even after he actually gets a Pokemon. Just like he doesn’t get why that spearow is attacking Pikachu, he tries to use his jacket to weaken and catch a pidgey after Pikachu won’t obey him. Spoilers: doesn’t work.

Later (episode 3), with Pikachu and a newly captured pidgeotto too weak to fight, Ash attempts to fight Team Rocket himself to avoid sending a weakened caterpie to battle ekans and koffing. Although it’s been established that Team Rocket doesn’t follow the rules (“The Pokémon League rules say only one at a time,” protests Ash– so there’s a governing body regulating ritualized bloodsports?!), even James laughs and literally flicks Ash off, scornfully informing Ash and the viewers that “In Pokémon battles, only the Pokémon can fight each other.”

This. Right here. This. This makes me so excited, because this is Ash’s biggest failing, that he doesn’t “get” how Pokémon training really works, and his ignorance prevents him from performing the human-Pokémon dynamic that’s been modeled for him. It’s this ignorance, then, that ultimately makes him a transgressive character.

Leave Pikachu alone!

He keeps keeps crossing the line, and this provokes ridicule from others; but crossing the line and leaping into danger himself  is what earns him Pikachu’s respect in the first ep. In contrast to his highly mediated, self-distancing obsession with Pokémon merch and TV shows, his first moves as a trainer all involve throwing himself over the boundary of How Things Are Done. Sure, okay, part of this is throwing rocks at birds and trying to catch them in his clothing, but it’s also shielding Pikachu from spearow attacks with his own body or trying to physically fight off adult criminals himself rather than sending out his poor concussed caterpie. What many take as a sign of Ash’s total ignorance is a much more direct engagement with his world than most of Ash’s peers are willing to attempt. (He starts off on foot, after all; cf. Gary Oak, who travels by car.) They may be more savvy about how to actually participate in the discourse and practices of Pokémon training, but none of them are as willing to actually enter into “the world of Pokémon” as whole-heartedly, whole-bodily as Ash is.

Indeed, in a tightly controlled cultural arena (literally), Ash is willing to transgress cultural codes. I’m going to call it now, Ash is a potentially dangerous and revolutionary figure. Listen, I know we don’t end up in season 13 following Ash’s struggles as the hunted leader of a violently Marxist revolution fighting against both the Pokémon  Yakuza and a totalitarian government as he takes a stand for Pokémon personhood** (writing that sentence made me so excited)– BUT, Ash is immediately breaking rules, both out of compassion and due to his inability to perform the type of control/mastery/competitive competence that will make one “the best.”

And I don’t want to overstate the point– Ash still has a driving desire to be a master. He’s totally gobbling up what the media’s been serving. While the side of the good/evil line Ash belongs on is never really in doubt– he’s not only young and non-threatening but also essentially good-hearted and, for a ten year old, compassionate– there exists in my head and heart a darker, more nuanced version of the show in which Ash is a more conflicted character (a Potter Sorting Hat type deal) whose disregard for/ignorance of the rules could go either way, fueling his ambition and making him a dangerous power-seeker or causing him to question a system that he has, til now, accepted uncritically. These ideas are here in the show, they’re just never really made that dark and complex. Probably audience concerns, but when I was watching first season Saturday morning reruns, I’d’ve loved that stuff, so… 

The Oak Dynasty, Privilege, and Gender(?)

One of the reasons I’m suspicious of Oak is the subtle hints of his privileged position. Not just him, but the structure of the society as a whole seems tinged with privilege. Power comes from Oak in the form of starter ‘mon, in the form of knowledge, in the form of technology. Gary obviously knows more about Pokémon than Ash and, as I mentioned, he leaves by car, which implies greater wealth. The Oaks are obviously a Pokémon dynasty who are thriving within the structure of things and who embody the competence and mastery Ash desires. It’s nepotism, guys and gals, plain and simple. 

Unlike Oak/Gary, Ash is immediately associated with women, living with his mother

Ash's house

Ash’s lonely, lonely house

in a small house on what looks like the very edge of town. (Flagging it: Is Ash’s association with women, as opposed to the Prof Oak/Gary pairing, a theme? If so, what is the implication?) Ash may be a marginalized figure– Gary demands Ash address him with an honorific, saying, “Mr. Gary to you. Show some respect!” (This was the reason we all named him BUTT in the Gen I games. Mr. Butt. Lolz.)

Ash: You aren’t afraid of an itty bitty Caterpie in a pokéball are you?

Then Ash is sort-of mentored, sort-of befriended, sort-of harassed by this rando girl whose relationship to Pokémon isn’t clear. (She’s got a goldeen, but she’s afraid of bugs? know that Misty is a member of a gym, but Ash doesn’t.) As strange as his friendship with Misty is, it’s a stark contrast to the fawning admiration the cheerleader girls lavish on Gary as he drives off to begin his journey. And honestly, some of the nicest moments come when we see that Ash and Misty’s antagonistic relationship is a sibling dynamic, with Misty’s irritation deflating when things get serious, and Ash being obnoxious but never really mean. They’re obviously comfortable together. Misty arguably has much greater grounds for demanding respect than Gary–like Gary, she is an “insider,” able to navigate the social structures with which Ash is struggling. Unlike Gary, though, Misty treats Ash as a peer, more or less. (Ash repays her by being a total sociopath, because he is ten.) As a peer, she still has greater knowledge and occasionally advises/educates Ash. The question is, will her attitude toward Pokémon  inform Ash’s development as a trainer as much as the educational tools given to him by Prof. Oak? Are we seeing two different and conflicting ways of learning?

And that’s where we are! There’s probably more to be said, but that’s what comment sections are for! Coming soon, a closer look at the liminal Pokémon figures, and reading pikachu and meowth as foils (and, I think, kindred spirits).


Flagged:

– Political situation

– Do wild ‘mon usually attack trainer’s ‘mon instead of the trainer themself?

– Is Ash consistently associated with women? Is the show saying something about gender, and if so, what?


* I bought my Pikachu wallet at Hot Topic and the really pretty cashier said “You’ll be the coolest kid in town” but she said it in a patronizing way not a flirty way so I left in shame but now I have an awesome wallet, so oh, well, it just goes to show ya stuff.

** Googling for “Pokemon legally recognized as persons” (my search history is just the best; one search is “Octopodes are massing”) yields no fanfics about said legal battle, which is good  because I’ve had one about Mr. Fuji going up against eco-social injustice in the pipes for a while, and I am stone cold serious. Fuji-san for president.