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?
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, hoping 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?
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 with 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 that 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.↩