When the Social Issues of Lakewood Plaza Turbo Hit Close to Home

When the Social Issues of Lakewood Plaza Turbo Hit Close to Home

Cartoon Network’s OK K.O.! Let’s Be Heroes joined the national conversation on gun violence when five new episodes were digitally released weeks after the mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida. One of them, “Let’s Not Be Skeletons,” features allegorical argument for gun control. The timing was coincidental, as animated television develops over months to years. The episode was actually pitched back in July of 2016, (coincidentally or otherwise) not long after the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando, Florida.

While OK K.O. usually follows the goofy adventure of K.O. on his dream of becoming a hero at his local plaza populated with superpowered humans and non-humans alike, it’s no stranger to social issues. The main conflict rests between a heroic bodega and a villainous corporation, after all. Sometimes it even address issues directly; including climate change in the Captain Planet-based episode “The Power is Yours,” journalism in “Action News” (unfortunately overshadowed by “Let’s Not be Skeletons” when they were released simultaneously), and misogyny in “Second First Date.” However, this post focuses on how OK K.O. explores real world racism, addiction, and of course gun control through its fictional setting in some of its best episodes.

rad

“Everybody Likes Rad?” storyboarded by Geneva Henderson and Mira Ongchua spotlights Rad, the macho alien teenager with a secret sensitive side, as he becomes an Internet sensation. Rad aims to record a video of himself launching a rocket named after him, but trips as the rocket flies off-camera and he exclaims “blorp!” and falls down. He embraces the unintentional comedy of the Vine-length clip and obsessively watches the viewcount rise. Henderson describes it as “an episode about being artistically misunderstood,” which for Rad means his audience fixates on “blorp” like a catchphrase rather than the overall comedic timing.

The episode has a lot to say about fame, like Enid’s example of someone who has to be on fire constantly for attention because that’s what he became known for in a single video. In Rad’s case, his “thing” is apparently being an alien. The hypervisiblity of Internet popularity is multiplied by him being an alien, since others find “blorp” funny specifically because it’s something they’re unfamiliar with. The audience knows and loves the residents of Lakewood who ask Rad if it’s “a Planet X thing” face to face, but even they’re susceptible to ignorance. The hype surrounding “blorp” is not unlike how the words of poor Black folks like Antoine Dodson, Sweet Brown, or Charles Ramsey are spread as memes by white Internet users. Space aliens on Earth as a metaphor for immigration and diaspora may be cheesy, but through it OK K.O. address how members of a second generation like Rad are marginalized even when they’re successful. Like Rad says, really what he said wasn’t funny, but how he said it.

Rad’s video and surrounding fandom gain the attention of an over-the-top film director. He casts Rad as a catchphrase-spouting alien, with cliches like “take me to your leader” that children can recognize to hammer in the idea of pigeonholing based on actor ethnicity. Rad got famous for being an alien, so now people only want him to fill the role they expect. The director points out how stereotypical roles are across Hollywood: “the hapless funnyman, the attractive woman, the loyal yet goony pet, the strong attractive woman, the rugged yet charming leading man.” (Even OK K.O. could use more women outside the identical attractive woman and strong attractive woman, honestly.) When Rad suggests fleshing out the character, they recast him with a human painted blue (who happily delivers all the “blorp” lines no less) and he returns to his friends who truly appreciate his talent. It reminds us that sometimes what’s best is to walk away from an opportunity that contributes to marginalization.

kappas

“No More Pow Cards” storyboarded by Stevie Borbolla and Danny Ducker involves the marginalized and media like “Everybody Likes Rad?”, but on another axis to show representation for the multifaceted issue it is. While Rad experienced pigeonholing and hypervisibility through Internet popularity, Dendy and her fellow kappas have been excluded from Pow Cards and rendered invisible. The collectible cards that represent the populace of the show’s universe may be Dendy’s hobby and special interest, but long-standing prejudice keeps her from ever being a part of them. Her situation is just like someone who enjoys pieces of media for the genre or medium or otherwise, but whose demographics are not present.

It’s a systematic exclusion, as she shows K.O. how when she tries to sign up at the Pow Card vending machine the screen reads “no kappas.” That may seem extreme, but people are rejected from institutions based on their background every day. Dendy explains the history of prejudice against kappas in a lovely My Neighbors the Yamadas-inspired sequence: incoming land-dwellers forced them out of their aquatic homes to live under bridges where they fed on scraps. Even in their isolated and limited circumstances, the land-dwellers intruded on them. When the kappas rightfully retaliated, they were painted as “monsters.” OK K.O. recontextualizes Japanese folklore where kappas are dangerous tricksters as the result of colonization, which portrays the indigenous kappas as “savages.” In only the first few minutes, the show urges the audience to question where negative perception of specific groups comes from.

K.O. had no idea about Dendy’s situation, and decides the moral action is to give up on Pow Cards for excluding his best friend. The two of them almost throw their collections into the same volcano where Rad tossed the DVD copy of the movie that aimed to stereotype him. Their conversation quickly covers the scope of engagement with problematic media: K.O. struggles with how important the cards are to him and their friendship, K.O. wonders if he’s just as bad for hanging onto them, and Dendy decides they can keeping appreciating Pow Cards while acknowledging their problems.

It would be one thing to end the episode on that note, but they resolve to go to the source and interrogate why the manufacturer excludes kappas. They may be scummy, but the over-the-top expressions and voice performances of CEO Cardsley and his assistant Carla nearly steal the show. Cardsley claims he’s never met a worthy kappa, but Dendy suggests that others will never see kappas as heroic so long as they aren’t depicted positively, even for themselves to look up to. She requests to override the Pow Card system with a code of her own design to prove her point, and when it’s implemented the bulk of kappa cards and income from new customers overwhelms Cardsley. Kappas are finally included and represented, but of course the company is prouder of their revenue than social change. None the less, Dendy is happy to have her very own Pow Card that marks the heroic act for her people.

boxman

“Stop Attacking the Plaza” also storyboarded by Stevie Borbolla and Danny Ducker peers into the domestic life of the bad guys, by framing Lord Boxman’s fixation on Lakewood Plaza Turbo as an addiction. His purpose in the show as been to antagonize the protagonists out of resentment for their friendship, but it turns out that has distracted him from his job overseeing Boxmore and put him in the red. His board of investors, a trio of fellow villains with eye-catching character designs and demanding presence, decide that if he can’t spend 24 hours without attacking the plaza they will stop funding his business and effectively fire him.

At first Boxman scoffs at the request, but soon enough keeps having to force his hand away from a big red button that would launch robots at the plaza. There are other ways to interpret his obsession, such as hyperfixation, but the addiction metaphor becomes blatant in this episode with the use of cold turkey treatment. It is not related to a substance, but behavioral. Addiction can hypothetically take the form of any behavior, like siccing robots on the bodega across the street, but Boxman’s condition can also be read as representing a more realistic one like gambling or substance abuse. Unfortunately Boxman’s assaults on the plaza always end in defeat, which only makes him try over and over for a reward and blame his robot minions.

The Boxmore robots hear about their father’s predicament and try to cheer him up with a family dinner. Their adorable dinner becomes an intervention when the children voice concern over how hard the task must be on him, considering how important the plaza is to him. Boxman insults them as usual, denies he has “a problem,” and resolves to go the full 24 hours alone. In a wonderful musical number inside the factory, Boxman laments the work and passion he’s missed from preoccupation with Lakewood Plaza Turbo. For the end of the 24 hours, Boxman steps into Gar’s Bodega to prove himself. He resists the taunting from the employees, but when time’s up he still declares hatred for the plaza and friendship. Boxman declares he doesn’t “need” to attack the plaza, but can continue to do so because he “wants” to.

Boxman ends the same place he started, but now in denial, in a display of how cold turkey doesn’t work as a long term solution. He may feel in control, but addiction will continue to impair his work and relationships. The exception is his relationship with Professor Venomous, who’s inspired by what he sees as Boxman’s devotion to fighting heroes and may be unintentionally enabling him. It remains to be seen where Boxman’s compulsion will go, especially within his dysfunctional family, as the show goes on.

skeleton2

Finally, “Let’s Not Be Skeletons” storyboarded by Ryann Shannon and Parker Simmons tackles gun control in the most creative exploration within the show’s universe, having to work around how the characters battle and use weapons regularly. The flashy entrepreneur Gil Ferris comes to town singing the praises of his product, the skeleton remote, in the vein of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man. He demonstrates how the remote can irreversibly transform anything into a skeleton with a single zap, which, unlike their everyday skirmishes, permanently robs the victim of their powers.

He advertises the skeleton remote as an all-purpose solution to “safety.” While the citizens of Lakewood get swept up in fearmongering and comically shoot the skeleton remote at one another, K.O. worries about the permanent effect. Everywhere he turns his friends have become skeletons, which may as well make them dead. The situation escalates as a lack of background checks allows villains to get their hands on the weapon too. Ferris simply offers three-pronged remotes to heroes as defense, believing in the myth that a “good guy” with a gun can stop a “bad guy” with one, creating an arms race.

In desperation K.O. performs his own musical number, at first advocating for the skeleton remotes to be discarded. When the crowd objects with their fear of strangers, like those who argue for “stand your ground” laws that allow lethal self-defense, he suggests regulations in a play on “remote control.” They still refuse to restrict their right to protect themselves, like those who argue the Second Amendment includes individual ownership, particularly K.O.’s boss and father figure, Mr. Gar. The tone becomes serious and tense as the situation escalates to Mr. Gar and trigger happy Neil chasing K.O. and holding him at gunpoint for threatening their rights.

Just as K.O. in tears aims his own skeleton remote back at Mr. Gar and Neil, he wakes up. In this case, the story being all just a dream doesn’t diminish it because K.O.’s fear was all too real. His anxiety around public safety was so strong it led to irrational possibilities like Mr. Gar trying to hurt him, which reminded me of my childhood fear that even the homes of those who seemed nice could secretly contain guns that could hurt me. K.O. was right to worry, since “stand your ground” laws lead to increase in reported deaths. His mother Carols recommends calling local congress, and their superhero congresswoman bans the potential sale of skeleton remotes. Real life isn’t so simple, but it shows how legal action for gun control is vital. When even children like Tamir Rice and the students of Sandy Hook are victims of firearms, it’s important for children’s entertainment like OK K.O. to address such issues in ways approachable to them. With the second season underway, hopefully more social issue-themed episodes are on the way.

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