[Note: I’m a little short of time to get this post up. It’s been a long week. So I’ve looked into my archives and found something I wrote but never published a few years back when I finished watching Transformers: Prime. The series was very well made, but like I said about Voltron, it’s neck deep in the myth of redemptive violence. It also suffers from a significant gender imbalance, both of which seem to be epidemic in our popular culture].
Quick glossary if you’re not familiar with Transformers. Autobots are good guys. Decepticons are bad guys. Optimus Prime is the good guy leader, a sort of father figure to the rest of the Autobots. That and the 1-minute clip I showed above is all you need to know.
It’s no secret that I like cartoons. One that I enjoyed recently was Transformers: Prime, a CGI-animated series aimed at older elementary children. It had ongoing plotlines and darker elements that made it a poor fit for little kids, but Transformers: Rescue Bots has covered that age range admirably.
Now, I really enjoyed Transformers: Prime, even though it kind of ran on the Smurfette Principle:
- one female Autobot, Arcee, out of a team of 5-8 (depending on the season) total Autobots
- one female human “companion,” Miko, out of three
- one recurring female adult character, Jack’s mother
- one female Decepticon, Airachnid, out of a much larger cast of villains
Watch this if you’re not familiar with the Smurfette Principle:
The female characters were at least interesting.
- Arcee was by-the-book and extremely competent, but haunted by the loss of two previous partners.
- Miko was fearless, reckless, and brave in a way that seemed to fit her youth and personality.
- Jack’s mother was a smart, competent nurse who was trying to raise a teenage son alone, and doing a good job of it.
- Airachnid was diabolical, and smarter than most of the other Decepticons.
The truth is, the male characters were often less interesting than the female ones. And that leads me to the missed opportunity, arguably the most boring Autobot of all: Ultra Magnus.
It’s not really a spoiler to say that at some point in the series, Optimus Prime is missing and/or injured and/or captured and/or just not available to lead them, and the Autobots are scrambling to regroup and find a way to be effective without their great leader. That pretty much happens in every Transformers series. It’s a tradition.
And during this time, a space ship lands, opens its hatch, and out steps Ultra Magnus. Arcee is immediately relieved (and actually shows some happiness, which is rare for her). She knows Ultra Magnus is a powerful soldier and Optimus Prime’s old second-in-command. He can provide the muscle and the leadership the Autobots need to regroup.
The only problem? He’s Lawful Stupid. He’s so by-the-books he makes Arcee look like a 1960’s hippie. He doesn’t value the “indigenous organisms” (humans), and he has trouble getting along with the former Wreckers (Autobot special forces: Bulkhead and Wheeljack, who really are indispensable at this point, and Miko, who’s become an honorary Wrecker). Over the next few episodes, he has to learn to bend a little, and the Wreckers (especially Wheeljack) have to learn to listen and work with the whole group.
It’s kind of a cliched and lukewarm side-plot that doesn’t really make a major splash in the storyline. Worse, it’s something we’ve all seen a dozen times before. That side plot felt like a rerun, and so did Ultra Magnus.
So what’s the missed opportunity? What small change could they have made that would have cascaded into something a little more complex and a little more new?
Instead of Ultra Magnus stepping off that spaceship, it should have been Elita One. And they should have used the same exo-armored, broad-shouldered look they used for Ultra Magnus. Just give her a more feminine face and more rounded (but similarly massive) torso, and have a woman do her voice.
You instantly add several more wrinkles to the old story of strict authority vs “gets stuff done rogue” that we haven’t seen so much before.
It would implicitly raise the question: “is Wheeljack really just against all authority, or does he have a problem taking orders from a woman?” Maybe you don’t even have anybody breathe a word about that on screen, but it still hangs in the air and gives the viewer another angle to think about. Now, given the way Wheeljack chafed against Optimus’ orders, I think the answer to that question would be “he’s got a problem with authority, male, female, or other,” but at least the question would be available to consider.
If Elita One is drawn more like Ultra Magnus, then it give an unspoken nod to people who don’t fit in traditional gender roles or lines. Arcee is clearly very feminine. She’s the smallest Autobot by far, and she has curves that look very much like a human woman’s. Ultra Magnus was one of the biggest Autobots (excluding giants like Omega Supreme or Metroplex), and he was clearly built for power. Making Elita One his size and built (but with enough feminine curves to visually convey “female”) would show more body diversity than most shows that have a main cast of ten women.
Arcee could look up to Elita One as a career icon, the first woman to hold a position of high command in the Autobot army, the person who inspired her to join the military in the first place. That could make the conflict a little more personal, and the stakes a little higher than just “Lawful Stupid vs. Chaotic Effective.” Now Wheeljack isn’t just bucking the chain of command, he’s personally insulting Arcee’s idol. That could also lead to some drama when Arcee realizes that Elita One isn’t perfect, and turns against her for a little while, until Arcee realizes that she’s idolized Elita One, instead of accepting her for who she is.
There you go: one simple change, one little twist, but it transforms (no pun intended) a cliched, lukewarm subplot into something unexpected and rarely explored. Nothing in the main plot has to change a bit, but the subplots and subtext become (ahem) more than meets the eye.