The Themes of Power Rangers: Empowerment

To dismiss Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as "just a kids show" is a mistake. Like the best superhero stories, showed kids how they could stand up for themselves, take responsibility, and make a difference!

Power Rangers has been an undeniable (if at times annoying) part of the pop cultural landscape for the past two decades, and in that time every single one of us has watched it. Most just caught the odd episode here or there when they were babysitting or waiting for some other show to come on, but then something curious happened. A lot of us, more than will ever admit it, not only kept watching the show but got really into it, and when we got caught, we came up with all kinds of bullshit to justify loyally following a show aimed at kids half our age, gems such as:– I watch it ironically.– I watch it to make fun of it.– I only saw the movie in theaters because I took my little brother.– And, of course, the perennial classic: “Dude, the Pink Ranger was so hot.” Yeah. That was totally reason enough to sit through the other fifteen minutes of fully-helmeted content five times a week. Okay.Beyond all the lame excuses, however, there are legit reasons we kept tuning in. We came for the brightly colored spandex and bad special effects, but we stayed for something else. However flawed the execution, there were some underlying themes running throughout Power Rangers in all its various incarnations that resonated on a very fundamental level. In this series, I’ll be taking a look at those themes and what it was about them that held our attention…for years. 

We’ll start with “empowerment.” Kind of a no-brainer, this one. Hell, it’s right there in the title and it’s a theme that hits pretty close to home with young people from all walks of life. There isn’t a single kid in this world who at one time or another hasn’t wished for more power than they actually had. Whether it be to stand up to the bullies who pick on them, the adults who impose seemingly arbitrary limits, or even the very fears that hold them back, kids yearn for a version of themselves that can not only take on the challenges life throws at them, but win. It’s why superheroes have always been popular, but Power Rangers – much like the early years of X-Men – took it a step further: the heroes were kids.Several seasons of Power Rangers, most notably the first six, commonly referred to by fans as “The Zordon Era,” revolved around a cast of teenage heroes. While certainly older than the intended audience, these characters were still part of the in-group of non-adults, and as the audience grew up, they came to associate even more closely with the protagonists whose journeys they were following.Teenagers are the paragon of disenfranchisement. They’re finally old enough to really understand what they want and believe, yet lack the freedom to make their own choices. Their lives are still dictated by the beliefs and demands of adults, whether they’re reasonable or not. They are told how to dress, how to speak, with whom they can socialize, what to eat, where to go and when and for how long. Some kids are even bullied by their parents into certain career paths. The insights of even the most knowledgeable and articulate minor are often summarily dismissed as ignorant nonsense by adults who (if they even acknowledge the legitimacy of what is said) are too threatened by the source to give him his due. To be a teenager is to live a life of abject frustration. Power Rangers took this real world narrative and turned it right on its head.Though the in-universe logic of it was never addressed, the fact remains that Zordon, the Power Rangers’ longtime mentor and guide, not only chose teenagers to be the agents of humanity’s salvation, but did so specifically for the very qualities for which adults tend to resent and dismiss them: their pride, their emotional volatility, and the passion and idealism that life hasn’t yet beaten out of them. There’s a reason why “that’s not fair!” is a common cry of youthful outrage. Kids haven’t yet accepted that the world isn’t fair; they demand justice.There is something about the empowerment of youth to take charge and shape their own fates – to define their own identities, to make a difference, to matter – that resonates on a visceral level with some kid who’s constantly being sent the message that, at the end of the day, nothing he says or does really counts. The image of youth rising up and succeeding where adults have failed them is like heroin to the justice-seeking and at times narcissistic juvenile mind, and like any good drug, it kept the audience coming back.Even more satisfying was the fact that while the Power Rangers were given their morphing abilities and weapons, their actual fighting skills were something they had to work at. This was depicted in the early seasons mainly through the character of Billy Cranston, the original Blue Ranger, who signs up for his first martial arts class in the premiere episode and totally sucks at it. He is reassured that everyone starts out a beginner and that it’s only with practice and dedication that you can master anything. Then later, with that confidence… he still gets his ass handed to him. He’s the first member of the team to go down in their first fight, and he doesn’t even land a hit. It’s only after several episodes that he starts to display any level of competence, and longer yet before he’s considered on par with the others. Even then, he never becomes the best fighter, but compensates for it with other strengths like cunning, ingenuity, and technical savvy.Billy and many other characters in the Power Rangers pantheon showed kids that there are countless different ways to be an asset, that we all have different kinds of potential, and it’s just a matter of maximizing what you’ve got. In some areas, your best won’t ever be good enough. In others, your best can raise the bar, set a record, and inspire others, but whatever your path, you have to take an active role in your own empowerment.

The show didn’t neglect the flipside of the coin either. Like Spider-Man taught us all at a very young age, with great power comes great responsibility, and Power Rangers was eager to emphasize this classic principle. Not necessarily often, but often enough to be worthy of note, the Rangers are called upon at very inconvenient times, whether it be during school, a competition, or a social event.While the conflict between personal fulfillment and duty is nothing new, Power Rangers was a lot of kids’ introduction to the concept. Characters would often be called away, forcing them to miss out on opportunities they had invested a lot of time and energy into, be it a date with a long-pursued crush, a martial arts competition, a party, or even an important exam at school. Zack Taylor, the original Black Ranger, spent the entire first season pursuing the elusive Angela, only to finally score a date with her that he had to skip out on to save the world, and when she reluctantly gave him a chance to explain himself, he couldn’t tell her why he’d left. His only viable option was to look like a jerk in front of the girl of his dreams. From this and other similar examples, kids learned a valuable lesson: you don’t always get rewarded for doing the right thing. In fact, sometimes you end up getting screwed… but you still do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. The characters are confronted with these choices all the time. Rarely do they choose selfishly, and even when they do, the stakes have got to be really high. Kimberly Hart, the original Pink Ranger, did eventually leave the team to pursue her training for a global gymnastics competition, but that was only after years of devoted service to the cause and a lot of soul-searching, and not without securing a competent and worthy successor to take her place.The theme of power and responsibility was all over this show, and wasn’t limited to the realm of superheroics. While it was a little ham-fisted and cloying in the early seasons, Saban went to great lengths to show that the Power Rangers were involved in doing good works even in their civilian lives. Members of the production team have referred to the show as part action-adventure series, part civics lesson, and they’re not wrong. Regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, I think we’re all pretty much agreed that there’s some virtue in doing one’s civic duty, of giving back to the community in some form or another. And holy shit, did those kids have their bases covered! Fundraisers, charity events, school activities, environmental issues… seriously. How did any of these fuckers ever get any homework done? I would happily take a class in time management from any one of those characters, because hot damn, did they have a lot on their plates! But that’s neither here nor there.The point is that here was a show that told kids that there are lot more problems in the world than monsters and while not everyone can fight monsters, but there’s always a way for you to pitch in. Find it and do it. Taking an active role in making the world a better place in whatever way you can is not only the end result of empowerment, but where it begins again. It taught kids that, though they may not always be obvious, there are lots of different ways to be a hero.Check out our other articles in the Themes of Power Rangers series: 

The Themes of Power Rangers: Feminism

Themes of Power Rangers: Diversity and Tolerance

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