Themes of Power Rangers: Diversity and Tolerance

Our celebration of the 20th Anniversary of Power Rangers continues with an examination of the positive messages of diversity and tolerance that the show championed!

Diversity in Power Rangers has always been a complicated issue. While there have been some missteps, the franchise has, for the most part, done a pretty good job of creating a rich and diverse cast of characters.

Now, before we go any further, I think it’s best that we just address the elephant in the room and have the obligatory discussion about the allegations of racism regarding the original cast of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Yes, the Black Ranger was African American, and the Yellow Ranger was Asian American. The knee-jerk lampshading of this by every putz who wants to sound as clever as he can without actually knowing what the hell he’s talking about is endless. And I’d usually hate to get in the way of anyone’s good time, but facts have a way of doing that, so here goes.

Mighty Morphin’, especially its first season, utilized stock footage from the Super-Sentai series Zyuranger, in which the character in the black suit was the best friend (and thus often paired off in stock footage) with the character in the red suit. The character of original Red Ranger Jason was designed to be All-American. Race wasn’t specified. The role ended up going to Austin St. John, an actor from a multi-ethnic background comprised of German, Native American, Japanese, Italian, Irish, and Spanish. However, the character could easily be coded as white, and the producers’ next idea was to have a close, abiding friendship between a white kid and a black kid, thus Zack got stuck in the black suit.

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As for the whole Yellow Ranger kerfuffle, it should be noted that in the original, unaired pilot, Trini was played by Hispanic actress Audri Dubois with the intent of the character being Mexican American. Considering the show was to be set in Southern California, it would have made perfect sense for the team to be comprised of two white kids, a black kid, and a Hispanic kid, with Jason rounding out the clique as sort of an ethnic everyman. However, the producers then decided to pay respect to the show’s Japanese roots by having an Asian character, so the role of Trini was recast with Thuy Trang, a Asian American actress. Why Trini and not Kimberly? Who knows? But that’s what happened.

It wasn’t until about nine episodes into production that the producers realized what they’d done. By then, they’d put together a really good ensemble that enjoyed working together and had already shot a shitload of footage, so they just kept on keepin’ on and hoped no one would notice. Obviously, that’s not how things worked out, but it is worth noting that this was an honest mistake and not a deliberate statement on ethnicity. Sadly, there would be other SNAFUs in this department, such as revealing that fan favorite Tommy Oliver had Native American roots in the same season where he became a Red Ranger, but again, he was the leader. Leaders wear red. It was an inevitable consequence of Ranger color theory and nothing more.

So, with all that out of the way, a broader look at twenty years of Power Rangers will reveal it to be one of the most ethnically diverse shows on TV. Some accuse it of tokenism, but I disagree. A token is a character thrown in who has no real development beyond their minority status and no real function beyond, well, being there. In the Power Rangers universe, ethnicity is incidental. Characters might be informed by their backgrounds, but they are not limited by them, and when a minority character is poorly developed, it’s usually in a season where all the characters are poorly developed.

However clumsy the revelation of Tommy’s roots may have been, it did establish a Native American character as the central protagonist of a children’s show, a character who had been developed for years without the crutch of ethnic “otherness” to fall back on. Tommy was the redeemed villain-turned-hero who struggled with his identity and his responsibilities. He was something of a loner, quiet and a little broody, but over time he came to lighten up and not only fully integrate into the team, but take over as leader. And that was all before his ethnicity became a factor, so by the time we learned of it, it was just another aspect of the development of an already established character.

T.J. Johnson, handpicked by Tommy to replace him as Red Ranger, was African American and established from his first appearance that he was idealistic, responsible, and driven to really prove himself worthy of the power with which he’d been trusted. Since T.J., Red Rangers have been black, Hispanic, Polynesian, Middle Eastern, and even alien…as in extraterrestrial. Some have been conventional heroes, some lovable screw-ups, some tortured bad boys, but there’s no racial coding when it comes to these archetypes. The same diversity has applied to the casting of every other ranger color with the exception of yellow, which has not been worn by an Asian actor or actress since Thuy Trang. However, the first Asian actress on the show to follow Trang played one of the best representations of Asian women on American TV to date.

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Once again, I sing the praises of Cassie Chan, the snarker, the rocker, the self-interested-but-noble-underneath-it-all girl who wasn’t an A+ student, wasn’t a computer whiz, and wasn’t some submissive China Doll/Geisha fetish brought to life. Cassie, portrayed by Patricia Ja Lee, was written as a tough, brassy girl who happened to be Asian, and sure, she eventually developed some martial arts skills, but everyone on the team did. This is Power Rangers. It’s par for the course.

Diversity in Power Rangers isn’t just limited to race either. The franchise has addressed the topics of people with disabilities, people of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, and if they could have gotten away with tackling sexual orientation, they would have. Lord knows the writers slipped more than a few subtle hints under the network’s radar. Granted, in twenty years on the air there’s only been one canonically Jewish ranger. Outside of a few Christmas specials early on in the franchise, the topic of religion is pretty much avoided altogether, but were it explored, it would make the same point that Power Rangers has made several times over: that it’s important to judge people not by their identity, but by their behavior. Hell, even the villains are never painted as members of any one evil race and are, in fact, often factions comprised of various alien species. In this show, not all aliens are bad guys and not even the bad guys are racist…they wipe out worlds indiscriminately.

While it does bear pointing out that this is a kids’ show, and the complexities of racial, religious, socioeconomic, and political conflicts are likely to be lost on the target audience, credit should be given where credit is due. Most ensembles on network television, with very little exception, are all white. If a show features characters of other races, it’s most often an ensemble comprised entirely of one racial group. With the exception of shows like Grey’s Anatomy or The Wire, mainstream TV tends to be a rather monochromatic landscape, and yet season after season, Power Rangers has gone out of its way to engender a very Vulcan value: infinite diversity in infinite combinations.

Check out the other articles in our Themes of Power Rangers series!

The Themes of Power Rangers: Empowerment

The Themes of Power Rangers: Feminism

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