Nov 20, 2012

Ninja Kids of the 1990s

One of the legacies of Ralph Macchio's Karate Kid (1984), and ultimately Bruce Lee's popularization of Chinese martial arts, was a fad of ninja kids.  Unfortunately, they almost invariably limited buddy bonding to concentrate on making teenage or preteen martial artists, or both, improbably hetero-horny, contributing to the 1990s insistence that no gay kids could exist.

In 1993’s Surf Ninjas, hardbodied teenageJohnny (Ernie Reyes Jr., who also starred in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) gazes at girls and Playboy magazine.  His brother, Adam, claims lack of interest, but when Johnny’s potential bride shows up in a veil, he quips “Chick’s got a veil, dude better bail,” and when Johnny’s opening line to her is the lame “Wanna go to the mall sometime?” he says “Way to close the deal, Casanova.”  Though he expresses no interest of his own, he is aware of heterosexual desire at the age of eleven.

Born in September 1979, Ted Jan Roberts made several karate kid-type straight-to-video films before he retired to become a martial arts pro. In A Dangerous Place (1994), the fey thirteen-year old kicks, jabs, and buddy-bonds with William James Jones without glancing at girls, but in A Power Within (1995) and Tiger Heart (1996), the fourteen year old’s main goal in life is to ask a girl for a date.

3 Ninjas (1992) starred three martial arts-whiz brothers: Rocky (Michael Treanor), Colt (Max Elliot Slade), and Tum-Tum (Chad Power).  (Because they are strong, quick, and gluttonous, respectively).  Only the oldest, Rocky, is interested in girls, to the hilarious amusement of his brothers.  But none of them expresses any interest in boys, or even has a male friend.

The $29,000,000 gross ensured a sequel, The Three Ninjas Knuckle Up (1995).  This time it's the second brother, Colt, who -- on a vacation in the Southwest, flirts with – and rescues – the Native American girl Jo.  When his brothers tease him, saying “Colt’s gonna kiss Jo,” he happily agrees: “Maybe I will.”

The ninjas had remain to be kids, just on the edge of adolescence, in The Three Ninjas Kick Back (1995), only Max Elliott Slade remained of the original cast. Sean Fox now played Rocky, and J. Evan Bonifant Tum-Tum.   At fourteen Colt was obviously an adolescent, significantly taller, with a deeper voice.  Again, Colt is the one who grins at, almost-kisses, and rescues a teenage girl.

 In The Three Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain (1998), there was a new group: fourteen-year old Mathew Botuchis, teen-idol cute in a red muscle shirt, played Rocky as assiduously girl-crazy, rescuing and kissing not only his girlfriend but a  new, brainy female sidekick.   The other boys, played by Michael O'Laskey and James Paul Roeske.  remain uninterested.

What are we to make of these variations in heterosexual desire?

1. Not every kid in the movie had to pursue a hetero-romance, but at least one of them did.
2. There was no room for same-sex friendships.  Males were bullies, antagonists, enemy spies, never friends.
3. Heroic fantasy, such as the Neverending Story, had more room for buddy-bonding than movies set in our own world.
4. Beefcake was not necessary, nor even recommended, since every shirtless or swimsuit shot invites the gaze of gay boys and teenagers, and you want to pretend that there are none.