Identity

The Power Rangers Are Back, and They're Trying Really Hard to Be Woke

Like the "explicitly gay moment" in "Beauty and the Beast," the gay Power Ranger follows a growing trend of masking marketing as progress.

by Mitchell Sunderland
Mar 25 2017, 12:12pm

Photos courtesy of Lionsgate

At the coffee shop Joan's on Third in Studio City, California, the Mexican-American actress and singer Becky G sits behind a marble table. She wears a yellow jumper, yellow shoes, and yellow necklace—a tribute to Becky's role as Trini the Yellow Ranger in the new reboot Saban's Power Rangers. "I always wanted to be the yellow Power Ranger growing up," Becky says. But journalists have ignored her character's uniform color, instead focusing on her character's sexuality and dubbing her "the gay Power Ranger." The Power Rangers have gone to space and traveled through time. Now they're getting woke.

"It's establishing a new foundation for Power Rangers," Becky explains. "It's very now."

Her pivotal scene occurs midway through the movie, when the five Rangers gather around a campfire. One remarks that Trini's moody because she's experiencing "boyfriend problems." Trini then admits she's dealing with "girlfriend problems."

"It was a really honest and genuine moment," Becky says of the scene. "Zordon says in the movie, 'You must shed your mask to wear this armor.'" Becky, though, holds mixed feelings about her character's already infamous moment. "Diversity, unity, equality, are things I support as a human being," she says. "Another part of me is, like, what's the big deal? It's 2017."

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Power Rangers does make a big deal out of addressing trendy political issues. At times the film feels like the action movie equivalent of Matt McGorry, hitting every base to score points with young audiences: Kimberly the Pink Ranger's subplot revolves around cyberbullying, and Billy the Blue Ranger has been rebooted as a black teen with autism. Unlike most of Hollywood, the film has aimed to cast a diverse group of actors—important progress—but the reboot falls in line with Riverdale and the "explicitly gay" scene in Beauty and the Beast remake, embracing young audiences' liberalism to sell a pop culture brand from the 1990s and/or 2000s. It's marketing masked as bravery.

Photo by Kimberly French. All photos courtesy of Lionsgate

Power Rangers's new consciousness juxtaposes the controversies that riddled the original series, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, when young millennials watched it in the early- and mid-1990s. Haim Saban, owner and founder of Saban Entertainment, produced the show on the cheap. He casted young unknowns, including a black actor as the Black Ranger and an Asian actress as the Yellow one. After the first season, three actors quit over contract disputes.

"I could have worked the window at McDonalds and probably made the same money the first season," Austin St. John, who played the original red Ranger, told the Huffington Post. In 1998, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) banned their actors from working with Saban Entertainment in 1998, citing the company's "economic exploitation of children." (A Saban representative told the Los Angeles Times the allegations were "categorically untrue"; Saban and SAG later resolved their issues).

Twelve years later, openly gay actor David Yost revealed he quit his role as the Blue Ranger because "creators, producers, writers, directors" all said "faggot" in his presence. Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston, who did voice work for the show, even referred to the Blue Ranger as "the fey one" in a later interview. (Cranston apologized; producer Scott Page-Pagter has denied Yost's claims, telling TMZ that Yost left over money and "was a pain in the ass.") Haim Saban continued to profit off the Rangers, selling the franchise and Fox Family Worldwide to Disney for $5.4 billion, though he later bought back the Rangers in 2010.

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Saban's Power Rangers circumvents the franchise's past. Becky adored the script because of the film's unexpected complexity. "I wanted to play something with more substance," she remembers. "It's dealing with current issues and being really real. It's very character driven... I was more interested in the colors and the actions of [the original series]."

During filming she and the other actors took an approach boarding on the method. "We all pulled from personal experiences growing up," Becky recalls. "It was very soul searching." Becky auditioned while on tour for her music, and when the director, Dean Israelite, asked about the tour, she found a parallel between her and Trini: "[While on tour] it's really lonely. You'd be surprised. You could be in an arena with thousands of people and still [feel] alone."

Becky, of course, notices the differences between her and her character. For one, Becky doesn't don a yellow jumpsuit and fight in real life. But it's the action sequences that steal the show. In the screening I attended, the audience gasped when the Zords, the robots the Power Rangers drive, first appeared onscreen to the tune of the old theme song, and the crowd laughed as the villain Rita Repulsa, played by a delicious Elizabeth Banks, attempted to destroy a Krispy Kreme donut shop.

The movie's discussion of sexuality and autism never veer into the unintentionally hilarious, but Power Rangers is not My Own Private Idaho by Gus Van Sant. As Becky says, "The pro of being a power ranger was the suit because it looked bad ass." The film concludes with the Rangers forming a Megazord, not a major revelation about queerness. Who can blame Saban, though? He knew what he was doing when he brought Power Rangers to young millennials in the early 1990s. Power Rangers is now just giving millennial adults what they want.