"Cold Takes" is a column in which we express our passionate beliefs about insignificant events and Internet discourses at least several months too late.
Squirtle is one of the most radical and independent celebrity Pokémon. Featured prominently in protagonist Ash Ketchum’s starter collection alongside Pikachu, Bulbasaur, and Charmander, Squirtle and her contemporary pocket monsters had each of their personal origin stories told in half-hour TV segments. After breaking out as a trading card game, Pokémon expanded into a cartoon series that debuted in the United States in 1998. When they were animated, these supernatural, fighting monsters were given more character and depth, which helped us all enjoy Pokémon as tender, sentient individuals who had identities of their own in a world of darkness, light, and the muddled space between.
Their stories were often sad, courageous, and triumphant—but Squirtle’s becoming was particularly complicated and prone to misunderstanding. When Ash met Squirtle, she was abandoned, fending for herself alongside other rejected Squirtles living on the wrong side of the law.
Episode 12 of Pokémon’s original series begins with Ash walking down a dirt path beside his friends—the orange-haired Misty, and the tall, perpetually lovestruck Brock. Emboldened by his recent Pokémon successes (he had just caught Charmander and Bulbasaur), Ash is taken by surprise when he steps into a trap that sends the trio falling deep into a hidden pit. That’s when we meet Squirtle for the first time.
Four Squirtles appear and peek down at their victims as their eyes are obscured by strange, fashionable sunglasses. Laughing at the injured humans trapped in the hole they dug, they repeat their own name in unison: Squirtle, Squirtle, Squirtle!
Thus begins 23 minutes of relentless torture at the hands of a super-macho group of five turtle monsters. Old-timey Western music you might hear in a cowboy film plays as Pikachu stands up to the leader of the Squirtle Squad—identical to the others, except donning sharp, pointed, cat-eye sunglasses. As a kid, the Squirtle Squad scared me. The nuance of Squirtle’s story went over my head; I absorbed only the masculine-drenched harassment that the Squirtle Squad perpetrated against anyone they felt like tormenting. They were cruel and played frightening tricks, and they laughed when people fell into the pits they liked to dig in the ground. The Squirtles reminded me of the machismo-sick boys who ran in packs at my school and were all too delighted to ruin my day. The infamous Squirtle Squad still haunts me now—their blue, globular heads split by their red, lipless mouths.
Shortly after Ash and his friends are confronted by the Squirtle Squad, Officer Jenny, the Pokémon world’s police officer clone (every city has an identical-looking police officer with the same name), drives up to the scene of the prank with her siren blaring. The Squirtles flee, and Jenny explains that those Pokémon were all pitiably abandoned by their trainers, and are now constantly causing trouble in the town. A montage follows, showing the Squirtle Squad doing graffiti, stealing fruit at the market, and, of course, tricking people and trapping them in pits.
I can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that a cop clone was chasing after what essentially amounts to homeless kids stealing food, doing street art, and playing innocent pranks.
At the end of the episode, the Squirtle Squad rescues the town from the villainous Team Rocket, who are planting bombs and setting fire to the village in their pursuit of Ash and Pikachu. The Squirtle Squad extinguishes Team Rocket’s arson with their water torrents, using their innate talents to help a community that never helped them.
As a kid, I was traumatized by a similar type of bro culture that I saw replicated in the Squirtle Squad. Looking back, I realize they weren’t so different from me. The Squirtle Squad has a powerful origin story that would resonate with any group that has been socially abandoned and forced to fight to survive. I wondered how I could possibly continue to resent the Squirtle Squad. I am far more disturbed by the fact that these Pokémon were abandoned and subsequently positioned as outlaws, and I am sympathetic to their decision to band together and build a new life together in the absence of a traditional family.
And I can’t turn a blind eye to the fact that a cop clone was chasing after what essentially amounts to homeless kids stealing food, doing street art, and playing innocent pranks. Local police unfairly described the Squirtle Squad as a “gang.” But why shouldn’t Squirtle wreak havoc on a society that failed her? The world flagrantly flaunted its excesses in over-stocked grocery stores and through the valorization of coddled Pokémon who still had caregivers, while the law demonized these dispossessed Squirtles. Naturally, the Squirtle Squad was more fashionable than other Pokémon, and even some human beings. After all, whenever a community is pushed into the underground, art proliferates, giving birth to powerful style that can only be stolen by the status quo, never organically conceived. The Squirtle Squad were their own chosen family: lawless, free, and at risk of losing it all every day.
The Squirtle Squad wasn’t willing to hurt people; their actions always stopped short of causing injury. Was that true of Jenny the cop, who chased after them with the threat of criminal prosecution? Naturally, these underdogs end up saving the day, becoming local heroes despite having been reviled for so long. What once struck me as bullying behavior now looks more like queer survival tactics than male cruelty.
Though I started this piece as a screed against the Squirtle Squad, rewatching the episode after two decades made me realize that my childhood impression was incomplete and distorted. The prejudice I bore against them mirrored the prejudice their society harbored, too. By choosing empathy over judgment, I was now able to understand why Squirtle had become a bully, and could no longer judge her for it.
Walking down that dirt path again to find their next Pokémon adventure, Ash and his friends hear a voice croak behind them.
Looking back, Ash sees the leader of the Squirtle Squad, standing alone, her sharp sunglasses planted firmly on her head, a barrier keeping her separated from the world. Ash stands there for a moment—then asks Squirtle if she’d like to join him, offering to become her adoptive trainer.
Squirtle smiles with joy, her globular head no longer terrifying. She takes off her fashion armor, removing her glasses to reveal two gigantic, glittering, vulnerable eyes. Squirtle begins to run, her blue feet kicking up dirt, fleeing from the place where she struggled alone for so long. When she reaches Ash, Squirtle hurls herself onto him, wrapping her arms around him like she’ll never let go, crying tears of joy after finally being accepted.