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TMNT and the Secret History of April O’Neil’s Inspiration

TMNT and the Secret History of April O’Neil’s Inspiration

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In addition to the eponymous Turtles, April O’Neil is a signature character in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles universe. For many, her iconic yellow jumpsuit from the ’90s television show is unforgettable. However, the newest trailer for the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem animated film, which depicts Turtles for what they really are—teenagers—also depicts April O’Neil as African-American. This depiction has reignited the debate over her ethnicity and even some racial commentary about her depiction through the pop culture ages.

Many across the Twitterverse are now debating whether April is Asian or white, while others are accusing the creators and various studios of whitewashing an originally African-American character. These heated debates aren’t a novelty; they’ve raged on for 40 years now, drawing roots from the earliest issues of the comic. The various incarnations of the character have done nothing to help the situation either. Instead, each side participating in the debate presents their version of the character as the true one, furthering the divide.

To get to the bottom of things, let’s take a few steps back through time to 1984 and revisit April’s introduction into the franchise. She originally appeared in TNMT #2 as a programmer and an assistant to villainous scientist Baxter Stockman. Later, she would become a reporter, a close friend and ally to the Turtles, as well as Casey Jones’ love interest. In fact, as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles universe expanded, so did April’s role and appearance evolve through various animated series, films, and even comic books. This also includes her profession and ethnicity.

The black-and-white print of the 1980’s comics makes April’s ethnicity hard to discern. Many argue that her dark hair and slightly ambiguous facial features portray her as an Asian woman, while others maintain that she was always meant to be white. The first edition of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #11, published in June 1987, shed some light on the matter, as it depicted April O’Neil as a light-skinned woman of color with black curly hair. However, the proverbial ceasefire didn’t last long, and the fans of the Turtles blamed the corporate giants.

Namely, in 1986, the Turtles’ co-creators, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, signed a deal with Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Productions to produce an animated series to promote the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys made by Playmate Toys. So, when the show debuted in December 1987, some six months after the comics had seemingly established April’s ethnicity, April appeared again on our small screens as a pale-skinned red-headed woman. And so, the whitewashing accusations against the co-creators and production studios began.

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As usual, the truth is somewhere in between, and the issue of April’s ethnicity lies in miscommunication between both co-creators rather than corporate whitewashing. To be entirely honest, evidence for each position exists, but it’s often conflicting and inconclusive, as both authors never questioned April’s ethnicity or saw it as a point of contention. Put simply; race was never meant to be her defining trait—strength, intelligence, and courage were. Instead, April was actually inspired by both real people and fictional characters from other media franchises.

As it turns out, April was always a bit of everything, so to speak. The initial character concept in Peter Laird’s notebooks showed her as an Asian woman, presumably named after April Fisher—Kevin Eastman’s former girlfriend, then wife, then ex-wife. In fact, Laird later vaguely addressed the issue by stating that he always saw April O’Neil as white. He then added that if anyone was to ask Kevin, he’d say—as he did on numerous occasions—that April was biracial, as he modeled her after April Fisher.

Fast forward to today. The latest depictions of April O’Neil in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem trailer may have reignited the debates again, but it actually isn’t the first time April was depicted as an African-American since 1987’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #11, nor the first time we’re having this discussion. She was also portrayed as an African-American teenage girl in 2018’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book series, the same-name animated television series, and a subsequent 2022 same-name animated movie.  

In the end, we can only sit and hear all sides trying to disprove each other’s “evidence” of April’s ethnicity because there’s really no correct answer on her “original” racial identity. Yes, a biracial light-skinned woman with curly hair was the inspiration for April O’Neil, but so were other real-life and fictional women. Additionally, we can further argue that April’s race shouldn’t overshadow the essential qualities of her character, such as intelligence, resourcefulness, and loyalty to her friends, regardless of how she appears.

While April’s ethnicity shouldn’t be important, representation of women of color is, and unfortunately, these women remain dramatically underrepresented in popular media. With that said, things are moving in a better direction, and April O’Neil’s appearance was changed to better reflect her original design in both the 2018’s run of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem—where she will be voiced by Ayo Edbiri.

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