Transformers: Reaganism, Moral Economics, and Subverting Capitalist Products
This week, I decided to revisit 1986’s The Transformers: The Movie (What a title). While I wasn’t old enough to watch the original cartoon during its initial run, reason being I wasn’t born until 1998, I was a massive Transformers fanatic growing up. I flipped through my brother’s copies of the Dreamwave comics, watched all of the cartoons and, maybe most importantly, I played with the figures. Pieces of half-transformed figures of Sunstreaker, Prowl, and countless others are scattered throughout my home like a jigsaw puzzle to my childhood.
Upon every revisit of this film I am reminded that, despite my deep affection for a nostalgic reminder of my past, The Transformers: The Movie is an infamously cynical film. It’s not just that the film was designed to market new toys, it’s that the creators chose to “phase-out” the original cast by brutally murdering them. During the first action scene in the runtime, the Decepticons intercept an Autobot shuttle and massacre the entire crew, including beloved mainstays such as Ratchet, Ironhide, and Prowl, whose face fills with smoke that rises from his eyes and mouth as he slumps to the floor. For a child, this is terrifying, yet nothing could prepare audiences for the death of Optimus Prime, the face of the television show and, by extension, the brand. There are stories of children locking themselves in closets after they saw the movie in theatres.
Don’t worry though, kids! Here’s Hot Rod, known as Rodimus Prime by the film’s conclusion, ready to take up the mantle and lead the Autobots into a new season of the show! Get ready to beg your parents to buy an action figure of the Judd-Nelson-voiced ‘bot for your birthday or holiday of choice.
Beyond the film being a vehicle of marketing, it’s also a vehicle for cultural references. From the theatrical poster closely resembling the poster for Star Wars, to Arcee sporting Princess Leia space buns, to Weird Al Yankovich voicing Wreck-Gar and providing a song for the soundtrack, the film employs countless tricks to rope in as many people as possible.
Yet, though I see through this film and recognize it for what it is, I cannot help but love it all the same. Yes, it is a deeply cynical film, but the reality of western animation based out of 1980s United States is that it is *all* cynical.
In 1984, the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan began the process of deregulating the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC. In this deregulation of advertising on children’s programming, where it was declared that the marketplace would determine what programming was best for children, one of the changes was that toy manufacturers began to heavily assist in development of television based on their toys. Some of the shows produced as a result of these changes in regulations include G.I. Joe, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and, yes, Transformers.
Transformers has always been, since its inception, a media brand meant to sell toys. Despite this, I still cherish the memories I have of playing with the toys as a child, and I still choose to revisit the film and the various pieces of media within the trans-media landscape of the brand. It’s a debate I wrestle with constantly: how do you reconcile your personal love of media with the knowledge of its predatory history?
In David Hesmondalgh’s article Capitalism and the Media: Moral Economy, Well-Being and Capabilities, they address the concept of the moral economy, suggesting that:
“The concept of moral economy refers to the way in which all economies are suffused with values and beliefs about what constitutes proper activity, regarding rights and responsibilities of individuals and institutions, and qualities of goods, service and environment”
The moral economy approach is deeply normative, seeking to make judgements rather than restate facts, or provide explanation. With this, we can address the issues raised by the Reaganomics of the 1980s, and how they influenced children’s media. Through deregulation, corporate entities could become far more predatory in practice, with children not even being able to escape the clutches of capitalist intent.
However, with the moral economy approach in mind, I broach the possibility of the recuperation of capitalist-originated media for those who are underrepresented in the industrial society. I wonder: can the darkness of media’s history be obliterated?
While I have always loved Transformers, I admit that what ultimately returned me to what one might call the Transformers fandom were the IDW comics; specifically, Phase Two of the Transformers comic line.
In 2012, the Transformers comic line launched Phase Two with Robots in Disguise, and More Than Meets the Eye. These two series focused on the politics of Cybertron in a post-war period, and the adventures of the Lost Light crew in the search for the Knights of the Cybertron, respectively. While Robots is a great series, I want to focus on More Than Meets the Eye, later relaunched as Lost Light in 2016.
While, plot-wise, a space adventure series, James Roberts’ More Than Meets the Eye provided an avenue to explore several topics within the Transformers universe that absolutely blew my mind. Dealing with topics like post-traumatic stress disorder, gender fluidity and homosexuality in an until recently mono-gendered species, and the ways revolution can spiral into totalitarianism, the series provides deep dives through the lens of science-fiction. I couldn’t stop thinking, “This is Transformers?”. A series about giant robots that change into cars, jets, and even data cards is the most level-headed and thoughtful depiction of these themes I have ever read. It also contains the most vividly-drawn depiction of Megatron I have yet to encounter.
More Than Meets the Eye does not exist without The Transformers: The Movie. Characters like Rodimus, Ultra Magnus, and more do not exist without first being introduced and becoming fan favourites after debuting in the film. Does this then make More Than Meets the Eye a predatory product, so many years removed from the deregulations that sparked the Transformers brand’s creation? The hands of commercialism stretch across time and space.
Countercultural communication theories suggest that by recuperating institutional creations, subcultures can create something wholly unique. Though More Than Meets the Eye is, inherently, yet another capitalist venture, created by a for-profit media company with a pre-existing intellectual property, it is also a socially-progressive depiction of groups who simply do not get the representation that they deserve. That is recuperation. That is taking something morally sinister, and spinning gold from it.
Transformers is one piece of media that I assign deep personal affection to. Though the origins of it are steeped in neoliberal policies that impacted millions of children who, like me, begged for the figures, I cannot shake the feelings of discovery and belonging that its creations have given me. In the moral economy, I have to find the light in the darkness.
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It is not lost on me that, at the time of writing this piece, the world is embroiled in a pandemic that has devastated our ways of living. As we practice social distancing, and self-isolation, I recognize many of us will be finding time to consume as much media as we can. From books, to television shows, and everything else in between, we need to remember the human lives behind it all. They are people who are often taken advantage of by the systems of power.
We need to thank them. When the world was falling apart, we turned to science to save us, and we turned to art to comfort us.
Hesmondhalgh, David. (2016). Capitalism and the Media: Moral Economy, Well-Being and Capabilities. Media, Culture & Society. 39. 10.1177/0163443716643153.