Age is never a barrier in the fight for social justice. At least, Captain Planet teaches this lesson. During the animated series’ six-year span, “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” sought to educate and empower young people to take an interest in environmental issues.
Media mongrel, Ted Turner, conceived of the idea for Captain Planet. To bring this superhero to life, Turner sought the help of longtime environmentalist and film producer, Barbara Pyle. Inspired by people she met during past projects, Pyle created the Planeteers: Kwame, Gi, Linka, Wheeler and Ma-Ti. Together, the Planeteers and Captain Planet work to combat ecological and global problems.
“Captain Planet and the Planeteers” premiered worldwide in 1990 and the children’s animated series gained popular success as well as critical acclaim. Captain Planet was one of the first television shows to openly advocate for the environment. Apart from addressing environmental issues, the television show also encouraged young people to have an interest in the issues plaguing their own communities. Here are two examples of how Captain Planet challenged its audience to be advocates for nonenvironmental social justice issues.
Issue #1: HIV/AIDS Epidemic
In the early 1990s, the HIV/AIDS epidemic devastated the United States. The number of reported cases was over 100,000 and it affected everyone in sight. Ryan White was one of the first children diagnosed with the deadly virus. Doctors diagnosed White with AIDS when he was 13 years old after he received a blood transfusion. After this diagnosis, White’s school banned him and his community ostracized him, similar to other individuals. People were afraid of White due to the misperception that AIDS could transmit by air or touch.
During the middle of the epidemic, Captain Planet addressed the issue of HIV/AIDS in its episode, “A Formula for Hate.” The episode challenged the audience to put aside ignorance and fear to reduce discrimination against people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. The plot of the episode parallels White’s situation after his diagnosis with AIDS. In the episode, the townspeople learn about a student’s (Todd Andrews) HIV-positive diagnosis. The townspeople turn against Andrews and his family, going as far as burning his mother’s vegetable stand. Captain Planet and the Planeteers intervene by educating the townspeople on the virus, dispelling the misperception that HIV cannot be transmitted by casual contact. As a result, Andrews and his family were once again accepted by the townspeople and no longer discriminated against.
Issue #2: Gang Violence
Gangs and firearm violence were on the rise in the United States during the 1990s, especially among young people. In 1990, the number of fatal and nonfatal violent crimes with a firearm was at an all-time high at 18,253. In 1993, 45 cities reported that over 100,000 young people were involved in a gang. The rise in violent crimes created toxic environments among youth and places considered safe zones for young people, like parks and schools, became battlegrounds.
In 1994, Captain Planet addressed the issue of gang and gun violence in the episode, “Teers in the ‘Hood.” The episode’s plot revolved around a shootout between two rival gangs and The Planeteers became caught in the middle of the conflict. Captain Planet and the Planeteers defused the situation by talking about the peace messages of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi. The episode also debunked the myth that gangs offer positive communities for its members. After two of the Planeteers infiltrated one of the rival gangs, the gang quickly pressured them to use violence in order to gain acceptance. In short, the episode’s message was on the power of positive community and peace.
Today, Captain Planet continues providing fun, innovative opportunities to support environmental issues worldwide. To get involved or learn more, visit www.captain planet foundation.org.
– Paola Nunez