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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Remembering Saturday Morning Cartoons

COWABUNGA, DUDES! Grab your pizza and scootch yourself RIGHT UP to the TV screen, as close as you can possibly get without your mom shooing you away.

It’s now 1994, and you are enjoying a day in the life of four-year-old me. I have my green Donatello socks (with the material tucked between my toes, so that I, too, could have turtle feet), my Michelangelo bowl, and my raspy faux-Shredder voice (yes, I did this frequently and yes, my parents might have been terrified), and I am ready to watch my absolute favorite show: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

What is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

This still-popular animated staple made its crime-fighting television debut in 1987; the turtles originated in their comic series of the same name, developed by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They toned down the slightly darker comic series and developed it into a cartoon suitable for kids, thereby opening the door for the ever-popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle (TMNT) toy lines that children still love today.

Speaking of the Turtles, let’s take a look at them and some of their friends:

  • Leonardo: Leo is the leader of the group and can be identified by his blue mask and two katana. He is the most responsible one in the group, and by far the most serious. 
  • Raphael: Raph wears the red mask and wields two sais. He is sarcastic and funny, maybe a little cranky; he is often depicted as lazy, whereas other versions of his character are quick to anger and even violent. 
  • Donatello: Donnie is the brains of this outfit! He wears the purple mask and fights with a bo staff and is also the resident nerd! He is always inventing new things (which typically blow up in his face) and usually ends up coming through with a solution to their turtle problems.
  • Michelangelo: Mikey is the resident party dude! He is the pizza loving, nunchuck-wielding, orange masked turtle who’s all about having a good time. He is the one mostly responsible for all of the slang phrases (see: cowabunga) featured in the show. 
  • Splinter: Master Splinter is the turtles’ rat sensei – in this instance, formerly a human, but transformed along with the Turtles by the ooze. His past as a human has direct ties to THE SHREDDER, the big bad of the series, as they were both ninjas in Japan with the same sensei. 
  • April: April O’Neil is a strong-willed, yellow-jumpsuit-wearing news reporter who discovers the Turtles in their sewer home. She is a loyal friend of the Turtles and fiercely dedicated to her journalistic integrity (AKA the heroine we didn’t know we needed!). 

TMNT was truly chock full of great characters, both good and evil; I hated The Shredder with a burning passion only a four-year-old is capable of. How dare he threaten my favorite television characters?! I was ready to drop-kick Bebop and Rocksteady and punch Krang in his stupid, gross, lumpy pink head (head-body?). 

Why was TMNT so popular?

Complete with action figures, Ninja Turtle slang, and a killer theme-song (that I still might listen to in the car, on occasion), TMNT appealed to me like no other show ever did.

The heroes in a half-shell were characters that I could relate to. Maybe not the crime-fighting ninja skills – although I could be seen flailing about with a bandana around my head – but their personalities offered a little bit of everything.

They represented qualities that I wanted to possess: intelligence, responsibility, humor, kindness, strength, and they were COOL AS HELL. I wanted to embody all of their good qualities and do it with a shell on my back. 

What is the legacy of TMNT?

The Turtles have translated well through the generations, as evident in the many incarnations of the animated series, along with a slew of live action films, video games (I’m looking at you, pixelated NES game!) and plenty of toy store merchandise.

I am elated to see that my childhood faves are still relevant and kicking. When I taught pre-k, several of my students (girls, too!) chose to dress up as Ninja Turtles for Halloween and could not wait to share the news with me.

I hope with all sincerity that countless future generations to come will know the desire to ride in the Party Van, the longing for a set of nunchucks to use while watching Michelangelo, and the abject terror of thinking The Shredder would finally conquer the reptilian heroes.

I would, however, like to issue a warning to the future: Ninja Turtles HAVE NOSES, not just little nostril-holes. It’s non-negotiable.

TMNT: See for Yourself