There’s an old saying: “Too proud to whitewash and too poor to paint.” In recent years, the term “whitewash” has been repurposed to represent any of a variety of forms of censorship, most frequently the covering up or reinventing characters of color as Caucasian. Conscientious comic book readers often cite April O’Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as an example of this controversial practice. Others deny the claim. With compelling evidence on both sides, the question remains: was April O’Neil’s original ethnicity whitewashed?
April O’ Neil first appeared in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Vol.1) #2 in 1984 as the assistant to the evil scientist, Baxter Stockman. Later, she would become a close ally of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Casey Jones’ love-interest. While the comic books’ black and white interior makes April’s ethnicity hard to discern, the cover of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #11 depicts O’Neil as a light-skinned woman of color with black curly hair. Co-creator Kevin Eastman admitted that O’Neil’s appearance was based on his then-girlfriend April Fisher, herself a woman of mixed-race. Claims of whitewashing first surfaced in 1986 when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #1 – 11 were reprinted in color and April appeared as a Caucasian woman with red hair.
In 1986, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird made deals with Playmates Toys and Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Productions. Playmates would create a line of action figures based on the property, and Murakami-Wolf-Swenson would produce a cartoon promoting them. When the hit animated television show debuted in 1987, April again appeared pale-skinned and red headed. Speculation mounted that Eastman and Laird had been pressured to whitewash April in the colorized comic book reprints to tie-in with her upcoming cartoon portrayal. When Judith Hoag was cast as O’Neil in the 1990 film adaptation, the character’s appearance was cemented. The Black April gave way to an Irish April and would not return for thirty-two years.
Eastman and Laird watched their self-published comic book evolve into a multimedia empire. Devoted fans of the reptilian ninjas have argued that April O’Neil’s ethnic identity is less a case of whitewashing and more a result of miscommunication. In 2002’s TMNT: Artobiography, Kevin Eastman explained that April was, “originally created as an Asian character in Pete’s notes, but named after an African American woman I once knew.” Conversely, Laird addressed the subject by saying, “It depends on which co-creator of the TMNT you ask. If you ask me, I always saw April O’Neil as white. If you ask Kevin, I suspect he would say – as he has in a number of interviews – that she was of mixed race, much like his former girlfriend (then wife, then ex-wife) April.” This disagreement would explain the inconsistency of April’s appearance and provide a less nefarious explanation for her subsequent race-change.
Representation is important. Whether April’s transition to Caucasian was a corporate decision or merely a case of creative conflict, women of color remain dramatically underrepresented in popular media. While minorities made up slightly more than 40% of the US population in 2019, they represented only 32.7% of actors appearing in Hollywood films. That said, improvements are slowly being made. April O’Neil’s appearance was changed to better reflect her original design in 2018’s Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. Hopefully, comic books and cartoons will continue to diversify future characters and creators.