Shocked from our senses when the Earth crashes in Something's going on underneath your skin Oh, purple jaguar eye Open up and be alive See the world in vivid color There's no turning back - Purple Jaguar Eye, Sterling K. Brown
I think that children’s media can be a very fertile avenue for critique in part because I think the sorts of stories we choose to tell children say a lot about the culture we aspire to create. As such I’m going to be writing a semi-regular series of essays specific to children’s media, and I couldn’t think of a better place to start than with Kipo and the Age of Wonder Beasts.
This three-season series of cartoons was produced by DreamWorks in collaboration with Studio Mir and is based on a webcomic by Radford Sechrist. It tells the story of a 13 year old girl who is separated from her father when their underground settlement is destroyed. This forces her out into a world dominated by giant, sentient, mutant animals where she undergoes an incredible metamorphosis and decides to reconcile humanity to a world of, “Mutes.”
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is a post-apocalyptic story, but it is perhaps the most singularly optimistic post-apocalypse I’ve ever seen, as it shows that the only impediment to the birth of the new world are those people too small to let go of the one that has past.
Kipo attracted attention upon release for its carefully crafted diversity, featuring a deliberately multiethnic cast both of animated characters and actors, and a storyline that trafficked heavily in the politics of representation. While principally a show about race, Kipo also provides a queer reading that is, honestly, one of the best executions of the type targeting kids.
But, while I do think that the show’s queer and race related narratives are valuable and important from a pedagogic perspective, I think there’s some interesting things happening here specific to the relationship between the body and systems of power that is somewhat unique within children’s television. Kipo’s transformation, its irreversibility, her fear for how it will impact her identity including the risk she might lose herself in it, and how the show demonstrates the relationships between body autonomy and political power go beyond simple themes of inclusion and into a deeper idea about the connection between embodiment, identity and power. And I think the end result is a remarkably anarchistic text that presents a valuable frame for imagining other ways we could live.
Transformation and adulthood
Of course the simplest reading of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is as a bildungsroman. We have a child at the cusp of adulthood who is pushed out into the world. She goes on an adventure which aids in her moral development. She meets other people who have lived substantially different lives, builds friendships of weight and significance outside the bounds of family. She begins growing hair places where hair didn’t grow before.
This isn’t all that different from the Hobbit except for the place where the puberty metaphors spill over into unambiguous text. But one place where this show differs from a lot of other coming of age stories is by willingly showing just how destructive to the child’s sense of self it can be to become and adult. When Kipo starts to change, she’s convinced her friends will reject her on the basis of her difference. And Wolf, who is bound up in her own trauma, very nearly does until she’s talked down. But beyond the fear of social rejection, beyond simple awkwardness, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts traffics in straight up terror. Kipo is becoming a Mega Mute. As a result of the genetic experimentation of her own parents, she isn’t simply human but instead contains the genetic material of a giant “Mega Jaguar,” a form of mutant animal that goes beyond the human-sized characteristics of most Mutes and into the realm of kaiju.
Only there’s a problem. See, Kipo’s transformation into a “Mega Mute” is not within her control. She grows hair and gains powers based on moments of stress but, at first, has no control over what her body is doing. She gains those purple jaguar eyes, and the ability to see in the dark, in response to the peril her friends are in but not because, in that moment, she makes a choice to transform. It just happens. And she doesn’t know why.
As time goes by her transformations become more extreme. And the more she transforms, the less control she has over her transformation. She learns she isn’t the first person to become a Mega Mute. Her mother, Song, previously was transformed into a skyscraper-tall six-armed spider monkey and was unable to revert back to a human form. She’s trapped forever in this vast and horrific, inhuman, body. And if Kipo doesn’t come to understand her body and the changes happening to her, she might face the same fate. Already she can feel the breath of the Jaguar on her neck, the primal urge to hunt and to devour.
She seeks the spiritual advice of three blind goats who practice cheese-based divination (the setting of this show is just about the wildest thing out there) and they tell her she needs to discover an emotional anchor to allow herself the power to control her transformations. She quests to find this, and eventually believes it to be a photo of her family taken when she was an infant, just a few days before her mother’s transformation and her father’s flight with her. Only she’s wrong. The anchor isn’t the memory of the past; the anchor is the relationships Kipo has forged with her peers, outside the safety of family, in the present. Her development into an adult gives her power over her body. And oh but she is powerful. Kipo as the mega-jaguar looms above the over-sized canopy of trees in the Timber Cat village. She is so large that she’s more akin to a geographical feature than a person. In one amusing sequence, Kipo is attempting to persuade a villain to reform and he keeps trying to escape. Each time, a paw many times larger than his body slaps down in front of him, a soft, but impenetrable shield.
Kipo, fully in control of her body, has power. The only thing she cannot do with her body is go back to being a child. There’s no going back. The transformation is irreversible. Her ability to control her power comes directly and textually from her recognition that it is her body, that she is this being who has these capabilities and that the purple jaguar isn’t some other being to be leashed but rather is just… her.
Power from the body
The idea of power as a function of embodiment runs through Kipo at all kinds of levels. Throughout all elements of the show, mutes are invested with strange biological abilities that are consistent across their species-gang. The mod-frogs, aside from their sharp fashion sense, all are able to race through environments like mad parkouristas, tongue-first. Deathstalkers are terrifying eyeless nightmares that hunt by sound and the motion of the air. Mega mutes, both natural ones like the pigeons, crabs, bunnies, beavers and dogs and artificially created ones like Kipo and her mother have vast strength and are nearly impervious to injury. Song Oak gets one of her six hands encased in molten gold at one point and it hurts her, but only momentarily. She goes right back to her urgent work moments later. Some mutes are stranger still.
Fun Gus is a sentient colony of orange mold. It is bound to the place it fruited, but it is a pervasive entity within that space, more akin to a haunting than to an occupancy. Its body is everywhere, it is an amorphous blob of organic matter that takes up its entire nesting space, but it brings its consciousness to a head when it needs to communicate. It’s a being that exists only within itself. It’s a genius loci, tied so thoroughly to its place that it is effectively a prisoner within the bonds of its own body and it is terribly lonely. Fun Gus is like Kipo in a way; it wants to open the door to the oOther. But it is so desperate for the recognition of the Other that it refuses to let anyone who falls into its clutches go.
There are, of course, the cheese-divining goat women, and a host of other bizarre creatures (have I mentioned the k-pop narwhals with perfect pitch?). And of course there is Dave, the serially immortal insect who cycles through a lifecycle of infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, strength and decrepitude before reverting once more to infancy. Dave, the last of his species, the only survivor of a genocidal war with humans (over ownership of a battery powered fan) cannot ever die (except for one secret way and he’s not going to make the mistake of telling anyone that secret… again.)
Again and again, the power these creatures have goes hand in hand with the capabilities of their bodies; but there’s an element of nuance wherein these powers are delimited by the autonomy they have over their bodies. Dave is a bit of a joke character because he has so little command over his transformations. The powerful horned beetle molt of Dave’s is fleeting and often emerges not when it is needed. And when it fades, geriatric Dave is physically weak, paranoid and superstitious – a detriment in a crisis rather than a boon. Dave has an amazing power in his immortality but his lack of agency over its use neutralizes him, makes him a good comedic sidekick rather than a protagonist.
But the most powerful creatures in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, aside from Kipo, are those with the ability to take the autonomy away from others: the sentient colony of tardigrades that goes by Mulholland and the two principal series antagonists, the mandrill Scarlamagne and the human Dr. Emilia. I want to examine these entities in greater detail, because a lot of how Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts address the question of embodiment and power lies in a reading of these three.
I am not sure I’ve ever seen a stranger character in a piece of children’s entertainment than Mulholland – who is now officially also the strangest tardigrade character on TV (sorry Ripper). Mulholland is mostly water. Specifically it is any bit of water occupied by part of the Mulholland collective, a hive mind of microscopic tardigrades who are able to create bodies out of water, to go into any fluid environment… and also to pass directly into brains where he can… interact.
When Mulholland originally encounters Kipo and her friends, he traps them each in fantasies designed to be perfect worlds. He does this claiming to help them but really he just wants to keep everybody still long enough to eat them.
He fails because the perfect world he creates for Wolf is just a bit too perfect – there’s themes of embodiment here we’ll explore later when we talk about Wolf – and after Wolf escapes, the other dreamstates become untenable. Benson and Dave are already quite aware that their dreamscape is artificial, they’re having a good time and don’t recognize the danger, but they are easy to persuade to wake up. Kipo has to have a cathartic moment with her parents, who she still hasn’t found at this point in the show, so she’s the last to be freed. But then the show does something strange.
Mulholland is basically unkillable, but they’re at an impasse. With them awoken he can’t do much to Kipo and her friends; he is, after all, a pool of water full of microscopic bugs. So they talk to him and he agrees that maybe using his power to eat people isn’t a good way to live.
This is interesting because we reach a point of equilibrium in power. Kipo and her friends can’t harm Mulholland and he can’t harm them. They could keep trying to fight, but they wouldn’t accomplish anything. Each subject’s power cannot find purchase in the body of the other. And so, at the moment where each recognizes that they have no choice but to accept the autonomy of the other, they talk. This is a pattern that occurs throughout the series, which frequently becomes a process of the protagonists avoiding a dangerous situation on their way to have a conversation with somebody who needs to be talked around.
Mulholland decides to go and find himself and allows his body to disperse, seeing the world through thousands of microscopic eyes. He remains in the show as this diffuse presence that appears in times of need to help. After all, he’s nearly everywhere. Even inside.
But this new Mulholland has learned to respect the sanctity of peoples’ minds. And so, when inside another he doesn’t put them into narcotic dreams; he instead facilitates communication and prohibits compulsion.
This last point is important because the first principal antagonist of the show is all about compulsion.
Scarlamagne is the only artificial mute in the series who is not also a human, and he is one of Kipo’s closest kin. Most of humanity is trapped in underground “burrows” and humans on the surface fare poorly, as demonstrated by the war of attrition between the “Fanatics” and the army of Dave, which concludes with only one human (Benson) surviving in addition to the annihilation of the population of Daves.
The burrows are little safer; the show makes it painfully clear that humanity cannot survive in the burrows. The first burrow is destroyed when it’s cracked like an egg by Song, under Dr. Emilia’s control. The second burrow is raided by Scarlamagne and its population are carried away. The third and final burrow seen in the show is, in the show’s present, the home of Fun Gus. And, while searching for clues to her past in order to help her control her transforming body, Kipo discovers this ruined burrow was where she and Scarlamagne were both born.
Prior to her birth, Kipo’s parents were geneticists who were working to study the causes of the global mutation of plants and animals, and also to find a way to reverse it. They needed to replicate the mutagen that created the Mutes in order to find a method of reversing its effects. They have a very limited pool of non-mutated animals to use as test subjects and so the burrow’s scientific authorities assign Lio and Song a mandril infant as a test subject. After an extended period of time they succeed, and Hugo gains sentience. This is the moment they realize the weight of what a cure would entail – stripping a world of intelligent, inquisitive and entirely inhuman creatures of the self-awareness they seemed to have spontaneously developed. Repulsed by the realization of what they would be doing, Lio and Song decide to hide their success with Hugo from their superior, Dr. Emilia. They instead begin a new project, attempting to splice human and Mute genetic material and to bring the resulting progeny to term, as their child, in-vitro.
Please, do not think too hard about the ethical implications of this. It makes a sort of emotional sense that works to situate them as good people beside Emilia’s obvious villainy.
This remarkable human experiment is successful, but during the gestation period, their suspicious behaviour causes Dr. Emilia to investigate and she discovers Hugo. What’s more, she discovers Hugo produces pheremones in his sweat which allow him to command other primates.
It’s a truly hideous power. See, he doesn’t control minds. He controls bodies. Contact with Hugo’s sweat causes the victim to stand rigidly alert with an unnatural grinning rictus across their faces – it never reaches their eyes, which generally just reflect terror. Once a primate is affected by Hugo’s sweat, they remain his puppet for an extended period of time. They become incapable of refusing him anything. It seems as if they are perfectly aware in the moment that their bodies are not their own to command, but there is nothing they can do but obey.
When Dr. Emilia discovers this capability of Hugo’s, she traps him in a glass box and forces him to walk a treadmill, draining his sweat to make a stock of chemical weapons. Lio and Song conspire to escape as soon as the child is born and to bring Hugo with them. But they are discovered, and in the chaos, Song is transformed, and Lio and Kipo are separated from Hugo.
Alone on the surface, and recently tortured, Hugo rapidly discovers to use the power of his sweat to gain security and control over others. Lio meanwhile flees hopelessly clutching his baby, in desperate hope of finding safe harbour.
They meet, and Lio, in a panic, refuses to trust Hugo, who is acting strangely. He flees with Kipo.
Scarlamagne is born here.
Scarlamagne’s character is as strange as his physicality. He’s obsessed with the fashion and manner of the Baroque period and plays waltzes on an antique pianoforte with monstrous, manic intensity. He sneers and he rages and gestures wildly. He’s honestly one of the best pieces of animation in a show that generally depends more on strangeness and stylization than it does on fully realized character movement. He’s a conqueror. He travels about the surface with an aerial cavalry of collaborator apes, monkeys and tarsiers and of human slaves all adorned in ornate red uniforms and powdered wigs riding two-headed giant Flamingos. His own steed wears the shell of an old convertible as armor, and as a saddle.
He’s also a slaver. His kingdom is built on the coerced labour of captured humans. They fill the ranks of his army – implacable puppets silently advance upon any Mutes who disobey Scarlamagne, with rapiers at the ready. He breaks into a vault and takes all the gold because he realizes humans loved it, and so he wants to rule it. Scarlamagne was subjected to slavery, torture and rejection by humanity and he intends to repay every slight a hundred fold. And as he does it, he unites the warring gangs of Mutes into a nation, ruled by him. Nobody can match his military might, with the ranks of his fighting force filled out by humans he’s happy to let die on the battlefield. In his power he has decided to crown himself king of the Mutes. He will build a golden condominium with stolen Human gold shaped by stolen Human hands but a human child is causing a commotion.
Eventually, Scarlamagne discovers that Kipo is immune to his control. His sweat only affects primates, and with her DNA half that of a Mega Jaguar, Kipo isn’t entirely a primate. He cannot take her autonomy from her. It’s inviolable. And so they talk.
I swear, the most exceptional characteristic Kipo possesses is patience. She talks with Scarlamagne. She listens to his stories about their shared origin. She empathizes with him. She shows appreciation for his music. And she constantly tries to persuade him to free her people. He refuses. Again and again he refuses. But she keeps trying.
When, later, the tables have turned, and Scarlamagne is Kipo’s prisoner, she continues to talk, and to listen. She continues to give him chances to relent, to repent, to prove he can be a member of a community rather than a conqueror. She has assumed a position of dominance, even if hers is the gentle dominance of enclosure rather than the rigid command of the body to betray itself he prefers. But she makes it clear she is uncomfortable as a jailer. All she wants to use her power to do is to hold him still long enough to talk out their problems.
That Scarlamagne would have a heel-face turn shouldn’t surprise anyone. The moment is telegraphed in a thousand ways. He is ultimately a foil to the true villain in Dr. Emilia. But the road back for him is not the sudden one that adventure shows so often give. There’s a gradual integration of Scarlamagne back into the community. He’s slowly extended trust and, in breaking it, is gently rebuked. And when he shows himself worthy of trust, more is extended. But not fully. His power to dominate can’t be taken from him; it can be contained but to do that is to keep Scarlamagne separate, other.
And Kipo’s solution to the Other is an act of radical integration. Whether it’s a colossal rabbit, a six-legged pig, a traumatized human or a gang of giant bipedal housecats, Kipo’s first, and often only, instinct is to attempt to ally herself with them. She presents a world of unconditional solidarity built around friendship that starts off looking naïve. But as time goes by it becomes clear that this impression of childish naivety belies a deep reserve of moral conviction. Kipo wants to bring the Other inside because she believes it is the right and just way to organize the world.
And there is little more other to Kipo than a mind-controlling would-be tyrant. So it isn’t surprising she cuts her teeth in debate with him. He is her foil too, after all. Kipo has the power to compel Scarlamagne, to contain him or to kill him. She chooses not to. She chooses to rescue everybody. Despite being rightfully horrified by Scarlamagne’s ghastly execution before the coronation, she even rescues him, and then begins the laborious and difficult work of bringing him inside. I’m belaboring the direction of the power relationship here because I want to make it very clear that the show is not suggesting aquiescence to power, or compromise to deflect power. Before Kipo is able to work to bring Scarlamagne within the community she has to take every ounce of power he has from him. He must lose his crown, his army, his throne and his aspiration before she can begin the work with him. Kipo is able to bring Scarlamagne back from the edge only by dint of the power she holds over him.
But instead of using it to dominate him, she uses it to put him in the position of his own freedom; she lets him see how his liberation depends on an end to domination. And then he chooses to stop dominating people with his powers, to relinquish his claim to power over others or special right. And he comes into the community, and is made welcome. But carefully. With watchful eyes still on him.
The lesson of Scarlamagne is that sometimes people seek power over others to reclaim the autonomy they feel they have lost. And sometimes the way to show them how to accept the freedom of the Other depends on showing them how to accept their own freedom. Scarlamagne is a name Hugo gives himself because he thinks the world is compelling him to evil. But he is free to stop. And Kipo shows him how.
As I mentioned, Scarlamagne’s principal purpose as a character within the story is to act as a foil to the show’s central dyad between Kipo and Dr. Emilia; and the central text of the show with regard to the relationship between power and body autonomy lies in the conflict between Kipo and the doctor.
As described in Scarlamagne’s back story, Dr. Emilia came from the same burrow as Kipo’s parents and is, like Kipo’s parents, a geneticist. She is the daughter of the burrow’s administrator, and is herself a senior administrator within the scientific and power hierarchy of the bunker.
Her father is depicted as emotionally abusive, demanding and hard. He wants nothing more than a cure for the Mute condition, and when Dr. Emilia’s own brother befriends the delightful rat mutes, Brad and Amy, she murders him and lies, declaring him a martyr of humanity rather than face the risk of her father’s disapproval.
Although Song and Lio Oak create Hugo, the uplifted mandrill, Dr. Emilia is the author of Scarlamagne, as she is not only the hostile force the Oaks hide Hugo from, she is his slaver and his principal rival in contention for power on the surface.
In a lot of ways, Dr. Emilia’s quest to revert mutated creatures back to their subjugated state is shown to be a parallel to Dave’s war for the fan. In both cases, the conflict is unnecessary, and in both cases, perceived sense of difference leads the conflict to escalate to genocidal proportions. Where Kipo’s instinct is to open the door to the Other and incorporate all difference into an expanded sense of self, Dr. Emilia wants to keep humanity pristine and dominant. She wants to create a palingenetic movement to a world 200 years dead; and she is the principal author of the conditions that prevent a new world from being born.
Dr. Emilia is a fascist.
And Dr. Emilia is, for most of the series, a perfectly normal human. An educated one. A ruthless one. A charismatic one. But not a mute. Her power, such as it is, comes from training and from positions of power within social hierarchies. She leads humans because she has a vision that seems bigger than her, and the frightened masses follow her.
The show threads a difficult line here, because it’s critical to the conflict of the show that, at the conclusion of the conflict with Scarlamagne, Dr. Emilia assume control over the now-freed human army. She takes all of Scarlamagne’s victims, and she lies to them. She blames Kipo, and decries the impurity that is hybridization. And she takes humanity with her to a cruise ship lair to keep them under her thumb until she can perfect her cure and return the Wonderbeasts to their subjugated, insentient, modes of being. Dr. Emilia traffics in other subjugations. She weaponizes Hugo’s sweat and uses it to create a control collar with which she’s enslaved Song Oak, using the towering spider monkey as her weapon. She uses the same tactics of emotional abuse her father engaged with in order to keep her lackeys, Zane and Greta, under her thumb. She lies, dissembles, and acts as if she’s some great chess master when the whole time all she is doing is taking agency from everyone, feeding command over others into her own bloated desire for power.
Dr. Emilia discovers that Kipo’s genetic material is the catalyst necessary to complete her cure and so she steals it. And, once she’s perfected the cure, her first target is Kipo. Kipo has become the ideological leader of a “friendship alliance” between humans and Mutes. She has used the image of Benson and Dave’s successful partnership, the kindness of the Timbercats, the model of Ratland, an integrationist amusement park that was razed by Scarlamagne, and a dozen other relationships she built over the course of the first two seasons to instantiate a new political order where humans emerge from their burrows and where Mutes break the species-line gangs they’ve fallen into and form a kind of multi-species nation together with Humanity. Kipo has even succeeded in peeling off followers from Emilia’s human enclave. Her message resonates particularly powerfully with the youth of the burrow, and family lines are broken when the (hilariously extra) daughter of Kipo’s burrow’s leader chooses to join Kipo’s alliance and brings several adolescents along with her.
So Emilia kidnaps Kipo’s friends and threatens to kill them if Kipo doesn’t present herself to be cured.
Her plot fails, but in the process, Kipo’s friend, the leader of the Timbercats, Yumyan Hammerpaw, is struck by a dart containing the cure and is forcefully transformed to a housecat. However Kipo steals the cure and is able to use it to restore her mother to her human form.
Dr. Emilia believes the most expedient way to neutralize Kipo is to take away her body autonomy, to force her to be just one thing. And this is the lens through which she views all the awesome wonders of this post-human age. She immediately attacks, intending to raid the Timbercat village and cure Kipo and her allies, cutting the head off any sort of organized Mute response to human revanchism. The raid is partly successful, and several named minor Mute characters including Bad Billions (a rapping astronomer wolf played wonderfully by Wu Tang Clan’s GZA), Brad the rat, and a few other characters with small speaking roles are, “cured.” They seem to retain a kernel of self, they recognize their former friends and lovers in their reduced forms, but their voices are silenced – their ability to choose how they want to live life, as a person or as a beast, is taken from them. Kipo despairs and decides that she is in a moment where talk has failed; unthinkingly she transforms into her Mega-Mute form and attacks the human force, which is composed mostly of people who she grew up looking up to. Remember the children have already sided with her. The force arrayed against her is nearly every person of authority in her life, excepting her parents, who accidentally authored all this with their reckless experimentation 13 years previous and who immediately and unquestioningly side with her.
And so of course, the humans spend their darts on Kipo, attempting to simultaneously neutralize the Mutes’ most dangerous battlefield asset and the ideological leader of human-mute collaboration in one movement.
And they discover that the cure, which is based upon Kipo’s DNA cannot affect her. Kipo is the one person from whom Emilia can not strip body autonomy. Dr. Emilia cannot force Kipo to be just one thing. Kipo will be what she is becoming and that cannot be undone. Not by anybody. Kipo cannot reverse the changes to her body. Scarlamagne cannot command her body to do the things he wills. And Emilia cannot command her body to be the thing she wills. Kipo, in her war form, is a giant mutant cat who shakes off arrows and darts and who can disperse an army with the stomp of her foot.
Kipo, upon discovering that Emilia cannot cure her, has become like Superman: a being defined entirely by the conscious decision to live life according to an ideology, one who cannot be compelled, only persuaded. Humanity abandons Dr. Emilia’s quest. A few of her hardliners make one final attempt to cure the Mutes, but other humans shield their new friends from harm and the effort is largely the last gasp of a spent force. With nothing else left Dr. Emilia decides to murder Kipo.
To do this, Dr. Emilia must become like Kipo and she uses stolen research notes to duplicate the process which led to Song Oak’s accidental gene therapy. She injects herself with this cocktail and becomes a hideous, two-headed monster, even vaster and more inhuman than Kipo’s war form. They have a climactic battle, but the whole thing is basically an endurance test. Emilia is losing herself in the form of the beast. She cannot do what Kipo did and reconcile the animal within her because it’s alien to her. The beast is terrified OF her, and it will not be reconciled because it only wants to flee from her terrible purpose. Dr. Emilia drowns in her own contradictions, and loses her agency. She flees, goes to ground, crouching and hiding her eyes, defeated by the refusal to be her own body.
Kipo shows mercy and cures Emilia. She thinks that surely, like Scarlamagne, Emilia will talk now. She is fully contained. Her reserves of cure are depleted. Her followers have abandoned her. Kipo offers Emilia her hand just the way she did with with Scarlamagne.
And rather than take her hand, Dr. Emilia tries to stab Kipo with a shard of glass; even in defeat, she refuses to allow that others might live in ways contrary to how she deigns. But Mandu, Kipo’s pet pig, a voiceless Mute and the first friend Kipo ever made, defends her friend, and Dr. Emilia falls backward into the burrow that birthed them all. Kipo tries to catch her, makes one last attempt to take her hand, but misses. And Fun Gus catches her. The prisoner of its own body who is so desperate for recognition of the Other that it will never let someone go once it has them, finds itself become the jailer of a solipsist who refuses to allow that any person might live but according to the way she dictates. Dr. Emilia cannot be persuaded. She is incapable of making that leap of empathy that Scarlamagne does, and so despite her monstrosity taking on a very similar form to his, he can be redeemed. She cannot. In the end, she can only be stripped of power and contained.
Wolf and what a body can do
As I mentioned before, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is first, and foremost a story about race. The story explores a world torn by inter-ethnic strife. The villains are first an escaped slave who discovers power and engages in revenge, setting himself up as a would-be king of a multi-ethnic state with a racialized slave class in humans and then a fascist revanchist who sees most of the people in the world around her as nothing more than beasts, undeserving of a voice or a choice in their own lives. Scarlamagne wants to see himself as better than another race. Dr. Emilia sees all races but hers as inferior. But by using sentient animals as a stand-in for an otherwise nuanced discussion of race, there is a risk of biological essentialism. Hummingbombers, Mod Frogs and Timbercats each have a form of national culture that is framed in the context of what their bodies are. Frogs command insects as slaves. Wolves can’t help but gaze at the moon. Cats like yarn.
But Wolf problematizes these essentialist readings. She is a human child who was raised by a wolf pack. She is trained by them to have the capabilities of a wolf, to run and leap, to balance and to howl as a wolf. She is indoctrinated into the ideology of the wolf nation.
And then she is betrayed. They raised her not to be one of theirs but rather as a training exercise – to teach their cubs how to hunt even the most cunning prey. Wolf fights back and, though we never see how, kills her adoptive mother, using her pelt as a cloak. She retreats into Scorpion territory and learns how to calm her heartbeat so that she can escape their notice. She takes a giant scorpion stinger as her principal weapon and establishes a household in a ruined building somewhere everyone else is afraid to go.
When we meet Wolf, she sees Mutes only as threats or as food, and she sees other humans only as an encumbrance to her continued survival. Kipo slowly befriends her, and helps her to let down her barriers. Eventually she abandons her scorpion stinger and her ghastly cape. Wolf demonstrates the infinite transformative capacity of a human body in a more subtle fashion than Kipo. She moves with the grace and speed of a wolf because she was taught. She can calm her own heart because she learned how. Wolf is a small child but is also a fearsome fighter, easily able to go toe to toe against giant walls of muscle like Greta. In the course of the show she learns how to sing. And she loves it. Wolf is a celebration of the infinite transformative power of the body.
And this is where we dive a bit deeper into the queer text of the show. I’ve been using she/her pronouns for Wolf because that is what the text does and I am trying not to read beyond what is there, but there is definitely a queer subtext to Wolf and that is reflected in how she idealizes her own body and its potentials.
Kipo is pretty obviously bisexual. The bi flag colour scheme is one of the predominant palettes of the show, which repeadly drenches itself in pink, purple and blue. She tries to kiss Benson, who gently rebuffs her because he’s gay and they remain close friends. He eventually gets a boyfriend, and the romance scenes between Benson and Troy are frankly darling. And Kipo? She kind of starts dating Wolf.
The show is coy about this. They have a song that Kipo calls “our song.” During the climax of the series, when Kipo organizes a simultaneous dance party and diplomatic conference at Prahm, Wolf gives Kipo a corsage and comes as her date. Wolf is a very shy person and quite reserved with her emotions, but we get a sense of intense affection from her that is directed only at Kipo. Kipo, of course, shows intense affection for everything and everyone but she has a closeness for Wolf that is more like how she acts with her parents than with all the others she tries to give her love. But they don’t share the sort of explicit romantic coding that gives away Benson’s relationship to Troy.
But to get really into where Wolf’s queerness ties into her sense of her body we need to return to the first encounter with Mulholland. In Wolf’s ideal dreamworld, she and Kipo are together, just the two of them against the world. They’re hunters, capturing the most dangerous game (Mega Bunnies) and they’ve become so adept that the great problem they face is that they have hunted their prey out and need to find new challenges.
Wolf (who has a very diminutive stature) imagines Kipo and herself as giant, muscle bound and masculine. they speak in deep voices and do the Epic Handshake made famous in memes and the Predator film (itself something of a queer work of art). In Wolf’s ideal world it appears she is a man. And so is Kipo. And they are a couple.
But the world collapses when Wolf recognizes that this beautiful dream isn’t one that Kipo shares. They might be in love, but Kipo isn’t a hunter. And Kipo isn’t a man. Wolf breaks free of domination because she refuses to demand that another person’s body be the ideal she wishes it was. And in doing so, she expresses her love.
Love, embodiment and power
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is far more clever than the majority of children’s entertainment, and is a better program for it. It creates a central thesis that diagnoses power as the expression of desire to control what bodies can do. It demonstrates how this power comes both from within the body of the subject and also from their desire to subjugate, to demand that bodies conform to the standards they set.
Despite hints of the mystical with the cheese diviners, Kipo and the Wonderbeasts presents a remarkably materialist sense of the mind. Mulholland’s powers work because he enters, and physically interferes with the working of an organ. Likewise Scarlamagne’s sweat act on the body, it takes agency but not by replacing the self of the victim with a simulation of the dominator. Instead it turns the victim into a puppet, their body turned against them. Imprisonment is a common threat in this show because cages, too, are forms of domination imposed upon the body. Minds cannot be dominated; they can only be persuaded. And the root of persuasion in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is love. Romantic love, familial love, love of an idealized self, love of the Other. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts tells us very clearly that we need to open the doors of the world to everything that is outside and bring it in. We must open the sense of self up to the infinite potential of the body to learn, to grow and to change. Transformation cannot be rolled back. We are forever becoming what we will be. The Mutes who are “cured” remain so. There is no happy reversal where Yumyan and Bad Billions can return to their roles of leadership. Bad Billions is still welcome in his community though, he sits beside the chairs of the Newton Wolves and watches the raps and scientific seminars he can no longer perform every night, still loved. Still inside.
Five years after the defeat of Dr. Emilia, Kipo’s dream is realized. Humans and Mutes are integrated into a wild, urban, cosmopolitan and cashless society. Kipo isn’s a ruler. She’s happy to step back and spend time with Wolf and her other friends. She’s Superman, but in a world of love, there’s no need for her power, and so she doesn’t express it. Harmony arrives when domination ends; the most radical love is opening the door of self to everything that is Other and letting it in. Kipo affirms and celebrates difference. She adores the Timbercats. She loves Ratland. She immediately races to help the Fitness Raccoons when she meets them. She happily listens to Scarlamagne’s maddening waltzes. She wants to bring together an alliance in friendship but starting from the fundamental basis that the inherent differences between people are a source of joy and beauty, not terror.
Kipo’s text isn’t naïve. It recognizes that some people will not make this leap. And they will have to be contained – hard choices will be made, fascists can not have a place in a cosmopolitan world built on love. But Kipo’s text is optimistic. Recognition can be a process of mutual empathy. We don’t need to engage the master and the slave in every interaction. Instead we can engage the lovers, and build a culture of mutual affirmation of difference. We can create a space for everyone.
And I think that’s a pretty good message for children.