you have to be april
screen print and essay by Maren Nelson
Growing up as an only child on a street of sporty boys, I spent a lot of time navigating the space of being a “bossy” and headstrong girl in an environment where I could easily be ganged up on in an argument. Across our shared South Minneapolis yards, I held my own. Always stubborn and independent, when things got too ridiculous I would turn around and walk home without a word, completely content to play on my own.
In my house and yard, I was queen. Often taking that metaphor a bit too literally, I could be a mini tyrant when it came to the next evolution of our pretend plots, what toys the boys could play with, and whether or not I would follow them to their yard if our play morphed or their toys were needed. Looking back, I see those moments of tyranny as attempts to lay claim to my agency in the spaces I could control, knowing my fate would change as soon as we crossed the fence.
Whenever we left my yard, play changed—I didn’t get to call the shots when I was on their territory. I didn’t know the rules of football so they could make them up to use against me. I apparently didn’t throw a baseball the right way. I had to do “women’s work” when we played house. I got to be a teacher while they were race car drivers and paramedics. In reality, I spent most of the time doing the emotional labor of mediating between hot-headed brothers who refused to get along long enough to even pick out a video game. And oh were there video games. It was the mid-90s after all.
Knowing I had an addictive personality, my parents forbid me from having anything other than Number Munchers and KidPix on the family computer. Like a pilgrimage to a sacred relic, I coveted the Sega Genesis in the boys’ basement. I used my skills as a mediator to my advantage, often trying to manipulate the situation to secure at least the possibility of powering up the games, and more often than not, it worked. In my mind, there could be no other toy that would ever match the beauty of Sonic the Hedgehog, X-Men, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That black, plastic Sega was the Holy Grail.
The boys were surprisingly patient with me as I learned how to play each game, but once I understood the basics of jumping, punching, and picking things up, they found new ways to impose limitations on me: unless unavailable, I could only play a girl. It probably says something about representation of women in video games, but I only remember playing female characters in two games: X-Men and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For every other game, I was just the designated “Player 2.” I remember Storm and Rogue saw a lot of action in X-Men, despite being told repeatedly that “Wolverine is really the most powerful though.” They were badass women and I could still beat Wolverine so it didn’t concern me much that I had a special rule that the boys didn’t have to play by. But what really bothered me was the fact that never once did I get to play my favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Never once did I get to put on a purple mask and wield a staff as Donatello—”You have to be April.”
And to be fair, April was fabulous. She was a headstrong, independent reporter and the Turtles would never have gone far without her. She was, for all intents and purposes, my favorite character. But it was the principle of the thing. My favorite Turtle was Donatello and he was perpetually beyond my reach for no reason other than I was a girl. It didn’t make sense and it was infuriating.
Looking back, this seemingly innocuous frustration was teaching me a painful lesson, priming me for what life would lay down as my predetermined reality. It was foretelling the moments of disbelief when I would realize that girls had to play softball instead of baseball, that definitions and expectations for success were always going to be different, that I would never be paid the same as the men in my field.
It’s in those little moments of dictatorial reign that children are taught how to live in the world. As often as I could, I chose to fight. That is unless the system told me to play nicely in order to play at all. April was never a weak alternative, it was just that the other characters were locked, and more than the TV screen was apparently made of glass.