Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?
San Francisco, USA?
The eponymous character based-off the educational video game series is about a thief gallivanting across the world to steal priceless, historical artifacts. Along the way, we learn about geography, history, and spelling! Where in the video game series Carmen was the villain the player character had to stop, in the show, she is recast as a hero figure that steals from another more evil organization called V.I.L.E. (Villain’s International League of Evil) in order to protect the artifacts from being sold off to fund the organizations more malicious goals. This makes her a Robin-esque figure; if Robin Hood wore fashionable black boots and a stunning red coat.
While the educational roots of the game are still in the show (I know so many facts about Durians now), the series places an equal emphasis on moral and political education. Carmen Sandiego exists in the shadows, and the evils of the world, the show argues, do as well.
Even if the writing is sometimes clunky, the show demonstrates how evil really works in the real world. It’s not a villain building a bomb or some other such doomsday nonsense, but a rogue entity manipulating things under the cover of established institutions.
By using these corrupt forces very tools against them, Carmen provides a vital education on activism and resistance that’s actually applicable to our times. This is an important message given how young the shows intended viewers are.
Carmen Sandiego’s fight with V.I.L.E. is personal. She grew up with the organization when they found her as a baby in Argentina. She was adopted by V.I.L.E in much the same way a sword-wielding princess of power was raised by a “frightful” organization in another Netflix show (I am sensing a pattern here Netflix). Consequently, Carmen has wanted to be a thief her entire life and has never once questioned her indoctrination.
This all changes on her first mission, which she tags along secretly to prove herself after failing her thief exams (Yes, she went to a Hogwart-esque school for thieves, and her teacher Shadowsan flunked her for failing her pickpocketing exam). Carmen and her pals are tasked with robbing an archeological dig, and rather quickly; Carmen is provided a moral argument against the heist when she casually stumbles into a conversation with the dig’s head archeologist (I am beginning to see why you failed your exams, Carmen):
“Some things possess value other than monetary, young lady. Any historic find such as this gem belongs to everyone. Its theft would rob the world of knowledge, and that would be a true crime.”
Carmen internalizes this argument pretty quickly, and after stopping V.I.L.E. operatives from killing that very same archeologist, decides to devote her life to preventing V.I.L.E. from “robbing the world” of it’s shared cultural heritage. She wants to add to the collective good, and the organization she’s fighting against, much like the villains of real life, are all about maximizing short-term gains at the expense of humanity’s long-term flourishing. The tension between these two outlooks becomes the philosophical foundation of the show.
Carmen is focused on impact, rather than means. A scene that establishes this fact perfectly is a small one in episode eight, the Lucky Cat Caper. She is fighting her thief school nemesis, Tigress, in a San Franciso souvenir shop that sells lucky cats (Maneki-neko). Several are broken in the scuffle, and before Carmen leaves to continue pursuing Tigress, she tosses the shopkeeper a wad of cash to pay for the damages.
This is a refreshing shift from popular culture’s most notable heroes. When we look at superheroes like Iron Man or Superman (a lot of men here) their moral authority often becomes justification enough to damage the property of “ordinary citizens.” While they might agonize over the moral question of whether or not killing is wrong, they have no qualms over destroying entire cities to stop the big, bad.
Carmen has no hesitation over her methods, calling herself a “white hat thief” in reference to the term “white hat hacker.” What she does place a lot of mental energy into is mitigating and preventing the damage of both herself and that of her enemy. A common plot thread running throughout the series is how she donates much of the money she makes stealing from V.I.L.E. to local charities. She is literally putting her money where her mouth is.
I don’t see Iron Man rebuilding Sokovia (the made-up country leveled in his fight with Ultron in Avengers 2).
V.I.L.E. is the opposite, often damaging the world for monetary value. In the episode the Sticky Rice Caper we learn that V.I.L.E. has bioengineered a spore to destroy Indonesia’s rice production (the country’s primary food staple) in order to sell an inferior substitution.
That’s not an unrealistic sci-fi plot point. Companies use bioengineered plantlife to crowd out competitors all the time. Monsanto, in particular, is well known for using patented crops to monopolize entire sectors of the economy. In one article, Monsanto has been described as being aggressively litigious, to the point where agents hound farmers relentlessly.
“Farmers call them the ‘seed police’ and use words such as ‘Gestapo’ and ‘Mafia’ to describe their tactics.”
Unlike V.I.L.E., however, the law is largely on Monsanto’s side. The Supreme Court has ruled in the company’s favor as recently as 2013. Some of the worst entities in the world hide behind the law. Similarly, V.I.L.E. takes great care to hide behind ruses and subterfuge.
In episode five, the Duke of Vermeer Caper, the villain named The Duchess is covertly stealing Vermeer paintings and replacing them with substitutions so she can sell the originals on the black market. Thieves swap out originals with fakes all the time. The art world is a hotbed of criminal activity, mainly because fine art is such an easy way to store and smuggle large sums of money across country lines.
Where there is a loophole, an evil force is taking advantage of it, and they often look like V.I.L.E. villains — aristocratic royals, tech geniuses, suave businesspeople — and not the maniacal evildoers we have become used to seeing in cartoon shows (though the show has a few of those too). The world exists in shades of gray, which is a point the show paints explicitly in episode five.
“A harsh reminder that we live in a world where villains don’t always look like villains, nor heroes like heroes…It’s important that [we] view the world in shades of grey.”
The villains of the show effectively run a multinational corporation hiding behind the mundane, and our heroes (Carmen & company) are the ones on the run from a secretive police organization called A.C.M.E. (Agency to Classify and Monitor Evildoers).
Appearance can be deceiving.
In fact, one of the show’s most poignant moments plays on this expectation. Throughout the first season, it’s implied (spoiler alert) that villain Coach Brunt was the one who found Carmen as a baby in Argentia. Coach Brunt is both firm and sensitive to Carmen’s needs. She is the girl’s mother-figure, and we are expected to empathize with her.
In the final episode The French Connection Caper, Coach Brunt confronts Carmen. Rather than give her metaphorical daughter leniency, however, Coach Brunt grabs her in a bear hug and proceeds to choke Carmen to near death.
The man who ultimately saves Carmen is Shadowsan — the teacher who failed her during thief school. He knocks Coach Brunt out, and we learn via monologue that he was the one who found her in Argentina. It turns out he failed Carmen in pickpocketing class for an actually empathetic reason:
“I did not wish for you to succeed in crime school because I could not bear the thought of you being faced with having to choose a path of evil.”
He did something wrong (i.e., lying) to do something right (i.e., stopping Carmen from being a villain for hire), and in the process provides yet another example about how you sometimes have to bend simplistic morality to do the right thing. You have to consider your impact, not just your methods.
Carmen Sandiego isn’t the best cartoon show out there. Its dialogue is clunky, and if you’ve watched She-Ra Princesses of Power, then you can see the plot beats coming a mile away.
Yet, it’s a show that has a pretty fantastic message for kids: The world is complicated, evil transcends a simple good-bad dichotomy, and you’re never too young to fight evil, especially if you have a fabulous red outfit.
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