Literary Theory for Pokémon Trainers

Jennifer Heinicke

Issue 2 * Spring 2000

Since Pokémon mania has swept through elementary schools more quickly than dog-eared copies of Harry Potter, we must consider the long-term effects this latest fad will have on our youngsters. Far from being exclusively negative, I believe that this pop culture phenomenon does have its useful and possibly positive influences on children. While Pokémon is full of violence, it claims to instruct its viewers to love one another, develop unconditional friendships, and inspire healthy competition. Yet there is another possible side-effect of Pokémon fever: it can be used as a metaphor for literary theory. When today’s children in love with the Harry Potter series grow up and attend graduate school to understand why they found the books so fascinating, their previous experience with Pokémon can provide an entry into that critical discourse.

For those unfamiliar with the Pokémon mythology, I shall provide a brief introduction that in no way can discuss all elements of Pokémon culture. Pokémon began in Japan: it was the television show that caused several children to have seizures years ago. Since then, Pokémon has come to the United States in the form of video games, television shows, movies, books, t-shirts, toys, and even fashion accessories. Pokémon is short for pocket monsters: 151 different Pokémon characters exist as of date, although more may be discovered. Humans attempt to be the best Pokémon trainer: by training Pokémon to battle and behave appropriately, the human trainer can win battles with other trainers. The Pokémon fight against each other when challenged, although the humans stand on the sidelines and give commands to help his or her own Pokémon to win. Each Pokémon has different strengths: there are Pokémon that have the advantage in water (starfish, seals, fish, etc.) and those that have the upper-hand in the air (birds, butterflies, etc.). Some have special psychic (telekinetic) powers; others can give electric shocks or have flaming tails. By having a variety of Pokémon, a trainer can ensure his success. Ash Ketchum is the main Pokémon trainer to whom American audiences are introduced: since he has just begun to build up his Pokémon army, audiences tend to identify with his role as semi-outsider within the narrative. He relies heavily upon Pikachu, the incredibly adorable yellow mouse with rosy cheeks. His electric power is shown symbolically through his lightning bolt tail. His utter devotion to his master is quite similar to that of Yvain and his lion in Chrétien’s romance. In Pokémon: The First Movie, it is Pikachu’s tears that not only inspire other Pokémon to cry, but save Ash’s life.

From such a summary, one may not find it believable that literary theory can in any way be understood by knowledge of Pokémon mythology. Let us assume that Ash Ketchum is a student majoring in English. As he becomes exposed to literary theory, he develops a fondness for a particular approach. He then traps it in a red and white ball, files it in his pocket, and stores it for later use. Instead of capturing a Pokémon, he has trapped a theoretical underpinning. Instead of Pikachu, he has Karl Marx. As he travels through his educational career, he will meet other approaches that he may confine and master: Freud, Lacan, Derrida, de Man, de Beauvior, Jameson, Frye, Bloom, Barthes, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Leví-Strauss, Bakhtin, Benjamin, Baudrillard, Cixous, Kristeva, even maybe the dubious Paglia, etc. The list is as plentiful as the real Pokémon roster. For clarity’s sake, I will dub the literary theories as Litémon.

While Ash may have all of these theories in his back pocket to whip out on any given challenge (or assignment), he can never use all of them at once. If he does attempt that, chaos would ensue. Some Litémon work well together, although some despise all others. The Paglia Litémon does not get along with anyone, but the Marx Litémon can be used successfully with many others. Like most Pokémon matches in the television show, Ash is most likely to win when he selects one or two Pokémon to fight for him. When he selects Pikachu, his favorite Pokémon, he is usually difficult to beat. To win, Ash must use no more than two Pokémon to finish the battle; he cannot use more than two Litémon to finish his analysis of The Great Gatsby either.

Like Pokémon, Litémon have their own strengths. Just as Ash can rely on Pikachu’s thunderbolt (or electrical shock) to stun opponents, Ash can count on his Marx Litémon to question class in any literary work. Ash can depend on the Kristeva and Cixous Litémon to discuss gender. Ash knows that having two Pokémon with similar talents is not the best way to win: if his opponent is uninjured by Pikachu’s electric shock, then another Pokémon that uses similar tactics ensures defeat. Likewise, Ash never uses Kristeva and Cixous Litémon together; instead he combines one with another Litémon to cover more bases. At times, one Litémon’s strength becomes weakened by another’s Litémon. The Freud Litémon may lose to the Lacan Litémon, although that is not a given.

Like Pikachu, the Marx Litémon may become Ash’s favorite approach to literature. In such a case, Ash knows the powers of his Litémon intimately and can always rely on his Litémon to work the same way. Pikachu is not going to suddenly blow bubbles like his fellow Pokémon Squirtle; similarly, the Marx Litémon will not change his mind and decide to do queer theory instead. The Marx Litémon is as reliable as Pikachu (although not nearly as adorable or marketable). The reason why a particular Litémon is typically successful is not necessarily because of his or her own strengths, but possibly simply because of the relationship between the Litémon and his or her Litémon master. Due to the symbiotic relationship between Ash and Pikachu, Ash knows Pikachu quite well; his unfamiliarity with Psyduck may not indicate Psyduck’s weakness, but only a problem in Ash’s understanding of how to fight using Psyduck.

After symbiosis with other Pokémon, some Pokémon evolve into new forms. Pikachu can become Raichu, twice the height and five times the weight of Pikachu, with a longer tail to ground itself and protect itself from its own electrical power. Litémon can also evolve. The rare Hegel Litémon has been replaced by the more common Marx Litémon. Some claim the Lacan Litémon is the evolved form of the Freud Litémon although there is great disagreement.

To find new Pokémon, Ash wanders through the woods and meadows looking for undiscovered species. A literary analyst may browse through academic journals (preferably French) looking for new talent. Ash cannot create new Pokémon, nor, in the academic setting, is he encouraged to create new Litémon either. Instead, by combining the talents of existing Litémon, he is to complete his assignment successfully. Ash is not given the power to imagine new Litémon, but only to creatively exploit his Litémon in new ways.

Both Pokémon and Litémon newcomers may ask who Ash’s opponent is. In Pokémon, Ash directly challenges other trainers. In school, Ash competes with other students. Indirectly, Ash is constantly striving to do his best and prove himself worthy. He relies on others to continually evaluate him, tell him that he’s doing a good job, and that he belongs on his quest. It is perhaps his ever-present need for reassurance that causes him to enter so many battles or so many classes. As Ash moves up through the Litémon master ranks, he battles for publication and tenure. Some evil Litémon trainers (the "Team Rocket" of the literary world) consider the original text their foe and use their Litémon to destroy it. It is a common misconception that use of the Derrida Litémon achieves this result: the Derrida Litémon can succeed while leaving the original text intact.

Perhaps it would be helpful to consider actual examples of Litémon training at work. Carolyn Dinshaw uses two Litémon in Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics: Rubin (the evolved form of Leví-Strauss) and Lacan. Those two Litémon work well together and do not conflict with each other. Lacan has the power of language investigation and Rubin has the power to look into exchanges made between men through women. She is battling for her place in Chaucerian studies by combining the two Litémon, hoping to become more cited than other Litémon trainers, such as Charles Muscatine with his Formalist Litémon and David Aers with his Marx Litémon. Similarly, Francine DuBois uses the Lacan and Feminist Litémon in her article "Passivity and Pathology of Victimhood in Britney Spears' "...Baby, One More Time," so we can see that the literary merit of the original text is of no concern to Litémon: they will use their skills on anything from the Iliad to this article itself.

This sort of activity takes place daily in literature classes. Student A will use her Cixous Litémon to attempt to shoot down Student B’s Benjamin Litémon, yet Student C will be blending the talents of the Marx and Kristeva Litémon together. Student D will enter the discussion with a promptly defeated Paglia Litémon. Student E will not speak, but instead will write a stellar essay using the talents of the Derrida Litémon. Student F will witness the evolution of the Freud Litémon into the Mitchell Litémon, and Student G will explore use his Fish Litémon.

When the Pokémon fans of today enter college, Pikachu may be long forgotten. Few may be able to remember the difference between Psyduck and Golduck. However, hopefully the lessons and theories of Pokémon will still be in place so that the transition to literary theory is a bit easier. Perhaps by then there will be a Litédex similar to the Pokédex, a handheld encyclopedia of all known Pokémon and their respective strengths and weaknesses. Wouldn’t that make literary theory a bit easier for all students, not just the Pokémon fans?