“Futurama” is a Science Fiction American animated television show created by Matt Groening, who also created the legendary animated show “The Simpsons”. Fry, the main character of “Futurama”, is a slacker type of guy who accidentally gets frozen during New Years Eve in 1999. He wakes up only to find himself in the future of 3000. He starts working as a delivery boy for “Spaceship Express”, a company owned by an absent minded old professor, who also is Fry’s last living relative. Fry works with a team composed of Bender, a morally ambiguous robot, Leela, the Cyclops Captain of the Delivery Starship, Dr. Zoidberg, a lobster alien doctor, Amy, a Chinese-descended girl from Mars, and Hermes, a Jamaican bureaucrat. The show followed the crew’s adventures throughout the galaxy, creating many different kinds of worlds and civilizations.
“Futurama” featured many memorable characters. One of the most memorable characters of the series is Zapp Brannigan, an overly-macho arrogant captain of the show’s military spacecruizer and leader of earth’s galactic army.
Zapp Brannigan made his first appearance in the episode “Love’s Labours Lost in Space”. He served as the antagonist (of sorts) in that episode. The crew of Spaceship Express encounter him by accident while out on a mission. Leela, the captain of the crew, has heard of the famous hero captain who had defeated an army of Killbots in a battle. The crew is excited to meet the famous captain until it is revealed how he defeated the Killbots. Fry asks him enthusiastically about the battle, to which Brannigan proudly replies: “It was all a matter of wit. You see, Killbots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them, until they reached their limit and shut down”. Zapp Brannigan pompously brags about sending people to their death without any regrets. From this moment on, Leela as well as the rest of the crew, grow understandably to dislike Zapp Brannigan. Later in the episode, after the crew becomes imprisoned, Brannigan attempts to seduce Leela since his belief is that the only way to reason with a woman is to bed her. Leela, who’s a no-nonsense serious person, agrees to meet with Brannigan believing she can reason with him “captain to captain”. Leela’s hope for a conversation meets with disappointed when it becomes apparent what Brannigans intentions, and beliefs (about women and the world), actually are.
In this episode the writers of “Fututrama” well portray the awkwardness of the situation where a confident, intelligent woman, finds themselves placed in uncomfortable and untenable situations by the actions and ploys of the unself-conscious macho man of incompetent inclinations. Leela, as the understanding and sympathetic person, tries to let Brannigan down, only to have him burst into tears, which leads her to have” pity sex” with him. The episode then takes an unusual twist by not shaming Leela, the female lead, for doing this sexual act. As Leela wakes up in the morning, she regrets her actions and simply says to Brannigan that she let her pity get the best of her. She proposes that they should as mature adults just forget about the whole event. But Brannigan, being who he is, won’t hear any of this. A running gag is introduced at this juncture of the show where we will find Brannigan repeatedly trying to get Leela into his bed again, believing she truly wants him. His arrogance makes him believe he, as a perfect male type, is a ultimate, and unforgettable, gift to women, as well as believing he is the best captain anyone could want.
Along with these qualities which we find in this character, Zapp Brannigan also is shown to have a tendency towards the reckless and dangerous without regard or consideration of others. In “A flight to remember”, he flies a spaceship right into a path filled with meteors. When the ship becomes brutally damaged by the meteors, Brannigan then drives the ship towards a black hole (calling it a “Black hole-thingy”), causing the ship to slowly pull into the black hole. Brannigan refuses to take responsibility for his actions though, and in order to have the ability to run away from the dangerous scene yet allowing the captain to go down “with his ship”, resigns his assistant Kiff to take on the mantle of “the new captain” of the ship. The writers here mock overly macho men who unconsciously and without foresight move towards the dangerous, yet as soon as things back fire, they will place blame on others (making them more like confident man, than heroes or “men of action”).
The episode “Brannigan, Begin Again” had the most feminist elements in its critical portrayal of Zapp Brannigan. The story revolves around Zapp Brannigan losing his job as captain after blowing up the head courters for a peaceful organization called The Democratic Order Of Planets (a futuristic version of the United Nations). Brannigan is able to get his assistant Kiffs fired as well, claiming the incident was mostly Kiff’s fault. Pennilessly, he turns to Leela for a possible job. Leela refuses at first, but after the professor mentions needing more help around the Delivery Company, Leela relents and grudgingly hires Brannigan and Kiff. The episode then follows the crew out upon their many and mundane interstellar deliveries. Leela, being the competent captain par excel lance, gives very precise orders to Fry, Brannigan and Bender during the missions, yet the trio often are resentful of her strong and capable command and are incited to go against Leelas demands destructing the good operation of the ship and placing the crew and vessel in danger. Instead of considering that they should listen to their captain, Fry and Bender let Brannigan convince them to commit mutiny against Leela and make Brannigan the new captain. The crew of two believe that Brannigan will give them more freedom and less work, only to realize he plans lead instead to the inevitable conclusion of getting them killed. The only way they are able to save themselves is by once again listening to Leela’s advice and following it to the letter.
A major theme depicted in “Brannigan, begin again” is the reflective macho man’s refusal to listen to women, even if they clearly have good advice and know how to handle things. Leela, being the strong woman in the show, often has to struggle to be heard in the patriarchy exposed in the show. A major theme then which runs through the Series (and which is quite noticeable in the Zapp episodes) is the struggle which Leela has to be heard and accepted though consistently her positions, actions and advice is the correct ones. At the end of “Brannigan, Begin Again” Leela forgives Fry and Bender for everything, despite their actions nearly getting them all killed. By having Leela forgive Fry and Bender (and additionally “saving their lives” from the irresponsible position Zapp place them in) “Futurama” breaks the stereotype of strong women being heartless. On the other hand Brannigan, being the self-centered and self promoting man, has no problem to get others killed if it serves him well.
Another theme addressed in the episode is of the macho attitude towards pacifist. The Neutrals, a peaceful species of aliens, become the main target for Brannigan throughout the episode. Since the species are always neutral and refuse to engage in battles and wars, Brannigan sees them as a dangerous enemy who must be out to kill everyone in the galaxy. The writers mock men who, like Brannigan, see pacifists as eerie, dangerous and unnatural, simple because they won’t fight. To Brannigan, a man who sees aggression as a natural trait in any men, the Neutrals can’t actually be neutral and non-violent. Therefore they are potential enemies, which means, in the conceptual world of the patriarchic Brannigan, that the only way to stop them is to kill them before they attack. Zapp Brannigans merciless war tactics are illogical and dangerous, but in his mind he is a real “man’s man”.
The last “Futurama” episode featuring Zapp Brannigan I will discuss is “War is the H word”. In it, Earth goes to war with an unknown planet. Fry and Bender, who have recently joined the army, are forced to march on to battle. Leela wishes to sign up to protect Fry and Bender, but is forbidden by Brannigan who won’t allow women in the army since he believes they cause too much distraction to the men and are too weak to fulfill the rigors of training and battle. Leela, to work around this most odd of Zapps regulations, disguises herself as a man and turns out to be the best soldier out of the entire army. Brannigans sexist remarks are, to say the least, contradicted by Leelas actions.
Zapp Brannigans way of speaking is similar to Captain Kirk from the hit show “Star Trek”. “Futurama” not only parodies common macho behavior in our society through Brannigan, but also the depiction of male heroes as they occur in western popular culture. The manly hero captain is stripped of talent, sympathy or any likeable characteristic which we are meant to imbue in them (transparently) within the machine of pop culture, and instead shows the true characteristics of the one-dimensional male chauvinist circling in its own concerns (and who we should “want” to emulate).
The show consistently uses Leela, as the trope of the independent woman, and which is used as the antithetical portrait of the self replicating and unaware macho man. One of the most interesting aspects of the story telling in “Futurama”, the episodes revolving around Brannigan are always interesting and hilarious.