Warning – This article contains plot spoilers for the Operation Starfall storyline in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet.
Throughout most of my childhood, as an anxious, autistic, feminine, pre transition trans woman, I faced consistent experiences of being bullied in school. This probably won’t come as much of a surprise; school children are pretty good at identifying “abnormal” or “weird”, even if they don’t have a name for what exactly it is about you they’re singling you out for.
As anyone who has ever been a victim of childhood bullying can tell you, unless you’re incredibly lucky, school teachers are unlikely to do much to prevent bullying until it reaches a breaking point. I am a little over 30 years old, and would like to think that in the time since I left formal education things have improved somewhat, but I know that for me and my peers, bullying was something that would often be ignored, long past the point where an adult really should have stepped in and done something to stop it.
This is ultimately a story about Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, so I’m not going to get into any great depth on my own childhood trauma here, but I do want to provide some context I think is important to my perspective, going into the latest entries in Nintendo’s monster collecting RPG series.
When I think about getting bullied as a kid, I tend to think about one story in particular. There was one kid I went to school with, who we will call Jack for the purposes of this story. Jack was a very traditionally masculine teenage boy, and singled me out for being a lot more feminine and emotional than to be expected of someone society had labelled as male. He also worked out I was autistic, even if I was still pre diagnosis, and identified that he could use changes in routine, and alterations to structure, to cause me excessive distress.
Over the course of nine months, he bullied me emotionally and physically, gradually escalating over time. Every time I tried to tell a teacher, their response was to tell me to ignore him, and not give him the satisfaction of an emotional response.
“Ignore him, and he’ll get bored and move onto someone else”, they said.
They said this to me in spite of the physical bruises I carried, as I came to them in tears.
Multiple teachers were informed. Multiple teachers failed to step in and protect me.
This story eventually came to a head when, after several months of intense harassment, Jack and his friends cornered me in a bathroom, and threatened to attack me as a group. I panicked, and lashed out violently to escape. Jack was injured pretty badly, needing medical attention.The bullying stopped that day.
Now, as is a pretty common story for people like myself, who were pushed to the point of retaliation by bullies, the moment I stepped up to Jack, that’s when teachers took notice. I was instantly threatened with in-school sanctions for having “thrown the first punch”.
The only thing that protected me from punishment was the fact I had, as an autistic person, been keeping notes on my own bullying. I had records of every time I had been bullied, what date and time, and most importantly, which teachers I had told, without them deciding to intervene. I had a paper trail, and could show, thankfully, that the adults in my life had failed to step in, when I needed a non-violent means of self defence.
Had I lacked that paper trail, I likely would have been punished for self defence after months of harassment. I know many bullied children who were. More than once, in other stories, I was punished for standing up to my bullies.
So, I recognise that was kind of a lengthy preamble for ostensibly an essay about Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, but it feels important to paint a picture of what life is like, from the inside, for a child bullied within a school system that doesn’t care to step in and defend them. You’d be genuinely surprised how many people who have not lived through this kind of experience will write it off as unrealistic, but for many children like myself it was very much the norm.
In Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, the ostensibly antagonistic Team Star are initially portrayed as a group of purposeless aggressive teens, lashing out at authority without cause. They have been skipping school, ignoring uniform regulations, and are at risk of being kicked out of school permanently if they do not get their act together.
As the player, you are tasked with breaking apart this team by force, but the more time you spend exploring their narrative, the more clear it becomes that, at the end of the day, they’re simply a group of kids that feel let down by the adults around them, afraid to return to school until they know for sure that they’re not going to get in trouble for having acted in self defence, in a world that feels cruel and uncaring.
While not explicitly stated to be queer or autistic, the core members of Team Star are portrayed as social outcasts, in many cases defying traditional gender norms, and portrayed as explicitly shy, anxious, and socially distant from their peers. These kids are creative, artistic, sweet, and caring. They are the exact kinds of kids that bullies gravitate toward, and gravitate to them they indeed do.
Team Star is formed explicitly in response to an epidemic of bullying, which is not taken seriously by school administrators. A group of bullied students bands together, with the explicit aim of, as a collective, portraying themselves as scary, formidable, and not to be messed with. From their flashy and dramatic outfits, to the exaggerated vehicle covered in flashing lights and blaring speakers, the group forms to intimidate their bullies, and to show they have solidarity as a group. You can’t pick on one student, without dealing with the retaliation of the many.
In the end, Team Star never even has to make good on their intimidation. They arrive ready to fight, and their bullies run in fear before a single punch is thrown, or Pokémon is sent out to battle.
In many regards, the Operation Starfall storyline in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is a power fantasy for bullied teens – A wish fulfilment narrative about bullied kids having the power to stand up to their oppressors when failed by authority figures and, while some elements of the plot definitely play into that wish fulfilment, other aspects bring the story right back down to earth with a gravity that feels all too realistic.
While Team Star’s plan is successful, all of the school’s bullies one by one drop out from the academy once stood up to, this is not without consequence or fallout. Multiple teachers resign in shame over the reveal of their failure to protect students, one member of Team Star takes the fall for their companions because the school has to be seen to not endorse intimidation of students, and the rest of team star flounders, feeling like they can’t return to school unless doing so alongside their boss, who took the fall for them.
All of this is essentially backstory to the plot of Scarlet and Violet, with the player experiencing the aftermath. The narrative is set after the school has hired new teachers to fill its sudden absences, the former deputy head has covered up the failings of the former faculty, in a school now relatively free of bullying, built on the sacrifice, and action, of students who should never have had to take their defence and safety into their own hands.
As the plot progresses, the player is given space to see future attendees of the school, other young children who were spared being bullied by the presence of Team Star as an anti-bullying force. We are shown that members of Team Star were willing to protect anyone from bullying, even their own former bullies, without judgement. We are shown this team as creative, sweet, intelligent students, whose rejection of formal education was a direct result of the education system failing to make them feel valued.
From a student council president turned rebel leader, to a talented clothing design student turned outfitter for a band of disaffected youth, these are promising teens whose rejection of attending school comes from feeling like even their attempts to protect themselves, and their friends, couldn’t come without cost, in the form of a year and a half separated from their best friend.
The Team Star storyline in Pokémon Scarlet and Violet is certainly not perfect, and has its flaws and inconsistencies, but for me it provided some powerful and healing wish fulfilment, and presented a hopeful view of the world that my younger self could have really benefited from seeing. At its core, it’s a story of one bullied kid trying to protect her friends from facing consequences, either in the form of retaliation for having defended themselves, or getting kicked out of school, while her bullied friends hold strong, refusing to return to school until they know she’s okay.
By the time Team Star’s story ends, the school’s headteacher has acknowledged the failures of the school in not protecting these students properly, and the harm caused by punishing their eventual self defence. The students are able to find community and purpose within school as a force for good, and are able to effect real lasting change in their community.
I know Team Star’s story is not realistic, but it was meaningful to me.
When I think back to being that bullied kid, let down by my teachers, and left to fend for myself, hoping I wouldn’t get in trouble for standing up for myself when threatened, it never felt as flashy, or as heroic, as watching Team Star’s rise. I never created a wrestling persona, and rolled up to school on a battle capable car ready to fight in front of the teachers if needed. However, as I watch those kids come together and stand up for themselves when no adults around them would, I see a lot of myself in them, and I feel a warmth in my soul, for the idea of a world where this story has a happy ending.
Team Star’s story may be simplistic, and overly optimistic, but when it all worked out for Penny and her friends, I wanted nothing more than to let my teenage self give these fictional characters a big hug, and know that everything was going to be okay.