“The Powerpuff Girls” and Today’s Feminist Animation Landscape

Professor Utonium’s famous formula for “the perfect little girl” — sugar, spice, and everything nice — is pretty gender essentialist and, in hindsight, kind of creepy. But of course, none other than the Powerpuff Girls were born out of this syrupy mix—with the help of Chemical X—and for years, they taught a generation of girls how to lead, be kind and kick butt.

via Wikimedia and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0
via Wikimedia and licensed under Creative Commons 3.0

This month, The Powerpuff Girls returned to its home channel, Cartoon Network, not in the form of a rerun but as a full-on reboot, new title credits and all. From the very first episode titled “Man Up,” Blossom, Bubbles and especially Buttercup assert their most dominant features: Blossom’s slightly bossy demeanor, Bubbles’ silly but not daft sweetness, and Buttercup’s raw anger and power. The story both sets the precedent for the new season and continues the legacy of the original series, and ends with the girl superheroes saving the day and setting the stage for a new series of girl power adventures.

Yet even as I laughed through the new episodes, I had to question: Outside of the strong nostalgia factor, is there still a real need for a new Powerpuff Girls?  There will always be a space and a place for the show’s namesake trio and explicit focus on girl power—but we’re living in the golden age of smart, intersectional, feminist children’s animation, and television shows and films alike are currently bursting with fantastic viewing options that explore identity, sexuality, and gender equality in innovative and moving ways.

This isn’t to say that children’s animation has ever been lacking for interesting female characters, or that older shows—the original Powerpuff Girls included—are somehow inferior or won’t be missed. (One needs to look no further than the enthusiastic reaction to Netflix’s addition of Animaniacs to be sure of it.) For my own part, I grew up watching and pulling inspiration from Misty from Pokémon, Spinelli and Gretchen from Recess, Helga and Phoebe on Hey Arnold, the three leading ladies of Totally Spies and Starfire and Raven on Teen Titans—among many other characters in many other shows—and even recently wrote about the importance of animated cartoon heroines on my personal identity and style. But for all the nuance and depth those shows gave to some of their women and girls, they were remarkably shortsighted or obtuse about other intersections of marginalization.

This is where a new generation of shows has picked up the cause.

Consider Adventure Time, Cartoon Network’s brightest star and a cultural juggernaut. Framed as the loopy adventures of Finn the Human and Jake the Dog, the show is full of sophomoric humor like fart jokes and glib catchphrases but also boasts some of the most interesting gender relation explorations I’ve ever seen on TV. Perhaps the only network show that can rival Adventure Time for its gender politics is Steven Universe, another Cartoon Network program that thoroughly and lovingly embraces not just femininity, but the many oft-marginalized facets of gender, and in ways that don’t serve as direct retorts to stereotypes (unlike, say, physically strong but emotionally empty YA film heroines).

Though these two particular shows stand out, there are plenty of others that exist as part of this latest wave of children’s animation: Disney XD’s Gravity Falls and Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Cartoon Network’s Over the Garden Wall, Nickelodeon’s Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender and its more uneven but revolutionary continuation The Legend of Korra and Fox’s transcendent Bob’s Burgers, to name a few.

Though they exist along stalwarts like The Simpsons and Family Guy and continue in the footsteps of many shows that have paved the way, the more socially progressive tones and subject matters of these shows is a direct result of a generation of creators who have not just internalized diversity arguments, but have lived and enacted them.

That isn’t to say that these shows are perfect, or that they all excel at the things I’ve shouted them out for. American animation’s history is rooted in gendered oppression, and the television and film industries as a whole are still overwhelmingly staffed with men and struggling to do diversity and inclusion right. Even though Steven Universe offers some of the most progressive gender relationships I’ve ever seen in pop culture, it was rightly questioned for an episode that was perceived as a mockery of trans representation. Many other shows I’ve highlighted here have similarly played with gender representation—particularly the phenomenon of having deep-voiced men voice young girls, and presenting this as humor—at the expense of trans women, including both the old and new iterations of the Powerpuff Girls.

Part of closing this gap in representation will mean closing a gap in behind-the-scenes diversity: While a show such as trans creator Shadi Petosky’s Danger & Eggswhich was picked up by Amazon, doesn’t explicitly tackle trans representation in the same way that a show like network-mate Transparent does, having more trans people working in animation—just as having more women and more people of color—increases the likelihood that overplayed or under-thought jokes are nixed from the get-go. As feminists, this is a fight rightly worth our time and energy—and one women, and trans women in particular, are inextricably impacted by.

The fact that the trans experience is being discussed at all in children’s animation is a huge step forward, but it doesn’t ameliorate the fact that mainstream feminist discussions and pop culture representations often erase and insult trans people, even as they tackle and question the gender binary at large. Of course, the burden of representation shouldn’t fall entirely on The Powerpuff Girls—but because the examples of media representation for marginalized communities are still so few and far between, every single show telling a variation of their stories is seen as needing to not only measure up to its predecessors but also go beyond and do better in every possible way.

To that end, the return of The Powerpuff Girls is nothing but good news: It’s another chance to broaden the playing field, covering ground other shows can’t through the strength of their name recognition and their stories. After all, the show is still a pretty perfect capsule of animation’s potential: the medium, both historically and practically, can challenge reality in a way that guarantees and necessitates an audience’s suspension of disbelief.

But instead of settling for the strides of representation we’ve gotten, or solely turning to nostalgic but growth-less revival of older properties—a phenomenon that’s hit pop culture at-large especially hard as of late—we should always expect better and broader representation, especially from the media we’re beaming to the next generation.

It’s good to have The Powerpuff Girls back. The stories of those three girls who meant—and still mean—so much to so many deserve a chance to catch up to not just everything else on air, but the exciting and colorful reality of our modern world.