24 Apr


Recently, I rewatched several seasons of the original Powerpuff Girls, which has just been revived as a new series on Cartoon Network.

There are many things that continue to impress me about the old series, such as HIM’s absolutely feminine aesthetic (the flirty cocktail dress, thigh-length high-heeled boots, makeup, pink feather boa. . .) which is interrupted solely by his name and his neatly-curled goatee, demonstrating the power of language and biological factors to emphatically identify sex in light of fluid gender. Or Ms. Sara Bellum’s entire character, the powerful, rational, calm, cool, and collected brain behind the man.

And how about Professor Utonium’s ability to don drag just as well as a lab coat?

Yet, what impresses me above all else is Craig McCracken’s exceptional construction of a clearly patriarchal setting, an environment which he absolutely annihilates through the show’s other qualities.

Men dominate the workforce and even the criminal activity while women are limited to appearing in the background as bank tellers, mothers, and grandmothers. Women are frequently referred to as “toots” or “sweet cheeks,” and Ms. Bellum is referred to as “my dear girl” by the Mayor and is boldly objectified by others.

Additionally, the entire life story of the Powerpuff Girls is in the hands of a man, the Narrator, who consistently recites the introduction and conclusion of each episode as well as all activities, behaviors, and daily events. In “Los Dos Mojos,” the Narrator even admits to this role: “I speak the narrative of the story! I advance the plot! I begin and end each episode!”

The Narrator is our primary source of information, and his limited yet insightful male perspective is how we view the events of each episode, reflecting a societal phenomenon in which men are in control of most of the information distributed to society.

And the Powerpuff Girls never fail to combat these questionable patterns and ideals.

Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup are essentially adorable devices to grant power to femininity—through their personalities and their endless fight against patriarchal norms.

They have broken the barrier between Narrator and action by “encouraging” (read: demanding) the Narrator to advance the plot during some of his long-winded explanations. They have even defeated the animated embodiment of the patriarchal tendency to overemphasize masculinity and discredit femininity in their fight against Mascumax to save the no-females-allowed group AWSM.

Perhaps most importantly, the Girls have taken several feminine tropes and kicked the crap out of them.

The only four major adversaries of the Girls that are female are Princess, Sedusa, Femme Fatale, and Mask Scara, each of which can be read to represent negative female stereotypes.

Princess is the typical daddy’s girl who is spoiled and bratty and uses her wealthy father to buy her the attention she so craves. Sedusa is a sleazy, scantily-clad seductress who embodies the idea that women “ask for” the objectifying treatment they receive in patriarchal society and cause men to act boorishly against their will. Femme Fatale, a wildly misinformed champion of female dominance disguised as feminism, reflects the gross misunderstanding of feminism that is prevalent in today’s society. Mask Scara, shallow, self-absorbed, and concerned only with beauty and cosmetics, reflects the inauthentic standards of beauty forced upon women (and men, too) by the media and unrealistic societal expectations.

The Powerpuff Girls (and, a few times, Ms. Bellum), as positive female role models and strong representations of women, literally and figuratively fight these negative stereotypes and expectations, helping to establish an environment where there is strength rather than weakness in femininity.

This intentional construction of patriarchy within the show has an incredible effect. Combined with the show’s protagonists and action, it encourages young women to combat and fight against the patriarchal ideals which may oppress them in reality.

It seems that McCracken establishes a patriarchal environment for the sole purpose of disrupting it, making The Powerpuff Girls a show which not only entertains but teaches.

[Feature image from Kidscreen, “Spin Master named master toy licensee for The Powerpuff Girls” by Patrick Callan.]

10 Apr

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The Powerpuff Girls are back, and they are fighting patriarchy head-on.

. . .but perhaps not as well as they could be.

The Powerpuff Girls, a revival of the 1998-2005 series of the same name, debuted on Monday, April 4, and the Girls’ world has changed in some obvious, some subtle ways in the past ten years. The most obvious changes are the theme song, which we discussed in a previous post; new voice actresses; and the animation style, which is noticeably lighter, thinner, and sleeker than that of the original series. Viewers are also no longer greeted with the all-too-familiar words, “The city of Townsville!”, spoken by the Narrator, nor are the episodes wrapped up with, “And once again, the day is saved—thanks to the Powerpuff Girls!”, the absence of which has a curious effect on the viewing experience. This lack of consistent Narrator bookends combined with more character-focused stories voids Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup of their superheroine identities and instead draws our attention to their roles and development as sisters, friends, and little girls.

The Powerpuff Girls also more explicitly identifies issues related to gender, feminism, and patriarchy, yet the show does not necessarily combat these issues in any sort of substantial way.

Man-Boy and his Man-Bot.
Man-Boy and his Man-Bot.

For instance, in “Man Up” (the episode that everybody seems to be talking about), we are introduced to Man-Boy, who describes himself as “all the power of a man in the body of a boy” and is a fairly explicit reference to the patriarchal overvaluing of masculinity and undervaluing of femininity. Augmented by Man-Bot, a wooden, lumberjack-esque giant who is controlled by Man-Boy’s movements, Man-Boy crashes Townsville’s Zen-aissance Fair using his “manly will” with the goal of destroying the chill, flowery atmosphere and getting the city “back to its manly roots.”

At one point, Buttercup flies into a rage upon being called “princess” by Man-Boy and launches Man-Boy out of the Fair after a suitable beat-down. In response, Man-Boy marks Buttercup as his nemesis, saying, “No girly-girl beats Man-Boy.”

Buttercup’s anger at being labeled “princess” and her subsequent destruction of the animated embodiment of patriarchal ideals is a candid example of breaking feminine stereotypes if I ever saw one.

Of course, righteous Blossom takes issue with Buttercup’s rage, calling it “uncontrollable anger,” and takes Buttercup through the Zen-aissance Fair in an attempt to help her reach inner peace through meditation, introspection, and relaxation.

If you have not yet seen the episode, then I might have to spoil a bit for you. Essentially, Buttercup trains with a man who is able to teach her to balance the elements of fire and water. Through balancing fire and water, or fury and tranquility, she is then able to defeat Man-Boy for good.

With such an obvious reference to patriarchy (Man-Boy), it seems odd that the tool needed to defeat Man-Boy had nothing to do with gender. I suppose that fire and water could be read to correspond further to masculinity and femininity, and finding strength in both of these qualities leads to better results than completely rejecting either (such as Buttercup demonstrated from taking offense to the label “princess”), but this connection seems a bit strained.

This episode set up the perfect opportunity to openly discuss gender and masculine and feminine strength, yet it did not take advantage of.

Rather than adopting a more spiritual theme, “Man Up,” as one of the first episodes of the series, could have set the stage for a positive, uplifting tone of gender equality to pervade the series as a whole by more explicitly connecting this spirituality to gender.

Buttercup fighting Man-Boy.
Buttercup fighting Man-Boy.

When Blossom began talking to Buttercup about her rage, I was sincerely hoping for a great teaching moment where Blossom encouraged Buttercup to embrace femininity (through the acceptance of or even simply the ability to remain unfazed by seemingly derogatory terms such as “princess”) rather than rejecting it.

However, the episode instead fell short of addressing a prevalent and growing societal concern: that being feminine makes one weak.

The reality is that modern American society has a problem with using feminine terms as insults. Boys are often called girl, sissy, or gay by both their peers and, at times, elders in foolish attempts to insult any element of the victim’s character that is less than hyper-masculine. Similarly, considering the traditional, patriarchal emphasis on masculinity as the only way to demonstrate strength, girls are similarly offended by and condescendingly referred to as princess. . .or even simply girl.

Effeminate boys and men are somehow less of boys and men because of their femininity, and girls and women are weaker than their male counterparts by default.

However, this should not be the case. There is strength in both femininity and masculinity, and as a society, we should be embracing opportunities to teach this to our youth, as The Powerpuff Girls was so close to doing here.

While the new series explicitly characterizes both villains and allies according to gender (such as the Derbytantes, a play on debutantes, and Man-Boy), it does not seem to be tackling the issue of gender inequality as fiercely as did the original series. Think of AWSM, an exclusive all-male group of superheroes who came to respect the Powerpuff Girls after they were able to defeat a villain who was powered by manhood, and Femme Fatale, a wildly misinformed champion of female superiority working under the guise of feminism to whom the Powerpuff Girls taught the true values of feminism with the help of Sara Bellum (who is, much to my discontent, consciously lacking from this new series).

While The Powerpuff Girls is lacking several elements of the original series that would be excellent in the pursuit of gender equality, the new style and focus are exceptional efforts to attract a brand new audience of young viewers. I am eager to see how the rest of the series plays out, and I would love to hear other opinions. Leave a comment with your thoughts on the series so far.

[Images from Cartoon Network’s The Powerpuff Girls via CartoonNetwork.com. Feature, Inline 1 & 2: The Powerpuff Girls Episode 6, Season 1. “Man Up.”]

28 Feb

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For those who haven’t seen the buzz yet, there’s a Powerpuff Girls revival coming to save the day later this Spring.

If this is your first encounter with The Powerpuff Girls, allow me to fill you in: The Powerpuff Girls follows the lives of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup as they balance a typical childhood with a superhero lifestyle. Amidst attending kindergarten, hosting slumber parties, and following a curfew, the girls are often called upon by the Mayor of Townsville and his deputy, Ms. Sara Bellum, to save the city from criminals, monsters, and a collection of eccentric villains.

The original series ran for six action-packed seasons from 1998 to 2005. In 2014, Cartoon Network announced the series’ revival, and two weeks ago, we got our first look at the girls’ new intro. . .

. . .and its packed with unbridled pop-punk awesomeness.

However, this new theme song performed by Tacocat reintroduces the strange and questionable circumstances of the Powerpuff Girls’ creation. The theme begins with some of the original narration by Tom Kenny:

“Sugar. Spice. And everything nice. These were the ingredients chosen to create the perfect little girl. But Professor Utonium accidentally added an extra ingredient to the concoction: Chemical X. Thus the Powerpuff Girls were born!”

When we compare the Professor’s intention (“to create the perfect little girl”) with the end result, we clearly see that the Powerpuff Girls were merely the result of a failed experiment. How can a show that was praised for everything from pop culture references to female empowerment rely on the idea that the very girls who are meant to empower us are no more than a failed attempt at perfection?

Well, maybe that’s not the message the story of the girls’ creation is trying to send.

We cannot ignore the upbeat vibes of the show as a whole and the overwhelmingly positive response of the citizens of Townsville towards the Powerpuff Girls. If we allow the show’s positive outlook to pervade the introduction as well, this “failed” experiment takes on an entirely different meaning:

You don’t have to conform to any one person’s idea of perfection in order to be perfect.

While the Professor failed in the creation of the perfect little girl, he succeeded in the creation of three perfect little girls, and the energy throughout the show proves that. Better yet, each of the girls boast their own unique personalities, showing that ‘perfection’ manifests itself in many different ways. Blossom is charismatic, intelligent, and perceptive. Bubbles is sweet, compassionate, and eager. Buttercup is resilient, bold, and intuitive. None of them are more important than the others. None of them are more well-loved than the others. None of them are stronger than the others.

These little girls share an important lesson: There is no such thing as the perfect little girl, but girls can find perfection in themselves. What better message to send to a group who has historically been forced to conform to the ideals of physical and emotional perfection thrust upon us by the media and society at large?

And, hey, let’s not forget what Bubbles tells the Professor: “Everything great you’ve ever created has been by accident!”

[Image from “Who’s Got the Power?” music video by Cartoon Network and Tacocat. Minute 0:21.]