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.
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.
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.