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.]