The problem with nostalgia is that, sooner or later, someone will inevitably try to capitalize on it. On April 4, a new series of The Powerpuff Girls was released by Cartoon Network, returning the pastel-hued, super-powered sisters to their legion of fans. The reboot appealed to new viewers as well as fans of the original show, promising to tap the social conscience of the times with a theme of feminism and inclusivity, complete with a theme song by feminist pop-punk group Tacocat which features the lyrics, "Who's got the power? We got the power!"
But it appears the reboot may be falling short of its aim. The new series has already offended trans viewers and their supporters with an episode involving Donny, a horse who thinks he's a unicorn (a clumsy allegory for gender dysphoria) who is pressured into an operation and subsequently transforms into a monster.
Tumblr users, in particular, are in revolt against the series. One Tumblr post, which gained thousands of notes, spelled out the community's reaction plainly: "THE POWERPUFF GIRLS WRITERS ARE TERFS."
It seems doubtful the Powerpuff Girls writers are actually Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists, and more likely that this episode, as others in the series would indicate, began with good intentions and got lost along the way. (Wikipedia credits five writers for the episode, called "Horn, Sweet Horn," all of whom I approached for comment; two responded explaining that, contractually, they were not able to talk about it. Cartoon Network was not able to comment by time of publication).
Tumblr is arguably the online community best known for its fandoms, particularly those of cartoons, graphic novels, anime, and manga. The social network may have been overvalued in the past (Yahoo recently indicated that they paid far too much to acquire it) but it holds an important place in geek culture, a welcoming home for gifs, fanfic, and tribute art. For shows like The Powerpuff Girls, the original series of which debuted in 1998, Tumblr is where the fandom has lived long-term. Home to many Powerpuff tribute blogs, it offered proof of an appetite for a reboot.
Until that reboot actually appeared. Given the renown of the original Powerpuff Girls among fans as levitating, laser-shooting torchbearers for feminism, and after a wait of over a decade, perhaps the new show could only ever disappoint. But Tumblr users were specific in their criticism, accusing the writers of lazy dialogue and "Flanderized" characters (a term describing exaggeration of character traits to the detriment of their believability, in reference to Ned Flanders, the zealous, obsessively-doodling neighbour from the Simpsons). They highlighted a curious chastening of the characters, only mildly adult to begin with, including the sudden disappearance of teacher Ms Keane's breasts, and the absence of the scheming, seductive Miss Sara Bellum, one of the old series' defining female presences, who controls the town in secret from the office of the witless Mayor.
The reboot's attempts at modernization also came in for particular loathing, including a ham-fisted take on meme culture, a gratuitous twerking scene, and the presence of demi-misogynist villain Manboy, a would-be lumberjack criticised by Slate's Eric Thurm as an overly obvious take on the men's rights movement.
But the "Donny the Unicorn" episode steered discussion to the responsibility of the show to portray the issues it touched on with sensitivity. In an interview with the LA Times around the reboot's launch, series animator Nick Jennings singled out the Donny episode as evidence of the show's conscience, saying, "I don't think you can be too young to start talking about those [gender] issues and thinking about those things and just presenting an attitude, and a voice that is going to resonate with people."
"Resonating" isn't always a positive thing. At best, viewers seemed baffled by the episode's bizarre plot twists. Powerpuff Girl Bubbles, taken with the idea of having a unicorn friend, pressures Donny into an experimental transformation. Then the transmogrified Donny, no longer a little white horse with a unicorn horn taped to his head but a bulbous, heaving bogeyman with a snout, five eyes, and a crude human physique, goes on a rampage, before he's stopped by a group of marauding unicorns who magically turn him back into a pony, only to inform him that he was actually a unicorn all along.
"We see outdated stereotypes that only fundamentalists are still trying to hold onto"
At worst, fans were deeply offended and reminded of uncomfortable personal memories. Musician and trans advocate Delia Melody wrote about the plot on Tumblr in comparison to her own experiences with a brother, who wanted her to "stop and consider that I could just be a really feminine man before I 'did anything drastic' and 'ruined' my own life." She concluded that the only way to tell these stories correctly is to let trans people speak for themselves: "Either put us in charge of our own narratives, or kindly shut the fuck up."
Melody explained her response to me in a Tumblr chat. "This episode throws everything back 50 years," she said. "We see outdated stereotypes that only fundamentalists are still trying to hold onto, and what basically ends up reading less as an affirmation of transgender individuals and more as a warning to avoid gender affirming procedures at all costs."
She said her response was shared by trans friends who watched the episode. "I've not found a single transgender individual who's not been immensely offended by that episode," she said. "Plenty were ready to give it a chance, and took what I was saying with a grain of salt before they watched it themselves… Those feelings vanished upon their actually watching what they could only describe as an utterly transphobic trainwreck of anti-transgender propaganda."
The depiction of Donny as flippant, and easily pressured by friends into irreversible life choices, was particularly hurtful. "Society is on a see-saw right now about us… This kind of media goes beyond simply unhelpful to being actively damaging," Melody explained. "I really feel like the Powerpuff Girls is in and of itself a horrible place to try to tackle this issue, and the approach of doing a 'trans episode' is just as bad. It's a blatant example of tokenism."
This was not the only instance in the series singled out for transphobia—another episode, "Princess Buttercup," also features a brief but very reductive joke about a man wearing a dress who is trying to be part of a girl gang. Also looming in the background is Powerpuff arch enemy "HIM", a louche, demonic entity whose gender-bending tendencies are apparently linked to his villainy.
Another Tumblr user I spoke to, who goes by the screen name Rockbusted, said, "I do think Cartoon Network (probably) had good intentions with it… It's just really obvious they didn't have somebody with experience on the subject working on the episode. It's actually kind of bewildering how poorly they handled it."
The upside is that Tumblr is also a creative place, where The Powerpuff Girls already has, and will be, reimagined many times over by fans. One of the most popular posts currently doing the rounds on Powerpuff Tumblr is Rockbusted's cartoon in which Donny's story is rewritten. The horse is turned into a unicorn with a "magic science zap," and he thanks Bubbles for helping him. Bubbles responds, "I am so glad you're happy. You will always be my unicorn friend, whether you have a horn or not." Under the image is a short caption from its creator: "I fixed it."
Tumblr users may sometimes see their views dismissed (as seen on Reddit), but they're a real source—and a barometer—of support for cartoons in general; even Cartoon Network maintains an active presence on the site. The creators must have known their work would be scrutinised there: Between the memes, the pop feminism, and the thinkpiece-bait plotlines, it's as if they designed the show with Tumblr in mind.
The fact that a fandom survived on Tumblr for over a decade is proof of the first series' lasting message, but what will the legacy of the new Powerpuffs Girls be?
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