There's Never Been a Better Time for the New 'Powerpuff Girls'
Can the Powerpuff Girls catch up to modern feminism?
Images courtesy Cartoon Network
Sugar + spice + everything nice + Chemical X = The Powerpuff Girls are back after 11 years. On April 4, Cartoon Network is rebooting the archetypal supergirls’ show, bringing Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles back into the public eye and it couldn’t be a better time to get in on the action—look no further than the Powerpuff Yourself avatar generator to get started. Executive produced by previous Adventure Time art director Nick Jennings and former Fairly OddParents producer Bob Boyle, new episodes of the show preserve the charm and wit of the 90s cartoons that have run the meme-stalgia gamut, while also adapting the format of the show to face modern day issues.
One of those issues is the representation of female characters on television, particularly in the world of animation. Even shows that are remarkably progressive towards women, like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, are still framed by the worldviews of male leads. Hey! Arnold, Spongebob Squarepants, and other 90s favorites are partially beloved for giving us complex female characters like the aggressive-yet-lovesick Helga Pataki and Sandy the badder-than-you Texas squirrel. But among the shows' title roles there were unfortunately few women. The Powerpuff Girls was a welcome exception, and bringing it back now coincides with the public's growing interest in adhering to core feminist values.
“I think the time is completely ripe for Powerpuff Girls to return," Jennings explains to The Creators Project. "Usually, you get one girl character with the weight of all girls on that character. She can’t be too fat, she can’t be too thin, she can’t be too smart, she can’t be too stupid. It’s really difficult to get those characters to be anything substantial. But half the world are women—at least!—so for us it’s great have a show with three female protagonists. We can follow each of them in vastly different directions which encompass the many types of women in the world we live in.”
Admittedly, both Jennings and Boyle are white and male, but the producers' lofty ideals are backed up by stunningly diverse cast and crew. Aside from Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup—voiced by Amanda Leighton, Kristen Li, and UCB comedian Natalie Palamides, respectively—Boyle confirms that their writers room is more than 50% female, with a similarly rare focus on ethnic diversity as well. "Hollywood is only now starting to see the value in putting women at the forefront of film and television," Jennings says. "But since the 90s, there’s now a much greater acceptance of women in a lot of different roles in society." He and Boyle are working to make sure their writer's room is one of those roles.
This effort is evident in the sampling of new episodes I was able to watch. “We dug deeper into the girls’ personalities," Jennings continues. "If you watch the original series, you get to know Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles to a certain extent that’s about all you get. For us, the way we do storytelling now is different. That was a big, broad comedy. A lot of the monsters in those episodes were the driving force of the story. Monster would show up, they’d have to battle it.” Today, shows like Adventure Time and US versions of Hayao Miyazaki's films have shifted American animation into an arms race for beloved characters, rather than simply formulas that work.
Jennings reiterates, “We wanted to bring that kind of strong, character-driven, sincere, honest storytelling to Powerpuff Girls. People identify with that. I’ve heard people say, 'I’m totally a Blossom, but I’m a little bit of a Bubbles,” or “I’m really a Buttercup, but I want to be a Blossom.” Jennings, for the record, is himself a Blossom, an identity for which the The Powerpuff Girls' crew is grateful. "Nick is definitely a leader and sees things through that filter," Boyle tells us. "I’m a Bubbles. I'm a little loopier, but I’ve got just enough Blossom to pay my mortgage.” Powerpuff Girls has three well-developed female protagonists that feel real and relatable—even across genders—which is a great way to respect women with your art.
Just like sugar, spice, and everything nice is one ingredient shy of the perfect super-powered girl gang, a largely female writer's room, good intentions, and strong female protagonists may not be may be everything necessary to make the new series right for teaching kids (and adults, for that matter) about gender politics. A 2014 essay by Rebecca Hains cites the original Powerpuff Girls as a problematic symptom feminist sects that revolve around appearence. These include both Spice Girls-style "girl power" and the Riot Grrrls that partially inspired creator Craig McCracken to make the original series.
"Girl power icons presented in the media seemingly have their cake and eat it, too, for they enact without embodying the new female strength," Hains writes. "Their bodies look thin, not tough. Girls in the viewing audience can never live up to this demanding new super-strong and super-slim standard: Paradoxically, if they match the strength of the televised characters, they won’t look feminine enough, and if they look feminine enough, they won’t be able to conquer strong opponents." The new Powerpuff Girls series has made small changes to the characters' design, but not of the variety Hains suggests (outside of fan fiction).
The producers cite examples of feminist storytelling from shows like Steven Universe and Adventure Time, both of which have lots of female characters of all shapes, dispositions, and sexualities. Hopefully we will see these types of characters throughout Townsville in the 40 episodes Cartoon Network has ordered thus far. But what The Powerpuff Girls has that most shows don't is the aforementioned triumvirate of female protagonists, allowing stories not told from the perspectives of dudes. They may scientifically proportioned to be adorable, but more than anything The Powerpuff Girls show is a rare chance for a diverse team to empathetically tackle issues of gender roles, fluid sexuality, and respect that parents so often have trouble explaining to their kids.