The cartoon embodiment of early 2000s feminism is alive and well
Sugar, spice and everything nice… or so they seem with their big eyes and colourful clothes. But that’s not all that the Powerpuff Girls were. After all, let’s not forget about Chemical X, the accidental chemical added when Professor Utonium was creating the girls, that turned them into the crime-fighting feminists we’ve come to know and love.
Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls was without a doubt an unforgettably empowering cartoon for many of us born in the late 90s and early 2000s. The original cartoon ran from 1998 to 2005, and was then rebooted in 2016 on Cartoon Network, along with re-runs throughout the years on several channels. It was and still is beloved for more than its entertainment value.
The trio became a sort of intro to feminism for most of us young girls. Ironically, one of the main creators of the show, Craig McCracken, has admitted that the original idea was not meant to necessarily be something feminist. It was, after all, something he came up with for his film class, while he was studying at the California Institute of Arts. He said in a 2018 article “I just really like that idea, that contrast of three little girls beating up giant monsters.” (https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2018/11/216683/powerpuff-girls-characters-feminism-20th-anniversary)
Whether McCracken intended it or not, that idea of three little girls being more than just three little girls, ignited the feminist flame in a lot of young women. It was a unique form of feminism as well—one that was simple in its premise, diverse in its representation, and subtle in its delivery. This is not to say that they were perfect feminist idols, but the girls were pioneers in pop culture and in particular, the superhero genre. They were one of few superhero groups that were composed of female members who were not sexualised, nor did they play sidekicks, or love interests to a more superior male hero.
It wasn’t just their presence or symbology in greater media, but also the dynamics of the characters and the way they represented what feminism meant to a younger generation. Its heroines—Bubbles, Buttercup and Blossom, were different in personality and interests. Bubbles—blonde, pig-tailed, and as her name suggests, the bubbly member of the team, was perhaps the more traditionally feminine Powerpuff Girl. Meanwhile, Blossom was the reliable leader of the group, providing direction and an organisational system for any problem. Then there was Buttercup, the tomboy with the badass skills and the “don’t mess with me” vibes.
In doing this, they showed us that girls can be girly or not. Have long or short hair. Wear bows and dresses, or pants. Be kind, strong, organised, happy, angry, or whatever the hell they want to be. At the end of the day, no matter what, girls can go out there and kick some ass. It was definitely a simpler way of framing feminism, conveying ideas that persist today, despite occurring at a time when feminism was more heavily debated.
Although we think we’ve come far in terms of female representation in pop culture, there are still not enough original, positive female superheroes. Sure, Natalie Portman is the new Thor. The 13th Doctor in Doctor Who may be a woman, but do women only redeem themselves when they take the place of a man? Do they not also have a unique and diverse place of their own? Not to mention most female superheroes like Wonder Woman and Cat Woman are still heavily sexualised. So how far have we really come?
This is perhaps the reason we saw the 2016 reboot of The Powerpuff Girls. Despite many criticising it for falling short of the original, it gave everyone, especially the younger generation, a much-needed dose of simple, wholesome, girl power energy.
This is not to discredit these other female superheroes. Despite the flaws in the structure of their message, they still play a critical role in the overall feminism movement. But the Powerpuff girls are just that—girls. They’re still kids, which means that all of the questions surrounding the sexualisation of women, and what a woman’s role is in society falls away, presenting a more simplistic, yet humanising version of feminism to us. One where these girls can defeat enemies from harming Townsville, and at the same time, experience the typical frustrations of school, friendship, and family.
Masking experiences such as fighting with siblings, or the difficulties of starting a new school, under superhero action, wasn’t a particularly new tactic for a kids’ show. What did make it unique was the representation young girls received within this trope. One of the head writers on the show, Amy Keating Rogers, spoke many times about her desire to provide children with female characters that were empowering, both in their heroism and relatability.
This is a theme that still seems to persist in several forms no matter the political climate of feminism. We see it in the little things: clothes, ads, posters, plushies, and other merchandise. The Powerpuff girls themselves still feature on clothing sold in many of the fast fashion stores. For example, Cotton On has a line of shirts and caps with the Powerpuff Girls, the logo, and phrases like “Go Girl” and “Girl Power” printed on them. H&M had a line of brightly coloured hoodies with a similar design and message. This trend doesn’t just apply to the Powerpuff Girls, but also other female cartoons, like Minnie Mouse, which has also been associated with the “girl power” message.
There also seems to be this call for unity amongst girls—a friendship theme that advocates for girls to come together and be nice to each other. This idea is especially obvious with representation of Disney princesses, that went from representing princesses either alone, or with a man, to showing them with other Disney princesses, as a group of friends. This has also been marketed on clothing, both for kids and adults, toys, and other merchandise. The message of friendship amongst young girls, albeit a little too cheesy most of the time, is still a way of introducing the same girl power ideologies that have been growing since the late 90s.
There is a hunger for innovative ways to preach the same Powerpuff Girl ideas to the new generation. It is a hunger that has at times resulted with cartoons, films, and advertisements that are a little too pointed, lacking that delicate balance of everyday issues with subtle reminders saying you “go girl”’. This is perhaps why we are seeing a return of shows like The Powerpuff Girls, both on air and in merchandise.
In many ways, the Powerpuff Girls did contribute significantly to building that active and powerful, yet vulnerable feminism we came to grow up with. For a while it seemed like vulnerability and simply being human was creeping out of the equation, leaving this idea that women had to be superheroes, and only superheroes. But it seems like we’re slowly realising the harms of this, and recognising that our cherished Powerpuff Girls raised us better than that.