The Most Important Cartoon in Feminist History Is Coming Back
On Monday, Cartoon Network announced their reboot of The Powerpuff Girls. The timing couldn't be more perfect.
This year has been a triumph of visibility for the long-overdue realization that female-led projects can be beloved by all genders. Cate Blanchett gave an on-point Oscars speech, while Frozen's record-breaking $1 billion profit put muscle behind the truth Blanchett laid down. The return of The Legend of Korra proves that you don't have to be afraid of female leads, especially ones that know how to fight for themselves.
Resurrecting The Powerpuff Girls is an exciting extension of a trend already underway.
It's not the first time fans have called on Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup since the show ended in 2005: There was a special for its 10th anniversary in 2008, as well as a short-lived updated version of the program that aired earlier this year. But 2016 will mark the Powerpuff Girls' first regular television series in more than a decade. This is a sign that the fanbase is not only still there, but also that a big place remains in the market for girl-powered, female-led shows.
Originally a cartoon called "The Whoopass Girls," Craig McCracken's story of Professor Utonium's chemically engineered crime-fighting 5-year-olds became an international phenomenon. It was popular enough to produce an anime spin-off, riffing on the original's intensely curated pop-art visuals and sardonic western humor. It gave women the chance to front a cartoon in something other than skimpy skirts or a rock band, even if some parental groups were less sold on the violence.
But there was, and is, more to The Powerpuff Girls than little girls kicking ass. What The Powerpuff Girls did was turn a world of identifiable and progressive characters and plot lines into a marketable children's show. These were not just two-dimensional omnipotent beings, but girls with multifaceted personalities and tendencies to fall apart, go too far or even be beaten. You don't see that in Jem or Josie and the Pussycats. Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup were as fallible, competent and hilarious as other characters were bland, beautiful and impossibly talented.
It was all a big breath of fresh air in the wake of flat, eternally virtuous crimefighting cartoons — especially other female-led projects like Sailor Moon. Drawing on splashy SFC "tokusatsu" films from Japan, as well as American superheroes, the show found a strong visual style of big monsters and carnage that made it a perfect fit for anime adaptation. As for the trio themselves, they are characters who did not just fight because it is their duty; They were also sometimes reluctant, sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes excessive. Though cartoons, they were very human. And that's more than can be said for many female characters in popular media — animated and otherwise.
Image Credit: Imgur
The Powerpuff Girls doesn't just give the main superheroines a chance to shine. It also gives other female characters agency and competence, depicting the men as often passive or downright idiotic. Mayoral Secretary Sara Bellum, for example, is a confident, successful woman and a powerful fighter in her own right. The only time she ever bends to the male gaze or conforms to stereotypes of the sexy secretary is when a villain masquerades as her; otherwise, she relies on other qualities like intellect and empathy. Buttercup and Blossom also uphold the idea that physical strength and intellect are as much a part of femininity as Bubbles' more conventionally "girly" attributes, which are not condemned either.
If that isn't enough, the show also proved long before Disney did with Maleficent and Frozen that female-led projects can sell. Not only did it produce some of Cartoon Network's best-rated shows, it has also generated more than $2.5 billion in revenue for the company.
With a cartoon landscape that owes a great deal to the reference-heavy, absurdest and often gory adventures of three kindergartners, it will be interesting to see how they fit in among successor shows like Adventure Time. But there's one thing The Powerpuff Girls has never been, and that's vanilla. We're more than ready for a bit of extra sugar, spice and everything nice.