Sugar & Spice

Navira Trimansyah
Art: Sagar Aadarsh

CW: Transphobia

…and everything nice. Together, these vital ingredients created a cartoon that was pivotal in introducing the concept of feminism to young minds all over the world throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup were icons — flaunting more than just their explosive cute factor and unbelievably badass kicks. These three heroines defied many depictions of young girls in pop culture at the time; they weren’t sexualised, they didn’t compete with one another, they didn’t pine after uninspiring boys, and they didn’t agonise over acne. Instead, these cute and seemingly perfect little girls subverted gender norms with their short-tempers and affinity for violence. On air from 1998–2005, with a total of 78 episodes in six seasons, The Powerpuff Girls were proof that you can love pink, be strong-willed, and freeze someone to death with a single puff.

The girls weren’t the only ones routinely subverting gender roles. Their father figure, Professor Utonium, is essentially a single parent often shown performing more ‘feminine’ chores around the house. While Bubbles is mowing the lawn and cleaning the car, and Buttercup is busy playing with action figures, the Professor dons an apron and gloves to cook, do the laundry, and clean the house. He is caring, nurturing, and plays an integral part in raising his girls — the original stay-at-home dad.

The Powerpuff Girls was unafraid to call out and challenge mainstream perceptions of feminism. In the iconic episode, ‘Equal Rights’, the villainous Femme Fatale, persuades the girls that feminism is about ridding the world of men and the patriarchy. Consequently, our favourite heroines engage in a man-hating mission and cause rampage throughout the town. This episode aimed to highlight the common misconception that feminism is synonymous with misandry. Resolved when the girls deconstruct Femme Fatale’s propaganda with the help of Mrs. Bellum (Deputy Mayor, cool, calm, and equal parts sexy and smart), who explains that society needs to acknowledge and empower women to the point where they are viewed as equal, and treated accordingly. It quashed the false idea that if you were a feminist, you were tasked with the duty of hating and destroying all men. You could be a feminist without needing a pitchfork. Solidarity, sister; not sayonara, mister!

While the show was progressive in exploring feminism at a time when ‘feminist’ was a dirty word, it was not without its faults. Much like mainstream media at the time (and arguably, at present), it failed to incorporate ethnic diversity. While the show does exude feminism as one of its central themes, it is very white-centric; instilling the idea that feminism is primarily accessible to the white, suburban middle-class. This fails to live up to the tenets of third-wave feminism that acknowledge different levels of privilege and recognise different oppressions that emphasise the importance of an intersectional approach to feminism. Ironically, Mojo Jojo, the main antagonist, sets out to solve this problem by creating his own “wonderfully diverse and multi-ethnic team of superheroes”, which includes Asian, Black, and disabled children. Disappointingly, they are ultimately defeated, and apologise to the girls for having powers; further re-iterating the notion that the powers are a privilege only the (white, able-bodied) Powerpuff Girls can possess. In short, great message to young women, but not so much if you happen to be a woman of colour.

The Powerpuff Girls’ progressive agenda was also flawed in its casual transphobia. The recent reboot in 2016 received negative backlash when Donny, a horse who desires to become a unicorn, becomes the subject of bullying. Their personality is made the butt of every joke: naive, dramatic, and demanding. Donny’s journey to becoming a unicorn is eerily reminiscent of the experiences of many transgender people: a long list of “medical risks”, the surgery labelled an “experiment”, and medical and social stigma. Transgender individuals are depicted as “monsters”, as Donny’s transition turns them into a mutated creature, feared by all. This was a plot point that should not have been conceptualised, let alone allowed to materialise, especially in 2016, when awareness of media abuse and mockery of marginalised groups and individuals is increasingly prominent.

The Powerpuff Girls paved the way for young feminists who grew up watching this cartoon. The strength and confidence of Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup have ensured that a whole generation will feel the urge to unite and fight for equality. As much of an impact that the cartoon may have had in its role of providing a foundation for feminist values, its blatant transphobia and lack of diversity is just another example of the erasure of marginalised communities.  Perhaps the new reboot will act as a more inclusive platform to represent the ever-expanding audience.