When Cartoon Network announced that it was giving The Powerpuff Girls the revival treatment, I was skeptical. The original cartoon remains one of my most beloved childhood obsessions; I still love its pop-art look, laud its feminist message, laugh at the jokes and widen my eyes at the unbridled action scenes. I could understand, even appreciate, the reasoning behind bringing the characters back for a new audience. But did doing that really warrant an entirely new show, one without its creator or original voice cast on board?
My problems withThe Powerpuff Girls revamp are undoubtedly personal: This was a show that meant a lot to me growing up. The original show premiered in 1998, when I was not quite 5 years old. It was an age when I was still young enough to not find boys totally gross, but I was beginning to learn that we were "different" — at least, according to the adults around us.
The Powerpuff Girls became the great equalizer
My kindergarten teacher shuttled the other girls in my class and me to opposite corners away from the boys, encouraging us to play house while they got to destroy their building block skyscrapers. It's not that the boys didn't invite me to play with their enviable Lego collections. For as much as I liked Pokémon, and as cool as I thought Batman and Spider-Man were, I was regularly expected to enjoy Barbies and baby dolls instead.
The Powerpuff Girls arrived, and it became the great equalizer. From the opening credits, the show established itself as the most perfect union between these gendered, superficially disparate spaces. They were what little girls were made of ... and little girls, it turns out, kicked ass. (The series' working title was The Whoop-Ass Girls.) The tiny, bobble-headed heroes were my age, yet they were preternaturally gifted with all of the superpowers I'd imagined for myself on the playground. Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup had dedicated their lives to fighting crime and the forces of evil. When not on the job, though, they liked to draw, have sleepovers and play video games.
Because The Powerpuff Girls starred young girls who moved freely among society's gendered boxes — they had an equal love for fighting monsters and catching butterflies — it stayed out of the trappings that turned boys off of other cartoons. I was a big Sailor Moon fan too, but none of the guys in my class could stand the show; the anime's girl gang was too boy-crazy, too emotional, they said. Thin excuse though that may be, The Powerpuff Girls didn't feature anything like that. The show had jokes and fights in equal measure, and that's how it drew in the boys. Then they stayed, intentionally or not, for the intelligent deconstructions of what it means to "be a girl," which showed that femininity comes in all kinds of forms.
That meant a lot to me as a kid who didn't fit so easily into these prescribed boxes. The Powerpuff Girls evaded these labels that adults and toy stores and commercials wanted to force us girls into. For me, that was the biggest takeaway.
Girl-starring cartoons remain few and far between
It's crucial to learn that girlhood is something that looks different for everyone, especially for young girls growing up today. We've made strides away from stereotypical notions of what being a girl or boy means, and many kids programs these days are inclusive and diverse. But even shows as insightful as Steven Universe and Adventure Time have relatively conventional boys at their centers. Girl-starring cartoons remain few and far between.
So when I expressed skepticism at The Powerpuff Girls being brought back, it was only because I recognized that lightning can't strike twice. Without the original talent onboard, it seemed like Cartoon Network intended to revive the show in name, not in spirit. That's a crucial difference for something that seems so traditional on the surface.
Unfortunately, my fears were confirmed. The series premiered last week with a week of new episodes, none of which came close to recapturing what was so striking about The Powerpuff Girls in its classic form. The characters' names remain the same, although not their voices; several members of the supporting cast reappear, as well, and the city of Townsville hasn't changed. But 11 years ago, when the original show wrapped, it seemed like there were more fights to be had, more adventures that the Girls embarked upon. The new show skews toward the comic side of the original series, leaving the action in the background.
Of the six episodes I've seen, each one relegated the battle to a C-plot, instead focusing the attention on bland side characters and trivial disputes between the sisters. It's not that every episode needs to be an action and slice-of-life show in equal measure. But fighting seems like an afterthought here, as if Cartoon Network wants to keep the Girls a safe distance from the fray. Instead, they dabble in slapstick and absurdist humor that's more miss than hit.
More troubling than the shift toward broad comedy (as opposed to the original series' smarter, occasionally adult sense of humor) is that these Girls are no longer full of childish wonder. They use slang and they freak out over boy bands — neither of which is offensive on its own, but feels indicative of a narrower sense of girlhood than the original show's looser definition. They might still be 5-year-olds, but they have a decidedly more "tween" sensibility. I might not belong to that demographic anymore, but it seems like girls looking for shows in that direction have several options already.
The one episode that had potential featured the Girls pitted against a pint-sized, hyper-masculine villain named Man Boy. His attacks were paired with gendered insults, which the trio's hothead, Buttercup, did not take kindly to. It was a major disappointment when the episode took a hard left turn, with Buttercup's sisters faulting her for her "irrational anger" instead of giving Man Boy the what-for for his stereotyping.
In the 18 years since The Powerpuff Girls first debuted, many of the forces of evil have been beaten back. The TV landscape features a variety of faces, voices and personalities, many of whom would never have gotten starring roles two decades ago. But kids channels — all channels, frankly — can still do a better job of diversifying their casts and, better yet, their representations of men and women, boys and girls. The Powerpuff Girls was one of the strongest examples of what gender diversity could look like in cartoons. It's a shame that in 2016, the new show bearing that name is a step backward, not forward.