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Stars floating in a purple sky with various female cartoon characters Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: various

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Classic girl-power cartoons deserve their shot at the big screen

Magical Girls have a logical place in the superhero era

In the heat of Birds of Prey’s climactic face-off, antiheroine Harley Quinn tosses her temporary teammate Black Canary a hair tie, so Canary can pull her hair out of her eyes and continue to kick ass. The mid-fight-scene flourish feels like a huge departure from the cyclical tropes that have complicated modern superheroine movies. Not only do Harley, Canary, Renee Montoya, and Huntress beat up bad guys, they also help each other out in little supportive ways, thank each other for the input, and compliment each other’s sweet moves.

American audiences rarely see female superheroes like this — ones with agency, well-founded relationships with each other, and good reasons to fight. It’s even rarer for these characters to come together in groups. Avengers: Endgame shoehorned in a faux-empowerment moment where the Designated Lady Members of their Respective Male-Led Movies teamed up for one scene to save a male lead most of them had never previously met. Those women had never interacted before, and didn’t interact afterward — they were there to pose together, more than work together. That isn’t anything like what Birds of Prey does, by building the relationships between the five protagonists and then paying off that character work with a big tag-team brawl. After the big fight, the women all go get breakfast together and talk about what just happened. It’s strange that such a basic dynamic should somehow be so rare in movies.

But where female camaraderie is rare in mainstream movies, it isn’t lacking in genre fiction. There’s a trove of source material out there for Hollywood to draw on: cartoons made about and for girls, with their own lasting legacy.

Before the 1980s, cartoons weren’t necessarily gendered, though shows like Tom and Jerry and The Yogi Bear Show focused on male characters, with the occasional grumpy grandma or lady love interest. However, adventure and action shows primarily featured male protagonists. For every Scooby-Doo with its two female leads, there’d be a Johnny Quest, where all the primary characters were boys. If an all-female ensemble existed, it’d be in a show like Josie and the Pussycats — more musical, less action-oriented or fantastical. In the 1980s, though, Western animation houses started to introduce shows featuring primarily female-led casts, where girls with magical powers teamed up to save the day. These cartoons were the American answer to the Magical Girl genre, a female-centric staple of Japanese anime and manga since the 1950s, found in long-running manga such as Himitsu no Akko-chan or anime like Little Meg the Witch Girl.

Like Magical Girl shows, female-centric Western cartoons also primarily take place in fantasy or occasionally science fiction settings, where groups of girls with superpowers or even just cool abilities band together to fight bad guys. Some are based on comic books, like the 2004 series W.I.T.C.H., about five teenage girls with elemental powers who discover they’re the guardians of a magical kingdom. Some are spinoffs of shows that were tailored to boys, like the original 1985 She-Ra: Princess of Power series, where the main character, Adora, was He-Man’s sister. But a lot of them were originals, designed to appeal specifically and unapologetically to young girls in the same way a lot of shows at the time existed for the boys market. Typically, these shows didn’t just focus on adventures; they were interested in the friendships between the female characters.

Every generation has its Magical Girl-inspired staples. She-Ra kicked off the ’80s, along with shows like Rainbow Brite and Wildfire. Sailor Moon and its cast of Sailor Soldiers defined the ’90s, with American counterparts in Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders and The Powerpuff Girls. The 2000s saw a lot of European entries syndicated on American networks, like the witches of W.I.T.C.H. (based on an Italian comic, made in France, and broadcast on Toon Disney), the fairies of Winx Club (Italian, aired on Nickelodeon), and the spies of Totally Spies (French, aired on Cartoon Network). My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic gave an older toyline and cartoon a new look through the 2010s. Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power kicked off the 2020s by rebooting Adora to stand on her own without He-Man.

glimmer, adora, and bow gear up for battle in she-ra
Glimmer, Adora, and Bow in Netflix’s She-Ra and the Princesses of Power.
Image: DreamWorks Animation

Cartoons for girls occasionally get live-action treatments, but not the ones where the girls heroically save the day. 2015’s Jem and the Holograms, 2001’s Josie and the Pussycats, and (arguably) 2007’s Bratz: The Movie all celebrate girlhood cartoons, but their focus is on musical stardom and high school. Those have their importance, but they lack the outsized energy of magical destinies, superpowered battles, and fantastical escapism.

We tell young girls they can do anything: beat the bad guys, wield magical powers, come into their grand destinies, and, most importantly, do it with their best friends. Yet there are so few female-focused genre movies for when those girls are grown.

The same isn’t true for male-led cartoon fantasies. There have been six live-action Transformers movies, and five live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies. There are two live-action G.I. Joe movies, with a new one on the way later this year. There was a live-action He-Man movie in 1987, and another is in the works for 2021, but not one for Adora. There aren’t any theatrically released live-action movies about the Trollz girls, the angels and demons of Angel’s Friends, or the spellbinders of Tara Duncan.

What happened to the epic battles against evil, the camaraderie between teammates? Why do only boy cartoons get to carry these ideas into adulthood? Quality doesn’t seem like a factor that would sway Hollywood executives; the 2015 film Jem and the Holograms had a poor critical reception, but so did all the Transformers movies. (Except Bumblebee, the 2018 spinoff with a female lead and a script, incidentally, by Birds of Prey screenwriter Christina Hodson.) Girls can enjoy cartoons starring and primarily directed at boys, just as they can enjoy those cartoons’ grown-up, live-action adaptations. Boys are just as capable of enjoying cartoons for girls, but shows with female leads rarely, if ever, graduate into movies aimed at a more adult audience.

An easy explanation for this might be the usual assumption from film producers and studios: that young women will see movies born from boyhood nostalgia, but young men won’t go see something based on a girlhood staple. The box-office returns on the Transformers movies versus those of Jem and the Holograms could support that, but then again, 2008’s Twilight — based on a young-adult novel for young women — made more than 10 times its production budget worldwide, while the He-Man movie bombed in 1987. Because there aren’t a lot of sample points, there’s no way to actually support the assumption that movies made from girlhood joys won’t appeal to a wider grown-up audience. The idea that women-led films don’t perform well is an age-old industry perception — and one that’s increasingly false, steeped more in sexism than data. But there will always be terrible movies based on things boys loved, simply because boys keep growing up and making them.

flora, stella, bloom, tecna, layla, and musa of the winx club Image: Nickelodeon

Boys who watched cartoons like G.I. Joe and He-Man are more likely than women to get opportunities to make movies about the importance of their childhood obsessions ([cough] Ready Player One). Getting a foot in the door of the movie industry as a woman is still an uphill battle, though: Of the top-grossing films from 2017 to 2019, only 4.8% were directed by women. Birds of Prey is the second DC movie directed by a woman; the Marvel Cinematic Universe, meanwhile, has had just one woman co-director so far, with Black Widow’s Cate Shortland (Lore) being the first to pilot her own vehicle. When women do get a chance to reinvent the shows they loved as children, a male contingent tends to erupt with resentment. When showrunner Noelle Stevenson posted the first designs for her reboot series She-Ra and the Princesses of Power online, angry men on Twitter growled about how their childhoods were retroactively ruined because Adora wasn’t as “sexy” as they remembered her.

Studios have made recent efforts to produce genre movies with all-female casts, but they’re often reboots or sequels for originally male-led franchises, like 2016’s Ghostbusters or 2018’s Ocean’s 8. Or they’ll be updates, like 2019’s Charlie’s Angels, a reimagining of the 1970s “jiggle TV” pioneer that was more focused on putting hot ladies in skimpy clothes than showing them as capable secret agents. It’s hard to find original genre movies starring women, let alone ones that don’t originate from source material tailored for men. It’s even harder to find movies where female characters work together.

The material is there. The eager fans — once kids, now moviegoing adults — are ready to buy tickets. Perhaps slowly, hopefully, we’re realizing that girlhood nostalgia is as important as boyhood memories. After all, Winx Club is still airing, though it has transitioned from Nickelodeon to Netflix, which is planning to produce a live-action young adult show. She-Ra got a reboot for a new generation. These TV shows are still tailored for younger audiences, not designed with the global multiplex appeal of the Transformers films. But we’re not exactly close to a Ready Player Two, where a socially awkward teenage girl uses her knowledge of the original She-Ra to save the day and impress a cute boy.

Birds of Prey is a step toward realizing the potential of Magical Girl entertainment. But the movie mostly exists because of Harley Quinn’s popularity, and Harley Quinn only exists because Joker needed a girlfriend on Batman: The Animated Series. Birds of Prey’s source material is muddled, since the original Birds of Prey comic never even included Harley Quinn, and thus lacks the legacy of a possible Magical Girl film. It’s unapologetically an R-rated action movie tailored to women, which is a merit of its own, but the lack of more Avengers-esque family-friendly appeal may have limited the turnout.

The main characters in Birds of Prey don’t all get together till the end of the movie, but when they do, it feels real and supportive — and their team-up saves the day. It’s a wild, wacky, fun movie that feels like it could start a wave of action movies focused on women teaming up together — though whether we’ll see more of Renee, Black Canary, Huntress, Harley, and Cassandra together will depend on whether the movie does better in the long term than in its opening week. Birds of Prey may not get a sequel, but it has made the void of ensemble genre flicks starring women all the more palpable. It’s time to give girl-forward cartoons their due.