For people of a certain generation, growing up female meant it was hard to find characters like yourself on screen. Girls in cartoons weren’t exactly rare, but most of the exciting, popular cartoons and children’s shows only had one token girl character to choose from. There were exceptions to that rule, usually in shows meant specifically for girls, which generally only featured one or two boys. But shows for “everyone” (meaning shows marketed to boys) usually shoehorned in one girl to attract potential female viewers.
Adventure Time could’ve easily reduced its central female characters to outdated tropes, but instead, creator Pendleton Ward and his team broke the mold with Princess Bubblegum and Marceline the Vampire Queen. The two women have clear, distinct personalities unrelated to their own femininity, but they also share a meaningful and surprisingly complex relationship, one that was absent from the show’s original pitch. The two were originally supposed to have a simple friendly rivalry, but writers on the show pushed for that to evolve into a yearning, centuries-spanning romance.
The new Adventure Time special Adventure Time: Distant Lands - Obsidian focuses specifically on Bubblegum and Marceline. The special, which launches on HBO Max on Nov. 19, dives into their romance’s past, present, and future, marking a new chapter for these characters and their relationship, one that’s already overcome decades of expectations tied to female character archetypes.
There was usually only one girl
The phenomenon of one girl character in a cast was dubbed the “Smurfette Principle” by writer Katha Pollitt in 1991, named for the European cartoon that for many years featured a cast with a hundred male characters and a single anomalous female. While cartoons certainly haven’t been the only source of restricted, stereotyped female characters, they turned it into a particularly noticeable and persistent problem.
While the boys in a typical cartoon cast had distinct personalities — the leader, the smart one, the edgy one, the comic relief — the token girl’s personality was usually “is female.” She’d have a hair bow, or wear pink, and she’d usually be focused on comparatively petty concerns like popularity or fashion. At best, it was superficial characterization, aesthetic choices that had nothing to do with personality. At worst, her femininity was seen as something grating, something other, a weakness, a shallowness. She was a glaring exception to the masculine norm. Her presence undermined the male camaraderie.
Sometimes that meant she was the object of desire, and the boys would compete to impress her. At other times, she’d be the stick in the mud or a distraction, some sort of disruption to the boy’s club, and a hindrance to the mission at hand. As Pollitt wrote, “Boys are the norm, girls the variation; boys are central, girls peripheral; boys are individuals, girls types. Boys define the group, its story and its code of values. Girls exist only in relation to boys.”
This trope isn’t limited to the past, though certainly older films and shows are more guilty of it. There’s Miss Piggy, the fashionable, ego-centric diva and only major female character in a large cast of loveable male buffoons. Even though Sesame Street’s cast of humans balanced male and female characters, the show failed to retain a popular female Muppet until 1993, when pink-tutu-clad Zoe came along. (That’s since been rectified, with recurring characters like Abby Kadabby and the monster Rosita.) Looney Toons and Disney toons alike rarely bothered with female characters unless they were the girlfriends or backgrounded female counterparts of their male characters, from Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck to Lola Bunny, who wasn’t introduced until 1996’s Space Jam. And even more recently, there’s Skye, the sole female dog in the ever-popular Nick Jr. series Paw Patrol, who is outfitted entirely in pink, even though her fellow rescue dogs wear outfits that relate to their specific occupations.
If you were a young girl in the ’80s, ’90s, or ’00s, so many popular shows and franchises told you had to fit this mold: someone lesser than the male counterparts, someone stuck in pink or reduced to being a love interest, someone who never got to lead the adventures, but was tagging along as a nuisance.
There were times when the sole female character’s personality was not just Being a Girl, and she would get to be a significant part of the story, though that was usually reserved for action-adventure cartoons. Still, she’d certainly be the team’s emotional center, or the uptight, responsible member who called out the boys for their shenanigans. She might get to fight alongside the boys, like Teela in He-Man: Masters of the Universe, but she’d still be a love interest. Often, she’d be out of the action and focused on more research-based operations, like April O’Neil in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or she’d need to prove herself to the boys, like Webby Vanderquack in the original DuckTales cartoon. Nevertheless, she was still the one girl in a team of boys — the exception, not the norm.
Unless there were two girls
With two girls, the cartoon formula changes. There’s usually still a pronounced feminine character, but the other girl will be her opposite. Sometimes this means she’s nerdy — like Velma in Scooby-Doo, the counterpoint to fashionable Daphne. Sometimes this means she’s the tomboy — like sporty Francine, the opposite of spoiled rich girl Muffy in early episodes of PBS Kids’ Arthur. Sometimes this means she’s edgy and alternative — like moody Goth girl Raven, the foil to spunky Starfire in Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans. Even when both characters were girly, like Archie Comics’ Betty and Veronica, they were still posited on a fabricated spectrum: the rich femme fatale vs. the relatable girl-next-door.
The problem for girl viewers looking for characters they could identify with wasn’t just the skewed gender ratio. It’s the way girl pairings in most cartoons had to be painted as diametrically different from each other. Boy characters could be interested in the same things, but the girls had to be jarring opposites. Once again, at best, this was superficial, and mostly for design purposes. (Can’t have two girls in pink, after all.) At worst, they were rivals. Sometimes that meant vying for the attention of the same boy, while at other times, it meant presenting their character traits as opposites, even if things like “smart vs. pretty” and “sporty vs. pretty” don’t actually exist on an opposed spectrum.
With two girls on a team, viewers immediately faced a choice about which character to identify with: the Girly Girl or the Other Girl. Through no fault of her own, the Girly Girl became the uncool option. It’s not so much that female viewers came to hate the color pink, or stereotypical feminine traits. But after seeing only one type of girl character for so many years, the minute there was a different option, she became a beacon of hope. For little girls who weren’t focused primarily on clothes and boys, that narrow portrayal of femininity felt like a trap, and the Other Girl, whatever she was, represented an escape.
So the Girly Girl was often villainized, shifting into the Mean Girl and Queen Bee stereotypes. If a show had a female antagonist up against a female hero, chances are the antagonist would be a feminine stereotype or caricature. Disney’s Recess had a two-girl team to round out the boys — tough tomboy Spinelli and nerdy Gretchen — posited against the girly archetypes of the Ashleys. Danny Phantom had edgy Goth Girl Sam as romantic rivals with popular girl Paulina.
By contrast, in shows made for girls, the female characters had a wide range of relationships to femininity — and when they faced off, it never felt like separate aspects of girlhood duking it out for dominance. All three of the super-spies in Totally Spies still loved fashion and girly things, but Clover, the most boy-crazy and extra-girly spy, was never seen as weaker than smart Sam or sporty Alex. They resented mean girl Mandy not because she was girlier than them, but because she was just mean. The ensemble magical-girl casts of W.I.T.C.H. and Winx Club never made their girlier members helpless or painted their tomboy members as superior. Even action girl Kim Possible never outright rejected femininity — her rival Bonnie is an archetypical Queen Bee, but Kim is on the cheerleading team, and her best friend Monique is a fashion designer.
But those “all audiences” shows (tailored to boys) rarely portrayed female characters — let alone their relationships — with the same type of nuance. That’s exactly what makes Princess Bubblegum and Marceline’s relationship on Adventure Time so unique.
The importance of Bubblegum and Marceline
Bubblegum is a pink, girly character, an actual princess, positioned as the crush object for the show’s boy protagonist. But from the get-go, Bubblegum wasn’t just Finn’s romantic interest. Her personality isn’t just “the girl.” She’s a scientist, and her princess status isn’t a superficial excuse for a big poofy dress. She’s legitimately her people’s leader, making difficult decisions on their behalf. She also makes it pretty clear that she isn’t romantically interested in Finn.
It would’ve been very easy to set her up as the opposition to Marceline, the punk-rock, Goth vampire queen. In fact, the initial series-pitch bible has them listed as “friendly rivals.” That relationship isn’t as outwardly antagonistic as some of these examples, but it’s still typical of their character archetypes.
But the team behind Adventure Time put a new spin on Girly Girl and the Other Girl: instead of having them fight over the same boy, they got to kiss.
Executive producer Adam Muto told TVLine that the relationship “evolved over time,” pointing to certain individuals on the team who helped the pairing develop — particularly writer/storyboarder Rebecca Sugar, who went on to create Steven Universe. Fans latched onto the relationship, especially after actress Olivia Olsen tweeted that creator Pendleton Ward told her Marceline and Bubblegum were exes. She later rescinded the statement, saying she liked to “make things up at panels,” but it still sparked interest.
And here’s the thing: these Girly Girl and Other Girl combos had already prompted a shipping culture. Some viewers grew up feeling alienated by the standard one-note portrayal of femininity in children’s shows, but as an understanding of what makes a “strong female character” evolved, so did the conversations about the relationships between these characters. Instead of rejecting the Girly Girl, why not celebrate her? Why not show her positively interacting with the Other Girl? Why not even pair them up?
That phenomenon didn’t necessarily start recently, but with the rejection of “Not Like Other Girls” culture and evolving conversations about what it means to be feminine facilitated by the internet, it’s steadily grown. Fan art all over the internet depicts childhood staples like Daphne and Velma and Raven and Starfire in romantic relationships.
Adventure Time itself fueled this culture — especially in the days before queer-positive shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power and Steven Universe were the norm. Back before Sapphire and Ruby got married, before Adora and Catra saved the world with a teary love confession, even before Korra and Asami held hands in the series finale of The Legend of Korra, the relationship between Bubblegum and Marceline radically changed the possibilities for how female characters were portrayed. Distant fan wishes became something that could actually feasibly happen. Though their romantic relationship wasn’t explicitly clear until the series finale, plot points like Bubblegum holding onto Marceline’s old T-shirt and Marceline dreaming of the two of them growing old together made it pretty obvious that they weren’t just friends.
Marceline and Bubblegum were never the focus of Adventure Time. Had it come out even five years later, their relationship might have been more obviously romantic on screen. Obsidian gives the show’s creative team a chance to explore their connection and dive into their past as they band together for their future. But just the fact that Marceline and Bubblegum had a complex relationship, that they weren’t standard-issue “friendly rivals,” that creators like Rebecca Sugar pushed for their connection to be something more, remains striking.
Bubblegum and Marceline are a Girly Girl and Goth Girl. Because their characters were already more nuanced than the stock characters they could’ve been, their relationship became something more. They bicker. They cling to their memories of each other. They croon to each other. They brood over their past and dream of their future. They kiss. They transcend their archetypes of one-dimensional female characters. And finally, there’s more to girls in cartoons than anti-boy opposition and one-note rivalries: something special, complex, and groundbreaking.
Adventure Time: Distant Lands — Obsidian is out on HBO Max on Nov. 19.
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