Iginio Straffi, creator of the 2004 animated series Winx Club and founder of Italian studio Rainbow S.p.A, has a lot of opinions about the way cartoons were back in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“There was really nothing for girls,” he tells Polygon. “And that was not fair. It was not nice.”
Back then, Straffi says, most Western animation was tailored toward boys, featuring male characters going on adventures. He wanted to create a cartoon starring girls, for girls. Most people didn’t believe in that vision.
“The market was not in favor, to be honest, at the time, because the buyers were telling me that many girls were now watching the live action for kids. Disney stuff like Lizzie McGuire and some other Nickelodeon sitcoms were popular,” he says. “I thought that was really not the case. I thought we needed to have heroes, not only in sitcoms, but with powers in a fantasy world that girls could identify with and want to be one of them. And so I really fought for this idea.”
Winx Club debuted in Italy, but it eventually found a stateside distributor in 4Kids, which regularly dealt with imported cartoons. The show follows a teenage girl named Bloom, who discovers she has fire powers and gets whisked away to a college for fairies in a magical realm. At Alfea College, she meets a host of other girls with various cool abilities, learns about the fantastical world, and uncovers the secrets of her past. Full of bright, jewel-toned visuals and fashionable outfits, Winx Club emphasizes friendship between its female characters as they navigate fearsome villains and magical happenings.
At the time, 4Kids broadcast series like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which meant a magical girl show like Winx Club stood out in the lineup. As it turns out, Straffi’s hunch was right: Girls loved Winx Club, and the show lasted far beyond its originally planned four seasons. It eventually started airing on Nickelodeon, with ViacomCBS purchasing Rainbow in 2011 and co-producing Winx Club. In 2012, a rebooted show, tailored toward a younger audience, premiered on Nick Jr. And in 2021, Fate: The Winx Saga, a live-action young-adult show designed for those who grew up with the series, premiered on Netflix. Though the Winx world has evolved in these two branching directions, the original show’s legacy remains. Winx Club shattered expectations by proving that girls watched action-oriented cartoons too.
Winx Club wasn’t the first girl-tailored cartoon out there, but there were so few long-lasting ones that getting it made was an uphill challenge. Shows like She-Ra: Princess of Power and The Powerpuff Girls were exceptions to the norm in a sea of cartoons featuring large casts of boys and only one or two girls. Nowadays, with shows like The Owl House, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts featuring dynamic female characters at their centers, it’s hard to imagine a world where characters like that were rare.
“You can think that this is something very common now because we have plenty of female heroes, and they are stronger than the boys and men,” Straffi says. “But believe me, 20 years ago, when we were pitching Winx for the first time … it was not so obvious to have female characters who were in control of their destiny, of their life, independent with their own personalities, and all the things that Winx Club is.”
From the get-go, Straffi wanted to make the show unique. He decided the show should center on fairies, because he wanted to reinvent them as more contemporary creatures: “Fairies don’t mean fairy godmother or a woman with a wand. It could be something very fresh, very dynamic.” The team at Rainbow worked tirelessly to get these fairies right, even completely scrapping the first nearly complete pilot when Straffi decided to change the look and story. “I threw it away because I wanted so much to do something original and different, and it was not good enough,” explains Straffi. Eventually, he decided to tap into one of the things Italy is best known for: fashion.
“We are not famous and established in entertainment,” he laughs. “I had to try to leverage on what [Italy is] good at.”
Even among other girl-tailored cartoons, Winx Club is notable for having characters who regularly change outfits. They wear fashionable, trendy clothes and change them depending on the episode and location. Straffi explains that the process of animating different outfits is incredibly costly, which is why most shows don’t bother. “You end up having [shows like] Scooby-Doo where the characters wear the same outfits throughout many, many episodes, and even sometimes in different weather conditions, just simply because it’s too expensive and too complicated to change,” he explains. “I wanted it to be another element of originality.”
“They are teenagers — in school, they’re dressed differently than when they are doing sports or when they are going out for a drink, or when they go to the beach, or for skiing, or any other situation. I thought that we could be very fashionable in the cartoon, and that’s why I hired real fashion designers to draw their wardrobe.”
The show’s visual aesthetic is certainly iconic, with fashion publications praising the series’ look. In fact, the Regional Council of Marche, Italy chose the Winx fairies to represent the region in the 2010 World Expo because of their distinctive visuals. But while the show’s bright, colorful, unapologetically feminine aesthetic makes it stand out, Straffi also points out that Winx Club did a pretty rare thing for Western cartoons at the time: It has a serialized story arc, full of plot twists and revelations, where the characters grew and the story has a concrete ending.
“This was an idea, which again, was not appreciated by the broadcasters, because they loved cartoons where you can switch the schedule,” he says. He points out that the long-arc concept was already solidly established in Japan, and he hoped it would bring something new and exciting to European and American audiences. “I wanted to experiment with something complicated, where the character has an evolution, has a kind of path — a coming-of-age story, where they find out who they are, their power, where they come from. I thought it was a strong element to get the viewers very hooked. They want to know what will happen next.”
A larger overarching plot wasn’t the only inspiration Straffi got from anime. In fact, without the success anime was having with female viewers, Winx Club wouldn’t even exist.
“Japanese animation is what made me think girls were watching cartoons,” he says, pointing to Sailor Moon as one of the examples. “To believe that girls were only watching live-action sitcoms, it didn’t make sense to me.” The idea of the characters transforming also came from anime, with the long tradition of the magical-girl genre.
Winx Club wasn’t the only long-story-arc European animated show starring five girls with magical transformation powers to debut in the United States in 2004. Disney’s W.I.T.C.H. shares many plot elements with Winx Club, and sits in the same headspace in the minds of those who grew up watching both. Though the show premiered the same year as Winx, the comic it was based on started running a little earlier. Disney Italy noticed similarities between the two properties, and ended up suing Rainbow.
“They tried to start a litigation with really no ground,” says Straffi. “That’s why they lost immediately, with a lot of compensation from the judge. We proved we had a contract from our producer from two to three years before the first [W.I.T.C.H.] comic appeared on the Italian kiosk. There was really no chance.”
The similarities between the shows are superficial. Both shows star redheaded protagonists, but so do Kim Possible and The Powerpuff Girls. Both have magical-girl transformations, but that idea has a long, storied history in anime. But unlike Winx Club, which is still airing in some capacity and readily available, W.I.T.C.H. stopped after a second season. In 2021, it isn’t available to stream anywhere, and physical copies of the DVDs go for more than $60. Straffi believes the show failed because Disney targeted a gender-neutral audience. “That is something I decided not to do from the beginning.”
Winx’s worldwide popularity continues to overwhelm Straffi, but he still believes he didn’t fully crack the United States market. The show is unexpectedly huge in Russia and Turkey, which amazes him, considering that Rainbow never marketed the show as strongly in those regions as it did in the rest of Europe. But even a partnership with Nickelodeon didn’t boost the show to the same levels in America.
“To be honest, until now, I am not happy with what we reached in the U.S.,” he says. “We’ve been successful and famous, but not as much as Europe, so there must be something we have not done, something we should’ve done better.”
He believes it has a lot to do with the way American networks broke up the serialized episodes to air week by week. “Maybe for a kid audience, they can’t really remember what happened for a week, and really appreciate the continued story,” he says. That’s why Straffi thinks Netflix and the age of binge-watching — “watching whenever you want, even one after another” — is beneficial to shows structured like the original Winx Club.
In recent years, Rainbow has worked closely with Netflix, which not only hosts the new rebooted World of Winx (which is designed for a younger audience than the original show), but also another animated show called 44 Cats. This close working partnership allowed Straffi to embark on one of his long-held dreams: a live-action Winx Club series intended for an older audience.
“Having witnessed this huge number of fans around the world for the Winx cartoon, across generations, after 10 years, I could see that there were new fans and old fans,” he explains. “And social media was showing us this kind of loyalty. I thought for the older fans, who were grown up, we should produce some live-action.”
He tossed the idea around with local Italian studios, without even considering American ones, but none of his proposals came to fruition. But Netflix posited the idea for a show tailored toward twentysomethings, which intrigued Straffi. After some deliberation, they put the show into production. Because it was filmed in Ireland, Rainbow was not as involved as Straffi would’ve liked. “I wish it was more,” he says. “Because these are our babies.”
They discussed casting and potential directors, but left a lot of the bigger decisions up to Netflix — with mixed results. Straffi had some doubts about Ireland, which he called “nice, but a bit too rainy,” but ultimately was very pleased with how Alfea College and the surrounding setting ended up looking in the show. But he did have one issue with the show.
“The costumes could be better,” he says. “They will be better in the second season.”
As for the show’s controversial casting — white actors played two characters whose animated designs had been based on Lucy Liu and Jennifer Lopez — Straffi says he can’t say much about it, but that he anticipated the fans’ negative reaction. Overall, though, he says seeing his creation come to life as a live-action drama was surreal. And he hopes the Netflix show is just the beginning.
He has big dreams for the future of Winx Club. He wants a theatrical movie. He wants to explore the origin of the Trix, the three witch sisters with a rivalry against the fairies. He wants the show to be as big in America as it is in Europe, whether it’s through the animated series or the live-action one.
All the conventional wisdom in the early 2000s was against Winx Club, but Straffi believed in the show — he believed in a cartoon for girls about girls, believed in bright and fashionable visuals, and he believed in a complex plot that didn’t pander to executives’ ideas of what kids wanted. He recounts a moment more than 20 years ago, when he was talking to some journalist friends about his then-current project, Tommy & Oscar, while he had just started writing early drafts of Winx Club.
“I was telling them ‘Okay, Tommy & Oscar is a nice cartoon, which is doing well in ratings, but believe me, the next one I am preparing, it will be 20 times more famous and popular,’” he laughs. “I felt very arrogant! But there is no dream without passion. I have been very overwhelmed by the success.”
Most episodes of the original Winx Club are available on the official Winx Club YouTube page. The animated spinoff show, World of Winx, is streaming on Netflix. The first season of the live-action series is also available on Netflix.