How The Tiny Powerpuff Girls Became Huge Feminist Icons

You’ll be hard pressed to find someone under 35 who doesn’t know about The Powerpuff Girls. Even if the person can’t tell you which one is Bubbles, Blossom, or Buttercup, they’ll be able to point them out in a lineup of other cartoon superheroes. Those big eyes and rounded stumps for hands and feet are uniquely specific to the girls, emphasizing their softly charming exteriors. And if you meet an actual fan of the show, it’s likely that it still carries a special place in their heart. Not only was The Powerpuff Girls an amazing animated show based on a simple premise, for many of us it unintentionally introduced the very idea of feminism and women’s empowerment.
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The Cartoon Network series was created by animator Craig McCracken and originally aired for six seasons from 1998 until 2005. Its three protagonists were kindergarteners by day, and superheroes charged with protecting their beloved Townsville at night (but not after bedtime). Buttercup (voiced by E.G. Daily) was the toughest of the bunch. She was a fighter who threw hands (and feet), and asked questions later. Bubbles (voiced by Tara Strong) was by far the daintiest, known to be easily distracted by the sight of puppies, kittens, and anything else super cute. Blossom (voiced by Cathy Cavadini) was the smart, strategic leader of the sisters who set a great example for female masterminds everywhere. They were raised by their single dad, Professor Utonium (voiced by Tom Kane), who conceived them via science experiment and gave them their superpowers.
Amy Keating Rogers, the head writer on The Powerpuff Girls who helped to expand its influence by also writing Scholastic books and comics based on the franchise, says she refused to focus on the trio’s girlish qualities when developing the characters. McCracken’s original conception — the girls’ superpowers come from Professor Utonium accidentally spilling Chemical X into his mixture of sugar, spice, and everything nice (as the old adage goes) — more than accounted for their femininity. Rogers chose instead to focus on the universal experiences of children everywhere. She and the writers wanted to demonstrate how losing a tooth, wetting the bed, or having an evil substitute teacher or stepmother can foil your plans even when you’re a superhero. The Powerpuff Girls may have been able to fly, become invisible, activate strength and speed, and use X-ray vision, but they were still beholden to the laws of childhood. They had to go to school, they had to listen to their dad, and they had a bedtime.
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With three personality options to choose from, The Powerpuff Girls proved that women are not monolithic creatures with the same interests and perspectives. McCracken knew this thanks to his own upbringing. After his father died when he was a child, McCracken was raised by a single mother and was very close with his sister. “When I was growing up, the idea of strong and powerful women was not a strange thing at all,” he mused. “It was my reality and what I lived with.”
But he did not intend to make an explicitly feminist show when he created the Powerpuff Girls. The OG animator made that very clear when we spoke over the phone. When he doodled three little girls in 1990, McCracken actually thought they would be great as a “superhero-type parody” for his second year student film at CalArts. “I just really liked that idea: that contrast of these three little girls beating up giant monsters,” he explained. But as we all know, intent and impact are not the same thing. It’s been 20 years since Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup completed their transition from the recesses of McCracken’s imagination, through his college project and a cartoon incubator program at the now defunct Hanna-Barbera animation studios, and finally to their first 30-minute slot on Cartoon Network. Since then, it has expanded into comics, books, a feature film, and a reboot of the show nearly a decade after its original release. The Powerpuff Girls have spent the last 20 years as part of a broader pop cultural celebration of Girl Power.
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When The Powerpuff Girls debuted on November 18, 1998, America was in the thick of third wave feminism. A new generation of young women sought to redefine the movement for women’s rights with a focus on identity politics, intersectionality, sexual liberation, and a harder resistance to violence against women. This gave way to new forms of art and media that sought to address the demands of women who were fed up and proud of it. The Powerpuff Girls hit the national stage in the same decade that Anita Hill historically testified that future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her; Eve Ensler created The Vagina Monologues and subsequently V-Day; and the first editions of both Bust and Bitch magazines were printed. The world was watching as American women moved away from their mama’s feminism.
It was a popular, but not necessarily harmonious, movement. Critics of the third wave condemned the embrace of overt displays of femininity, calling it “girly feminism.” The choice of many women to embrace mini skirts, lipsticks and heels as part of their aesthetic was assumed to play into the male gaze, and reflected individualized notions of empowerment instead of real change. Helping to fuel this “girly feminism” was a new prevalence of feminist symbols in pop culture. The Craft (1996) inspired teens everywhere, including me, to try their hand at witchcraft after watching four teen witches get revenge on their rapists and bullies. Just a couple of months before The Powerpuff Girls premiered, The Spice Girls wrapped their global Spiceworld tour, which had been affectionately known as The Girl Power Tour. Despite criticism from second wave feminist theorists and sexist dudes who just didn’t want to see women dominating their screens and radios, all of this provided an accessible entry point for feminist consciousness.
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“It was unusual for that time period to have three strong female characters. It just wasn't something you saw,” Keating told me. “Often shows that are targeted towards girls are kind of ‘fluffy.’ There's not as much substance to them, as if girls don't have substance.” Thankfully, it was her job to change that when she was brought on to the show 20 years ago.
Looking at some of the recurring Powerpuff villains, the Girl Power running through the show’s veins is apparent. The most memorable, (and in my case, beloved) example is MoJo Jojo, a mutant chimpanzee who is envious of the three kindergarten heroes in his town. He even created the RowdyRuff Boys from snips and snails and puppy dog tails (another old adage) in an attempt to give the Girls a masculine run for their money. Despite his intelligence, Mojo Jojo’s macho overconfidence allows the Powerpuff Girls to defeat him every time. To use Rogers’ own words, “Mojo was just the perfect mix of intelligence but not being aware that he's kind of dumb.” If that isn’t an allegory for male privilege and its effects — like manspreading and mansplaining — then I don’t know what is.
Another villain is Princess Morbucks, a spoiled little rich girl who I imagine grew up to regard Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In as a bible, even though she never had to work herself. Bossy, domineering, and extremely resentful of the Powerpuff Girls’ special powers, goodness, and overall likability, Princess Morbucks often tries to use her wealth to get her way. She is a cautionary tale of what fate awaits the Powerpuff Girl should they choose greedy autonomy over “the good fight.” Haley Mancini, who voices Princess Morbucks in the 2016 reboot of the show and was nominated for an Emmy for her writing, provided excellent insight on the villainess. “[She] is Blossom’s other side of the coin. Because they both are driven, Blossom has a very good sister side, Blossom is a leader.” She went all in on the Lean In reference, “They would both have a copy of Lean In, and Blossom would look at it as, How should I lean in to bring about change? How can I lean in and use the hierarchy that exists to change it and make it better for people? And Morbucks would be like, How can I use it to be richer than everybody and make everybody work for me?
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Then there’s another baddie, Him. Fashioned after the devil himself, Him proves how impressionable young people often are. As the other villains sought to destroy the girls for their own personal gain, Him uses psychological tactics to get the better of the girls for no other reason than to make them suffer. In “Octi Evil” the episode where he first appears, he possesses one of Bubbles’ stuffed animals and convinces her to turn Buttercup and Blossom against each other. With the girls fighting he unleashes reckless destruction on Townsville. If mastering our own confidence and ability to stay true to ourselves no matter what are our greatest strengths as women, Him was the scariest, most sadistic adversary of them all.
The Powerpuff Girls was not an exclusive, girls-only club, though. There were messages in the series that millennials needed to hear, no matter their gender. “Surprisingly, we had a lot of college-aged boys that were fans,” says Cathy Cavadini, who voiced Blossom. “Some of them would come up to us a Comic-Cons and say I'm embarrassed to say it, but I love the show.” That the Powerpuff Girls refused to be pigeonholed as a show exclusively for women and girls undoubtedly helped it thrive for the past 20 years. For McCracken, this resonance was especially meaningful. “It helped boys see: Wow they're really amazing. They're really strong. I like watching them fight. That helped them see girls differently, too.” Little did he know, McCracken and his team were writing in the margins of history.
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That history is repeating itself in more ways than one at Cartoon Network studios. Even though the original cast and creators shied away from the idea that they were making the world better for women, they were. What’s more, on a personal level, the experience of making the show was a profound, meaningful one for the core creatives. During The Powerpuff Girls original run, Strong, Daily, Rogers, and Cavadini achieved different milestones together, like getting married and having kids. All three of them described days of breastfeeding and spending time with their children between takes. Cavidini explained, “That's part of how we are still very close, because we went through a lot of life-changing things during that time.”
In 2016, Cartoon Network debuted the reboot of the show. Now Mancini, Kristin Li, Amanda Leighton, and Natalie Palamides — who provide the voices of Princess Morbucks, Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup, respectively, in the new iteration — are forging a similar road as their predecessors. All of them watched the original, and Li, who is only 16 years old, said, “We’re on the show for so long, I think by the second episode we were together like family. You play sisters, and you embrace the role. Each of our characters is exactly like us. I think it’s so funny and so perfect.” At the very least, eight women have been forever changed by three kindergarten girls with superpowers, and that has to count for something. But the reality is that hundreds of thousands, if not millions, more were just as moved.
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And anyone who questions whether we needed The Powerpuff Girls in the ‘90s or now isn’t paying attention. Following the alarming presidential campaign and subsequent victory of Donald Trump, Women’s Marches have become a yearly staple. The #MeToo movement has cast a long, dark shadow on popular culture. Issues like sexual assault, equal pay, and representation dominate the national conversation, both within and outside of entertainment. Nearly a decade after the Third Wave broke, women are once again using diverse voices to rally around a set of unifying issues. This bold resurgence of feminist values has also also coincided with an upcoming tour from the Spice Girls, an amped-up witches trend and, of course, a reboot of the Powerpuff Girls.
Those of us who were fans the first time around express our devotion differently as adults. Instead of role playing the Powerpuff Girls, we make avatars in their likeness and share them with our friends online. We’re less invested in the fight against Mojo Jojo and Princess Morbucks and more so in the ones with our bosses, our partners, and our elected officials.
To celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the original, Cartoon Network is leaning into this legacy. They asked five female animators from around the world to share their vision of Powerpuff empowerment and combined them for a colorful music video. They also launched the inaugural EmpowerPuff Ambassador internship where one lucky person will “advocate for empowerment, confidence, positivity, sisterhood and self-respect across the network's social platforms.”
“That seed was planted, and it's just grown for 20 years,” Daily mused about the impact of the Powerpuff Girls today. “[It] continues to grow… we've already got a little tree growing with little soldiers that are able to have a stronger platform because the seeds were planted. It's already in us. I think it's so powerful what we can do with something as simple as an animated cartoon, how we can influence people. It's just so powerful.” She’s right. I think we have at least 20 more years of Powerpuff in us, and if history is any indication, we’re going to need it. Despite what McCracken and his crew originally intended to do, they’ve armed us with the spirit we need to win.
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