By Olivia Short ’17
Cartoons make up some portion of everyone’s childhood. For the older generations, cartoons were Saturday morning indulgences spent with the MGM lion and a bowl of cereal. For millennials, NickToons and Toonami offered an even wider array of options, with more specific genres like anime rising to popularity. The increased interest in and affordability of animation has allowed cartoons to truly blossom in the past two decades and permeate children’s free time, toys, and wardrobes. They’ve gradually become a pillar of American childhood.
Like most late-90’s babies, I was raised on Cartoon Network. I have very memories of plopping down in front of the TV to watch Scooby Doo and The Powerpuff Girls after kindergarten every single day. My memories of these shows are MUCH clearer than any actual memories of kindergarten itself, which speaks a lot about TV’s role in my life at that age. I was having anxious at school and my dad was always sick. A daily retreat to the world of talking dogs and supergirls kept my life fun and full of imagination– I think this is pretty common for any kid regardless of their school/home situation. I clocked plenty of hours watching and doodling characters from plenty of shows over the years, especially Teen Titans, Rugrats, Dexter’s Laboratory, The Fairly Odd Parents, Billy and Mandy, ChalkZone, and Recess.
But, more than any other show, I loved The Powerpuff Girls as a kid. The three sisters showed me that there were many ways to approach femininity and be heroic. They weren’t just easy-to-write, Wonder Woman type characters who always took the high road– they were realistic human characters with flaws. While Blossom was a born leader, she could be bossy and nitpicking. While Buttercup was intense and self-assured, she could sometimes be stubborn. While Bubbles was sweet and kind, she was sometimes too hesitant in asserting herself. They illustrated– in a way then unprecedented to me– that women don’t need to be beacons of perfection in order to be heroes.
I tuned in faithfully to the sugar-spice-and-everything-nice sisters, even after reaching the age when I was “too old” for cartoons. (Hint: this age doesn’t actually exist.) I remember especially loving Buttercup and being fascinated with her tomboyishness– looking back now, I realize how much the show’s exploration of gender appealed to me. Buttercup was my #1 favorite character by a large margin, but after her followed Him and Miss Bellum. (The latter two have been criticized in present-day discourse for being negative stereotypes, which I can definitely see in retrospect, but they seemed nothing but positive to me as a child. I consistently gravitated towards androgynous and gender role-defiant characters, but if you had asked me why I liked Him I’d probably have said something like “I don’t know, I like the crab guy. Wanna ride bikes?” It’s always funny to look back and see why certain things stuck with you in childhood– cartoons are probably a good starting point for anyone to do this, considering the wealth of characters and charged presentations that can be taken in many directions.)
But the Powerpuff Girls are no longer strictly retrospective! On April 4 of this year, Cartoon Network showed its first episode of the Powerpuff Girls reboot. The show launched ambitiously– people often say that remakes and sequels can never live up to original content. And given that The Powerpuff Girls is one of Cartoon Network’s most recognizable cartoons, could the new series’ creators do it justice?
Some veteran fans– especially those in the 17-30 age range who grew up on the original PPG– were skeptical. Folks worried that the original series’ subtle humor would be lost in the 2010’s cartoon environment, in which humor tends be visual or based on running jokes.
This fear stems largely from the all the hopes dashed by Cartoon Network’s 2013 reboot of Teen Titans, the still-running series “Teen Titans Go!” The original Teen Titans series, based on the DC comics series, was intended for pre-teen/teenage audiences and featured serious continual character development. I remember it fondly for seamlessly handling difficult themes like belonging, self-doubt and diaspora. Teen Titans somehow managed to unite these themes with well-timed humor and makeshift teenage friendship between characters– it was truly great! There was nothing like it at the time, and Japanese artists had such a heavy influence in the animation style that it served as a bridge between Cartoon Network’s lineup of Western cartoons and its all-anime adjunct, Toonami. It was a masterful pioneer of a cartoon, but the reboot? Not so much. Teen Titans Go! is a bright-colored, bobble-headed show with corny jokes and simple plotlines– none of this is inherently negative, but it’s such a huge letdown from the original series that I can understand fans’ distrust of any subsequent reboots.
The voice casting for the new Powerpuff Girls series also caused quite an upset– rather than reunite the original cast, Cartoon Network gave the roles of Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles to young, up-and-coming voice actresses. Many have criticized the Network for only preserving select bits of the original PPG series, voice casting being the most pertinent example. Tom Kenny, the voice of the mayor, has been re-cast for the 2016 reboot while the three central main characters have entirely new voices. A remake of anything needs a balance of preserved and original elements, and many fans agree that the Powerpuff Girl’s voices are too central of an aspect to change. The original voice actresses, using their career experience, were able to create distinct voices that aligned perfectly with their characters– Blossom’s matter-of-factness, Buttercup’s gruffness, and Bubbles’ bashfulness. Despite the voice cast controversy, most fans agree that this gig will be instrumental in shaping the careers of Amanda Leighton, Kristen Li, and Natalie Palamides, who voice the 2016 versions of Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup respectively.
So, has the new series as a whole lived up to its legacy? Only five episodes in, it’s hard to say at this point. There are certain liberties the new crew has taken with the animation style– it flaunts the girls’ superheroic abilities (especially flight) much more than the original series, which kept the girls much more grounded both literally and figuratively. The new animation also has brighter colors, cleaner lines, and more textures. It’s visually pleasing, and is an interesting indicator of just how quickly animation technology has improved within the past decade.
Another major change is that the girls have been aged up from kindergarteners to elementary school students (somewhere around 5th-6th grade, it seems), which could provide some really interesting opportunities for character interaction. The social sphere is, as we all know first hand, a hell of awkwardness in those years. Seeing that even the Powerpuff Girls struggle with middle school could help kids of similar ages (or older!) realize that they aren’t the only ones who’re confused in the face of social maturity.
My favorite episode thus far focused on Buttercup’s social life outside of the PPG team, which I loved. After expressing boredom with her sisters’ “feminine” habits, she branches off to make friends with some like-minded girls at school– more specifically, a gang of rough-and-tumble roller derby girls who call themselves The Derby-Tantes. This is exactly the niche of humor that the original series’ writers stuck with, and I appreciate that continuity. But even cooler is the fact that Buttercup is a chance getting development outside the team. In the original series, her role seemed to be confined to cynicism and comic relief– I’m VERY glad to see her being developed more fully and living a life outside of just crime-fighting. It’s another purposeful tactic that humanizes the hero, and I love it. I hope her characterization continues in this way, and I’m glad that there’s a current generation of Buttercup-loving kids who can tune in weekly.
And finally, I want to make note of the fact that Cartoon Network managed to serve all generations of its fans in marketing the PPG reboot. The Network created anticipation on all social media outlets by releasing short clips gradually and allowing fans to speculate in the comments. But the best marketing move was “Powerpuff Yourself,” a dress-up game created specifically for the new PPG premier. The game, playable here, (https://www.powerpuffyourself.com/#!/en) allows Powerpuff fans to recreate themselves within the cutesy, iconic art style of PPG. Many celebrities and internet personalities jumped on the bandwagon and posted their big-eyed, Powerpuffed selves under #PowerpuffYourself on Twitter. I truly feel like dress up games are one of the most effective promotional strategies– who can resist? As of this publication, the #PowerpuffYourself ranks are 10 million strong.
The game’s clothes and hairstyles themselves illustrate that Cartoon Network is aware of its audience’s diversity– there’s a holistic gradient of skin tone options, several natural black hairstyles, and no distinction at all between “male” and “female” clothing. It’s reasonable to deduce that if these characteristics are present in a nationwide promotional game, then we can expect them to be represented on-screen. This is no leap at all considering the growth of holistic representation in recent Cartoon Network shows. The show “We Bare Bears” gives realistic snapshots of its Bay Area setting, including a bilingual Korean-American protagonist and a diverse cast of background characters, one of which is the first hijab-wearing character I’ve seen on Cartoon Network. “Steven Universe” is also well-known for its representation, featuring an Indian main character several lesbian characters, and a family of Ghanian-American immigrants. Cartoons are catching up with the world around them, and I’m excited to see how this pattern will fit into the new version of the Powerpuff Girls.
All in all, I’m very pleased. The PPG reboot is cute, fun, and has some nice subtleties. So far it’s handled the tough task of catering to the child audience and veteran audience. It’s got a lot of potential and could set a precedent in media for well-executed reboots.
Once again, after all these years, the day is saved by the Powerpuff Girls!