Sugar, Spice and everything Nice: Education and The Powerpuff Girls

Giordano Pereira
Jan 23 · 10 min read

We are used, as humans, to consume media since the moment we are born to the day we lay under our grave. Scholarly specialists in popular culture share a belief that it began with the appearance of human beings on earth, long before the printing press, industrialization, and urbanization (Hinds 3). In this paper the research will rely specifically upon the 1998 cartoon by Craig McCracken The Powerpuff Girls and analyze its concepts of how it understood the audience of early 2000s television and why it succeeds as being both educational, teaching important aspects of a diverse society and empowerful, depicting adults as constant learners and children as teachers very often. How did they manage to do this kind of media? The thesis is simple: When a creator does not see children as non-thinking human beings, and understands they learn from what they are watching and consuming attached to having freedom doing their storyboards, one can create a cartoon both educational and empowering for children and fun to watch for adults. The concepts brought by the analysis will also open to discuss if they can apply to other cartoons throughout the recent generations.

Craig McCracken was born in Charleroi, Pennsylvania in 1971 (IMDb). He lost his father at the age of 7, being raised by a single mother changed his world views and had an impact on how he would create and make the stories of the three little girls named Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. McCracken recalls by the age of twelve when he begun trying to create “that one character that would be my definitive character” obviously at the time his young and naive mind frustrated his goals, however he took his mom’s advice: “Just go to art school, and just wait.” (Neuwirth). By the age of twenty he was enrolled at CalArts and already making films, and he knew that for his final second-year project he wanted to create a superhero type short film, he recalls “At the time, I was working on a Mexican wrestler character to be my hero. I wasn’t totally sure of it yet-and I just happened to draw these three little girls, and I went, ‘Wait a minute. They’re superheroes; it’s much cooler!’ It was more of a contrast, and they seemed tougher because they’re so cute” (Neuwirth). And that’s how McCracken created the animated short called The Whoopass Girls being a success at school which was an extra reason for him to pitch the show to Cartoon Network for World Premiere Toons. They ended up commissioning two animated shorts both airing in 1994, but not before the official name change to The Powerpuff Girls (Newirth). However, it was not before McCracken started to ask one simple question that the girls got their own show on Cartoon Network: What was the difference between Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup? “When I did the first shots, I was more focused on weird concepts than developing characters. That was my biggest mistake. I knew the characters so well cause I’d been working with them for years, but I forgot that I wasn’t telling the virgin audience who they were.” Said McCracken, and answering this question was the Chemical X that was missing for Cartoon Network (CN) to air the show in 1998.

Shortly after the official release The Powerpuff Girls began to be praised all over the industry by its simplicity and well-designed episodes and characters. “I look at The Powerpuff Girls and I see perfect color combinations” says John K, a well known Canadian animator. In order to understand the greatness of The Powerpuff Girls by non-professional eyes and the impact upon children we need to understand and define a few concepts such as audience, popular media and what empowerment and educational means when we talk about how a cartoon can be a reference in those terms. Starting with the meaning of audience by the Oxford Dictionary is “The people giving attention to something”, which leads to the question, who are the people willing to give attention to a show about three little girly superheroes with a lot of colors? The answer is children aged since 3 years old in their early childhood where the interest for colors is more important than anything else in a entertainment content because bright well organized colors equals the emotion of happiness (Althouse et al 56) to 12 years old, when they are reaching teenager years and the interest for cartoons starts to decrease (Arnett 882). The next concept, popular media and culture, started to be a subject studied by scholars back in the 60s, and “The goal of popular culture study is a better understanding of what we as participants in mass culture believe, fear, hope for, and gain or lose as a result of that participation and of how we ‘process’ and use popular culture in our private and public lives” (Hinds 63). What makes The Powerpuff Girls popular culture? A worldwide reaching TV channel such as Cartoon Network makes it, and it is easy to compare the previous definition of popular culture with McCracken’s intentions on creating the show and Cartoon Network’s on distributing it, the storyboards that talks about families, gender, good vs evil, and childhood issues and how to solve them is what both McCracken and CN believe in, fear of and hope for our society.

The next step is to determine what it means to be educational and empowering, particularly for superhero stories. During the Second World War (1939–1945) comic books had a huge ‘boom’ in sales, superhero stories were not only the main source of entertainment but also one of the biggest sources of information and education about what was happening in the world through the North American point of view. However, in some places like Northern Europe specialists in education, psychologists, parents and governments started to question if it was healthy for children to consume the kind of entertainment that showed an easy way of solving society’s problem with violence, they were also not comfortable with individualistic strong main characters as role models for children, as it sounded a threat to democracy (Jensen 2). Meanwhile in the USA the Golden Age of comic books was shaping a cultural phenomenon; the bravery, wonderment and heroism of each superhero built an obsessive fandom and idolization of individuals, the importance during the War period when kids imagined their male role models that were overseas fighting alongside Captain America against the Nazi’s is impossible to measure, but for sure had a huge positive effect on children not having stronger psychological issues (Jones). And this relates to McCracken’s passion for superheroes as well, he lost his father when he was 7 years old, however he could picture his mother being a “solo” hero for him as a strong female role model since the beginning of his childhood, somehow close to what kids did 70 years ago during the World War II.
In contrast of that, not everything that comes from media that reaches children and teenagers have a good impact upon them. Kids who view violent acts on TV are more likely to show aggressive behavior, and to fear that the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them. Characters on TV also reinforce gender-role and racial stereotypes (KidsHealth). The Powerpuff girls gives us an example showing the opposite particularly talking about gender-roles and the relationship between father and daughters. Where the “man of the house”, Professor Utonium, is often performing as the female of the show would; taking care of the house, cleaning, cooking and giving emotional advises to his daughters. Therefore we relate and understand this by the opposite of what McCracken’s mom performed in his childhood. She had to be the “man of the house”, bringing the house income paying for bills, doing the handwork to change a lamp for example, and talking to him about girls and puberty, all of that in the 80s, when the world was not nearly as progressive in terms of gender as it is today.
Having all the concepts clarified, we can move forward to discuss and analyze more deeply into one episode on why The Powerpuff Girls was created knowing children could learn something out of it. The episode six of the fourth season entitled “Members Only” (IMDb) is the one with the strongest debate about gender roles and women representativeness in superheroes stories. The episode begins with Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup sitting on the couch waiting for their favorite superhero program to start on TV, Professor Utonium, their dad and creator, asks what is the big deal about it, and all three girls immediately answer talking excitedly about each one’s favorite superhero — which are all male, musculus and independent heroes — then the scene is followed by a heroic entrance of one superhero at a time talking about their perks and characteristics. Soon after the end of it the three little girls are super excited and thoughtful wondering what the heroes do at their headquarters, the Super Summit, Blossom affirms: “They discuss moral issues, world crises and compare crime fighting techniques” and then she completes asking herself “Imagine what we could learn from them, the masters” which is followed by Bubbles’ statement: “I wish someday we could be good enough superheroes to be invited to a Super Summit” and that’s what makes Professor Utonium stop reading his newspaper right away. He recognizes that his duty as father is trying to convince his super daughters that they are great heroines, of the same level as all of the others and maybe even more, he then manages to make all three of them happy and confident enough by reminding them how strong they are and how many people they have saved throughout their superhero carriers which lead the girls to fly towards the Super Summit and meet their idols. However the encounter didn’t meet The Powerpuff Girls’ expectations. All of the heroes started laughing when the girls said they were superheroes because of their childish girly look. Major Glory, the leader, proposes three different challenges between the Summit Superheroes and The Powerpuff Girls: Tests of speed, strength and quick thinking in danger situations. If they manage to win the challenges, they would’ve been considered true superheroes. Challenge after challenge was being won by the girls and even after getting defeated three times Major Glory and his squad didn’t recognize them, to justify himself and his non-recognition of their power he starts asking questions about domestic work in the girl’s house expecting to prove his point that “women take care of the house, while men go out to fight the evil” and is completely surprised by their answers, because the one who does all the domestic work in the Powerpuff House is their Dad. Having no way to support his thesis anymore after getting counter-argumented so many times Major Glory decides simply to expel the girls from the Summit taking into account they were not welcomed. A moment later an alien car-shaped villain attacks the Super Summit and easily wins every fight against all superheroes almost at the same time, Professor Utonium tells our sad superheroines to be better than them and save the earth once again, the girls fly back and defeat the villain using their powers with no greater effort. At the end of the episode, ashamed, Major Glory and the others ask for forgiveness and question if The Girls had a superhero club from their own that they would be welcome to join, finally recognizing their power and leadership.

Major Glory talking to The Powerpuff Girls at the Super Summit while they look at him gazed by happiness of talking to their hero.

The “Members Only” episode is abundant in content to analyze, first of all it is by default a critic to the lack of women representativeness in superheroes stories, where awesome and super powerful little girls look upon big muscled men which are not even stronger, smarter, and faster than them. One interesting aspect of the episode as well is that the storyboard is not only based on women in a men’s dominant scenario (The Girls as superheroes) but also it shows how there is no argument on why men should not do domestic work (Professor Utonium being a scientist and a housekeeper at the same time) and it strongly demonstrates that gender roles — besides existing — are not a reason why one gender does one specific thing better than the other. It is also shown in the episode how women have to work sometimes three times harder to prove to men in position of power that they are worth in their jobs (The three different challenges won by The Girls), while if a men “fails” he still has respect and value simply because was born a man and his friends, which are all men, usually retains the power at the environment, guaranteeing his job.

In conclusion, the aspects of characterization and storytelling plus the education and empowerment brought by McCracken in the 1998’s The Powerpuff Girls made the series to be rebooted in 2016 (NY Times) with storyboards similar to the original show expanding the way minorities activism are shown nowadays. The original series settled an example to follow and it was successful on it, even earning two Emmy Awards (IMDb) and several nominations. To further researches, would be interesting to look for clear references in different media to the original show, and compare episodes of different cartoons which proposes the debate about the same questions as some of The Powerpuff Girls do, comparing and contrasting the impact from one and the other and using some measurement to level the amount of good or bad influence it has on society.

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