I’m A Better Feminist Because Of The Powerpuff Girls
By Rose Eveleth
The seminal cartoon taught me that we can’t all be the strong ones — and that being physically strong isn’t the only way to be heroic.
A promo for the Powerpuff Girls reboot, featuring Buttercup beating the crap out of an MRA-esque “man’s man” for calling her a princess, encapsulates what makes the show great, offering a clear nod to modern feminists who deal with trolls on the internet. Watching the scene reminded me, once again, how instrumental the Powerpuff Girls have been in my own feminist awakening — teaching me not just that girls can kick ass, but that actually, being a “princess” isn’t necessarily bad.
If you’re not familiar with the cartoon, the premise of the show goes like this: In the sleepy town of Townsville, USA, a scientist named Professor Utonium was trying to create the perfect little girl. But while stirring the pot full of sugar, spice, and everything nice, his giant spoon cracks a precariously positioned container of “Chemical X,” which turns his three perfect little girls into superheroes.
Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles have the standard superhero capabilities: super strength, the ability to fly, rainbows that follow them around. But they each have their own personalities too, which each correspond to the three main ingredients in Professor Utonium’s mixture. Bubbles is sugar: She’s the sweet one. Buttercup, the tough one, is spice. And Blossom is everything nice, so of course she’s the leader. Together they save Townsville from the steady stream of evildoers who have chosen this sleepy town in the middle of nowhere as the prime location for villainy.
The Powerpuff Girls have taught me not just that girls can kick ass, but that actually, being a ‘princess’ isn’t necessarily bad.
I loved the show immediately, for the most basic reasons: It was fun, it was simple, and it was three girls kicking ass on a regular basis. It served as a nice antidote to Dexter’s Lab, where the nasally little boy gets to be the genius (yawn) and the little sister is the princessy idiot in ballet slippers always ruining things. The Powerpuff Girls were my girls.
But if I’m honest, I really only loved one of them: Buttercup. She was tough, brassy, and didn’t waste her time with girly nonsense. This, to me, made her clearly the only one to root for. Bubbles was a ditzy blonde. I hated her. Blossom was an overachiever who cared about rules. I hated her even more. Buttercup was the strongest one, the toughest one. She didn’t really need these other two girls around. She was the only one who looked like my version of “girl power.”
I thought this way about Powerpuff Girls because I thought this way about real-life girls. As a kid I was the classic tomboy. I wore athletic shorts and way-too-big T-shirts with dumb soccer “jokes” on them. (“If it was easy, it would be called baseball,” “I kick balls for fun,” and at least two different variations on “the referee is so blind they are extremely blind.” I know, I’m sorry, I still cringe thinking about them.) And for me, part of my tomboy identity involved turning up my nose at anything I thought was too feminine — and anyone who valued it.
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I was careful not to sit with my legs crossed — that was for girly girls. I didn’t wear makeup or nail polish, I refused to carry a handbag, and I owned a single bra that wasn’t of the sports variety, which saw very little wear.
If a guy showed any interest in me I would laugh at him, or accuse him of making fun of me. At one point I hid behind a dumpster to avoid a boy I heard was going to ask me on a date. Here, too, Buttercup really spoke to me. In Episode 12, the evil villain Mojo Jojo creates a team of Powerpuff Girl equivalents, called the Rowdyruff Boys. When they have to turn on their “feminine charms” to overpower the boys, Blossom and Buttercup smile. Buttercup’s reaction is “ew, gross.”
I wouldn’t have used the word “feminism” until a lot later, but I basically thought of myself as being a better feminist than other girls because I scorned femininity. Wasn’t that what equality looked like — doing boy stuff better than the boys? I loved those “anything you can do I can do better” commercials featuring Mia Hamm and Michael Jordan, because they featured a woman being sporty and powerful, competing on what had previously been an all-male playing field. My feminist statement was “I kick balls” — I don’t care about getting muddy. I watch sports and I shrug off pain. I reject makeup and fashion because they’re girly and girly is the enemy of respect.
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Being a Buttercup was a way to turn my gangly awkwardness into a persona, a persona that other people (mostly boys) would think was cool. I could hide the fact that I had zero social graces, that I didn’t know how to talk to my peers, and that I feared the kind of femininity that girls my age were embracing with what seemed like superhuman skill. It was much easier to just be one of the guys. Guys aren’t expected to be able to do any of those things.
Looking back on it now, Buttercup’s story lines in the show aren’t flattering. In Episode 8, the story arc revolves around her refusal to apologize. In Episode 18, she decides that bathing every day is stupid and that time could be better spent fighting bad guys (okay, this one I still kind of see the logic in, showers are boring). In Episode 38, Buttercup realizes that the tooth fairy gives money for missing teeth, so she goes on a spree knocking out villain’s teeth for cash. In Episode 50, Buttercup is actually put in charge of the group (after Blossom becomes convinced that she’s a jinx) and . . . let’s just say she doesn’t do a great job. There’s even an episode in which Buttercup has to go learn how to meditate because she went too hard on a villain.
Whatever I thought as a kid, the show was definitely not about how Buttercup is the sole avatar of girl power. The point of the show, delivered quite neatly (and not very subtly) in almost every storyline, was that they could only really save the day together. There are several episodes in which Bubbles, the ditzy one, is revealed to have surprising secret powers. Blossom’s leadership gets them through most of the battles. There is at least one entire episode where Buttercup tries to go fight alone and fails miserably. I think there might be more than one. I hated those episodes. Younger me just wasn’t buying it.
Being a Buttercup was a way to turn my gangly awkwardness into a persona.
But older me cringes at that worldview just like I cringe at my soccer T-shirts. The idea that women who dress up and carry purses and wear heels and are organized are bad feminists is, at best, inaccurate. I can’t honestly look at someone like Tavi Gevinson, founder of the magazine Rookie, or Janelle Monae, musician and activist, and say that their fashion sense disqualifies them from feminism. Nor can I look at someone like Shonda Rhimes or Elizabeth Warren and say that their leadership skills make them boring tools of the patriarchy.
On the show, whenever Buttercup has a revelation, it doesn’t come from the men in her life. It comes from her sisters. And it wasn’t until relatively recently, when I started hanging out with women more than men, that I’ve really learned anything about feminism. Or makeup, clothes, relationships, and how to be a good respectful human on this planet.
It was from women that I learned it wasn’t embarrassing to want to learn how to use eyeliner, that it wasn’t weak to lead with compassion rather than force, and that dying your hair blonde doesn’t make you a boring ditzy cartoon character. We can’t all be the strong ones, and being physically strong isn’t the only way to be heroic.
I still fight the Buttercup feelings, the urge to dismiss each Bubbles and Blossom I meet, but I’m finally admitting that — even in a kid’s cartoon — feminism needs all three.