Today (Nov. 18) is the 15th anniversary of "The Powerpuff Girls"! Through our tears of nostalgia, we realized those three adorable animated heroines were even cooler than we thought. (Also, we're really old.) As "The Book of Jezebel" recently pointed out, the Powerpuff Girls were some of the first truly feminist super-heroines. After reading some scholarly articles (and streaming the entire series on Netflix), we've rounded up some solid evidence to support that idea.
Here's what we found:
The Powerpuff Girls exhibit strength, without compromising their femininity.
Each girl has the power of flight, super-speed, super-strength, super-hearing, heat and X-ray vision -- but those badass abilities aren't mutually exclusive with their freakish cuteness. Of course, this could also be interpreted cynically. As Heather Havrilesky argued in a piece for Salon in 2002: "Striking as these icons of girlhood may be, it could be argued that their popularity may not reflect a dramatic shift in our society’s view of gender roles, but rather our inability to stomach female anger unless it’s sugarcoated in cuteness and scored with a pervasively chirpy, nonthreatening tone."
Regardless, the Powerpuff Girls were a refreshing iteration of super-heroism in the late '90s and early 2000s. Rather than being sorted into tough vs. sexy binary, which most other female heroes are categorized, they represent a paradigm shift in our understanding of the way female power can be packaged.
They are not overly-sexualized, unlike most other super-heroines.
Wearing boxy dresses with Mary Janes, the Powerpuff Girls portray cuteness in lieu of the nearly-naked curviness we associate with the majority of cartoon female superheroes. Our trio of heroes are first and foremost Kindergarten-age little girls, who may use their cuteness to their advantage in battle, but do not count seduction among their many powers (a fact that is made even clearer through their juxtaposition with the lascivious Sedusa).
In fact, the Powerpuff Girls don't really address their sexuality at all. As Evie Kendal notes in her essay on the subject, teen characters like Buffy and Alex Mac grapple with the changes that come along with puberty in a way that impacts their powers. Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup do not encounter such hormonal interference. "Powerpuff Girls" creator, Craig McCracken, actually intended them to be gender blind. “I don’t think of them as girls," he said, "I think of them as kids." It's nice to see elementary school girls actually allowed to be elementary school girls.
They intelligently encounter a misguided feminist, without ridiculing feminism.
In "Equal Fights," the villain Femme Fatale convinces the girls to "hate men" in hopes of facilitating her plan to steal Susan B. Anthony coins from local banks. Since Townsville is essentially a haven of equality, it initially seems that the show is undermining its feminist narrative with the presentation of this character, whose sole purpose is to vanquish men for her personal gain.
Yet, the end of the episode reveals a powerful message about what feminism really means. When the self-proclaimed "feminist of all feminists" is finally caught, she suddenly argues that she deserves less jail time, because she is a woman. Realizing that she has been taken advantage of by this faux feminist, Blossom steps forward and explains that feminism isn't about special treatment; it's about equal treatment.
They subvert the idea of female perfection (through their three very distinct personalities).
Each of the three Powerpuff Girls has a distinct personality and each personality type is validated throughout the show. Third wave feminism, as Lise Shapiro Sanders explains it, "highlights the diversity of women's experiences over similarities amongst women." Blossom is level-headed and mature to the point of being overly serious. She has maternal instincts that allow her to play peace-maker when her sisters fight. Living up to her name, Bubbles is the most ebullient of the group -- the end of the theme song refers to her as "the joy and laughter," and appropriately so. Finally, Buttercup is the most aggressive of the three. And though she's occasionally stubborn, she is extremely protective of Blossom and Bubbles.
The three girls are decidedly different, and the show allows them to be empowered through their varied strengths. Different episodes highlight the pros and cons of their three distinct dispositions. We also see that -- as in real life -- these not-quite-yet women are most powerful when they work together.