Growing up, Johnny Bravo was one of my favorite cartoons. From the first moment I saw an episode, it was instantly one of the funniest cartoons I ever saw! But that was a long time ago. Since then, I’ve learned a thing or two about feminism, which potentially puts a guy like Johnny whose running gag is his inappropriate behavior to women in an awkward place.
The Johnny Bravo character is basically an update to Chuck Jones’ Pepe Le Pew. However, the key difference between the two is that Johnny came into existence in a post-Women’s Lib society and it reflects that. In that regard, it’s no coincidence that Johnny parallels a character that is literally a skunk. The Pepe Le Pew cartoons played up the stalking and harassment of his “love interest” for laughs. Johnny Bravo turns the aggressor into the target of the audience’s laughter. And we’re not laughing with Johnny, we’re laughing at Johnny. This is why the women he approaches react to him to the very extreme extent that they do; he’s only getting what he deserves.
Despite the type of character we’ve got at our protagonist here, Johnny Bravo goes out of its way to show that it’s not anti-feminist by punishing Johnny at every turn (especially when Jed Spingarn, Gene Grillo, Kirk Tingblad, and Russell Calabrese were running the show). Besides the fact that Johnny is literally violently rejected by women, 1) he is incredibly stupid, 2) he is a dependent Mama’s boy, 3) his only friends are a little girl, a stereotypical geek, and a guy who runs a diner that serves roadkill, 4) despite his muscular physique, he is frequently beaten to a pulp by women, other men, children, animals, and inanimate objects, and 5) most episodes end with him either in jail or in serious physical pain. The show eventually calls out Johnny’s behavior upfront in the episode “Witch-ay Woman”, where he is turned into a woman and learns what it’s like to be at the receiving end of unwanted advances.
So does this make Johnny Bravo a feminist show? I would argue no for these reasons. 1) The female characters have no autonomy of their own; they all exist in relation to Johnny. Mama lives to take care of Johnny, Little Suzy lives to pester Johnny, and the unnamed women exist for Johnny to hit on. 2) Despite the show’s best efforts, there is the risk that Johnny is nonetheless glorified (in the same way that anti-war movies accidentally glorify war) or that his severity of his behavior is minimized as “that ol’ Johnny just being a scamp as usual”. The Valentine’s Day special pretty much undermines the whole point of the show by re-framing his behavior as that of a hopeless romantic just looking for love. We’re not supposed to root for Johnny to find a girlfriend because his behavior doesn’t demonstrate that he deserves one.
As silly and as potentially antiquated as Johnny Bravo might seem in comparison to cartoons nowadays like Steven Universe, Adventure Time, or Legend of Korra, it is a cartoon with a brain in its head, a conscience in its heart, and an understanding of women’s rights.