I found the clip of the rebooted Powerpuff Girls clip I discussed last week on the animation news site Cartoon Brew. If you want to find a complete antithesis of everything this blog is about, take a look at most of the typical comments on their articles. Typical comments on Cartoon Brew are often reactionary or aggressively apolitical. For example, the type of comment you’ll run across is something to the effect of “It’s just a cartoon, who cares?” I don’t want to sound like a jerk, but I shudder to think the fate of animation would be in the hands of such thoughtless and incurious thinking.
Readers of this blog, if there is anything I hope to have gotten across to you, it is that no type of media exists in a vacuum. Everything has a quote-unquote “political agenda” whether it intends to have one or not or regardless of how much it tries not to have one.
Is no less political than this.
One of the comments on the PPG reboot article took exception with the clip because he found the portrayal of the “Manboy” character as a villain didn’t so much as promote equality between boys and girls as it was shutting boys out and only talking to girls. My first response is that if The Powerpuff Girls was in fact only targeting girls, it would be a drop in the bucket in comparison all of the cartoons that were only thinking of the boys in their audience. Some of the cartoons that aired alongside The Powerpuff Girls on just the same network included this. Second of all, whatever point this comment has about the girl-power “agenda” The Powerpuff Girls has that doesn’t seem terribly focused on the boys goes beyond their “Manboy as a villain” character. It’s um…kind of inherent to the show. The show in concept wanted sought out to create, to use the overused term, strong female characters as protagonists. This criticism is kind of like complaining that Metroid is anti-male when you reached the end of it, especially when you have copies of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Double Dragon on your shelf.
But yes, in a media landscape (especially in animation) where female protagonists that are as physically strong and autonomous as any brawny male power fantasy is a novel phenomenon, it’s hard for anyone to ignore the elephant with “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” painted on the side of it when it walks into the room. So does The Powerpuff Girls truly assert the feminist agenda that this particular comment on Cartoon Brew is critical of (let’s be honest; that’s what it’s really taken exception to about that “Manboy” clip)?
Which brings me to the third season episode “Equal Fights”, in which the already on-the-surface feminist politics of the show are brought right to our protagonists’ faces by a Women’s Lib-inspired villain, Femme Fatale.
When I first watched this episode as a kid, my knowledge of feminism was pretty scant. I knew who Susan B. Anthony was, I had a very basic understanding of women’s suffrage, and I may have known a tiny bit about Women’s Lib. With that said, my understanding was that the Powerpuff Girls represented “true” feminism while Femme Fatale represented a perversion of it (or dare I say, the so-called “feminazi”). Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup represented the fight for equality between women and men and Femme Fatale represented female supremacy. Some ten-ish years later, when I heard Anita Sarkeesian speak negatively of this episode, I was confused. I didn’t see the problem. After a couple more years of learning a bit more about feminism, I get her criticisms.
What made the argument “Equal Fights” was asserting so convincing was in the way they framed Townsville in the beginning. Before we are introduced to Femme Fatale up to no good, the Narrator takes us around the town, showing us how harmonious everything is and running into the ground how men and women are 100% equal. It made sense to me, especially as a little boy who had no first-hand experience of gender discrimination to make me question their framing. Once upon a time, women weren’t allowed to vote and now they can. Once upon a time, women weren’t allowed in the workplace and now they are (heck, my mom was and still is a workaholic!). What else is missing?
I came to learn that this is a false premise to build their argument from. Sure, women have the right to vote and are allowed in the workplace, but many of the structures of patriarchy are still in place and we have a long way to go to dismantle all of them.
The pop artist Kesha began her ascent into pop stardom in the early ’10s, but her career trajectory has stalled in recent years. The reason for that is that she has been trying to get out of her contract with her producer Dr. Luke, who she has accused of drugging and raping her, psychologically abusing her, and exacerbating her struggles with bulimia and high blood pressure. She has taken her label Sony to court over the dispute, but the court has struck down her bid to get out of her contract. So if Kesha wants to continue her music career, her contract and label are forcing her to continue to work with a man who has allegedly been physically and emotionally abusive to her for a long time.
Contrast the treatment Kesha has gotten with beloved NFL quarterback Peyton Manning. It has recently be revealed that when Manning was attending college at the University of Tennessee in 1996, he sexually assaulted his director of health & wellness Jamie Naughright. After Naughright filed charges, Manning, his father Archie, and the University of Tennessee have gone out of her way to disparage her character (Manning accused her of lying and being obscene, his father claimed she was sexually loose), disobeyed his gag order, and got her fired from her job at the University of Tennessee and another sport health & wellness job at Florida Southern College. While Naughright’s livelihood in college athletics was being destroyed, Manning was building his football career as one of the highest profile quarterbacks in the league. On top of his athletic prowess, Manning concocted an image of himself as a squeaky clean, aw-shucks good ol’ boy who yuks it up with his brother on Saturday Night Live and hawks Papa John’s pizzas. To this day, Manning has never owned up to his original assault in 1996.
Does a society in which Kesha and Dr. Naughright get abused with impunity by the men in their lives bear any resemblance to the world set up by Townsville in “Equal Fights”? These are only two examples of inequality; I could be here all day listing examples.
What is more astonishing his that gender equality that the episode sets up is undermined within the episode itself.
This revelation about the inequality between female and male superheroes is the epiphany that sets the Powerpuff Girls down the path of anti-male extremism. Even after the girls are straightened out and they put a stop to Femme Fatale, the episode never answered this question. If everything is equal between men and women, why is there a dearth of female superheroes in comparison to males? For some reason, the show doesn’t seem interested in answering that question.
I mentioned earlier in this post that the very concept of The Powerpuff Girls asserts an ideology that some may call feminist. Unfortunately, “Equal Fights” comes off as an attempt to distance these characters from feminism. As a matter of fact, the framing and argument of this episode is actually an argument often made by anti-feminist men. They frame their arguments by suggesting there already is equality between men and women, so anymore feminist action is unnecessary. Therefore, these current-day feminists are just looking for more rights than men (Femme Fatale’s crime spree with impunity) and want to persecute men (the hostility Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup showed toward various men and boys). It’s precisely the mind state that misogynists like Rush Limbaugh (who coined the term “feminazi”) bases his gender politics on.
The Simpsons has a nasty habit of doing the same thing. God forbid one of the only adult animated shows I can think that doesn’t have hostile or ass-backwards attitudes about women be mistaken for feminist, right?
Before I move on, let me just address a few common arguments against feminism. The term “humanism” refers to spiritual/religious beliefs, not gender politics. So-called “equalism” has never accomplished anything and “equalists” have never done anything in their lives except whine about feminism online. And “feminazis”/female supremacy is as real a phenomenon as reverse racism, heterophobia and Loch Ness monsters.
Perhaps the anti-feminism of “Equal Fights” may not come as a surprise to some feminists considering that the whole cartoon was created by a bunch of men who may or may not consider themselves feminist allies, but what is even more surprising is that the episode was written by Lauren Faust. For those that may not know, Lauren Faust the woman responsible for this.
My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic hit the cartoon landscape bringing in the same elephant in the room The Powerpuff Girls did. And unlike “Equal Fights”, I never came across any moments in this series that tried to distance itself from its feminist credentials (though I could be wrong; I haven’t watched this series nearly as much as I watched PPG). Then again, identifying as a feminist within the mainstream wasn’t as taboo when this how hit the scene as it was in the late ’90s/early ’00s. So perhaps both shows are reflections of their times. Or maybe Faust had a change of heart about feminism in between “Equal Fights” and My Little Pony. Or maybe she didn’t realize how anti-feminist “Equal Fights” came off in the first place. I didn’t at first.