The Powerpuff Girls: Essential knowledge for new and seasoned viewers
There’s something special about the shows you watched when you were a kid. Maybe they hold such fond memories because you could sit on the couch for hours on end just watching… and petting the cat. They become the shared experience that starts in elementary school and crystalizes into credibility when you hit college.
"Oh, you watched Bionic Woman too! Well then you must be OK!”
Yes, Bionic Woman may have been the cue for kids who grew up in the 70s. And for those born in the early 1990s, they have the Powerpuff Girls.
Because we hope that there are listeners of all ages loyally downloading podcasts, regardless of just how much they know about the topic, this installment of Advanced TV Herstory examines the show from a broad view. In other words, for anyone unfamiliar, I’ll go slowly enough to explain the premise, the enormous popularity and some of the chatter that took place in the background, when the show was at its height.
For those who wore flannel PPG pajamas and still have them in a box somewhere, well, consider this the jump start to receiving the next wave of Powerpuff Girls. The relaunch, complete with new vocal talent and a somewhat muted color palette, takes place next year.
These three characters and this show – okay together they form a phenomenon – are indeed worthy of study here in Advanced TV Herstory. So don’t touch that dial!
In the late 1990s, the Powerpuff Girls took America by storm. The premise is good vs. evil. They are crime fighters right out of a comic book factory, but for the fact that they’re in kindergarten, don’t really have hands, feet or pupils to speak of but two of the three do hold super powers.
As three girls, they complement each others' strengths and weaknesses. Their imperfections fall right into line with that of any kindergartener, so frequent viewers appreciate the attention to teeth brushing rituals, temper tantrums, icky food and matter and appearance of animals and bugs.
Now about the girls
Blonde with hair in pigtails, Bubbles is the kindest of the three and can communicate in foreign languages and with animals. Her super power is her vocal ability to emit supersonic waves. But she can be strong and defiant. Emmy-nominated vocal talent Tara Strong voiced Bubbles as well as the Dylan Pickles character in the Rugrats – though we aren’t sure whether she was paid extra for the supersonic waves.
Buttercup is the black-haired one. She’s a doer, not a planner. She loves a good confrontation. She doesn’t possess any super power, but is a tomboy who frequently starts the fight, or gets dirty or takes on physical risk. Elizabeth Daily is the voice of Buttercup is an actress and stand-up comic who also voices Tommy Pickles on the Rugrats. On the Powerpuff Girls first CD, the Japanese band Shonen Knife performed the incredibly infectious tribute to Buttercup.
Blossom, the redhead, fashions herself the leader of the group. She’s the least volatile of the group, coming across with a bit more maturity. Her super power is her breath’s capacity to freeze objects. Cathy Cavadini, who voiced Blossom has an extensive list of voice roles on her resume, including that of Tanya Mousekewitz from An American Tail: Fievel Goes West.
The three actresses are hot property, even today, at Comic Cons and other festivals that celebrate animation. In examining video posted online from those events, they don’t talk much about the plots and themes, but rather jump in and out of voice and recount past shows.
Tara Strong told Robert Lloyd of the LA Weekly,
I think all children love to watch cartoons because it’s a fantasy world where anything can happen. If someone gets made at someone else, they throw them off a cliff or pull of their head or whatever.
Advanced TV Herstory agrees with Ms. Strong and sometimes relates to the desire to throw someone off an animated cliff.
The girls are the work of Craig McCracken, a cartoonist.
McCracken’s childhood is totally responsible for the creation of the Powerpuff Girls. In interviews, he talks openly about his interest in drawing at an early age. McCracken tracked all sorts of comic book characters and super heroes, coming to master the styles and plot developments of the most popular ones in American culture.
His passion for drawing and portfolio met the high standards of CalArt, one of the country’s most prestigious art schools. While at CalArt, he roomed with Genndy Tartakovsky, who created Dexter’s Lab and other Cartoon Network hits.
In fulfilling assignments at CalArt, McCracken tells, he developed a full story board for a set of three superheroes he had been mulling for a long time. Modeled somewhat off the “big eyes” children of artist Margaret Keane’s work, McCracken developed their backstory and their methods of interacting with villains. At the time of his student work, right up until he pitched the project to Cartoon Network they were known as the Whoopass Girls.
Whoopass Girls intro
The secret ingredient that granted the girls super powers was a can of Whoopass. The first short was called Whoopass Stew and can be found online. The characters and animation strongly resemble the cartoons of today.
Clever. It was classic comic book styling, as McCracken told Emru Summer is Frames Per Second Magazine back in 1995,
That was the thing I liked about Powerpuff Girls, because of its comic book sensibility, of being able to pick apart the things that you find in comic books and play with them. Because this idea, the criminal saying ‘Well the way to establish myself is to beat such and such good guy,’ that’s straight out of old superhero comics.
A few years later, McCracken told LA Weekly,
I wanted to do a superhero show, where you really felt these characters being strong and tough and heroes and kicking ass. And what better contrast than to have them be three cute little innocent-looking things? That’s basically the heart of the show, this cute little girl punching a bad guy and his teeth flying out. That’s the visual soul of the show.
This interview from the Season One DVD’s bonus gives you a sense of how playful, yet thoughtful, McCracken has been in his development of the girls.
Even in early drawings, McCracken created a set of standards that contribute to the focus of each character and the overall modern look of the show. Hands have never come to formation because they aren’t necessary. Animators even today are instructed on body, leg and arm features and to make sure their feet look like “socks filled with wet sand.” The girls are colorful, whereas Professor Utonium, their creator who mishandled the Chemical X, is depicted as with a strong black and white rendering.
Cartoon Network was founded in 1992. It came about following a series of major media business transactions that resulted in a single company holding a treasure trove of classic animated entertainment. Ted Turner had bought out Metro Goldwyn Mayer/United Artists but sold back part of those holdings. Turner retained the MGM TV and film library, which included vintage animated cartoons. Two years later, Turner bought Hanna-Barbera productions.
Cartoon Network encountered many challenges in its early years. Original programming like the Powerpuff Girls only came about after a new division, Cartoon Network Studios was developed. Other titles from those creative years, with McCracken and his school chums at the drafting tables of Cartoon Network studios: Cow and Chicken, Courage the Cowardly Dog and Johnny Bravo.
Competing in the field of animated shows, the team behind the Powerpuff Girls was recognized for excellence in many fields. From 1999 to 2005, they were nominated for Emmy Awards Annie Awards and Kids’ Choice Awards across many categories.
If you follow Advanced TV Herstory you’re familiar with the Emmy Awards. And now you’ll know that the Annie Awards are recognition from the LA branch of the International Animated Film Association and the Kids’ Choice Award is an annual Nikelodeon Network effort.
In 2000 Don Shank won an Emmy and Annie for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation. James Venable, Thomas Chase and Steve Rucker won an Annie Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement for Musical Score on an Animated TV Production. The episode, entitled Meat the Beat Alls which contains all sorts of Beatles allusions. And Frank Gardner won an Emmy in 2005 for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation.
It’s a show that appeals to audiences of all ages, who can readily find something to like - the music, its visual simplicity, or pop culture references.
Between the novelty of it being a show featuring girls and that it’s one of the first original cartoon series to be produced in a long, long time, the Powerpuff Girls became a hit in America and throughout the world.
Back in 2000, then-Cartoon Network VP for animation Linda Simensky speculated to LA Weekly reporter Robert Lloyd,
the official breakdown is two-thirds kids, one-third adults. But since there are no Nielsen homes in college dorms, I figure there’s another percentage of college students watching.
Without question, the lightening rise of series put Cartoon Network on the map as a production house and TV channel. It is available in more than 14 languages across 145 countries. As the series was converted into other languages, their names of Bubbles, Buttercup and Blossom gave way to names that drew upon positive images within the culture. For instance, the Latin American names translate to Chocolate, Bubble and Acorn.
Throughout its six seasons, the Powerpuff Girls had strong rating, set merchandising and landed on 2002 TV Guide’s 50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time - #17.
In addition to the many Beatles references in the episode Meat the Beat Alls, episodes contain pop culture references such as to School House Rock, Toys R Us (with an episode entitled Ploys R Us) and clever plays on words such as Hot Air Buffoon, Something’s a Ms and Cootie Gras.
If you look closely at the mayor’s office, you’ll see it bears a striking resemblance to Commissioner Gordon’s from the 1960s live-action TV show Batman. While some of this may be lost on the very young viewer, these cultural tie-ins offer an opportunity for parent and child to discuss the show.
Another reason for adults to appreciate the show was the exposure to new bands and performers who provided the theme song and action music. The Scottish trio Bis, largely an unknown commodity in the U.S., was asked by Hanna-Barbera producers to develop a theme song for the girls. They wrote and performed the ending theme song that plays while credits roll.
As Bis bandmember Manda Rin told MTV News in 1998,
I think it’s a good thing for us to do. It shows that we can do these kind of things when asked. Like, not many bands could you say ‘Right, you’ve got a week to do a cartoon theme tune. Can you do it?’ Not many probably could, but we turned it around and they’re so happy with it. They just say, ‘Oh, it’s the best chorus you’ve ever written,’ and stuff.
I get the sense there wasn’t a lot of ego or expectation going into the show’s launch.
It’s clear through his thoughtfulness that McCracken wants the girls to generate joy for viewers of all ages, erring on the side of simplicity and allowing the viewer full use of his or her imagination.
McCracken told Lloyd of the LA Weekly back in 2000,
People have asked if we’re ever going to do a live-action Powerpuff Girls. But I wouldn’t want to because then you’re defining them. They’ll have fingers and they’ll have noses and they’ll be real little girls and it just won’t be the same. But as cartoons, they’re kind of this catchall.
Lessons contained within episodes are universal, really not even age specific. In the episode Insect Inside, cockroaches threaten to overtake Townsville. The girls have to get a grip in order to foil Roach Coach’s plan.
In Tough Love, a gas is emitted throughout Townsville, turning the residents who love them against the girls. They have to handle the hate while clearing the air of the town.
Other plots? Bubbles wants to be taken more seriously. Broccoli aliens have to be conquered. The Sandman’s scheme to get sleep educates about the time zones of the world. The formula is always a little Good vs. Bad with a kindergarten appeal and clever language or twists for older viewers. The girls battled animals – most frequently the ape MoJo JoJo, aliens, men, boys, women and girls, including variations on themselves who took the form of the Rowdyruff Boys.
This is a string of audio that charts MoJo JoJo’s plan to devise his own superheroes to destroy the girls.
MoJo JoJo plan
His plan is to get a hold of Professor Utonium and attempt to recreate the experiment that resulted in the Powerpuff Girls.
Girls made of
The writers set MoJo JoJo to thinking about a substance that could be as powerful and bad as Chemical X. Remember, the real audience of this show is kids, so naturally, MoJo JoJo, in his jail cell, has few resources, but a toilet is one of them. You can use your imagination for the rest.
And thus, the Rowdyruff Boys are born. As you might expect, the girls duke it out with the boys and ultimately prevail.
The show is treasured today by women and I’m guessing even a few men, of all ages. As it reached its pinnacle of popularity, critics hammered it for all sorts of shortcomings. It’s hard to imagine any cartoon with strong male characters garnering the kind of shots and snarks the Powerpuff Girls endured.
Is it jealousy or what that causes someone to have to examine so closely so as to find something wrong with another's work? If these critics had worked as hard dissecting boy-oriented cartoons, Garfield the cat would have been put on a permanent diet and Bam Bam from the Flintstones would be called… errrr. Spike.
An immediate and relentless criticism was about the violent nature of the girls’ problem solving. Yes, they punched, kicked, threw, tipped things over and in general went toe to toe with the villains in their way. Critics evidently were upset that they didn’t just “use their words.”
Sadly, most of these critics were women, like Paula Nechak who reviewed the Powerpuff Girls movie for the Seattle Post Intelligencer in 2002.
From her perfect perch and Selectric typerwriter of the early 1970s, Nechak describes the movie’s plot and concludes:
You have to wonder, no matter how enjoyable and innocuous the movie may be to adults capable of processing the images and subliminal message, how much constant, chronic intensity and over-stimulation a small brain can handle. I can’t help but worry that the film’s positive message – that people fear and despise the very things that make someone special and that girls are as capable of saving the world as boys – will be overshadowed by the overwhelming way in which that message is visually delivered.
Thank you Paula Nechak for taking the time to worry about how this movie, most likely mainly attended by girls, would harm their brains. You evidently hadn’t looked around at video games in 2002. Well in 2015, through the interweb, a series of tubes, I can go back and look at the list of the top 10, which rank Metoid Prime, Grand Theft Auto 3, Battlefield 1942 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City among the top 6. No subliminal messaging in any of those experiences.
This criticism of the girls’ violence hits particularly close to home. One Halloween daughter Alison selected the green Powerpuff girl (actually, it might have been the PPG costume at the store). There must have been a check in at her elementary school where kids had to say what their costume would be. She was told by the principal – who shall remain nameless – that the Powerpuff Girls were too violent. She had to be something else, at least for the party at school.
The principal who shall remain nameless doled out all sorts of judgment about Halloween costumes, telling one of our son’s friends, a boy, that he couldn’t be a pumpkin because the stem could hurt someone. What fifth grade boy isn’t going to ponder that visual for a long time to come?
Okay, back to other criticisms. Now that the girls have been with us for 18 years and are about to return, they bring with them all sorts of social meaning created by others. Even the response by the generation for whom the show was originally intended, has been studied by academics, for signs of how the show has contributed or eroded feminism.
Advanced TV Herstory has plenty to do to mine the backstories and celebrate the good work of women who work hard in TV. Buttercup, Bubbles and Blossom and their plots have women in their writers’ room. And some bloggers believe that McCracken had to have been influenced by the Riot Grrrrl music of the early 90s.
Here we are in 2015 and it still feels like we can’t leave a real live strong woman alone, to simply be strong. We aren’t doing much better with our fictional ones either.
So in conducting research into the Powerpuff Girls as viewed through the feminist lens, I found two articles. I will always say that scholarly work of our TV shows and women characters is important. Usually written by women, they bring a professional or scientific understanding to the show that establishes a whole new level.
Article number one is entitled Powerpuff Girls: Fighting Evil Gender Messages or Postmodern Paradox, written by Carole Baroody Corcoran and Judith Parker. It was published in the 2004 book The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination, edited by Jean Lau Chin. One of the authors recounts the exposure of her daughter to the show and the sessions in which they viewed episodes together.
The authors discuss the Chemical X accident that served as the girls’ origin and how it relates to their underlying lack of control “Real power cannot be found in packaged products. Instead, it demands a sense of agency, as in a mode of exerting power and, in doing so, an instrumentality that confers control. Thus, Powerpuff Girls lack agency and they don’t even know it! Their ‘girl power’ exists as a quirk that derives from the needs of an external agent: their creator, a man.”
Now maybe we at Advanced TV Herstory just tend to look only at the big picture – or in the case of women characters on TV and behind the scenes in production – the fact that you have to be in the game in order to have any agency.
The authors take issue with the fact that the girls occasionally get rescued or assisted by Professor Utonium. They wonder how the show would have looked had the girls been black instead of white.
For one thing,” they write, they wouldn’t have been named Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles. No, they would have boisterous names like Tawanna, Laquisha and Shamika. Instead of keeping the town of Townsville free of danger, the would be the danger – baaaad-ass female gangstas on a crime spree in New Jill City.
I won’t go any further, because we wander into a distinction of generational feminism. Pragmatists, idealists, pioneers, doers, thinkers all losing sight of the big picture. But to lose that sight requires there to be a shared vision.
The other article I found online and found interesting was Evie Kendal’s There’s No One Perfect Girl: Third Wave Feminism and the Powerpuff Girls, which appeared in the Colloquy Magazine published in 2012 by Monash University. In her introduction, Kendal contends
The Powerpuff girls embraces third-wave feminist ideology, with its focus on ‘Girl Power' and consumerism, while also abandoning the more individualistic aspects of this brand of feminism by exploring the meaning of sisterhood and female empowerment through community.
Kendal advances detail within the context of feminism about the girls’ superhero status, the tools they use, how adult women are depicted in the show and even the importance of them not having secret identities.
It’s well researched and worth a read if you’re into that sort of thing. Evie Kendal is a researcher and teacher at Monash University, which has 5 campuses in Australia. It just goes to show you that the Powerpuff Girl – Third Wave Feminism conversation has stretched across the planet.
So, as we head into PPG the second generation, it will be interesting to see how the writers position the girls and the plots. Surely the time tested conflicts of good vs. evil haven’t changed. But there will be those who look to the innocence of a children’s show (actually a brand that is known for its cleverness and complex thinking) and see something wrong.
With the industry challenges faced by women to be on screen and behind the camera, we surely have bigger mountains to climb on behalf of our sisters, daughters and granddaughters – sort of saving the world before bedtime – as it were.
It’s time to build and defend, not tear down.
You’ve been listening to Advanced TV Herstory. Audio clips came from the series episode entitled Rowdyruff Boys and bonus features of season one’s DVD set. You can find online a very thorough article written by Robert Lloyd for LA Weekly, dated November 22, 2000.
It’s always good to hear from listeners, so please send us your ideas for future installments of this podcast. Find us on Twitter at TVHerstory or on Facebook at Advanced TV Herstory. This script and past shows are available at my website, cynthiabemisabrams.com.
And I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.