The secret ingredient of 'The Powerpuff Girls': unconditional, sisterly love

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Image Credit: Cartoon Network

Of the four elements that made up the Powerpuff Girls, the superpower-granting Chemical X tends to get top billing. But it’s often forgotten that their show was built on more simple materials.

The Powerpuff Girls, created by Craig McCracken, was the Cartoon Network’s breakout animated hit of the late 90’s and early 2000s. It ran for six seasons and inspired everything from Halloween costumes to lunchboxes. The show’s lasting appeal even led to a 15th-anniversary special this January (with Ringo Starr!) and now, as Variety reports, the promise of a 2016 reboot.

The headlines will inevitably roll out: Girl power is back! Strong female cartoons return! Cartoon Network’s press release, as reported by Variety, even reaches to refer to the brand as “the original ambassador of girl power.” That’s all well and good, but what I will always remember about Powerpuff—and what I hope the reboot revisits—is the wonderfully wacky, totally unbalanced relationship between the sisters at its core.

Virtually every piece of writing about The Powerpuff Girls mentions the show’s irrepressible, totally ’90s brand of girl power; it’s as if the Spice Girls mind-melded with Elle from Legally Blonde and then decided to fight crime in a ’60s cartoon paradise. The three girls, each with a signature color for branding, repeatedly save the city of Townsville, USA through a combination of sassy retorts, jump kicks, and irrepressible sweetness.

If you view the show through only this lens, it’s easy to write it off as the product of a misguided form of feminism—the girls save the day, but only in a very traditionally “girly” way. (McCracken was originally going to title his show The Whoop Ass Girls, which is just bait for condescension.) But to anyone willing to reduce Powerpuff to such simple terms, I would invite you to re-watch Nuthin Special,” the 13th episode of the show’s fourth season. The episode begins with Blossom and Bubbles, two of the three heroes, rescuing a giant Spanish-speaking squirrel who’s on fire by using Bubbles’s multilingualism and Blossom’s ability to breathe ice. The rest of the episode (it’s only around 10 minutes long) focuses on Buttercup, who then feels left out because she doesn’t have her own special power.

With this simple conceit, Powerpuff smirks at its genre—because the show features three leads with distinct identities (Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup are literally sugar, spice, and everything nice), it would seem they all need to have distinct abilities. Powerpuff, though, functions as a send-up of the premises of shows like Sailor Moon—where each member of a team gets a distinct, appropriate special ability. Blossom’s color is red, but she breathes ice. Bubbles is a total ditz, but she can speak Spanish. And Buttercup? Well, Blossom says, “Buttercup, you do that… thing.” (Bubbles suggests they go home and make tacos.)

“Nuthin Special” ends with Buttercup realizing that she’s the only Powerpuff Girl—and the only member of Townsville—who can curl her tongue. Seriously, that’s what she brings to the table.

The episode itself doesn’t feel especially sour. Buttercup is happy with her ability and torments her sisters about their lack of tongue dexterity. But the episode tempts the knee-jerk reaction: “Each girl should have an equally strong power!” (In dark corners of the internet, I’ve read forum discussions to that effect, speculating on what Buttercup can really do.) But relationships—especially sibling ones—aren’t about fairness. When you compare people, you compare apples and oranges; sugars and spices, and everything nices. We aren’t all different or special in equivalent ways. The Powerpuff Girls, importantly, recognized that.

But something held the Powerpuff family together despite those differences, and I can’t help but compare it to today’s successful animated buddy comedies. Adventure Time, another Cartoon Network series, lives on the relationship between Finn, a young boy, and Jake, his dog. Rick and Morty, directed at older audiences, gets many of its best laughs from the tension between aging scientist and alcoholic Rick and his relatively naive grandson Morty. You could reach back in time to Spongebob‘s pairing of Spongebob and Patrick (or better, Squidward). These shows run on an easy but unresolvable tension, a bromantic yin-yang of complementary opposites.

Powerpuff was never a hang-out series in the same way as Adventure Time or Spongebob (they had villains to defeat, after all), but it asked similar questions about how to reconcile distinct beings into lasting relationships. “Nuthin Special” was one of many episodes where a single Powerpuff girl has to deal with the quirks of her specific personality. Almost every Bubbles-centric episode was about Bubbles realizing that she’s a space cadet. Almost every Blossom-centric episode was about Blossom realizing that she’s an obsessive perfectionist. Like the best kids’ shows, Powerpuff didn’t deal in explanations or solutions. It let the girls live both as individuals and as members of a group, held together by friendship, family, and a pure and simple kind of love.

This willingness to avoid resolution also appeared in Powerpuff‘s other radical decisions. It deserves (and has received) credit for complicating the easy distinctions of most animation, especially in terms of gender: One of the girls’ enemies, Him, is an effeminate, possibly genderqueer devil. They and other characters frequently crossdress. Their father is a single dad. In one episode, they correct a misguided feminist superhero. The Powerpuff Girls were rarely pedantic; they looked out on the world with wide eyes (literally), never explaining or ordering it, always exploring—and of course, defending—it.

When Powerpuff returns, I hope it brings back the Chemical X. And I’m looking forward to listening to its bopping electronic theme song. But I hope that it always remembers that it’s really a show about sisters—and that Buttercup is the only one who can curl her tongue.


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