The Powerpuff Girls was a touchstone of many ‘90s childhoods. Created by Craig McCracken (who also created Foster’s Home For Imaginary Friends and worked on Dexter’s Laboratory), the show was about three kindergarteners formulated in a lab by Professor Utonium, who used “sugar, spice, and everything nice” to create three normal little girls, but accidentally added an extra ingredient: chemical X. And so the Powerpuff Girls—Blossom in pink, Bubbles in blue, and Buttercup in green—were born, protecting their town and fighting the forces of evil with their ultra superpowers.
More than a decade after the show ended its six-season run in 2005, the Powerpuff Girls have returned. The rebooted Cartoon Network series premiered the first of 40 episodes last Monday, in a comeback that—while eagerly awaited by many fans—nevertheless falls short of the empowering, revolutionary weirdness of the original.
The Powerpuff Girls was a revelation when it debuted in 1998. While there was a variety of female superheroes in comics and cartoons (such as the Bruce Timm DC animated universe and Marvel’s X-Men: Evolution on the WB), the show operated on an irreverence that evaded most superhero shows. While the current ongoing trend of superhero movies has inspired the sharply self-aware Deadpool and prescient parodies like Superhero Movie and Mystery Men, it was a new concept then, when superhero movies were few and far between, even considered a bit hokey.
The original series was in many ways downright surreal: The narrator often interacted with the events of the episode, the characters’ qualities were unapologetically quirky, and the sweetness of the three five-year-old girls was thrillingly juxtaposed with their violent methods of fighting enemies who ranged from a supersmart monkey to a devil to giant amoebas. This was typical for Cartoon Network at that time, which also hosted the equally gonzo Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, and Courage the Cowardly Dog.
It had episodes that seem revolutionary even now–in “Equal Fights,” master thief Femme Fatale convinces the girls that they should let her go because feminism said so, skewering the misconception that feminism means women can do anything with impunity. In “Members Only,” a United Nations-style men-only meeting of superheroes excludes the girls, the show mocks the overwhelming maleness of Marvel and DC movies. That said, there are other moments in which the series shows its age—for example, the superheroes in “Men’s Only” are forced to wear dresses as punishment (excuse me, can’t a dude enjoy a breeze?). Meanwhile, the gender-bending, tutu-wearing villain known only as “HIM” literally demonizes the appearance of femininity in men.
It’s certainly worth celebrating the arrival of three female superheroes on screen at a time when we’re hungering for more, but it’s also hard to ignore that the marketing and franchise potential of the show was the real draw. After all, The Powerpuff Girls hits on a perfect combination of superheroes, feminism, and nostalgia.
But in spite of that nostalgia, there’s a different feel to the new Powerpuff Girls that goes beyond a few surface-level updates (like discarding the buxom Ms. Bellum, assistant to the incompetent Mayor). The same appeal behind the “Powerpuff Yourself” marketing campaign that recently took over social media is the thrust behind the new show. Now, instead of playing with surrealism, the Powerpuff Girls are all about relatability. In some ways, the reboot has more in common with ‘90s classics like As Told By Ginger, Brace Face, or Doug than the original Powerpuff Girls. Now, the little girls are realistic characters, children growing and learning, rather than larger-than-life metaphors. As Tracy Brown writes in her L.A. Times review, “The goal was to develop the girls enough that audiences would be interested in just hanging out with them.”
In the new series, the girls are taught lessons about friendship, anger issues, and generosity—rather than, say, learning about the importance of vegetables by eating evil broccoli bent on taking over the world (yes, this was an actual Powerpuff Girls episode).The narrator has been largely sidelined and the violence has been greatly reduced.The family-friendly lessons in the premiere, “Man Up,” are so straightforward that they feel like they’re straight out of the Disney Channel. Yes, there’s a male villain called ManBoy, but the real conflict of the episode is between Buttercup and her own anger—ManBoy’s just a one-off joke.
The most recent episode features a pony that wants to be a unicorn, an interesting metaphor for transgender identity. But the plot takes an odd direction, with the pony turning into a monster before realizing they were a unicorn all along. As a throwaway gag, this would have been sweet and smart. But why include a storyline about identity if you're going to make the plot so convoluted that it breaks the metaphor and negates all the subversion in the first place?
Even a Powerpuff Girls fan has to wonder: Why couldn’t this have been a whole new original series instead? Obviously, a known property has the benefit of a built-in fanbase, but it’s not as if the reboot’s intended audience would remember the old Powerpuff Girls—the new show is clearly crafted for children rather than nostalgic adults. Compared to the Cartoon Network’s adventurous and experimental fare like Adventure Time and Steven Universe, it seems like the network is playing The Powerpuff Girls safe by scaling back the post-modernism for the new age.
Maybe the new Powerpuff Girls will serve as a trailblazer, bringing about even more cartoon shows for young women, but as of now, it feels anemic, both figuratively and literally (so little blood for such powerful punches!).
Sulagna Misra is a freelance writer who lives in the New York area and the small hovel http://sulagnamisra.com. You can find her on Twitter at @sulagnamisra.