The Powerpuff Girls, unlike most haphazardly resurrected TV properties, seems genuinely ripe for a second run. Its bright, fun, feminine aesthetic of heroism feels refreshingly different from the anxiously masculine, self-consciously joyless superhero stories that dominate pop culture. And now, after debuting its first episode at South by Southwest, a slick new version of the show premieres on Cartoon Network on Monday night. Where most such revivals feel like an imposition on the present, this one is theoretically exciting: Alongside the self-serious gloom of Daredevil, Batman, Superman, and all their friends, who wouldn’t want to bring back The Powerpuff Girls?
If you’re too young to remember the original Powerpuff Girls, or were too old to care, here’s a refresher: the Cartoon Network series ran from 1998 to 2005, spanning 78 episodes. The show focused on “three perfect little girls”—Blossom, the type-A, demanding leader, Bubbles, the kind-hearted emotional glue, and Buttercup, the hard-nosed, butt-kicking tomboy—who were birthed by their dorky, square scientist father/creator Professor Utonium and gifted with, basically, all of the superpowers. (In addition to super speed, strength, flight, eye lasers, and several other standard-issue powers, the girls also possessed the ability to collectively transform into a giant flaming cat.) Together, they attended kindergarten, dealt with family squabbles, and saved the constantly imperiled city of Townsville from a colorful cast of villains, monsters, and the occasional mutant chili smell.
Collective concern about the “integrity” of beloved properties is often woefully overblown. Still, there is a reason we describe creators as having been “entrusted” with a franchise: fans are heavily invested in their own memories of these characters, and their relationships with beloved pop culture items can remain powerful, even after decades of estrangement . Thankfully, the team working on the new Powerpuff Girls understands this responsibility, and the show’s legacy, perhaps too well: the new Powerpuff Girls is nothing if not cautious.
In this reboot, there’s no real attempt at rocking the boat—no elaborate retelling of the Powerpuff Girls’ origin story, no winking acknowledgment that this is a new version of a classic, not even a flashy redesign for any of the characters, though the overall look of the show has been updated to be more in line with Cartoon Network’s other programming. The show has a large stable of iconic characters, but few of them show up, at least initially—Townsville’s hapless Mayor makes a brief appearance in one segment, while spoiled rich girl Princess Morbucks is the villain in another (though she is, at best, a tangential presence). Not even ultra-science-dad Professor Utonium pokes his head in to tsk-tsk the girls.
Instead, the creative team places the emphasis firmly on the dynamic among the Powerpuff Girls themselves, focusing plots on squabbles between Blossom and Buttercup, and between Buttercup and her sisters. In one representative exchange, Blossom tells Buttercup she has a bad attitude about everything, to which Buttercup grins and replies, “Thank you!” This makes sense: Buttercup (now ably voiced by Natalie Palamides) is the coolest, punk-est, most bad-ass Powerpuff Girl, and the one who feels, superficially at least, most in tune with the Powerpuff Girls sensibility. The revived show has plenty of charming moments, and certainly shows potential. But every detail also feels engineered to remind us of just how butt-kickingly feminist the original series was.
This impulse produces some of the more memorable features of the reboot. The show’s excellent new theme song, performed by tongue-in-cheek, hyper-feminist rock band Tacocat, loudly answers the question “Who’s got the power?” with “We’ve got the power!” (The show does its best to explore as many different meanings of “empowering” as it can.) In one segment, Buttercup joins a roller derby team, inhabiting a space that signals as both stereotypically feminist and queer. In the very first episode, she beats up a lumberjack who proclaims that Townsville needs to return to its “manly” roots—a villain labeled in most writeups as a men’s’ rights activist, a posturing child with a beard who turns out to literally be named “Man Boy”.
Pairing a particular strain of contemporary feminism with cartoons makes sense. Much of the most subversive entertainment in the American mainstream is coming through animation. Zootopia is the first and only big-budget kids’ movie about racial profiling. The end of Avatar: Legend of Korra was a staging ground for battles over gay representation. Sleater-Kinney’s music video for “A New Wave” features the characters of Bob’s Burgers, a show that packs an extraordinary amount of queerness and sexual frankness between its ostensibly family-friendly buns. At times, the packaging of the new Powerpuff Girls smells like riot grrl, or at least the kind of riot grrl that’s been in vogue for the past year or so.
Yet part of what made the original Powerpuff Girls so great was that it was overtly feminist, but not self-consciously so. The new Powerpuff Girls uses Man Boy to create a staging ground for a literal battle of the sexes, which is fun, but also feels like an example of the show forcing the Powerpuff Girls to justify their own existence. The original series matter-of-factly took the girls’ strength and valor as a given. Fighting monsters could seem almost incidental—in fact, in several episodes they’re just perfect little girls whose ultra-super powers have no bearing on the plot. The original Powerpuff Girls’ feminism was more like sugar, an extra ingredient that helped sweeten the excellent, surprisingly varied narratives beneath.
Pitting the Powerpuff Girls against cardboard cutouts of anti-feminism such as Man Boy can be fun to watch, but after awhile, it gets old. Sure, in the original, the girls sometimes fought avatars of masculinity (as in “Members Only,” the one where they turn into a flaming cat to save a parody of the Justice League), but their stereotypically “girly” qualities were just as often the source of conflict as the solution. There are episodes where, say, the Powerpuff Girls beat a group of superpowered boys by embarrassing them with kisses, but there’s also one where the girls are forced to overcome squeamishness about cockroaches in order to fight a villain. And in the new show, we lose some of the girls’ more nuanced, less starkly antagonistic relationships with other people: their exasperation at the Mayor’s incompetence (and inexplicable love of pickles), their distinct relationships with their teacher, Ms. Keane, and their incredibly sweet love for their father.
The original show wasn’t just a girl power anthem, or at least not one with a single note; it also spent time exploring excellent stories, quality animation, flexible genre parodies, and simple joy. The best episodes of The Powerpuff Girls relied heavily on formal experimentation and sheer weirdness, rather than statements of purpose or too-knowing winks at the audience. Take something like “The Powerpuff Girls’ Best Rainy Day Adventure Ever,” perhaps the show’s best episode, which runs the then-established formula of the show (in only the tenth episode of Season 2) through a blender.
Here, rain on a Saturday prevents even the monsters on Monster Island and the villains of Townsville from doing any of their normal activities. Instead, the Powerpuff Girls decide to play at being… the Powerpuff Girls. They fight over who gets to play which Powerpuff Girl; Bubbles uses her hair to mimic the Mayor’s mustache; Blossom puts a bucket on her head and mocks Mojo Jojo’s clipped cadence. “The Powerpuff Girls Best Rainy Day Adventure Ever” is beautiful, childlike, propulsive, and above all, fun. (Also, it features definitively sexual jokes, sneakily slipped into the framework of a kids’ show.) In that spirit, the new Powerpuff Girls will hopefully spend less time trying to prove its feminist bona fides as it goes on. Rather than shouting its mission statement from the rooftops, simply making a great episode of television will be more than enough to show who, exactly, has the power.