Cartoon Network has drawn a lot of negative attention with its reboot of the beloved cartoon series “The Powerpuff Girls.” Fans of the original are not staying quiet about their discontent with the reboot, yet the series’ creative team maintains the show is being lambasted for its blatant encouragement of progressive social ideals.
However, “Powerpuff Girls” could learn a thing or two from its progressive predecessors. Another show which wears progressivism on its sleeve but is well-liked by nearly every cartoon lover, “Steven Universe,” contrasts with the new “Powerpuff Girls” in that it has a real heart which shines through to viewers while administering a healthy dose of sensible social commentary.
Before jumping into the argument, I want to make this much clear: Cartoons are not, and have never been, just for children. Large chunks of popular culture have been influenced by cartoons. When animation was first captivating audiences, it was played before major motion pictures. Most of the world’s first exposure to Superman was through Max Fleischer’s famous animated features, and in Japan, what we know as anime has massive cultural significance for people of all ages.
With this in mind, it’s clear cartoons can be much more than just slapstick, cat-and-mouse comedies when given the right direction, so when the “Powerpuff Girls” reboot decided to take on serious issues, no one was surprised. “Steven Universe,” a fellow Cartoon Network property, is already well known for its respectful attitudes toward sensitive gender-related issues, so the creators probably assumed “Powerpuff Girls” would appeal to the same type of audience.
“Steven Universe” is so well-received because of its interesting plot and relatable characters, not to mention its stunning visuals and fitting soundtrack. This is a show which very clearly has love and effort poured into it, and both young and old audiences clearly understand this. Numerous websites have sought to introduce new adult viewers to the show; a Buzzfeed review from 2015 even said, “It’s the show we wish we had as children.”
The gender politics of “Steven Universe” are very subtle, yet well-integrated into the cartoon’s story and message. However, “Steven Universe” succeeds where “Powerpuff Girls” fails: It focuses on being an exceptional piece of art first and spreading a sociopolitical message second.
When previews of “Powerpuff Girls” finally started to air, people noticed many things were off about the show. Most notably, there were ham-fisted “girl power” messages littered throughout the stories. The messages were blatantly lowbrow to the point of insult; for example, a preview clip released by Cartoon Network on YouTube revealed a lumberjack-style antagonist who wants Townsville to be—you guessed it—“manly” again.
Aside from plot horrors, a change in art style from the original series made the characters look awkward and out of place. To add to the already massive pile of gripes, there were numerous noticeable animation errors and poor attempts at humor that made use of outdated Internet memes, causing them to fall embarrassingly flat.
It soon became clear to viewers that the new “Powerpuff Girls” was a soulless marketing ploy solely intended to draw in those with nostalgia for the original and fans of shows like “Steven Universe.” A brief article on LGBTQ Nation titled “Powerpuff Girls episode features ‘transgender horse’ who’s really a unicorn” makes note of an episode which seems to espouse a heart-warming message of support for transgender individuals, but also acknowledges how clumsily it was handled. It seems there’s very little to like within this particular reboot, even among feminists.
To make matters worse, Cartoon Network unveiled toys and merchandise for the series months before the show even aired on television. This may seem reasonable, given the series’ brand recognition, but a good cartoon isn’t made just to sell toys. Merchandise has always come later for creators who care about the artistic integrity of their shows; in fact, it was quite a while before merchandise for the original “Powerpuff Girls” or “Steven Universe” hit store shelves, and the reasons why should be obvious.
The new “Powerpuff Girls” isn’t bad because it has progressive or even feminist overtones; it’s bad because it’s a lazy, cynical, unfunny show made by creators who seem unwilling to listen to and learn from criticism. Cartoons like “Steven Universe” or even the original “Powerpuff Girls” aren’t successful or well-remembered because they pandered to a niche demographic or cut corners to save money; it’s simply much easier for a show’s progressive message to be taken seriously if the show has a good heart.