When I was four, I crashed on the couch every day after coming home from an exhausting half-day at kindergarten. My stress relief of choice was TV: in particular, Cartoon Network, the only kids’ channel we had. According to my parents, I followed the blonde and buff Johnny Bravo avidly as a kid. I remember Courage the Cowardly Dog and Dexter’s Laboratory far more clearly.
And then, of course, there were the Powerpuff Girls. I wish I could say something about how the show inspired me to become a feminist, how it was my introduction to the idea of girl power. Unfortunately, if there was any such influence, it was purely subconscious.
But now it’s back, updated and revamped for the modern day. The art style has become more refined, with thinner lines and anime-eque character models. The Powerpuffs remain more or less the same otherwise, leaving aside a few contemporary touches. Instead of a hotline, the Powerpuffs of 2016 each have smartphones. In one episode, the villainous Princess Morbucks calls up an Uber-like app on her phone to request a monster to do her dirty work for her. The message, “Monster needed: 2.3 miles away,” shows up on a bored monster’s phone; sighing, he takes the request and goes after the Powerpuffs.
Take a moment to reflect on the fact that, for the kids watching the Powerpuff Girls today, Uber and iPhones will someday seem as nostalgic and old-fashioned as the landline does to us, today. This is particularly poignant for me because I have a seven-year-old sister who is far more with the times than I am. My sister learned how to use an iPad at the age of 3. She keeps in touch with her school friends by texting them on my mother’s iPhone. We don’t even have cable TV anymore. My sister comes home and pulls out the family iPad, and watches TV shows on Youtube and Netflix.
One Wired review of the show noted how it was directed at both “younger audiences and nostalgic Millennials.” This is, really, where the fun of watching the show as a nostalgic Millennial comes in. In one episode, Blossom and Buttercup wake up to find that their home is a disaster. There’s a bull in the kitchen, and nobody can remember where it came from. And they’ve lost Bubbles! The reason? The girls threw a slumber party the day before, and “ate too much candy.” For a gullible child who believes TV, the moral lesson is: don’t eat too much candy, or you’ll wake up the next day with regret and amnesia! For us, however, this is an allusion to a different type of party.
I won’t say that the plots of the stories are particularly creative or compelling. This is, after all, still a kid’s show. With a bit of thought, you can see the twists in an episode coming a few minutes in. Criticizing the show’s complexity, however, would be missing the point.
Life has made me question the essential goodness and morality of adults that we take for granted as children. In one episode, Buttercup is taken in by a group of cool skater girls, and deserts Bubbles and Blossom when they most need help. Fortunately, she realizes her mistake in the end. For my sister, this is a value that she’ll hopefully hold as she grows up and navigates adolescence. For me, it is an uncomfortable reminder of the times I’ve nearly forgotten my old friends, because I thought I’d discovered cooler, more sophisticated people to hang out with.
In other episodes, the Powerpuff Girls throws out, “don’t be selfish,” “make up for the harm you cause,” and similar axioms of good behavior. If the Powerpuffs were perfect little girls, the show’s occasional moralizing would be grating. But I find it reassuring instead, because Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles aren’t perfect either. The show is about how human they are, and how they make mistakes but recover. At seven, I knew what I ought to do. At twenty, I realize that I may not have lived up to everything I wanted to be when I was seven.
But it’s OK, the Powerpuffs say. These girls are superpowered, but not superhuman. They, too, make mistakes, and get back up again to be good people — and so can I.