The Powerpuff Girls Redefined What Little Girls Are Made Of

The hit Cartoon Network show, which is set for a reboot in 2016, appealed to kids and adults with its three subtly subversive, (super)empowered female leads.

Cartoon Network

The creation myth of The Powerpuff Girls is derived from a nearly 200-year-old English nursery rhyme called “What Little Boys Are Made Of” ("Snips, snails, and puppy-dogs’ tails," if you were wondering). The old-timey reference to "sugar, spice, and everything nice" mentioned in the opening credits may feel fitting nearly 10 years after Cartoon Network canceled the wildly popular show. After all, The Powerpuff Girls relied on a slew of tropes that may come off as a touch regressive, if mostly harmless, namely an occasionally cloying cutesiness, and stereotypically feminine visual elements like hearts, flowers, and stars.

But the show, which Cartoon Network confirmed will be rebooted in 2016, made it clear that its three female superhero leads weren't "the perfect little girls" of lore, because when creating them in a lab, father/boss Professor Utonium added an extra ingredient: Chemical X. This laboratory mishap didn't render the girls shapeless blobs (like their villains The Amoeba Boys); rather, the blunder gave them superpowers. In other words, they were better than perfect little girls.

Elementary school-aged kids like myself watching the show in the late-1990s didn't see it as subversive. We didn't know it would pass the Bechdel Test or that the creator, Craig McCracken, had originally wanted to name Buttercup "Bud." We didn't know that the show regularly maintained the top ratings among Cartoon Network's original series for both kids and adults. And yet, here was a kids' show that managed to appeal to both boys and girls without scrubbing the word "Girls" from its title. Even in recent years, the titles of female-led animated films like Tangled and Frozen offer no hint of who their protagonists are.

The Powerpuff Girls meanwhile had three young female superheroes as leads—something that hasn't quite been replicated in popular animated TV shows for the younger demographic since. In the world of live-action superhero films, women have yet to achieve anything close to parity, and one need look no further than the new Wonder Woman film to see how "sexy" and "strong" remain at odds with one another when it comes to how audiences think girls with powers need to look. But the Powerpuff Girls, with their giant heads and tiny, under-drawn bodies, almost dare anyone to say they don't "look like" superheroes. And while adult female superheroes are without exception sexualized, Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup aren't because, well, they're little girls. Which is perhaps what makes the trio's much-touted femininity so divergent: Their sexuality never has to define them. Even Buttercups' sometimes-aggressive brand of tomboyishness is normalized within the show; her personality never fully gets in the way of her taking down the bad guy with her more conventionally "girly" sisters.

In announcing the show's reboot, Cartoon Network said its current roster of (mostly boy-led) original shows helped cement its position "as the #1 network with boys 6-11, while also seeing double-digit increases among girls 6-11 through 2014." It's fitting and timely now that the network is reviving The Powerpuff Girls, with Nick Jennings of Adventure Time executive-producing. The smart and exceptionally funny Adventure Time features two male leads (well, one human boy and one boy-dog), but it also features an array of unique female characters: the angsty but tough Vampire Marceline, the Valley Girl-esque Lumpy Space Princess, and the ruler of the Candy Kingdom, Princess Bubblegum. These characters aren't without their traditional gendered qualities, but they're part of a world that's more nuanced and self-aware than that Townsville was.

While The Powerpuff Girls is preparing to be reborn in a new decade, for a certain generation of its original young fans, its legacy has already somewhat been sealed. Spinoffs, merchandising, and future feature films aside, the series proved that there was no single formula to make the ideal girl, and that sometimes the best move was to mix in something weird, undefinable, and mysterious along with the sweeter elements.