It’s a new Powerpuff Girls show—we’re reminded of that with a hip new theme-song complete with edgy black-and-white backgrounds set to a rocking chorus that promises more girl power than a Spice Girls concert. While a bit more direct about its intentions, this isn’t entirely out of tone with the original series that pitted the bobble-headed superheroes against cartoonishly monstrous villains that represented various aspects of toxic masculinity, their fears, or even their anxieties and insecurities about themselves. The original series debuted at a time when female superheroes weren’t a regularity in children’s cartoons or anywhere at all. This set the show apart from the mainstream, along with the way its tone shifted between smarmy and comedic to sentimental and introspective at a time when many cartoons were either condescending as hell or flat-out vicious parody.
The reboot returned amidst a renaissance of children’s cartoons featuring quality animation, strong writing, and a refusal to back down from tough subject matter—there’s a lot to live up to. Nostalgia causes people to look back at everything through rose-colored lenses that elevate properties they love to perfect works of high, lofty art; anything less than that will be immediately disgraced and shunned. Still, that didn’t stop a lot of goodwill being gestured towards the new creators and voice actors, especially in light of a genius marketing campaign allowing people to create Powerpuff versions of themselves.
All the show had to do now was not fuck it up.
They fucked it up.
An early episode leaked online that pits the girls against a roller derby squad and the return of privileged Princess Morbucks. As the villainous derby squad introduces themselves, each name rhymes with “Lynn.” The camera pans to a large, muscular, hairy figure with a long flowing beard and a body stuffed tightly into the girl’s uniform. They’re introduced with a girlish voice as “Bobby Souza Ray-Lynn.”
It’s a short visual gag, only brought up once or twice again throughout the episode, but a knife only has to stab you once to wound.
It’s a harmful trope that shows up with alarming frequency in media. Name a cartoon and I can list an episode where they dropped the t-slur, employed the “man in a dress” gag, or depicted trans people as liars and deceivers attempting to trick striaght cis men into bed with them. Even the original Powerpuff Girls has a horrifically transphobic episode, and that isn’t even including all the discourse surrounding satanic genderqueer villain known only as HIM.
Bobby Souza Ray-Lynn’s presence in a show that claims to have such strong feminist intentions is a sucker punch. It’s feminism for everyone but you. Equality and butt-kicking and pink flowery laser beams of empowerment for everyone but you. You don’t belong here. You’re a freak, the odd-one-out. There is a moment where Buttercup is fed up with the derby squad and accidentally punches Bobby Souza through a wall; it’s almost indicative of the way the show treats and regards trans women. Get out of here, this is for real girls only. Our version of womanhood isn’t for you.
Maybe it was unintentional. Maybe.
In an interview with the LA Times, executive producer Nick Jennings discussed wanting to approach heavier themes of gender and gender-identity in order to keep up with series that have already done this to much acclaim such as Steven Universe.
“We did an episode where there's a unicorn. Basically when it starts out, he's a pony, but he wants to be a unicorn,” Jennings explained. “He has to go through a transformation to become a unicorn and so it's a whole [episode that asks], ‘What are you on the inside? What are you on the outside? How do you identify yourself? How do people see you?' There's a lot of subtext in that.”
Subtext you say. Gender-identity, you say. Pardon me if I take Nick Jennings at his word. A horse wanting to become a mythical creatures is, after you apply the slightest modicum of theory and rhetoric to it, a rather poor metaphor for gender-identity.
But in the spirit of fairness, let’s go into this with an open mind.
The first introduction to Donnie the Pony features Buttercup grumpily tossing a handmade horn of cardboard and tape off his head while commenting, “This isn’t a unicorn. This is just sad.” If Donnie is meant to be a stand-in for trans people, this is horrific. This is akin to someone pulling down your pants and exposing your privates to the world while screaming, “Look! Their gender isn’t real. They’re faking.”
It’s a casual flip of the fake horn, but the implications of the gesture are violent.
Donnie loudly proclaims that in his heart he’s a real unicorn, prompting Bubbles to have sparkly visions of her riding a unicorn through a sea of fans. Everyone is praising her for being right, that unicorns are real, and she’s so cool to have one as a best friend. At her insistence, she takes Donnie to see the professor so he can help Donnie achieve his dreams of becoming a real unicorn.
A cartoonishly lengthy encyclopedia of potential side-effects are listed while the professor explains that, “It’s your body and this is an important choice with consequences that must be weighed.” If there was any question this episode is about gender-identity dealt with in the worst way possible, this scene gets rid of them. It’s explicit in its intentions. Donnie’s choice to transition is made almost entirely by Bubbles with little regard for his personal safety or consequences. The show seems to imply that trans people get forced into transitioning by those around them who only want the benefit of having a transgender friend and gain progressive points from onlookers.
I want to know what kind of fucking world Nick Jennings lives in where this is the norm. Is there a train from that to this one, the world where trans people face a higher rate of homelessness, poverty and harassment; a world where trans women are at an even likelier rate of being raped and murdered?
An episode like this airing at a time when bills are being lobbied through the United States specifically aimed at preventing trans people from using the restroom feels not only ignorant, but deliberately harmful. It is morally reprehensible.
The episode only continues to degrade from there, with lamentably predictable results. Donnie’s treatment causes him to turn into a giant monster. People look on him as a freak, and the more he comes to hate himself the more monstrous and terrible he becomes. It’s tragic and yet more than once, Donnie’s pain is played for comedy. There’s even a bigfoot joke thrown in.
At a time when the presence of trans women in our society is so readily acknowledged that the guy who wrote “Born In The USA” canceled a concert for solidarity with them, a string of metaphors using cryptids, aka not real animals, to relate trans issues to a mainstream audience is politically, creatively, and morally spurious. It’s only until Donnie screams at Bubbles for doing this to him that we’re seen any glimpse that this is a serious issue. When he screams, “We’re not BFFs anymore!” Bubbles heart breaks and she begins crying. Even when the narratives are centered around trans people, media creators seem to prioritize cis feelings.
Everything culminates with Bubbles talking Donnie down by reassuring him that he is indeed a real unicorn, but it’s not until he punches and nearly knocks her out that he becomes horrified at his actions and falls from the top of the building. The day is saved by a coalition of unicorns arriving to tell him that he was in fact a unicorn all along—if only he had ever cut his hair he’d have seen the real horn that was always there.
It’s difficult to interpret the final moments of the episode; the message of its creators becomes muddled and unclear, tripping and stumbling over its own shoddy metaphor.
If Donnie was always physically a unicorn, what does this say about gender-identity?
The majority of the narrative is coherent enough to hurt: don’t transition kids, cause it’s bad for you and will turn you into a freakish monster who hurts everyone around them, especially the ones you love.
The show wants to lobby on the side of tolerance on trans people’s existence, but seems to hate the idea of physically transitioning.
I can’t speak for the motivations on Nick Jennings and the crew at Cartoon Network who put this mess together. There are times it feels mean-spirited for no reason, but at other times where it wants to raise the progressive flag and toot its own horn for how inclusive it is.
This episode feels like a begrudging, condescending crumb lodged at trans viewers and expecting a thumb’s up in return.
What hurts me the most are the little boys and girls and those in-between and neither who watch this show, still grappling with their gender identity. They don’t deserve mean-spirited jokes involving burly roller derby stereotypes, or poorly handled condescending garbage from a unicorn-pony. The world itself is harsh and cruel and mean and will treat them with bigotry and hatred. It would have been nice for just once for them to see some superheroes who treat them like human beings and not like Bubbles, hoping to score political points with progressive audiences.
This article was originally published at Harlot Media and is reprinted here with permission.