Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Sexist and Ageist Beginnings of the Powerpuff Girls Reboot

I haven't written anything substantial on this blog since 2012, and figured now it would be high time to post about something important to me that's been eating at me for at least two years now.

If you ask anyone who knows me really well, I can't get enough of the original show. I've been a fan since What a Cartoon!, when the girls were judging meat jam contests and shutting babies up while they showed crooks how to rob banks. The style of the Powerpuff Girls was something that, for its time, was wildly new and incredibly strange, which instantly drew me in. It had blood in the opening title, and three little girls only a few years younger than me pummeling villains into a pulp. It was fast. It was witty. It was hilarious. It was hardcore. It was my first introduction to the basic concept of feminism, something for which I hold the show in the highest regard for. The Powerpuff Girls Movie is in my top ten list of favorite animated films for how it expertly balances cartoon silliness and comic book hero origin story darkness (about three kindergarteners, no less!). I have a Blossom charm next to a keychain of Rosie the Riveter on my car keys. I respect all of the voice actors and voice actresses who've worked on the show, and highly revere them all. After all, they were the ones that also inspired me to start a voice acting career myself. Most of all, though, it made me an instant fan of Craig McCracken, who's career I've followed to this day and who, alongside Bob Clampett and Tex Avery and a wealth of other animators, is someone who's knack for combining humor and heart I yearn to emulate in my own work.

When Cartoon Network hinted in 2013 that they were in the process of creating a reboot, I was a mix of incredibly excited and incredibly wary. The history of the network and the show, and how differently the network and the creator have viewed the show has always been something of a struggle. Craig McCracken saw the show as it was: art. Cartoon Network saw the show for what it became: a huge moneymaker. Throughout the history of the show, the network pushed for all sorts of creative changes to be made to it. They pushed for new actresses to be cast in the movie. They pushed marketing endeavors that targeted the show exclusively to girls, eschewing the bold color palette of the show for toned-down pinks and purples in all of the show's merchandising (even creating a whole new brand for preteens during the show's later years, focused on fashion and makeup... hardly the sort of thing the Powerpuff Girls have ever been interested in). Craig and his team pushed back every step of the way, asserting that, while their show was meant for 8-12 year old children, they were focused on creating a show that entertained themselves.

Now without Craig at the network, how would the show be treated? The January 2014 special (entitled Dance Pantsed) the network ran to test the waters of the popularity of the show was by no means perfect, and by no means did it even feel like a genuine episode of the Powerpuff Girls, save for the name in the title. But it was a certainly an interesting, and still entertaining, attempt. The fact that the original cast were all together and pulled off stellar performances was one of its more positive aspects.

During production, the three main actresses were told that, should Cartoon Network decide to revitalize the show, they would definitely be asked to reprise their roles for it. When February 2015 rolled around and it was announced that, yes, eventually there would be a reboot but without the original cast, the women were heartbroken. After all, they'd been promised that they would return. They'd been hyped by the network that had hired them. However, this was under the assumption that the entire original cast would not be returning. It's not unusual for a cast to be fully replaced when a cartoon returns in a new incarnation, but the network hadn't specified just who would be missing from the lineup.

Yet in June 2015, Cartoon Network was part of a licensing expo in Las Vegas. It was there they officially released the names and photographs of the three new voice actresses they had chosen as the new voices of the Powerpuff Girls. Videos were simultaneously uploaded to Vine with each new cast member saying who they'd be voicing, but not actually performing. Another cast member was mentioned, but neither photographed nor recorded: Tom Kenny was announced to be returning to reprise his roles as the Narrator and the Mayor.


The original voice actresses, as well as a majority of the animation world, were shocked by this decision, especially since an original cast member (and a prominent voice actor for the network, no less) had made the cut. Despite knowing that they wouldn't be involved for the reboot, Cartoon Network had failed to mention that not everyone would be excluded from reprising their roles, and failed to specify that it was only the three female leads. When asked on what basis they made their decision to recast, the network replied that it was "creative."

What constitutes a creative decision? A creative decision changes a part of a production in a way that benefits the storytelling of a show. As further sneak peaks have come out and more people who've been involved in the behind-the-scenes have revealed, however, it seems that these three new actresses are merely imitating the previous actresses.

Imitation, in this scenario, is not a legitimate creative decision.

Furthermore, as it turns out, none of the other major characters of the show have been recast. Tom Kane is set to reprise his role as Professor Utonium. Roger L. Jackson is reprising his role as Mojo Jojo. Jim Cummings is returning as Fuzzy Lumpkins. Interestingly enough, Jennifer Hale is reprising her role as Ms Keane, but is being replaced with a new actress (Haley Mancini, a writer on the show and an impressionist) for her role as Princess Morbucks. If one was to assume that this was just another "creative" decision by the network, one would assume that it was to cast younger actors to provide more youthful sounding voices to the characters. But even this seems strange when you consider that Hale isn't much older than Mancini. They both have a nearly identical vocal age range.

And one question sticks out in my own mind: why would new actresses be announced at a licensing expo, of all places? Why not somewhere that lent itself more to the entertainment side of the entertainment industry, like a convention, or even just in a press release on their website? And traditionally, the identity of voice actors for shows is something that isn't publicized by a company, unless the actors/actresses hired to work on a show are well-known celebrities. Yet even then, their photos aren't used in marketing, because only their voice will be appearing in the final product. So why would it be important for potential marketing partners to know who the new actresses are, especially if they're more or less brand new to the entertainment industry.

The answer is the same reason why young women are used in advertising all of the time: to sell the product. Hiring photogenic young actresses (as opposed to keeping your older– still photogenic, I might add!– actresses) to serve as marketing ambassadors for your product is a smart move if you want to sell a show. It's a slimy move when the show you're trying to sell is one where the overall message of it is that "females can do anything!"

I suppose the network believes grown women can't.

What's even worse is that Peter Yoder, VP of consumer products for Cartoon Network, stated in an interview for that the show was not only a great opportunity to cash in on the female superhero trend currently popular in the entertainment industry, but that it would be a way for... mothers and daughters to bond?

“With the original fans now young adults, we think it’s the perfect time to introduce a new generation to the girls and give moms of young daughters an opportunity to share their love for Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup,” Yoder says of the young Townsville, USA crime-fighting trio. “We believe there’s a big market for girls brands that offer an alternative to the traditional ones that have long been mainstays in the industry. And with its mix of action and comedy, The Powerpuff Girls fits that bill.”

Doesn't Yoder have knowledge of the countless numbers of male fans of the show? Is he attempting to rewrite the history of the show to imply that the show wasn't popular with young boys, adults both male and female, alternative music scenes, college students, and so many others? To put it more bluntly, does Cartoon Network forget that the show was popular... with everyone?

And isn't it ironic that a show where the main characters don't even have a mother would be viewed as the quintessential show for mothers to bond with their daughters over? It also strikes me as odd that he comments about traditional girl brands when the Powerpuff Girls is neither traditional nor a television show that has ever been specifically designed for girls.

One of my first thoughts was that Cartoon Network is trying to pull off a marketing campaign in the hopes that the show's popularity will transcend the target gender like it did for the new My Little Pony cartoon. This I find doubtful. The reason why a large adult male audience flocked to the show was because Lauren Faust was in charge of the project. Her reputation stemmed from the fact that she was a key crew member on another show that made it cool for boys to watch a show about girls: The Powerpuff Girls. As of now, there is no one working on the reboot to draw in that kind of crowd.

In an age where people cry out over gendered Legos and demand that toy stores take off gendered labels on their aisles, the statement by Yoder and Cartoon Network's marketing plans in comparison seems blatantly sexist. The Powerpuff Girls was never exclusively for women: it was made to entertain a wide audience of diverse people, of all ages and genders. Yet if you decide that you'll change who the show will be targeted at, why would you throw all of your prominent female voice actresses, the same actresses that worked to give the original characters life, under the bus? Does that send a positive message to women? That if you work hard in your career, you'll eventually be replaced by younger women who can replicate your voice while your male coworkers fully retain their positions?

I'm still waiting with bated breath for the reboot to air, and so far the only date that's been announced is "sometime in 2016." The above information, coupled with a brand new animation style favoring the popular single-width line style of modern cartoons and a characterless new logo, doesn't give me confidence about the quality of the show. In fact I'm actually also worried, given the fractured state of today's feminism, that the show will attempt to introduce elements of false "girl power," the kind that Femme Fatale would revel giddily in. It doesn't sit well with me that the decision to reboot a series with prominent female leads was done because of its ability to be financially beneficial rather than as a conscious, honest decision to reintroduce a female-led cartoon. It also seems way too coincidental that Bubbles and Buttercup now sport hair accessories, and that each girl has their own personalized light trail and backpack for school, along with many other toyetic quirks.

Something, my friends, is rotten in the city of Townsville.

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