Friday, 10 April 2015

The Powerpuff Girls: Him and Hers

The Powerpuff Girls was one of my favourite cartoons showing on Cartoon Network in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I loved the different personalities of the girls (Bubbles was my favourite because she was so hardcore, although I'm the most like Blossom).

Like a number of cartoons at the time, the show was also great at parody of whatever it wished to parody: the ridiculousness of superheroes and supervillains, giant monster films, anime, pop culture, etc. They had a whole Beatles parody episode which was great and showed off their pop culture savvy.

Who could forget The Beat Alls? 

I also loved how the show could veer from cute and innocent to ultra violent in a second, sometimes in the same scene. And the show was violent. Like extremely so. It was amazing. Just like, how did this happen? It was a cartoon marketed for kids, predominantly girls, and yet it showed such intense violent imagery.

The Girls would regularly beat their villains to a bleedy pulp, with black eyes, broken bones, and missing teeth. Often Mojo Jojo's brain would be fully exposed after they beat his head in, his body broken, blood here and there. I mean, just look at the second half of their opening theme.

It just consists of them beating their rogues gallery senseless and ends with them standing atop their battered enemies like vicious conquerors. And recall, these superpowered girls are literally made out of sugar, spice, and everything nice.



The juxtaposition of sweetness and violence is just as delightful now as it was then but I always wondered how they managed to air this. How did they manage to make such a violent cartoon show that routinely had its protagonists beat up the bad guys to such a degree that their bones were broken and vital organs were exposed? I don't know but I am eternally grateful that it did.

The Powerpuff Girls were also great because they were fleshed out as characters, or as as much fleshed out as Cartoon Network cartoon characters can ever be considered to be fleshed out, and weren't reduced to their stereotypical roles as the leader, the innocent one, and the rebel.

Occasional episodes were dedicated to giving attention to their individual characters and adding more depth to to characters who could have reasonably been expected to be fairly two-dimensional (Because they're cartoon characters and cartoons are 2D... it's quite the layered joke).

I mentioned Bubbles is hardcore, right?

But what I really want to talk about is Him. Don't we all want to talk about Him? I think we should talk about Him. Him is essentially the Voldemort of the Powerpuff Girls universe, his very name invokes fear and dread for those who speak it. As the narrator says when we are first introduced to Him, he is "so evil, so sinister, so horribly vile, that even the utterance of his name strikes fear into the hearts of men". He is the embodiment of evil, the devil incarnate in this fictional universe.

And none of that is why I want to talk about him. Rather, it is because, like the juxtaposition of innocence with brutal violence, I have no idea how the creators got away with having a character like Him in their show. Not because I don't like the character, in fact I think he's amazing, but rather because he is a trans (or possibly hermaphrodite, it isn't clear - not to conflate the two since they are not the same thing) character in a children's Saturday morning cartoon.

That's not to say he was the first transsexual cartoon character to grace the television screen on a Saturday morning. No, that honor belongs to a much older and more popular character.



In case you didn't watch the video since you're at work or similar place where you are unable to watch videos or because moving pictures make your brain hurt since flashing images confuse you, that was a video about how Bugs Bunny is one of the most progressive characters of all time.

Progressive how, you ask? Well, like I strongly hinted in the paragraph above the video, it's because he is a transsexual character. "No, not Bugs," I hear you exclaim somehow through the computer screen... days after I write this... but yes, Bugs.

Bugs Bunny's go to disguise is to dress up as a woman. To be a woman. And every time Elmer Fudd falls for it, thinking Bugs is a lady. A lady that he is inexplicably instantly in love with. While this is obviously played for laughs, the fact remains that Bugs loves dressing up as a lady, and like the video points out, as a dude, Bugs is chased and hated, as a dudette, Bugs is courted and desired.

Bugs could always make his/her man see stars.

Now, where that relates to Him is that he (and I use the male pronoun solely due to the maleness of his name) crosses gender boundaries in a really daring way for a children's cartoon. The confusion regarding his gender is apparent in the introduction on his entry on the Powerpuff Girls wiki where most of the first paragraph is dedicated to determining his gender.

It eventually settling on male due to his name and the fact he has been referred to as the "king of darkness" in the show, but notes his gender is "somewhat of a confusion" which I guess is one way to put it. Another way is that Him is purposely androgynous in order to indicate that evil knows no gender. But also possibly because gender fluidity, and particularly androgyny, makes people uncomfortable.

People feel uncomfortable due to little old me?

I don't want to get into an extended discussion of sex politics, so I'll skip that for the most part, however, I think androgyny tends to make some people uncomfortable, not necessarily because they aren't accepting of gender fluidity, but rather because it can be confusing at times. Gender is one of the first physical identifiers we use with race, height, hair colour, shoe size, dilution of the pupil, and so on. When we see someone, we immediately notice gender, subconsciously in an instant and then consciously a split-second later.

Androgyny however messes up that identification process somewhat since we aren't sure how to classify someone if we can't identify their gender. And that can throw us for a loop a little since so much of our day-to-day interaction is based on that instantaneous identification of gender. Again, this confusion is not meant to be seen as necessarily a negative thing but since we subconsciously identify gender constantly, when our 'gender-radar' can't pick someone's gender it kinda makes us uncomfortable in a sense.

At least for a split second until we get over it since it doesn't matter and we recognise that uncomfortableness is just a reflex due to living in a gendered society. It does gets kinda tricky to talk about things like this without coming across as insensitive or ignorant, but my point is that it is this very confusion that the writers of The Powerpuff Girls were tapping into when they created Him.

No way! 

This is a character called Him who wears black stiletto heel knee high boots, has a goatee and a guy's face but rosy cheeks, while his read leather jacket has a pink tulle at the neckline and hem. His voice changes from a feminine falsetto to a deep masculine baritone within a sentence. Not to mention his lobster claw hands because I think that should probably be mentioned too.

Can I just reiterate that Him was a character on a Saturday morning cartoon? Because that is amazing. It's only as an adult looking back that I can appreciate just how progressive and transgressive Him was as a character. Mostly, I'm just expressing my incredulity that Him was even allowed to exist on the Powerpuff Girls and my appreciation that he was.

He was one of the most memorable characters of the show, and along with Mojo Jojo, a seminal villain from my childhood but one who made evil look wrong but soooo good.


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This introduction is supposed to let you know that you have found the correct Caleb. 

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