I'll level with you. "Powerpuff Girls Reboot has an Explicitly Transphobic Episode" sounds like the made up headline of one of my darker fever dreams. It's the kind of statement I could never even imagine making, let alone making seriously. The Powerpuff Girls reboot was supposed to be a kickass dream come true. Instead, we got... An explicitly transphobic episode. Donny, a horse, wants to be a unicorn. What could’ve been a great, forward thinking episode turns into a nightmare and a cautionary tale about transitioning. And while I’d like to think this was just oblivion to Trans issues, the writers of the episode told the LA Times specifically that this episode was about gender. And since that’s the case, they must be held accountable for what they accomplished.
I'm not even quite sure how it happened. But in situations like this, as a cis person, I often feel it's best to listen to the voices of trans people, as they're the ones who are being personally confronted by said outright transphobia.
Ari is a close friend of mine, and an outspoken Trans Activist at Montclair University. They are an animation expert and have been closely following the reboot from its original announcement. I had a discussion with Ari about the show and trans issues at large.
RG: So Ari, can you talk a bit about what PPG was to you as a kid?
Ari: I had this weird relationship with it where I enjoyed it so much! The moments I remember most from it are the ones that scared me, like the one episode with the zombie magician was murdered by his own iron maiden. That was. Dark.
I loved it, but it was something that always struck me as super violent, too. Not in a bad way, but despite a general lack of blood, the violence always felt very real in a way most other shows I watched could never compete with.
The show was definitely an action show, and I knew that, and I wasn't usually interested in action shows, but it drew me in because it was little girls doing the punching and the kicking, and I was, at the time, a little girl. That angle fascinated me, even when sometimes the violence or dark themes repulsed me. I would always come back, because even if the lobster claw demons were scary and tough, the girls were tougher.
RG: Okay so can you talk to me about like, what you were looking forward to with this new series? I know you love animation so I wanted to touch on that.
Ari: The PPG have always been superhero style brawlers at heart. This is something you don't really get in any media targeted towards little girls. The only cartoon I can think of off hand that's been doing it for American audiences is Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, which is only a year old! There are no American cartoons about little girls who save the world and sock bad guys in the jaw. I just really loved that an old female-based property was getting a reboot! There's been a big revival of interest in old late 90s/early 00s cartoons in the past few years, and PPG was the first show picked for a genuine, honest to god reboot! That was a big deal! It was picked to be re-done for the new millennium, and at the time, I thought it was a great idea! Society's idea of feminism has progressed in the past decade or so, and I really wanted to see what a show that had paved the a road to tell new stories for and about young girls would have to offer to a whole new generation of young girls, growing up in a different world with different values!
RG: And what did you receive with all that hope in your fragile little heart?
Ari: [laughs mirthlessly] I'm honestly pissed they didn’t even have the laziness to adhere to the old nineties grrl power standards of the original PPG. They looked at that and said: "No, what if we went back even farther?"
RG: What does "grrl" mean to you, incidentally? Because to me it's not nessicarily a female term
Ari: It's a movement in and of itself more of an idea than a gender?
RG: I mean not as much as it used to be. To me now, a lot of the people i know that use "grrl" use it in a nonbinary (NB) sense. But yeah, I totally agree.
Ari: Grrl is more of a period piece term to me.
RG: It's a movement idea. It embodies an idea, and not a gender per se. and i think that's what was powerful about it
Ari: It's this very mid 90s jagged little pill style beginnings of third wave feminism. It was angry.
RG: Yes it was, but it was angry in a way that didn’t really include a lot of nonwhite women. I'm glad to see grrl today being a lot less white.
RG: Okay, let's get back to the show and Cartoon Network.
So i've been watching CN try to get queerer for a while now. we had non-comfirmed (in show) bubbleline, we had what they tried to do with Velma in Mystery, Inc, and I'm sure you could name a bunch of others. And then Steven Universe came along, and this dam broke, and out came flooding all this nb queerness and very visual lesbianess with specific characters. And now CN is giving bubbleline more attention, and trying to open their doors to that.
So what the PPG episode to me seemed like was a lot of cis people trying to ride a trend. Which is really gross to think about, but their episode rings so hollow and disingenuous. I feel like they sat around and were like we can be JUST as queer as those actual gays! Let's do it! And then they just dropped the whole thing of tortellini.
Ari: The episode is so bad in this very specifically transmisogynist way. They literally have an aside about the "pickle museum," and how if you break one of the pickles inside, bad things will happen.
Pickles. This is a episode about a male horse wanting to become a unicorn. Normally presumed to be a feminine, if not female animal. And you decide the best course of action is to talk about PICKLES?
There is this weird undercurrent of some real bad early 00s transmisogyny, of the "if you transition, you will get pregnant and die" style of thought. There was this idea that transition was this TERRIFYING DEATH HELLNIGHTMARE that would put WASPS IN YOUR DICK, and you had to get the approval of THIRTEEN CIS DOCTORS LICENSED IN THE ANCIENT MYSTIC ARTES of GENITAL POLICING. And this was of course the only! real! way! to be trans! but if you dared to do it IT WOULD KILL YOU.
For the most part that idea has died down, I think. I'm sure it still exists, but you have kids knowing they're trans younger and younger and there's just less focus on transitioning being the Final Destination of every trans person ever. And that is a good thing, but this episode directly goes against that idea. It has Donny, the horse, undergo an experiment by Professor Utonium wherein he is explicitly and specifically warned multiple times about "side effects."
It's a dog whistle if I ever heard one. The idea of "side effects" in transitioning like you are PERMANENTLY WARPING AND MUTILATING YOUR BODY YOU FREAKISH FIEND is part and parcel of that rhetoric I discussed earlier, so it surprises me absolutely zero that they blow that particular dog whistle.
The fact that Donny does in fact morph into a horrible nightmare fiend and "breaks the pickle" is so gross! It's just so nasty it equates transitioning to some back alley science experiment. Like we're all up in the plastic surgeon's office mutilating our bodies for fun and profit like we're motherfucking Amber Sweet. You can ignore that last part i just love Repo so much.
The point is, the number one shittiest thing about this episode bringing back that old rhetoric is not simply that they used it, or that on top of that they LITERALLY HAD BUTTERCUP ASK "which of those [unicorns] are stallions" like ha ha very funny as you know we have to check their genitals now. We're the genital cops and we have the worst jobs in the world.
And the ending is so bizarre and incoherent like Donny had a horn the whole time? And was a unicorn the whole time without knowing? Like what the hell does that even mean? It doesn't line up with their gender metaphor at all which really does make me think this was a last minute slapdash "let's throw some gender stuff in, Steven Universe does that all the time!"
Except [Steven Universe] don't disrespect trans people doing it and make blanket statements about unicorn genitals because that's weird. I'm not saying the PPG staff are a bunch of unicorn genital cops but I'd also check their resumes again before giving them another job.
RG: Incidentally, where does one get a degree in policing unicorn genitals. Does that fall under Art History?
Ari: There's literally no mention of nonbinary people either which is kind of amusing to mem, in that they could have totally done something with the idea of Donny being nonbinary and deciding to be somewhere in between unicorn and horse or- maybe just didn't do trans issues at all?
I would also like to note that Donny wears a fake horn early on in the episode, and it is knocked off his head as Blossom says, basically, "That's not a unicorn, he's a horse pretending to be a unicorn!" This episode didn't HAVE to be transmisogynistic. But it was by virtue of them shoehorning in gender. They were trying to look forward-thinking and instead showed their asses.
Which says a lot to me about how cis people think they're totally ready to talk about trans issues, and think their have a good opinion on the subject and know their stuff, and then make shit like this.
I'm hurt and upset as an adult PPG fan but my heart breaks for the trans kids who are encountering this rhetoric for the first time.
By all rights that should have never happened! This is tired and dated transphobic rhetoric and it deserved the quiet death it got circa 2013, but now these kids who might be trans themselves are now grappling with the idea that their desire to change makes them at risk of turning into a freakish hideous monster for wanting to be comfortable with themselves. That's a cruel thing to do to trans kids. Especially when you're trying to look cool and cultured.
RG: This it piggybacks on something we were discussing earlier today, which is that no one wants to tell or hear queer stories unless they're told the "right" way, and the "right" way is tragic.
Ari: Pretty much. And if queer people don’t tell tragic stories, and "get in line," we're writing "wish fulfillment." The thing is, The PPG reboot basically did this episode and forced it to be about trans issues because they saw the praise Steven Universe was getting for exploring gender and decided they wanted some of that critical adulation.
The problem with that is, when you copy, you get compared. And if you compare this one episode with its clunky transmisogyny and pickle jokes to Steven Universe's casual, low-key and consistently non-cisnormative take on gender, it comes up short.
Even when it comes down to comparisons to other Very Special Episodes that deal with gender, "Cookie Princess," Adventure Time's take on the issue, blows this episode away as well. They made the plot of this episode incomprehensible and transmisogynist to copy a better show, thereby making their own flaws glaringly obvious.
RG: Trans issues aren't really a trend of the week or an after school special. And I wish we didn't have to have these discussions, but when we don't, people die. It's so dangerous to be trans, and it's 2016. This kind of thing is unacceptable, and it's especially disgusting that they're selling it to children. I hope they at least apologize for it. Or try to make an amends episode. Because right now, they should really be truly and deeply ashamed of themselves.