How The Powerpuff Girls Reboot Failed Transgender Politics
So, The Powerpuff Girls are back.
…and that’s all we’re really going to say about that. This isn’t meant to be a review. We loved the original. We are…perplexed by the new one, for a number of reasons. But we aren’t about to delve into the annals of nostalgia because, well, we’d have nothing to talk to our therapist about on Monday.
What we will be addressing is the appearance of a trans unicorn.
No, this isn’t a joke. The new Powerpuff Girls created a metaphor for transgender issues (the ability to pass, feeling othered, and being outed) using an enthusiastic unicorn. Which should’ve been awesome, right?
We all know the importance and power of representation. To be able to see yourself reflected on a broader scale—your pain, your agony, but also your triumphs, helps to validate your status as a human being, rather than ostracizing you as something Other. As corny as it may sound, it proves that you are not alone, that someone has witnessed the tiniest nuances of your life in a different time, in a different place. There is a comfort, if an existential one, in being told that your life isn’t so unique that every experience must act as a crossing of some threshold, the embarking of a great new world. There is a comfort in being told that what is happening to you now has happened before and will happen again and is currently happening to thousands upon thousands of people even if you can’t feel them while wading in the the dark. We should’ve shriveled up and died of loneliness long ago. But we demand to be touched through the screen. We demand knowing winks and nudges and cultural inside jokes that assure us: uniqueness of personhood does not equate to uniqueness of the human experience.
The problem with what the PowerPuff Girls did is that, in attempting to unify transgender people with the human experience, they ended up othering them. It was a flashing, pointing arrow. It called attention where it should’ve smoothed, and was reminiscent of a pointing playground bully in its ability to separate and isolate.
In the episode, Bubbles et al. visit a zoo and wind up meeting a pony wearing a fake unicorn horn. When Buttercup knocks the horn away, the pony breaks into an, um, passionate speech about knowing in their heart of hearts that they are a Real Unicorn, complete with watering eyes and an assortment of rainbow backdrops. What follows is an uncomfortable allegory for transgender people, in which Bubbles forces the pony to undergo surgery.
Dare we point out Buttercups’ “outing” of this unicorn as she removes the fake horn, pointing out how dumb it is? Bubbles’ extreme enthusiasm in having “a real unicorn friend” that will force her classmates to pick their jaws up off the ground and eat their words? The strange scene where the unicorn undergoes surgery despite literally thousands upon thousands of side effects, including “Forever Pain,” without question? Or when that same surgery turns them into a monster? The messages are strange and a mixed bag of overdone tropes. It implies that surgery is bad and that you were always what you were meant to be. Of course, this last moral is further complicated when it is revealed that the unicorn actually had a horn all along, hidden under their bangs. They don’t learn to see themselves as valid without it, but simply didn’t notice it was there. Once again, the message is…weird. Unsure of itself and uncommitted to whatever cause.
It comes off as an after school special, a sort of problem-of-the-week featuring a friend-of-the-week. Time will tell whether or not this character will be featured again, or what further storylines will entail. But representation is most successful when it portrays a normalized way of life—the things which make this person different from the generic being shown as perfectly okay, not as the source of comedy or drama.
The very importance of representation lies in its ability to normalize and unify. When the apparent basis for common human understanding comes from experiences specific to white, upper middle class families whose fathers make corny dad jokes and whose children are allowed to run to their rooms and remain comfortable-yet-disaffected teens crying over the opposite sex, when the only black kid says two words per season and the geeky kid gets ripped on for his effeminate ways, to portray a different way of life and to portray it as perfectly normal is a radical act. The point is to prove the validity of existence—that others have experienced exactly what you have. That you’re not a monster wandering through the dark alone. (As author Junot Diaz pointed out, a monster classically never gets to see their reflection. How telling is that).
Of course, we love that they attempted to be more representative. We absolutely adore the fact that children’s shows in general have begun to be more inclusive. But when the sole focus becomes “dealing with” or “handling” this person’s “situation,”—well, it becomes no better than the worst sort of jokes. Because at heart, what it is saying is that this person is something to be taken care of.
Stay tuned to Milk for more on transgender rights.