It’s 2017 and The Powerpuff Girls is making headlines. It’s almost like travelling back in time for the 90s kids at the intersection of these two events. For the uninitiated, the modern-day reboot of the yesteryear show has tongues wagging of late by bringing to life a fourth Powerpuff Girl, Bliss.
The newly-introduced (and coloured) daughter of Professor Utonium was born a decade before the trio, using Chemical W. More powerful and dangerous than her younger siblings, Blisstina Francesca Francia Mariam Alicia Utonium left Townsville for the nearby Bird Poop Island because she couldn’t control her powers that went awry once she felt any emotion strongly and could potentially destroy everything around her.
— Cartoon Network (@cartoonnetwork) September 18, 2017
While this might be an innocent gimmick to cease the fall of the show’s dwindling ratings, the temperamental hothead portrayal of a woman of colour was an all too familiar stereotype that black and Latina female characters have often been associated with in pop culture.
In retrospect though, it doesn’t surprise us. Simply look back at the cartoon shows that we’ve grown up watching and try recollecting the number of black central characters barring a Vince from Recess here and a Valerie Brown from Josie and the Pussycats there.
Scooby Doo, Where Are You’s lead was a fair-skinned know-it-all man while even the Flintstones (set in the stone age) had no people of colour. For crying out loud, all the characters in the Aladdin animated series were brown and still had a Western accent. Like seriously?
So were the cartoons that we grew up on actually racist?
Studies conducted many years ago found that the world of children’s animated television wasn’t a very equitable place. People of Color were barely depicted at all, and in the rare instances that they were, shown as secondary characters with largely stereotypical characteristics. Male characters outnumbered female characters by a ratio of almost 6:1. Women were almost always shown in predictable and stereotypical ways, subservient to males, more interested in their appearance and romantic connections than in being leaders. (Stats: HuffPost)
According to HuffPost, in a data sample that includes the top 20 recent cartoons viewed by children aged 6-12, male characters outnumber females by a 3:1 ratio. In over 1,000 characters with speaking parts, the great majority (75 percent) were white. Characters of color (not counting the blue, green or other highly colored non-human characters) accounted for only 17 percent of the sample.
Cartoons in India have gone browner during the ongoing decade but propaganda doesn’t elude them either. Well that’s a debate better reserved for another time.
All in all, the point here is that Powerpuff Girls’ too-little-too-late attempt at acknowledging its huge international fanbase sums up the representation of coloured people in cartoons. Given the fact that children form judgments about other people based solely on how they speak by as early as age 4, the world’s most-watched cartoons could have done better while we were growing up. And now that we have a chance to impart an inclusive shape to the opinions of the current generation of kids, we should really be pulling off more responsible content than Bliss’ one-episode appearance.