2-D Feminism or How almost everything I know about being a feminist I learned from cartoons (Admit it!)

Okay, I know what a few of you are all thinking: what an idiot or badass article (I wish)! But for ya’ll who are the latter. Sorry, I’m going to convince the former camp of the potential awesomeness of the article’s subjects. When I was growing up, I was looking for bitchin’ female role models in the media because politics are too complicated for  kids age 3-13 and because animation was one of the media artforms that reached young kids most often. Plus I was really aching to trace back to my childhood during the 1990s because I’m so frickin’ nostalgic. All right everybody here is my list of favorite cartoon characters and when I’m done, I challenge you to name a few cartoon characters and comment on what they’ve done for you.

1. Josie, Valerie, and Melody from Josie and the Pussycats

Okay the best parts of Cartoon Network in the early to mid 1990s is the re-runs of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons. One of these that I’ve loved so much as a kid was Josie and the Pussycats. It was awesome to see girls fronting their own band and solve mysteries impromptly. The cartoon was notable as being the first cartoon to have an African-American as the primary cast, which was before the premiere of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The music was also very excellent with Josie on guitar, Melody on the drums, and Valerie on tamborine (though in the comics, she played guitar). Yet they’ve always dealt with crazy bad guys performing devilish scheames and ready to spout “you meddling kids!” and a really jealous girl that is always trying to play dirty tricks on them (especially Josie) and start her one-woman band. Yet the Pussycats never let anything like that spoil everything? Music is just plain healing and relaxing.

Lesson Learned: Don’t ever let people spoil everything for you and remember that having a good time is an indirect way of blowing the raspberry at them.

2. Lil DeVille from Rugrats

You can’t let this little sister down. She’s the only girl in a group of boys who doesn’t have that much girl-time throughout most of ther series, except if with adults, a nasty girl that plays nice when growed-up eyes are looking, and a girl that is such a Mary Sue. Never stops Lil from doing what she does best: picking fights with her brother, wearing her pink bow, messing with adults that don’t notice that she is the one without blue shorts on, wandering around without adult supervision, rolling in the mud, delighting in insects, and coming out of the closet unashamedly. That was in the episode where Angelica has a pretend “twin” named Balleena, her ruse had ended, and she dealt with hearing Chuckie and Phil contemplating on marrying Balleena someday. That’s when Lil dove right in and stated she’s going to marry Balleena because they’re both pretty. Pretty awesome at a time when Ellen DeGeneres was just coming out of the closet and Rosie O’Donnell was hosting the Nick Kid’s Choice Awards. I can never expect anything less than bravado from Lil. Unfortunately, in the awful spin-off, All-Grown Up!, she is just a boy-crazy girl. Don’t tell me her coming out was a Big Lipped Alligator moment! Waaahhh!

Lesson Learned: Getting dirty outside, being straight-forward, willing to fight for space, and stating your desires out loud without embarrassment, shame, or fear is all part of a healthy lifestyle.

3. Helga and Olga Pataki from Hey Arnold!

Oh God, I remember this from way back. Helga was the girl with the bad temper that always tortured Arnold, but was shown to be neglected by her parents and felt inferior to a pretty and well-educated sister that has a fragile self-esteem and cracks under the pressure to be perfect. Helga G. Pataki was an average looking girl with a unibrow that possessed a poet’s heart and writing skills and an aching love for the boy she busted around, we know this thanks to the fact that the show’s episodes doesn’t always focus on Arnold as the main character and everybody is secondary, a shock for most young kids worldview which is that of “It’s all about me.” IIt also fleshed out girl characters more than some shows would, live-action or animated, showing how everybody even some bullis or snotty girls lead very complex and rich personalities than most of the cliches the characters possess would care to admit. On Olga’s note, her example just shown me that trying to be or being pressured to be perfect is tantamount to losing your sanity and sense of self. At the tender age of 6 or 7, I learned that I’d rather be my authenitc as can be self even if it meant that I wouldn’t be cherished as Olga. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then read Courtney E. Martin’s Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters I swear some of what she describes sounds vaguely like Olga. Viewing Helga as a role  model gave me a mental outfit to try on for size, just like Alexis Carrington Colby somewhat did for members of Susan J. Douglas’s generation, and I liked the fit. Thanks to Helga and another Nicktoons character Ill name later, writing and drawing cartoons has became a talent I’ve developed kind of by now. Also Helga gave me strength to give the evil eye to the Beauty Myth. Now that I’ve stated that: why when you lose some weight, people say you look good? You’ve always looked good, you’re just smaller.

Lesson Learned: Beauty and Perfection doesn’t entail happiness for you. It’s far more harder true, but more fulfilling to be yourself.

4. Eliza and Debbie Thornberry from The Wild Thornberries

The Wild Thornberries was an excellent show about a family that toured around the world to film a nature show that is hosted by the father and shot on camera by the mother (excellent at putting a woman to be behind the camera working it and not in front of it to ve looked at). Debbie was a typical teenage girl with some tricks up her sleeve, taking care of a former feral child can do that to you, and pretty much dealing with circumstances that most teens can’t deal with (yet she wishes her parents drove a station wagon) and yet showing savvy as someone who is a potential environmentalist and nature expert when in industrialized society. Eliza was a bold role model for the preteen girls watching her: agile, gutsy, strong, warm-hearted, idealistic, headstrong, friends with a chimp, traveling the world with her family, and possessing the supernatural power to talk to animals. Eliza wasn’t afraid to get dirty (literally) and was able to have the looks that could risk a million ugly jokes from other tv shows yet she is confident in herself and none of these jokees are really made. A stunning revelation for young girls that are still being told to be pretty, delicate, sweet, and non-confrontational in order to be approved. Eliza and the the carping yet caring Bebbie have shown us that you have to run like the wind to enjoy the best of life.

Lesson Learned: Admit it: jeans and t-shirts are more comfier and practical than heels and miniskirts anytime. Also they let you do anything.

5. Reggie Rocket from Rocket Power

It was the late 1990s and you’d think that the media would take women’s athletics seriously and create heroines for girls not intrested in cheerleading, gymnastics, ballet, or aerobics. No: its 2011 and an excellent runner (Caster Semanya) was forced to take a test confirming she is female when the nastiness of beyond sour grapes got pissed at the audacity of her being so speedy and there’s still jokes about womens sports being dumb or disappointing ( I blame it on commercialism). That’s why episodes of Nickelodeoan’s Rocket Power seem like a breath of fresh air: the show featured a strong and brainy girl athlete and had many feminist issues talked about in the show. Reggie snowboarded, surfed, roller skated, skateboarded, ran, played ball, played hockey, climbed, jumped, and wrote a local zine. The show often pointed out that girls can and should be taken seriously as legitimate athletes, expecially in an episode where Reggie challenges a surfer’s magazine that thinks that girls don’t surf. Many episodes focus on her balancing a juggle between being considered a tomboy and being desirable to a particular chap (yeah, I’ve gone brit on ya), thankfully with said boy loving Reggie’s physical abilities or she dumping the tool that would expect girls to be helpless and dainty. Kudos to the show for showing that two males can raise kids in a healthy and action-driven environment and for making the middle-aged, cookie-baking housewife an unashamed occasional skinny dipper to be very agile and physically strong. Also that with her plumpish body, proving that you don’t have to have an aerobic hard body to be physically fit. Plus did I mention Reggie is a brilliant ice skater without any practice?

Lesson Learned: It’s 2011 people and women’s  sports must be taken seriously. The little girls in your lives depend on your enlightenment.

6. Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls

Many episodes of the series stick in my mind as I write this, but here’s one. The girls compete to gain some seats with older and MALE superheroes. After besting the guys in every test on their physical selves and superpowers, the girls were rejected due to their gender. Later the girls gave their sexist asses from being pummeled by the Big Baddies. Girly paraphenelia abounded in the show, pointing out that just cause its feminine doesn’t mean it’s stupid and wimpy, and the girls were very confident in themselves. I also thought that the character of Ms. Bellum and enclosing her face from the viewers was genius pointing out how in society women are objectified for their assets and not so much noticed for anything else they possess like wit and brains. Yet she’s the brains of the Mayor’s office and their is her name: Sara Bellum. Say it out loud to ourselves and see.

Lesson Learned: Women and girls (no matter how old) mustn’t be condescended to and be recognized for their abilities and personalities.

7.   Daria Morgendorffer, Jane Lane, Jodie Landon, and Quinn Morgendorffer from Daria

A spin-0ff of Beavis and Butthead, Daria is about a sarcastic and cynical teenage girl dealing with teen life in American suburbia in the late 90s and early 2000’s. Daria was loved by snarky and smart-aleky girls I know and derided by a few cousins that were tured off by what they call her “negativity” I call it honesty. Daria echoed by thoughts on life and people: it’s madness ya’ll. And provided me with some ammo when dealing with people. To wit, I remember being with some cousins, aunts, and my mom where they were bemoaning how much weight they “needed” to lose, where I just couldn’t take it and said “When’s dessert? I wanna talk about nose jobs.” a paraphrase from the episode “Too Cute.” Like Daria, no one got my snarkiness. Sigh. There’s Jane who shown me how to snark and from her I found a character I found most in common with: we hate math and are pretty awesome at our own art. She also confirmed that it’s alright to explore your sensuality and that pizza eating is a perfectly great time to spend with a friend. Jodie confirmed that it wouldn’t be easy to adopt Daria’s view and attitude when you’re a young woman and a young woman of color at that. But when confiding to Daria and Jane, that living up to parental expectations, dealing with white and/or male privilege, and dealing with dumb peers is very tiresome. Plus that if you’re not comfortable with going to like a huge Ivy League school, but rather a smaller school or one with a majority of peers you have much in common with, go for the latter. Quinn taught me that one can deal with the banal parts of femininity with some surprising amounts of wit and irreverence. As she grew, she confirmed it’s awesome to stand up to the Libby you’ve had a contentious relationship with and start an independent path for one’s self.

Lesson Learned: To quote Daria and Quinn’s Aunt Amy Barksdale: “Sarcasm, it’s a great way to deal.”

8. Ginger Foutley from As Told by Ginger

The seminal cartoon of Nickelodeon and from what my icon image can tell you: I’m a fan. As Told by Ginger, was about a smart girl finding her way through junior high school and staying true to her friends and her self while garnering approval from the popular kids and boys. Simultaneously meek and feisty, Ginger never played dumb, wrote poetry and songs, womaned (as opposed to manned) the chemist lab, and often talked back to authority figures and the cool kids for bullying her friends and grade school kids. the other females in the series were nothing to sneeze at: mom lois is a nurse with a mouth comparable to Roseanne and was a large woman that was shown to be sexy and desirable, Dodie was the gossip queen that one day realized she must accept herself, Macie the nerd with the multi-allergies that can when push comes to shove mouth off to Miranda the queen bee, and Noelle Sussman who’s weird and freakey and proud of it and it’s shown as desirable. The show also  points out the importance of female relationships as healthy and worth sustaining.
Lesson Learned: The final “F” in “BFF” isn’t for  decoration, it means “forever.”

9. Marge, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson from The Simpsons

Pretty much a template for King of the Hill, Daria, and the early seasons of the Rugrats: The Simpsons poked fun at American life and values. Especially best expressed in Susan J. Douglas’s book “The Mommy Myth” Marge pretty much poked holes at the idea of perfect motherhood, especially the myth that being a devoted housewife equals perfect little angels. Marge took on many roles in the show and like Ginger Foutley is both meek and feisty, don’t ever mess with Marge she will in the words of Hank Hill “tear you a new one” if you mess with her and her kids. Don’t even mess with your own kids because you will get it. Plus she can spot crappy denim stitching on jeans, handle a bad guy, work out like mad, garner votes for her political candidate by exposing the competion as money-hungry hypocrites, cook and stitch quilts (attention craft lovers!), devise a way to make sure evolution is taught in public schools, discover her sensuality, use her hair as a lifesaver and a weapon, and she can take on Monty Burns for her painting and expose him for what he is. How can you not love her? Her daughters aren’t anything to sneeze at: Lisa is like most young girls (esp. feminists at that age) pursuing a path different from Mom and surviving the jungle gym that is called elementary school. Lisa has played a mean sax, stitched a whole new quilt, read Austen, Poe, and Hodgson-Burnett, attempted algebra, became a vegetarian, fought for a more girl-friendly doll, discovered Buddhism and Wicca, took on different stances than her family on morality and even food politics, rebelled against authority, sent a valentine to a lonely kid, donated some of her allowance to a child in Brazil, and used her Beauty Queen position to fight dominant authority in Springfield. Maggie has spelled words with her blocks, shot Mr. Burns for stealing her candy (c’mon!), stated a rebellion at a day care built on Ayn Rand philosophy ,and has done much more that is to be seen in the series.

Lesson Learned: Just because the do’s are crazy and they’re sweet doesn’t mean they’re harmless.

10.  It’s a tie between: Sora, Mimi, and Kari of Digimon Adventure and the soldiers of Sailor Moon.

Dammit!!!! Where do I start? How about how Digimon Adventure had deconstruted the archetypes of Tomboy vs. Girly-Girl by having the girls get along with one another and basically flipped a bird to the idea of women only serving as Mom to a group, being  a child-like vixen whose only weapons are her womanly wiles, and a naive young woman being most likely to stumble every time and whimper. That said we see Sora explore the issues she has with her mom and realize that her role isn’t just be be depended on as Mom to the group, Mimi growing up and shedding the hypergirly exterior  fluffy heded cheerleader that held her back from her growth and take matters into her own hands, and there’s Kari who is delicate of health and body but can talk back to an evil guy that’s kidnapping the entire population of Tokyo eventhough she knows that planning to kill her. The females also engage in deep relationships with one another and their respective digimon mates and the series in it’s earlier years pass the Bechdel test with flying colors. The second series ws disappointing to me since they pulled the trick on Sora by having her go from a feisty tomboy in a equal and potential relationship with Tai to a traditional damsel in distess type in a more traditional hetero relationship with Matt, looking as if they will become Don and Betty Draper. Look at them:

Now on to Sailor Moon. The series covered feminity, female body image, expectations for females, lesbianism, adolescence, destiny, romance, sex, and ambition. The Dic and Cloverway dub messed up everything for us! There is also rich character development (Usagi/Sailor Moon went from being an underachieving crybaby to Defender of the Universe for example), strong female comaderie, individual personalities for each sailor, a total A plus on the Bechdel Test, comedy, drama, and action. The anime series also had the Sailor Starlights, who can be interpreted at transgender and this provides duality for the sexualities of all Sailors. Proving that sexuality is fluid and can’t be contained in a box. The Starlights can also be named as the first transgender characters that aren’t psychopaths or fodder for sex jokes. The anime has collected a fanbase that could be rivaled to the Full House fanbase. Yikes, Full House? Aaaaaahhhhhh!!!!!!!!!

Lesson Learned: Sisters are and have always been doing it for themeselves. Tip to future writers: you can’t go wrong with kickass characters of  any gender. Keep that in mind.

That was my list and now I challenge you to think back on the cartoon characters that have done it for you. If you can’t write a list, I know you can find them.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

Join the Conversation