Editor’s Note: Before TV-loving little girls got schooled in one-dimensional femininity from movies rated PG13 and up, male-centric cartoons like ‘TaleSpin’, ‘Dexter’s Laboratory’, ‘Johnny Quest’, ‘Swat Kats’, had already pushed them (as viewers and as characters) to the periphery. But there were others who were turning the TV-tide for little girls everywhere.
Girlhood, in popular imagination, seems to evoke images of pink, pigtails, pinafores, and a curiosity for mom’s make-up. Chick flicks, beauty magazines, pageant shows and more have, over decades culturally coded the ‘feminine’ as dainty, dependent, and inward-looking, but it’s kind of unrealistic to think all women are cut from the same cloth.
And this monotony is where pigeon-holing begins, when girls weren’t left at home, they were the plucky side-kicks or the love interest. In narratives, it was always a bro at the helm of the comedy, mystery or adventure – the last of which being the most masculine genre. Think Indiana Jones. In 1996, Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft put a female face on ‘adventure’, but it’s pretty clear whose gaze she was designed for. So, were little girls left with no nuanced representations of characters their age? Not if the ’90s can help it!
Even though she looks the part of that pink-pigtails-pinafores prototype, Helga G. Pataki was a character who didn’t care for your traditional femininity. Her take-no-prisoners attitude to life was something interesting to see in a nine-year-old. But even she had her moments of weakness. In the episode ‘Helga’s Makeover’, she succumbs to the pressure of embodying a femininity that just isn’t her. The first thing to go was her trademark unibrow, and it was almost harrowing to see the fourth-grader stuff her bra to look like the girls in the Preteen Miss magazines. The episode is likely to bring back a lot of your own difficult memories of body negativity if you watch it now, but I highly recommend you do, because eventually Helga ‘breaks character’ and calls out this stupid charade for what it is.
Helga’s trials with femininity don’t end there. We see her constantly pit against her classmate Lila, and her older sister Olga, both of whom are ‘ideal women’. Her beef with Lila is due in part to her feelings for the titular character Arnold, but the Olga dynamics are evidence of a well-written character. Olga possessed those stock female traits of beauty, amiability, and selflessness, as well as no instinct when it comes to creeps. In “Olga Gets Engaged”, she allows herself to be conned by her fiancé, but it’s Helga’s interventions that save her sister a world of trouble!
Eliza was a new kind of adventurer. You’d think her bookishness meant she would only be summoned from her quiet corner when a male-lead needed answers. But Eliza was out there in the thick of things, coming face-to-face with Komodo Dragons, jaguars, and the dark of the Serengeti. Oh, and she can talk to animals. Everything about her life spent travelling across continents, in her filmmaker parents’ ComVee was simply fascinating.
It was also interesting that Eliza’s absolute idol was Dr. Jane Goodall, who makes an appearance on the show. The inter-generational depiction of women of science was a nice touch, and the environment has always been a main focus in the show. The wild was also an interesting backdrop for several conflicts. Whether it was accidentally throwing the whole ecosystem into chaos, or risking everything to catch a bunch of poachers, Eliza always had something big going on, and she always came out on top.
‘The Wild Thornberrys’ made a hero out of a rather ordinary little girl, and for other ordinary little girls watching, this was very important. With her mouth full of braces and soda-bottle glasses, Eliza didn’t trifle with high school popularity contests. No, she was more invested in ecological matters, wildlife conservation, and the value of friendship.
Regina ‘Reggie’ Rocket of Ocean Shores, California, was an incredible combination of wise-older-sister and extreme-sports-badass. This show about a ragtag group of kids, who spend their time at skate parks and shorelines, introduced me to the world of skateboarding, surfing, hockey, and rollerblading. More importantly, it introduced me to a girl who could shred half-pipes just as good as the guys she hung with.
We still live in a world where ‘street’ or ‘urban’ sport is dominated by names like Tony Hawk, Bam Margera (both skateboarding superstars) and the late Dave Mirra (pro BMX freestyler). Even the relatively new phenomenon of Parkour is treated as a ‘male sport’. So, having Reggie around was kind of chipping away at the idea that girls are unsuited to the physical demands of atheltics. Like Helga, she re-inscribed the ‘feminine’ by expanding the possible activities that women could enjoy and/or excel at. In many ways, Reggie was the 2D equivalent of what tennis legend Serena Williams represents for women in sport today.
And she was no token ‘exception’ to a ‘rule’ either. Reggie faced sexism in the sporting world and the writers had her respond to it too – like the time her father Ray was more invested in her brother Otto’s skills than her own equally excellent skills. In another instance, almost in Riot Grrrl style, she starts her own Zine when local publications fail to recognise Ocean City’s female talent. The show took the time to realistically depict the roadblocks in putting the Zine together, including the initial resistance from other female athletes – one of the surfers, Trish, even tells Reggie she just rides waves, she doesn’t make them. But instead of becoming immediately discouraged, Reggie only pushes harder, until the other girls come around, and the Zine is up and running.
This classic Cartoon Network program focused on not one but three individual femininities in Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup. Oh, and there was a healthy sprinkling of others on the periphery, like Miss Keane, Sarah Bellum (literally the brains in the government) and even Sedusa (hey, even negative roles are important!) But it was the character of Buttercup that really broke new ground. Unlike her sisters, she had a lot of traditionally ‘masculine’ traits. She was brazen, impulsive, and liked settling things with her fists.
She was loud, blunt, and gave two hoots about grooming, and sometimes her ‘tough-guy’ attitude got her into a lot of trouble. Once she fell in with the wrong crowd – the Gangrene Gang. Once she ruined everybody’s day by refusing to shower. And she often picked on Bubbles for being a ‘cry-baby’ – evidence of her disdain for the image of woman as infantile and vulnerable? But it was wonderful to see this imperfect, rough-around-the-edges kid who was still a hero to Townsville. The show didn’t glorify the unsavoury parts of her personality, it simply recognised that they exist and that that was okay.
Girls who are kinda messy, and outspoken, and display a range of emotions, including anger, are still – surprise – girls. And cartoons have been doing justice to depictions for a while. Remember tomboy Ashley Spinelli from ‘Recess’? Or ‘♀’-shirt-wearing Betty DeVille and career-woman Charlotte Pickles from ‘Rugrats’? Even squirrel scientist Sandy Cheeks from ‘Spongebob Squarepants’. All of them contributed to the idea that femininity is best described as a mosaic, and they continue to do so for audiences today.
Given that women make up a much larger portion of audiences than we give credit for, having more characters to relate to is a constant requirement. Thankfully, those of us who were glued to our screens in the ’90s did have some pretty spiffing examples.
Were there other incredible female cartoons you enjoyed watching as a kid? Tell us in the comments!
To read more from ‘The ’90s Were Great Because’, click here.