The Powerpuff Girls

Monse Juarez

In the 21st century, The Powerpuff Girls remains an iconic staple of Y2K teen culture and female power. Initially airing on Cartoon Network, the animated television show follows three kindergarten girls, Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, as they fight villains in their city of Townsville and “sav[e] the world before bedtime.”[1] Created in 1998 by Craig McCracken, the show differed from many other shows at the time, as the network had “seldom departed from the practice of marginalizing female characters” and mainly featured “male-dominated shows.”[2] Despite this, the show has attained wide success and “appeal[ed] to boys and girls alike.”[3] However, even with such success, the show has prompted critical discourse regarding girl power and violence, female superhero sexuality, and the influences the show has borrowed from, including Japanese anime. Interestingly, The Powerpuff Girls displays a cuteness that continues to gain the admiration of children and adults while presenting the coexistence of power and puff, or how force can be contained or muted within the cute aesthetic.

Figure 1. Blossom (pink), Bubbles (blue), and Buttercup (green) make up the Powerpuff Girls. Courtesy of YB Hong Kong on Flickr.

The premise of The Powerpuff Girls revolves around the three girls, with the beginning of each episode detailing how the girls were created by Professor Utonium.[4] The opening scene shows Professor Utonium as a mere silhouette adding “sugar, spice, and everything nice” and creating “the perfect little girls.”[5] This scene not only details the story of the girls’ creation, but also outlines how they were created by a man’s will, “keeping authority in adult male hands.”[6] Moreover, the beginning shows how a man may designate the bounds of girlhood.[7] The backdrops for each ingredient are blue, green, and red, respectively, with the “sugar” animation showing sparkles.[8] Professor Utonoium pours “everything nice,” which the opening scene depicts as comprising bunnies, hearts, stars, flowers, smiley faces, and rainbows. The depicted contents clearly paint the Professor as engaging in girlhood creation as he pours traditional objects of girlhood such as “bunny rabbits,” “pink, glitter… flowers... [and] rainbows.”[9] In contrast to these animated elements that are considered more feminine and juvenile, the spice backdrop features spice without additional animated elements. However, while making the girls, a broken vial of the black Chemical X is added to the mixture, gifting the girls superpowers that may not have been intentionally included in the creation of “the perfect little girls.”[10]

While the above three ingredients are part of the making of a “perfect little girl,” it remains unclear what exactly Chemical X is and what else is needed to achieve feminine perfection. Therefore, although the show establishes a masculine power and surveillance over girlhood, it refuses to clearly distinguish the boundaries of perfection and non-perfection in young girls. Chemical X specifically gives the girls flying powers, laser eyes, and increased strength.[11] As a result, young girls can regard the Powerpuff Girls as the perfect idols or role models through personal identification while regarding them as “tough” icons in female empowerment. Chemical X gives the Powerpuff Girls “energy to overcome the limits of one’s opponents, of one’s body, and of one’s position under the law.”[12] They may be cute little girls, but they “dedicate their life to fighting crime and the forces of evil.” 

Although the series airs on a children’s network, the creator also intended it for “people who could appreciate it as adults.”[13] In addition to appealing to a large age demographic, the program is made “equally [for] boys and girls.”[14] The wide-ranging marketability of The Powerpuff Girls is further visible in its distinct animation style, with cuteness being an apparent feature. According to Sianne Ngai, cuteness is often defined as pertaining to “smallness, compactness, [and] softness.”[15] The Powerpuff Girls’ age helps to underline these cute characteristics, as they are young kindergarteners under the care of an older Professor Utonium and must “do chores, go to school, and abide by a bedtime.”[16] Thus, even as crime-fighting superheroes, they are ultimately children who lean toward typical “helpless” and “weak” qualities of cuteness.[17] Furthermore, the Powerpuff Girls display elements of baby schema, each with “a large head relative to body size” and “large eyes.”[18] Their limbs are short and fingerless, displaying rounded features (see Figure 1). Lastly, their lack of visible nose and ears adds to a “soft body surface”; such characteristics may induce feelings of affection and care in more mature audiences.[19]

Figure 2. Three young girls in their Powerpuff Girl costumes. From left to right: Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup. Courtesy of ladycynamin on Flickr.

For an older audience, another engaging aspect of the animation could be its Japanese anime influences, which are heavier within the show’s action sequences.[20] Previously, the scenes have faced scrutiny for portraying explicit violence. Critiques have included backlash over the “glamorized violence, blood, and exposed limbs,” which diminish the Powerpuff Girls’ status as “female role models.”[21] Criticism surrounding the show’s action sequences give rise to the duality of the girls themselves as “power” and “puff.” The Powerpuff Girls borrows from the way in which female superheroes have been depicted in anime, such as Princess Kahm from Outlanders in which the “‘cute’-girl” is “equipped with lethal powers.”[22] For the Powerpuff Girls, lethality coexists alongside their cuteness. This cuteness mirrors the cuteness of early anime series and societal opinions of the Japanese from the 1960s, with an emphasis on the “prepubescent girl” and the "avoidance of secondary sexual features.”[23]

As much as The Powerpuff Girls borrows from anime influences, it also subverts anime tropes. For instance, while anime tends to depict the “schoolgirl-aged female body,” the Powerpuff Girls retain a cuteness less based on sex appeal.[24] Instead, their cuteness revolves around their juvenile characteristics and serves as a form of “erotic regulation.”[25] Creator Craig McCracken actually intended for the girls to be animated as such to allow space for them to exist as “girls without being sexual objects,”[26] permitting them to be seen as feminist icons within girl-power culture and “empowering to little girls” who resonate with their unique personalities (see Figure 2).[27] 

Figure 3. The DVD cover of Powerpuff Girls Z, a Japanese television show based on The Powerpuff Girls. Here, the girls sport a more anime-style, older look.

As symbols of girl power, The Powerpuff Girls’ relation to girlhood is central to why both children and adults resonate with the show. The show depicts how “girls, just like boys, are capable of having strong and assertive personalities and can be anything they want to be.”[28] The power felt through the Powerpuff Girls is one centered in their cuteness and in the connection between “power and puff.”[29] They are not “muscle-bound” or “testosterone driven men,” instead linking “innocence” with “toughness.”[30] The program portrays how “girls are made more of piss and vinegar than sugar and spice” through Chemical X, the added item that gave the Powerpuff Girls their capacity for violence.[31] Presented by the girls as involving violent capability and cuteness, this girlhood idea of power and puff is heavily influenced by feminist discourse of the 1990s. Being a girl means “joy, strength, resilience” and “freedom” and is a period “that can be recalled, re-entered, and re-embodied.”[32] Thus, The Powerpuff Girls allows its adult female viewers to be girls again — to be strong and powerful even while personifying cuteness and girliness once more.

However, although the Powerpuff Girls serve as feminist icons and resist anime influences of the “sexy schoolgirl,” adaptions of the girls and the consumerist culture surrounding the actual show seem to play into sensual influences. At one point, Cartoon Network rebranded the girls for merchandise, and the girls “developed adolescent bodies” and were drawn in a comparably anime style.[33] In Japan, a new show about the Powerpuff Girls called Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z was created, presenting the girls as older with an emphasis on their “male-oriented sexuality” in their new “conventional anime girl” look (see Figure 3). Discussions on the sexualized look of the girls in the Japanese version have taken place, with people attributing the change to how “this aesthetic of the long legs and the doe-eyed girls” is preferred in Japan.[34] 

Overall, The Powerpuff Girls has been a significant force in the expansion of female-led television shows and drawn on existing cultural anime influences to illustrate its cute female protagonists as crime-fighting heroines. The cuteness surrounding the Powerpuff Girls and their series has undoubtedly contributed to girl-power culture, inspiring young girls amid their violent action scenes. This blend between power and puff continues to be a point of discussion, as the cuteness of the girls extends into more sexual and promiscuous realms and representations.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Lisa Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime’: The Powerpuff Girls, Citizenship, and the Little Girl Superhero,” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 33, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 62.

[2] Donna Potts, “Channeling Girl Power: Positive Female Media Images in ‘The Powerpuff Girls,’” SIMILE 1, no. 4 (November 2001): 1.

[3] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 2.

[4] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 65.

[5] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 2.

[6] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 65.

[7] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 66.

[8] See the following video for reference (referred to throughout paragraph):

[9] Monica Swindle, “Feeling Girl, Girling Feeling: An Examination of ‘Girl’ as Affect,” Rhizomes 22 (2011),

[10] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 66; Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 2.

[11] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 2.

[12] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 68.

[13] S. Atkinson, “How ‘The Powerpuff Girls’ Became SO Freakin’ Great,” Bustle, April 16, 2016,

[14] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 4.

[15] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant‐Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 816.

[16] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 63.

[17] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 816.

[18] Hiroshi Nittono, “The two-layer model of ‘kawaii’: A behavioural science framework for understanding kawaii and cuteness,” East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 2, no. 1 (April 2016): 85.

[19] Nittono, “The two-layer model of ‘kawaii,’” 85.

[20] Neal Conan, “Powerpuff Girls Reinvented for Japanese Audience,” NPR, November 1, 2007,

[21] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 3.

[22] Kanako Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly: Women and Violence in Japanese Comics,” in Themes and Issues in Asian Cartooning: Cute, Cheap, Mad, and Sexy, ed. John A. Lent (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999), 94, 115.

[23] Shiokawa, “Cute but Deadly,” 96, 101.

[24] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 69.

[25] Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, ed. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (New York: New York University Press, 1996), 189.

[26] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 69.

[27] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 5.

[28] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 6.

[29] Joy Van Fuqua, “‘What are those little girls made of?’: The Powerpuff Girls and consumer culture,” in Prime Time Animation: Television Animation and American Culture, ed. Carol A. Stabile and Mark Harrison (New York: Routledge, 2003), 206.

[30] Potts, “Channeling Girl Power,” 6.

[31] Swindle, “Feeling Girl.

[32] Swindle, “Feeling Girl.”

[33] Hager, “‘Saving the World Before Bedtime,’” 70.

[34] Conan, “Powerpuff Girls.”