Written Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, illustration by Charlotte Fassler
Though I was barely pushing 10 at the tail end of the epic era of Pepper Ann meets Ashley Spinelli, has a drink with Power Puff Girls and potentially breeds Kim Possible, I seriously think that these years were some of the most formative in the development of my sense of self. As a self-identified feminist, I often wonder how my childhood contributed to this identification—what stimuli was I exposed to, what images were I seeing, and how did the barrage of media that cluttered my youth effect who I would become?
As a child of the new millennium, I belonged to a tribe obsessed with popular-culture. Naturally, most of that “culture” found it’s way into my impressionable little brain via cartoons of Nickelodeon and/or Disney.
I can say from first hand experience, the whole “TV is bad for kids” thing is bullshit. Yes, watching cartoons taught me how to make fart noises with my mouth, but in it’s subversion of many prescribed socio-cultural standards, watching cartoons prompted me to challenge the way in which I viewed the world around me. Because the fictional social structures portrayed in Hazelnut, Lawndale, or Bluffington often transcended standards of race (I mean, Doug’s Skeeter was blue), class, and gender, I found myself questioning why my very real world was so different from the very fake ones with which I found myself enchanted.
It was with this inquisitive spirit that I started to explore the use of female images by the media to investigate how the constant presentation of standardized traits like blonde hair, blue eyes, or thin bodies worked to formulate some sort of feminine ideal. I became fascinated by the ways in which the images of women on TV either enforced or negated stereotypes of the “essential” woman.
The cartoons of my childhood offered up a plethora of off-beat heroines otherwise absent from any other mass-cultural media. In the real world, if you wanted militant you had Riot Grrls, if refusing to wear tampons wasn’t your jam then you always had the slightly more pop-friendly Girl Power of a number of all-girl mega bands on your side.
But for a chubby pre-teenager uncomfortably nestled in that awkward space between girl and woman, the radical feminist gospel of pop-cultural politicas couldn’t have been farther off my grid; Living on the crest of the third wave, the real faces of pop-feminism from Courtney Love to Kathleen Hanna took a backseat to their animated counterparts. I took my cues from Ashley Spinelli, Pepper Ann Pearson, and Daria Morgendorffer. These were my heroines: pencil-drawn, pre-adolescent Hannah Horvaths in training.
In Recess, a show with which my elementary self could truly identify, Ashley Spinelli assumed the role of school yard thug with a heart of gold. Pepper Ann Pearson was a red-head. Now, in the scope of popular representations of women this means she was “exotic.” Blondes were generic—brunette’s bookish. Red Heads were the wildcards. Not only did she pioneer the skirt over pants trend, and uniform dressing, but Pepper Ann inspired my desire to be the weirdest person in the room. Let your freak flag fly. We’re all insecure but the sooner you come to terms with who you are, the sooner an eighth grader named Craig will take you to prom.
Daria Morgendorffer’s theme song reads like a love-letter to moody adolescents the world over. A smoke signal to weirdo girls who feel trapped under the expectations imposed upon them. She rocked combat boots and a sense of superiority with equal ease. If you were a weirdo, too, she was that cool girl you wanted to have coffee with. To escort her to an open mic slam poetry showcase, let her teach you how to roll a joint and when all was said and done, maybe even sign your yearbook “Fuck this place, stay cool.” Daria negated the happy-ever-after expectations that society imposes upon young women reared on stories of Disney princesses by imposing a non-fictitious look into the real world of teenage-hood.
From Daddy Issues and body-based insecurities, to peer pressure and gender-based prejudice and through 20 minute long, hyper simplified episodic sagas, these girls-cum-women tackled many of the struggles facing us in the real world. What’s more? We can probably still identify with the plight of these cartoon women, who successfully navigated their worlds and discovered the essence of womanhood. It mandated that there isn’t one.
Getting lost in an imaginary world made me realize how disenchanting my own world was. These cartoons informed my relationship with being a woman. Sometimes I still think about my later heroines, Kim Possible and Reggie Rocket – and try to summate their liking extreme sports and video games to something.
And while it’s true that the Network-television animators who decorated my childhood probably weren’t conspiring to subliminally raise an army of (one?) young feminists, the shifting narrative trends point to a greater societal transformation. That can’t be a coincidence, can it?