Feminist Cartoonetry

The cartoons endemic to our childhoods may have informed more about our stances as women than we believe.


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?

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  • It feels good to read something like this, when I just spent last night having a Daria marathon and feeling nostalgic about childhood. It makes me wonder how network execs have seen how “culty” the nostalgia has become for 90’s television that they’re trying to make the same impression for the current young generation.
    As for today’s growing feminist generation, they do have the internet and probably already know what “feminism” means from Tumblr or something.
    Your Friend, Jess

  • Amatoria Clothing

    Gabriella, I love this! You may be too young, but I was also obsessed with Clarissa Explains It All. And Daria is still my hero, because we have the same level of hand-eye coordination (volleyball scene).
    What worries me is that the next generation grew up watching Teletubies instead of Babar and the Flinstones. I don’t know what that says about the future of humanity…

    • Gaby Karefa-Johnson

      Fact: Clarissa Darling was a goddess.

    • Steph

      My mom never let me watch Teletubbies…

  • CarolinaG

    Love your blog!
    I’m posting looks from Los Angeles and accessories:


  • CDJ

    I think the one stereotype cartoons did feed into was having the “mean girl” on the playground always be a rich, pretty, snob with all the best clothes/toys. Underneath, however, she had a daddy who loved work more than her. Were they saying only the pretty girls can be the bullies? Remember the song “who’s the girl in the pink capris?! It’s Courtney, it’s Courtney. Who’s the girl who loves to ski?” from As Told By Ginger? Now, of course I take 0 offense to such stereotype (even though my name is Courtney and inthepinkcapris was an old screen-name of mine), because I’m not rich, and I hate skiing. But all over America I can see rich, pretty girls yelling out “BEING RICH AND PRETTY IS NOT A CRIME!!”

  • TN

    But Daria ~wasn’t~ a cool girl. That’s the point.

    • TN

      I mean in the sense that she wouldn’t have smoked weed during her high school career. Can you imagine her rolling a j? She would have been awkward as hell at it and that would have been cool to see actually.

      • Leandra Medine

        So I think Gabby’s whole point is that she was highly relatable for the girl who wasn’t concerned with being or just flat wasn’t conventionally cool and that is what made her “cool.” She gave a place to those of us who were a bit off-beat and introduced this new genre of female to the fictitious world of animated sitcoms.

        • Madame Ostrich

          I found comfort in Daria while dealing with my junior high and high school peers. Another girl cursed with the “gift” of maturity.

          Loved this post though. Nice to hear a third-wave perspective from a Gen-Y-er. Would love to read more of Gaby’s work.


        • TN

          Thanks for the reply. I realised after commenting that I totally skipped the “If you were a weirdo, too” start to that sentence (my fault for being up too late), which is definitely the whole point and demonstrated in the show straight away in the first episode with Jane and Daria. Jane and Daria hit it off straight away with Jane serving as a kind of stand in for us in that episode; having this different type of female character introduced and being able to connect with her. Actually one of my favourite things about the show is the portrayal of their friendship.

      • Amatoria Clothing

        Her lack of desire to be cool is what made her cool.

  • Guest

    Well done, Gabby K-J! Spinelli is my spirit animal.

  • Sarah Brody

    Well done, Gabby K-J! Spinelli is my spirit animal.

  • Bethanie Marshall

    I thought I was the only one who wanted my real world to resemble the cartoon worlds of these shows.

  • Elliot Soriano

    Is it weirdly telling that a lot of these cartoons had a male sidekick with gay undertones? I mean as much as I hate being secondary to the GKJ show… I respect dat.

    • Guest

      Except the gay British monkey in wild thornberrys….that one upsets me.

    • Leandra Medine

      A lot of them were also red heads which should probably not go un-noted.

  • Amelia Diamond

    I could not love this more. I think I thought I actually was Pepper Ann for a while there.


    I was hoping for an article like this!! You are my inspiration Leandra! xx from Venezuela – Andrea, a journalist in training

  • I was hoping for an article like this!! You are my inspiration Leandra! xx from Venezuela – Andrea, a journalist in training

  • SO true. We really do subconsciously learn from cartoons. I learned everything about being a gay man from Thundercats.

  • Cartoons taught me everything!


  • Nozizwe

    Thank you so much for such great articles/columns like this! Absolutely inspiring and reassuring for a young girl like me who is still discovering herself. After reading this, I feel I can take on the world again!


  • Wandering In Heels

    This is so fun! I honestly haven’t thought about these shows in forever! Ahhh… Nostalgia…..


  • alejandra

    Do you know who I hated because she was so insecure? GINGER. ugh. LOVE Daria and Lisa, and Judy for sure.

  • Whitney M. Coleman

    Absolutely loved this. Not only am I a semi-feminist myself, but first and foremost, I’m a proud redhead. I was thankful to grow up in the 90s with these strong “misfit” females in ways far deeper than relating to their tenacity and spunk. Seeing females with unruly red locks made me feel a part of something, and able to deal with the stereotypes and “ginger” non-sense that followed (cue middle school and the infamous South Park episode). These girls gave me a sense of power and self-worth, and ultimately, they hold a card or two in the deck of who I am today.

    • Adrianna Grężak

      Semi-feminist? What’s a semi-feminist? Do you only semi-support equal political, economic, and social rights for everybody, regardless of their sex and gender?

      • Whitney M. Coleman

        Semi in that I relish in being able to change my car’s oil, but also appreciate a man opening that same car’s door for me. Semi in that I hate being the sole chef in our house, but enjoy the fact that my home-cooked meals taste better. Semi in that I hate that I wasn’t asked to lead a certain task at work, but am humbled that the gentleman chosen was more than overly qualified.

        • Karina

          That doesn’t make you a semi-feminist. It makes you a sensible person, and not radical on your views. Feminism isn’t by rule radical. Maybe you should look a little into why you enjoy a man opening a car door for you though, if you don’t think you could do the same for him or for other women etc etc. The other things just seem logical to me.

  • Adrianna Grężak

    I just recently had a similar conversation about cartoons like Daria with my boyfriend, who admitted that he never really got into Daria. I first discovered Daria at around age 9 or 10, and quoted it on a regular basis with my friends when I was 12. I’m happy these female characters exist and that other viewers felt “normal” during an age where you’re beginning to hear that women had a fetish for shoes and purses.

  • Phoebe Yates

    I’m from the UK and most of these cartoons featured in my nineties childhood. I think the point you raise is really interesting and something i had never thought about before so thank you!


  • Laura

    Is it too crazy if I think Harry Potter also influenced our behavior as a generation? I mean generally speaking and not only feminist-ly.

  • Charlotte

    Love this piece! Here’s a throwback that really connects. Self initiated reruns of Pepper Ann on youtube make me so thankful for such a great show!


  • Kenterbury

    Helga made huge inroads in my head now that I think of it. Fab column. Love your writing Gabby and love the drawing by Charlotte.