Image: Cartoon Network
When you watch certain cartoon series long enough, you start to develop a sense for the kinds of stories that the crew, cast, and network are comfortable telling. Of the many kinds of special episodes that The Powerpuff Girls have had, none stand out quite like the ones about adding a new hero to the mix.
Over the course of The Powerpuff Girls' original six seasons, three different characters (Princess Morbucks, Bunny, and Bullet the Squirrel) temporarily joined Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup in their adventures to protect the citizens of Townsville before being called away to fulfil destinies of their own.
Though each of these characters came into the girls' lives to teach them unique lessons in humility, grief, and responsibility, their story arcs all mostly adhered to a set formula.
The new Powerpuff shows up and everything's fine for a while, but eventually she and the original trio get into a spat of some sort that breaks up the newly formed quartet. Eventually, the new Powerpuff and the original girls reconcile their differences, but not before the show finds a convenient reason for the newbie not to show up in the next episode.
Last night, Professor Utonium's daughters met yet another sister of theirs in Power of Four, an hour-long event that Cartoon Network promoted as the story of how the team's officially grown for the first time in the series history.
While Power of Four has its bright spots, there are things about its story and the way it handles its new heroine that will make you consider whether the show was all that good of an idea.
Power of Four opens with a mystery. For reasons that neither Blossom nor Buttercup can understand, things around the house keep breaking when they aren't looking.
Rather than using their powers to investigate what's really going on, the girls blame Bubbles, who insists that her new friend Bliss the Teenager, who "has trouble controlling her emotions," is to blame.
Given Bubbles' proclivity for dreaming up imaginary friends, the other girls assume that Bliss is just her latest creation -- but after a few meandering scenes, the entire Utonium family is shocked when Bliss reveals herself to them in public at a movie theatre.
Before the girls can ask Professor Utonium who the new girl is and why she looks like them, he incapacitates her with an energy beam and shuttles the kids back to his lab where he explains everything.
Ten years before he accidentally created Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, the Professor says, he'd gone through an entire series of experiments to create the perfect little girl, using sugar, spice, everything nice, and Chemicals A-V.
Bliss, short for Blisstina Francesca Francia Mariam Alicia Utonium, was the Professor's first daughter. She was created using Chemical W, which gave her unique telekinetic, teleportation, and energy powers the other Powerpuffs don't have.
— Cartoon Network (@cartoonnetwork) September 18, 2017
Professor Utonium raised Bliss much in the same way that he raised the other girls, but struggled to help her rein in her uncontrollable abilities, which appeared to be tied to her emotions.
The moment Bliss became the slightest bit excited, upset, happy, or sad, her body would let out a wave of explosive force that would destroy nearly everything around her. After Bliss threw a tantrum over milk and destroyed their house for the umpteenth time, she chose to leave Townsville rather than putting the people around her at risk.
She flew off to nearby Bird Poop Island, where she befriended a teacup elephant named Mee and began to live a life of chosen solitude.
After years of living (and exploding) on an island covered in bird crap, a teenaged Bliss decided to check in on the Professor and is surprised to find that he's created new children. The Power of Four easily could have framed Bliss as the embittered older sister whose jealousy drives her to become a villain, but instead, she quickly reintegrates into the family despite still not having control of her abilities.
As she gets to know her sisters, Bliss experiences what it's like to be part of a large family for the first time, and the range of powerful emotions she cycles through causes her to repeatedly combust.
The more you see Bliss go through the process of losing control of herself and then becoming a physical threat, the more glaringly apparent it becomes that, unlike her sisters, Bliss is coded as a person of colour.
Everything about Bliss is designed to set her apart from the three original Powerpuff Girls. One imagines it's to signal that she's a new kind of Powerpuff meant to be more reflective of the show's diverse audience.
She's taller, has skin a shade of brown that's deeper than a tan, purple eyes, and electric blue hair. Bliss reads as distinctly non-white and decidedly multi-ethnic.
Bliss' looks aside, the Cartoon Network went out of its way to cast three different women of colour to voice the character across the North American, African, and Australian/New Zealand markets it will be airing in.
I can assure you that kids of colour have always liked The Powerpuff Girls and, in a way, Bliss is a knowing nod to those fans -- as if to say, "Hey, I see you."
But there's something disappointing about seeing the first brown Powerpuff Girl introduced as an emotionally unstable time bomb who can't pull her feelings together enough to protect the people around her.
Portraying women of colour, particularly Black and Latina women, as temperamental hot heads is an all too familiar stereotype in contemporary pop culture. Add to that: the fact that Bliss' larger personal arc during Power of Four is centered around her questioning whether she even has the bona fides to be a superhero with her sisters.
All of these are the sort of questions and struggles that I wouldn't mind seeing a character like Bliss deal with over the course of a series, as she became further enmeshed in it organically. But Power of Four, like all the other specials involving new Powerpuff Girls, quickly ushers its new character out after a climactic battle.
Having finally learned how to channel her destructive power to use her telekinesis more effectively, Bliss flies off into space to rearrange some planets that have been knocked out of their orbits, and that's pretty much it.
The original three girls and the Professor watch as Bliss zooms away and we, the audience, are left with... many questions.
What does it mean that there was a brown Powerpuff Girl for all of an hour or so of television? Does that make up for the show's general lack of speaking roles for characters of colour in the past? And could this idea have been executed in a different, better way?
To that last one: I think so, yes. So much about The Powerpuff Girls reboot has felt like an answer to what the new creative team saw as the original show's failings. Rather than bringing Miss Bellum back as the Mayor's secretary and secret puppet master, the reboot wrote the character off, reasoning that she "wasn't indicative of the kind of messaging" the new show was going for.
The reboot's also made a big deal of buffing out the girls' personalities and trying to stretch their identities beyond the old school sweetheart/nerd/tomboy formulation. In a lot of ways, Bliss feels like a collection of well-intentioned afterthoughts that would have worked better earlier on in the series. Sure, you can introduce a non-descript ethnic sister in a Very Special Episode.
Or, you could have considered reimagining the core trio of characters as little girls of different ethnicities, and put all of those well-meant ideas to good use in the long term.