Before ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’, there were... ‘The Powerpuff Girls’! (Part One)

The upshot, of course, is that both Barbie, and The Powerpuff Girls, ended up serving a purpose that was far removed from the intentions of their respective creators. The former went on to wage war against ‘toxic masculinity’... and the latter devoted their energies to ‘upholding freedom, righteousness, universal justice’

The Powerpuff Girls
The Powerpuff Girls

If you thought that ‘Barbenheimer’ was some kind of unique phenomenon - the first time, perhaps, that the motion picture industry has ever somehow pitted ‘dolls’, against ‘atomic-age scientists’, in an all-out bid for world (box-office) domination – well, think again.

Long before Margot Robbie first donned that ‘pretty shade of pink’ – and only a few decades after the historical Oppenheimer came close to unleashing global devastation (by ‘having had a hand in the creation of the Atom Bomb’, remember?) – there was this unassuming little 1990s children’s animated series, on Cartoon Network, called... The Powerpuff Girls.

And not only did it foreshadow virtually every single aspect, of the current social-media hype called ‘Barbenheimer’... but it managed to do so, within the confines of only one, single solitary TV series.

In other words: The Powerpuff Girls [Note: the series, not the girls themselves] was actually a combination of both Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’, and Christopher Nolan’s ‘Oppenheimer’, all rolled up into one-and-the-same cartoon.

Think about it for a second. Who were The Powerpuff Girls, anyway? And how did they come to exist, in the first place?

As you can imagine: the answer is provided in Episode One. The Powerpuff Girls are the creation of a benevolent (and suspiciously ‘patriarchal’) mad scientist named ‘Professor Utonium’: whose actual intention was to engineer the ‘perfect little girl’, in his secret underground laboratory.  

And he even tells us the specific ingredients he’s using in the experiment, too! (Yep, you guessed it: ‘sugar and spice, and all things nice’...)

Now: if any of that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s probably because Mattel’s ‘Barbie’ – the doll, not the movie – was originally created under pretty much the exact same laboratory conditions. Barbie was, effectively, another attempt to socially engineer the ‘perfect (not-so) little girl’: this time from the (massively patriarchal) perspective of late 1950s America.

And initially, at least, she was confined to that same stereotypical ‘bubblegum-pink’ world, that would later be famously lampooned by films like Pleasantville, and The Stepford Wives. At a glance, she represented a certain brand of ‘1950s femininity’: whose only purpose in existence, it seems, was to fulfill the quintessential ‘middle-aged male fantasy’, about the female form.

That is to say: ‘dolled up to look attractive, on the exterior’ – even to the extent of radically re-dimensioning her anatomical features (resulting in a ‘neck’ that is only marginally shorter than her ‘upper thigh’, for instance) – but then, devoid of any of the ‘feminine’ characteristics, that patriarchal men have traditionally always found so very ‘frightening’, in a woman.

You know: things like... ‘genitalia’, for instance; ‘pubic hair’; ‘the ability to think, and speak, for herself’ (or indeed, do anything at all: other than ‘cook, iron, and wash the dishes for Ken... and above all, keep SMILING, all the time’)...

All these things were conspicuously absent, from the original 1959 Mattel Barbie-doll.  So in the beginning, at least... ‘Barbie’ was actually just Mattel’s way of telling little girls that: “THIS is the sort of woman you should all aspire to emulate, when you grow up: pretty, pink, silent, obedient, and... SEXLESS!”

But then – in the best of ‘mad scientist’ traditions, I suppose – something went horribly wrong with the experiment. For reasons I freely admit to never having quite understood, myself: the same ‘Barbie-doll’ that was so clearly designed to inculcate a male-oriented definition of ‘femininity’, somehow went on to have the clean opposite effect.

And almost immediately, too! Not only did the ‘little girls’ of the late 1950s/early 1960s, actually grow up to become pioneers in a global ‘sexual revolution’ that has practically demolished all those patriarchal male fantasies, once and for all... but ‘Barbie’ herself – the movie, this time – is now credited with (of all unearthly things) having ‘struck a critical blow, at the world of toxic masculinity’!!

Incredible, but true...

Nonetheless, this transformation still mirrors the origin-story of a trio of cartoon superheroines, that graced our screens long before the 2023 release of either Barbie, or Oppenheimer (speaking of whom: don’t worry, I’ll be getting to his ‘cartoon counterpart’, in just a short while).

In The Powerpuff Girls, Prof. Utonium’s experiment likewise goes slightly awry. Owing to a lab accident, involving his ‘chimpanzee-assistant’ pushing him into a beaker containing the mysterious ‘Chemical X’ – which gets itself added to the ‘sugar-and-spice’ ingredients, in the ensuing fracas – the ‘perfect little girls’ that Prof. Utonium was all along trying to create, ended up being unintentionally endowed with ‘superpowers’ of their own (Remember? The one thing the original Barbie doll was also supposed to lack; but which she somehow acquired, anyway...)

The upshot, of course, is that both Barbie, and The Powerpuff Girls, ended up serving a purpose that was far removed from the intentions of their respective creators. The former went on to wage war against ‘toxic masculinity’... and the latter devoted their energies (and superpowers) to ‘upholding freedom, righteousness, universal justice’, and all the rest of that ‘superhero stuff’...

.. which – within the ‘Powerpuff-verse’, anyway – involved coming into endless conflict with their arch-nemesis, ‘Mr Mojo Jojo’.... the ‘supervillain’ of the piece; and also (by an interesting coincidence) the same ‘chimpanzee lab-assistant’, who had accidentally caused the ‘Powerpuff Girls’ to be created, in the first place. [Note: try to keep that detail in mind, because it will become important in Part Two].

Sadly, it would take me far too long to describe the origin-story of this classic supervillain, in any detail. Suffice it to say, for now, that the episode in question is called ‘Mr Mojo’s Rising’ (Honestly, though: how can you not love a cartoon, that so casually references the lyrics of Jim Morrison, in such a throwaway title?)...

Mojo Jojo
Mojo Jojo

... and in that episode, we learn that:

a) Mojo Jojo actually started out as just an ordinary little chimp; before another ‘experiment-gone-wrong’ endowed him with... not ‘superpowers’, this time; but rather, a ‘super-INTELLECT’ (complete with a greatly-enlarged, totally-visible BRAIN);

b) His lack of superpowers, coupled with his extraordinary intellect (and, of course, his jealousy of the ‘super-heroines’), lead him to devote all his efforts to the technological development of... well, ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (with which to both defeat the Powerpuff Girls, and conquer the entire planet), and lastly;

c) Because the ‘Powerpuff-verse’ is a place where the whimsicality of ‘sugar-and-spice’, is destined to ALWAYS triumph over the forces of ‘intelligence, reason, and technological advancement’... Mr Mojo Jojo is forever compelled to look on, in horror: as each and every single episode ends with his ultimate defeat, by that unstoppable, ‘Spice Girls’-inspired force known as ‘Girl-Power’, that his adversaries so clearly represented in that 1990s cartoon...

Once again, it all sounds kind of vaguely familiar, doesn’t it? And so it should, really: because – face it, folks – ‘Mr Mojo Jojo’ IS actually just ‘Oppenheimer, in a cartoon-monkey outfit’.

Not only does the character itself embody certain recognisable traits, shared by the historical nuclear physicist by that name – including an enlarged, ultra-powerful brain; and also, a penchant for dabbling in potentially ‘genocidal’ scientific experiments – but Mojo Jojo’s fortunes, too, seem to reflect those of the Christopher Nolan film...

... which likewise was forced to ‘take a backseat’, and look on in bewilderment; while a rival movie about a ‘12-inch, plastic doll’ – aimed at a target audience of 13-year-old girls – went on to literally ‘nuke’ its own performance, at the box office. [Note: though to be fair to Christopher Nolan: ‘Oppenheimer’ actually did rather well out of the whole thing, too...]

All of which, I suppose, only raises a teenie-weenie little question of its own. Did we really need the cultural phenomenon known as ‘Barbenheimer’, in 2023, to illustrate that we now live in a world where – in a battle between ‘The Intellectual’, and ‘The Whimsical/Mundane’ – the latter will always (but ALWAYS) triumph, in the end?

I don’t think so, myself. From where I’m sitting, right now: it looks as though the same point had been made at least 30 years ago – and, in my own humble opinion, far more effectively, too! – by an unassuming little cartoon, back in the 1990s, that most of us (myself included) probably dismissed as mere ‘kiddie’s stuff’, at the time...

[Thus endeth Part One of my ultra-intellectual analysis of the 2023 ‘Barbenheimer’ phenomenon. In Part Two: “Why Mr Mojo Jojo, from the Powerpuff Girls, is actually the sort of ‘superhero’ that Malta really needs, right now.” Stay tuned...]