Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sugar, Spice & Him: Transgender on the Powerpuff Girls


"It doesn’t matter how much we ponder over Him 
We will probably never fully understand Him
 He is a character that is different in everyone’s mind."

Liquorice Suspenders

Incy Little Spider, Alicornmoon and Amilolomy

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The Secret Ingredient

What makes a girl? According to Powerpuff Girls it takes "Sugar, Spice, Everything Nice" and the secret ingredient, "Chemical X." With this final unknown kernel, the show veers away from normative expectations of womanhood to open onto a super-powered and diversely gendered world. Among the enemies that the show's heroines, Blossom (the sugary one), Buttercup (the spicy one), and Bubbles (the nice one), must use their Chemical X fueled girl power to fight is the suggestively named "Him." Named the most terrifying of the PPG's enemies, "powerful, red-skinned, and demon-like," in many respects, show creators and viewers admit is not so simply the devil (Powerpuff.Wikia.com, "Him"). This character disturbs expectations by not allowing the girls or the viewer to feel safe in their skin. Although "his name strongly suggests that he is male," admits the Powerpuff Girl wiki, "His gender is often something of confusion, as his voice, clothes, and mannerisms often contradict each other" (Powerpuff.Wikia.com, "Him"). This so-called confusion erupts from discord between high-toned male voice which echoes over itself, as though existing in a state of flux and multiplicity that will not settle into a univocal chord. Likewise, his clothes signify beyond easily legible codes of gender. "When not bathing," writes one blogger, "he usually wears a pink neck frill, a pink tutu, long black boots, a purple shirt and a large black belt. A totally awesome (and marvellously camp) outfit, if I say so myself." (Top 11 Lists, "'Him' From the Powerpuff Girls"). A mixture of a sexy Mrs. Claus, a dominatrix, and a ballerina, if Him is the devil, than he traces from the same genealogy of sugar, spice and everything nice (plus some secret ingredient) that the Girls do. In this way, rather than being merely a villain counter-point to the PPGs, Him expresses an integral transgender feminism that invokes the multiplicity and creative possibilities for gender.

In this blog post, I look at three viewer responses to Him in order to trace how transgender functions on Powerpuff Girls not merely as a figure of representation but as a narrative device that uses Fear, Controversy, and Creativity to produce new forms of gender through story's interactions with Him. Towards this end, I follow Evie Kendral's argument that what makes Him so evil is that he disturbs the homogeny of the shows "third wave feminism," while taking issue that the goal of either the show or gender politics is stability, where "the bonds of sisterhood supersede any other consideration.(Evie Kendral. Academia.edu. "There's No One Perfect Girl: Third Wave Feminism and the Powerpuff Girls"). In fact, I begin by exploring and defending the use of Him to produce anxiety and fear as a useful means through which the expected is overturned and foreclosed possibilities are shocked open. Next, I take issue with feminisms that structure themselves according to progressive politics that seeks out controversy in hopes of winning one last battle that will put the dialectics of gender to rest. Finally, I look to Buzzfeed's reasons that "The Powerpuff Girls Could Have Replaced Your Gender Studies Class," in order to demonstrate that this anxiety and debate are integral to how Him in particular and the show in general use conflict to produce new modes of gendered embodiment. 


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Why We (Should) Fear Him

"People will forget what you said," said Maya Angelou, "but people will never forget how you made them feel." This often repeated quote seems to be extra true for children's television. While listening in on my partner's five and eight year old watching shows on Netflix, I find myself asking what they are watching. Even if I pose the question later in the day, they frequently have a vivid recall for details of what they watched. That said, over time the details of our memories of what we watched as children fade but what remains are the relations they instill in us. This is reason enough for us to consider the effect that heroes and villains play in the formation of our systems of gender. Indeed, simply by overhearing his haunting echoing voice as the girls watch The Powerpuff Girls, one is struck by the power of Him, "The most terrifying villain to ever take a bath on the small screen... the original He Who Should Not Be Named, a version of the devil so wholly terrifying, it's enough to forget he was one of the first plausibly transgender characters on television" (Lauren Duca. The Huffington Post. "Definitive Proof HIM Is The Most Disturbing Villain In Cartoon History"). While some argue that the effects of terror and intrigue that Him produces are tangential to his gender performance, sad accidents of show-runner choices, a critical analysis of audience responses demonstrate that transgender and queerness in Powerpuff girls creates narrative tensions that are not only disturbing but perpetually producing more meanings.


Terror as well as wonder can be created by making bodies illegible to our frameworks of understanding. Especially in the case of gender, this does not always mean that sex and sexuality become completely deconstructed, it can be enough to merely change certain forms from signifying or relating directly. Normative gender codes depend largely on a 1 to 1 correspondence between binaries: man/woman, active/passive, subject/object, desirer/desirable. From this perspective, bodies like Him that announce outside of these strict parameters become mutually indeterminate. "who the heck is him!!?!?" asks one anonymous user on Yahoo, "i know hes like, the worst and most evil villain but like, is he the devil? and why does he dress up like a gay guy!?... why would they put a gay devil dragqueen on a kids TV show?" (Answers.Yahoo.com, "In "The Powerpuff Girls", who is Him? Is he the devil? Why does he wear womans clothes?"). Is Him gay? Do we know anything about his sexuality? He does seem to perform a gender that is not restricted to normative masculinities. In the tightly policed world of normative signifiers, queer texts and queer readers create concern that something is wrong. "Am I the only one who this thinks this "Him" character seems strangely feminine?" (Jen, AmIRite.com, "The Character Him from Powerpuff Girls was Kind of Disturbing AmIRite?"). What is suggested by this wrongness is also that when something becomes wrong, non-normative, all things are wrong in the same way.  At first blush it seems as though the viewer is conflating non-normative sex and sexualities together under negative or relative terms "not masculine," "strangely feminine," or under umbrella signs for otherness: gay and drag queen. In this way, Him's gender makes him illegible and therefore confusing to the viewer. 

The immediate response to the unknown is manifold, yet fear is among its most dominant children. Him becomes scary by means of an indeterminate gender. "The devil is just a manifestation of evils that reside in each and every one of us, be it a man or a woman," writes Gautam Pratap Singh on Quara.com, emphasizing that it is evil's amorphousness that makes it so insidious. "Him being transgender or in that sense, of any gender is just a matter of thought." (Gautam Pratap SinghQuara.com. "Is the character 'Him' from 'Powerpuff Girls' Transgender?"). Viewers such as Gautam emphasize a lack of legibility and particularity as key to the effects that Him's queerness produces. "That's what I loved about the 90s," writes Zeerust on AmIRite.com, "Kids' cartoons could actually feature effeminate versions of Satan and other disturbing things. Nowadays, they'd probably have to pull a character like Him from the show since some overprotective parent would write in and claim that their children were being 'corrupted' after about a week." (Zeerust,  AmIRite.com). For Zeerust, queerness, drag, and transgender are so potentially disturbing that she cannot imagine that current day parents would allow their children to watch Him on the Powerpuff Girls. She imagines that ignorance somehow allowed a brief moment for this terror to arise but we know better now.

If fear is a product of the unknown, laughter may be the child of overdetermined failure. For those who view Him as an indeterminate subjectivity, he is a nightmare that may do or be anything. For those who view him as trans or gay, however, they often approach Him with an presupposed knowingness. "HIM is so funny," writes an anonymous writer on TopTens.com, "I love how he is a gay crab demon guy. Me and my friends always laugh at how transvestite he is" (TheTopTens.com, "Best Powerpuff Girl Villain"). This laughter is produced when viewers feel that a threat or a surprise has been safely bounded by non-threatening expectations. The queer and indeterminate becomes gay and transvestite. This can even happen retrospectively. "god that was gay I used to think HIM was a girl," writes Alfard, "what an idiot i was" (Alfard. LeagueofLegendsForum. "i dont care what people say, "HIM" from the powerpuff girls still scares the hell out of me."). Rather than provoking continued thought, transvestite in these cases of amusement are grounds for shutting down meaning. It becomes a point of pride for certain viewers to recognize the meaninglessly simple meaning of Him as a transvestite. "Even when I was little," writes the Thinktress, "I was pretty sure he was a transvestite. As a FOUR year old i knew that. lol" (Thinktress, AmIRite.com). In these cases, being trans or gay does not add significance to Him but takes away potentials. Yet laughter, even retrospectively, signifies in its attempt to pacify a threat by marking it as comical, nonetheless admits that there was a moment where more horizons of possibility opened up up for the viewer.

Fear can also turn into attraction. The inability to know frustrates our mechanisms for pacifying danger and produce an erotic allure. Those who find Him a continually desirable figure, even years later, admit that it is his indeterminacy that adds to his sex appeal. "hes so hot tho," ImAChickIRL responds to reductive readings of Him as merely a transvestite (LeagueofLegendsForum.)  Explaining one of many nominally male cos-players who attend conventions dress as Him, a commenter defends cross-dressing as key to the character, "The character in the show was of indeterminate [sic] gender too, so a cross-dressing costume seems appropiate" (TYWIWDBI.blogspot.com  ). The inappropriateness of Him that makes the effect of the drag and cross-dressing of signification seem appropriate to his character. He comes to embody the play of meaning taking the familiar down unfamiliar channels. This then is not a passive nor unthreatening figure but a power that helps us to understand how transgender helps us to create tensions and meanings. "It takes a man of extraordinary character and confidence to look intimidating while wearing mascara, rouge, a goatee, a pink boa and thigh high hooker boots," writes OutWriteNews, "We could all take a lesson." (OutWriteNews.org. "Eight Gay Cartoons You Grew Up With (and always knew about)").  Rather than looking at Him as an Other to be destroyed or contained, he becomes teacher on bodily narrative. This begins and is perpetuated then by sustaining the sense of fear. So long as transgender and queerness is scary its signification remains open to the unknown. This is the difference then between Him being overdetermined, "a dumb transvestite lobster." (BackStabUUU,  LeagueofLegendsForum. ). And Him being a produce and producer of new forms and relationships, "a tranny version of Satan dressed as some sort of Valentine's Mrs. Claus" (ItsATrap, AmIRite.com). Indeed, the worst thing for transgender in children's television would be if figures like Him no longer produced controversy. 



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The Unacceptable

Now, progressive politics pushes us away from fear and laughter towards a more banal acceptance. According to this ideology of normatization, we are to name, identify, and incorporate transgender figures to incite and then pacify controversy so that society can continue on with business as usual. A progressive viewership has already caught hold of Him in order to make him into a figure of a problematic past that we must move beyond. 
Responding to derisive comments on Him as a transvestite, Repo had argued in her blog that we need to save such characters from the dangers of villain-hood. "He's a...transvestite?" asks Repot, "Woah, woah, woah! I'm not sure what the creators were trying to convey with a transvestite male as the satanic being in the show.... why is he wearing high heeled boots that go up to his thighs and talking like a woman? Why was there no controversy about this before?" (Repo Thinks.Blogspot.com "First Rant: Powerpuff Girls 'Him'"). In calling for debate, Repo aims to take the transgender character from being an invisible mechanism of narrative, used to produced fear, desire and laughter, and make Him a matter of political engagement. "What does this teach children who watch the show?" she asks, "what I understand from this is that the creator is depicting Gays, Transvestites, etc. as bad." In doing so, Repo stutters on the language used to describe Him, calling upon a common sense of political correctness based on the idea that certain words and representations are "good" and others are "bad" or should be controversial. 

Certainly, the effects of associating transgender with a girl-hunting villain continues long held cultural anxieties which can perpetuate knee-jerk assumptions that shut down discourse on gender diversity. "Perhaps," writes Brianna in response, "this is trying to imply that homosexuals / transgender people are children molesters? (or at least something very fishy). Basically, Him is implying that gays and transgender people are inherently creepy, strange, and down right wrong"  (RepoThinks.Blogspot.com). While Repo and Brianna mark the implications of the effects of characterizing a transgender figure as unacceptable, the critical point they raise is about the sloppy moralizing that can occur on either end of a debate that marks certain figures as naturally right and another naturally (or unnaturally) wrong. Here we might put pressure on the progressive belief that bodies can or should be made "problems" so they can then presumably be made "correct."

As laughter had worked to reduce the threatening power of Him, progressive politics works to domesticate the trans and queer figure by inciting temporary controversy on the grounds that certain representations are offensive. "I believe that if I were a homosexual or transvestite," Repo imagines, "I would be insulted to be the ultimate evil on a children's show." Certainly the response of many viewers are reductive of transgender (see above) and Repo's speculation enacts a critical solidarity of putting one's self in the position of the other. In this way, Repo works to feel the pain of the other in order to bring attention to potential and actual violence. The danger in moving towards a discourse on the terms of "insult" however, takes a lot of the powerful danger out of the representation from trans figures. The implication is that trans and queer persons are not powerful enough to be treatening or that they do no demand something of us. In fact, if transgender is cast in these limited terms, as a source of controversy, the effect may be the elimination of trans representation. "Ok, so I know that being homosexual is a sin or something (which is total bullshit, love is love)," writes Repot, "but I don't think that it should be displayed in this fashion on a children's TV show.... Infact, I don't think there should be a character to represent the devil at all on a children's TV show." It is a slippery slope from censoring one form of representation as "bad" to extending censorship to a whole type of representation or narrative. What begins by trying to eliminate Him as a devil, turns into a campaign to eliminate all devils (including Him). Instead of producing more meaning for Him, the progressive argument reduces the way we can imagine our lives.

It doesn't take Nietzsche to see the broader genealogy of progressive politics and the moralization of gender and sexuality. "I'm christian," claims Repo, "but I'm not against other people's beliefs. Hell, even people who worship Satan are seriously just fine." By pivoting from a claim of faith to an abdication of ethical judgement, Repo enacts a progressive response to a perceived evil within Christian ethics. Because moral condemnation has served as an instrument for violence, morals themselves must be condemned. This effectively destroys or denies the means by which one claims the moral ground to destroy the moralization of others. In the end, we are left with either hypocrisy or self-destruction. "I do not descriminate at all. I know that my God wouldn't descriminate as well," claims Repo, "My God is accepting whether you are gay, straight, bisexual, transexual. My God loves people for who they are, not who they're attracted to or who they worship." The self-contradiction here is that it first denies actions that distinguish persons from one another and then proceeds to justify this homogenization on the grounds of protecting individual groups. It must be noted that this is not an oversight particular to Repo but an essential recursion within progressive politics. It seeks to create controversy for the sake that issues may finally be put to rest, and people are marked as different for public scrutiny so that they can become just like everyone else. In the end, Repo denies nothing and so denies everything, even herself. "Call me a bad christian if you want. I don't care." She is at once a Christian and not a Christian, faithful lover and denier of defending the sacred, amoral and moralizer, advocate and apathetic, the creator and eliminator of difference. In the end, the destruction of morals is not amoral but Morality par excellence, a final judgement.


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A Productive Evil


There are at least two extreme readings of Him that come together in their ends to reduce the transgender figure into a forgettable aspect of narrative: Him as so particularly bad that he should not be considered and Him as so universally good that there is no need for consideration. In either case, shutting down of meaning works against the creativity and anxiety that the Trans character sparks. The critically trans approach to Him focuses on crossing as an act of composition, of making anew. This takes up the deconstructive impulse of third wave gender theory and adds a peculiarly re-constructive flare. In this line, Buzzfeed offers a list arguing that "The Powerpuff Girls Could Have Replaced Your Gender Studies Class," presenting numerous examples of the seed of transgender blossoming into new manifestations of gender through crossing breeding (Hiott-Millis. Buzzfeed.com). The list does not mention Him until number three, "The villains also paid no mind to gender expectations," among the Rowdyruff boys who are co-parented in a queer relationship between Him and MoJo-JoJo yet his central place in the list helps to gesture that the presence of a trans character does not merely show "no mind" but rather participation in a wider production of new  "incredibly fabulous" and "brilliant" forms of gender.

Contrary to transgender and queerness being a laughable or discountable of Powerpuff Girls narrative machine, gender identity and expression are constantly being reformed throughout the show by queer characters and situations that demonstrate the insufficiency of current gender form and demand the development of new modes of relation. The first major quality that Buzzfeed notes about gender in Powerpuff Girls is that "There was a lot of gender-switching and drag." Examples provided include: (1) The Professor dressed up as Bubbles, (2) Bubbles dressed up as Mayor, (3) [Some] dude dressed up as Blossom and no one noticed, (4) The Professor wore makeup, (5) [The professor] as Sara Bellum, (6) And Mojo Jojo fit in perfectly with the Powerpuff Girls’ friends when he snuck into their sleepover. (Lilly Hiott-Millis. Buzzfeed.com. "The Powerpuff Girls Could Have Replaced Your Gender Studies Class"). Each of these moments are a break in the normative constructions of gender which the show usually follows, but the frequency of these exceptions demonstrate that the norm is not so much a standard but yet another interruption in the chaotic production of gender on the show. Characters are free to change, bridge, and invent genders because the system of the show does not allow for the standard types to exist as natural limits. Instead, the "norm" becomes a medium through which other forms connect with one another. Indeed, these types can be borrowed and used with little disturbance by other characters. These occasions may illicit laughter, fear, or controversy, but this goes to show that all characters, and not merely the villains, are subject to the narrative disturbances. No characters are naturally one thing or the other, but constructs of the demands for transition to serve narrative and affective goals.

One more example from the Buzzfeed List serves to illustrate that rather than moving from controversy to silent acceptance, transgender on Powerpuff Girls remains a critical mode of restructuring and creating innovative gender relations. In point two, Buzzfeed notes that "The girls were careful to keep open minds about gender. And questioned each other about their assumptions" (Lilly Hiott-Millis. Buzzfeed.com). Rather than merely fearing, mocking or accepting encounters with new forms of gender, the Powerpuff Girls typically offer a variety of responses which become opportunities for them to discuss among themselves and others the various implications of gender diversity. In one instance, the girls observe that a new neighbor is moving into the house next door and begin reading into the various objects being unloaded in the driveway. "Ugh, just because there is plasticware doesn't mean it HAS to be a girl," comments Buttercup when Bubble points out the kitchen boxes and hopes that the newcomer is a woman. Then upon seeing gym equipment, Bubbles adds, "I bet our neighbor is strong and manly." "Bubbles!" interjects Blossom, "Women lift weights too!" (Lilly Hiott-Millis. Buzzfeed.com). While they contemplate the unknown they are engaging with real material things. Likewise, although multiple and potentially contradictory signifiers are being presented, there is no one way that they need to be arranged. As another respondent to Repo's post notes, this favoring of multiplicity over nihilism or universalism is evident in Him as well. "I think," writes SeethAndSeething, "that choice was made because they did not want to identify either femininity nor masculinity as evil." (RepoThinks.Blogspot.com). In the end, multiple potentials are opened up without demanding that any one of them be the compulsory or correct one.

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