An academic might describe it as TV’s Female Empowerment Trickle-Down Theory. First there were zeitgeist-grabbing grown-ups like The X-Files‘ Agent Scully and warrior princess Xena. Then along came the high-kicking teen spirit of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So it was only a matter of time before girl power made its way to the sandbox set with the spunky tots of the Cartoon Network’s breakout hit, The Powerpuff Girls.
And like their bad-ass big sisters, the Girls’ popularity extends way beyond their target audience. Since premiering in 1996, Powerpuff has become not only the net’s highest-rated show among 2- to 11-year-olds (with a 66 percent rise in teens) but also its No. 1 program overall. ”It’s smart, and savvy, and very stylish,” says Cartoon exec VP Tim Hall of the show, which just expanded to five nights a week. (The Cartoon Network is owned by EW parent company Time Warner.) ”It’s got the kind of legs that pull in three demos — girls, boys, and adults.”
Powerpuff creator Craig McCracken, 35, says there was no feminist agenda behind his progeny. ”I didn’t do it as an answer because there’s not enough programming for girls out there,” says McCracken, who, with longtime collaborator — and college dorm-mate — Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory), brought the Girls to life. McCracken cites Rocky and Bullwinkle as inspiration for the show’s cross-generational cheek: ”We don’t try to tone stuff down for kids. We also try not to be overly smart and clever for adults so kids won’t get it.”
Made from sugar, spice, everything nice, and a dash of Chemical X by one Professor Utonium, the moon-eyed cuties — Blossom, the levelheaded leader; Bubbles, the ditsy naif; and no-nonsense enforcer Buttercup — emerged from the test tube with superhuman speed and strength. As protectors of ”the city of Townsville,” they battle a gallery of wacky enemies, including Mojo Jojo, a turbaned simian mastermind, and an androgynous creep named simply Him.
Naughty insinuations like that (not to mention a teasingly edgy moment in which the Girls are shown placing what could be condoms in the professor’s pocket before sending him on a date) have helped fuel the show’s wide-ranging appeal — as do the groovy techno-meets-’60s soundtrack and feisty Hanna Barbera-meets-anime visuals. Kevin Sandler, author of Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, goes so far as to compare Powerpuff to a popular art film: ”It reminds me of Run Lola Run.” (And yes, there are murmurings of a Powerpuff movie.)
All such demo-busting hipness aside, though, the show’s prospects of becoming a full-blown phenom may lie in its merchandising. Indeed, with the exception of a girl named Barbie, Powerpuff has become the hot franchise for the young female market. And males aren’t far behind: ”There’s that old saw that girls will buy boy figures but boys won’t buy girl figures,” says DeWayne Booker, senior VP of marketing for Trendmasters, which licenses Powerpuff merchandise. ”But both genders love these characters.” Jim Silver, group publisher of the trade magazine The Licensing Book, projects that the Girls will garner sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars by year’s end: ”If Rugrats was a home run, right now Powerpuff is a triple — and it’s not losing momentum.” Hey, if they can save Townsville on a nightly basis, why not the toy industry?