"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Blood and teeth fly across the TV screen. The sound of fierce, rapid punches signals some gory off-screen action — a fist connecting with a jaw, a kick landing in the soft flesh of some unlucky victim.
Our hero emerges and … she’s a 5-year-old girl. With shiny, saucer-plate eyes glaring and a high, scratchy voice full of anger, she floats toward us like some character out of a Keane painting who’s bent on revenge against her creators for cursing her with a cuteness that borders on perversity. “Who are you callin’ cute?” she squeaks, as she’s joined by a redhead and a blonde with similar insectlike features.
These hyper-adorable mutants, seemingly the demonic offspring of Shirley Temple and Japanese anime, are known as the Powerpuff Girls, and their bug-eyed faces and bloated heads can be spotted on everything from dolls to watches to CD cases to mousepads to boxes of cereal. Just four years after “The Powerpuff Girls” first aired on Cartoon Network, the Powerpuff franchise has made $1 billion from retail merchandise, and with “The Powerpuff Girls” movie on the way, the wee trio’s popularity is likely to reach even greater heights.
To their loyal fans and amused admirers, these kindergarten rabble-rousers represent something bigger than the next Hello Kitty. For hyper-analytical adults and avid third-wave feminists, they’re animated proof that strong female characters can kick ass and take names without compromising their femininity. For children, and those grown-ups weary of gender-centric postulation, the teensy heroines do viewers the favor of skipping or skewering fancy-schmancy politics in the service of good humor.
The show does mark a dramatic departure from boy-centered rough-’em-up cartoons and pink, fluffy girl-centered fare. Yet, striking as these icons of girlhood may be, it could be argued that their popularity may not reflect a dramatic shift in our society’s view of gender roles, but rather our inability to stomach female anger unless it’s sugarcoated in cuteness and scored with a pervasively chirpy, nonthreatening tone.
Tough heroines are certainly the flavor of the month — as evidenced by shows like “Alias” and “She Spies” — but do these shows echo real changes in our culture’s concept of gender, or are they just a passing trend? Can female power truly be respected if it’s consistently packaged as supernaturally sexy or freakishly cute? When we cheer on a little girl who knocks a villain’s teeth out, are we cheering female power, or is it all an inside joke, an exercise in absurdity that plays on existing injustices? Is Lara Croft powerful because she can take you down, or because you’d like her to go down on you?
Craig McCracken, creator of “The Powerpuff Girls,” insists that the show’s key ingredient is gender blindness: “I don’t think of them as girls; I think of them as kids,” he says. “We’ve never said, ‘What would a girl do?’ It’s always, ‘What would a kid do?’” This comment rings true, especially when McCracken relates his nascent views on evolving feminism. “There’s this new feminism that’s coming up that’s embracing things that are typically girlish, and not saying, ‘Oh, in order to be a feminist you have to denounce all of that pink stuff and baby Ts,’” he says with great sincerity. “You can have all those things and be sexy and be feminine and be typically girlish and still be a feminist. I mean, my girlfriend ["Powerpuff Girls" storyboard artist Lauren Faust] basically taught me a lot of that …”
It’s tough to dislike a guy who humbly credits his girlfriend for his feminist sensibilities. “Her whole frustration is that I did this accidentally,” McCracken says of Faust, whom he met after she came to work on the show. “She’s always wanted to make this type of show on purpose, and I just kind of stumbled into it. And she’s like, ‘You have no idea what you’ve done. This is a great message!’ And I’m like, ‘I was just having fun. I just thought it was a cool idea.’”
According to the opening scenes of the TV show, the Powerpuff Girls’ caretaker, Professor Utonium, created them from “sugar, spice, and everything nice” — along with a dash of “Chemical X,” a compound responsible for the girls’ ability to fly and land brutal punches. Their hyperfemininity — a result, no doubt, of the sugar-and-spice part of the formula — seems to begin and end with the huge eyes and high voices. Sure, Bubbles likes drawing pretty pictures, but Blossom is mastering conversational Chinese, and Buttercup would rather throw punches than play with little ponies. The girls are boisterous and pushy and careless, just as any kids might be — personalities that seem to draw in both boys and girls. In fact, boys make up a slight majority (56 percent) of the Powerpuffs’ child audiences, according to Cartoon Network figures.
As for adult viewers, many embrace the Powerpuff Girls specifically for their girliness: a trio of the littlest third-wave feminists, they’re capable and tough but sweet and alluring. And even as he purports to be a political naif, McCracken plays to such fans and other grown-ups — inadvertently, perhaps — with a generous amount of clever gender bending. Professor Utonium, the girls’ caretaker and creator, behaves more like a worried mother than a macho boss, gently guiding the girls to do the right thing, then secretly worrying about being a bad parent. When a call comes from the mayor of Townsville, warning the girls that yet another villain is attacking, the professor doesn’t field the call and issue orders like Bosley of Charlie’s Angels. Instead, he kvetches over the interruption of bath time and bedtime while the girls spring into action.
Meanwhile, the mayor of Townsville is portrayed as an incompetent clod, while his secretary, Ms. Sarah Bellum, a buxom babe whose face we never see, whispers suggestions in his ear like a political Cyrano. And one of the girls’ most feared adversaries, “Him,” is a strangely creepy devil in drag who McCracken says was inspired by the Blue Meanies from “Yellow Submarine.”
In fact, McCracken toys with all the aspects of culture — pop and political — by mixing unabashed earnestness with unrepentant irony. A ’60s-style gung-ho narrator cheers and eggs the girls on while providing a running voice-over of wisecracks, undercuts, and anxious asides. As with classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, the pop cultural references come at lightning speed, and there are so many layers of meaning to navigate, it’s sometimes impossible to tell what the real message is.
In one episode, evil monkey Mojo Jojo — one of the girls’ most entertainingly weird foes — bestows superpowers on three kids at school by giving them some Chemical X. In the end, the kids agree that they should “just say no,” but when another kid asks them how it felt to have superpowers, they all scream, “It was awesome!” In another episode, upon discovering the existence of a tooth fairy, Buttercup gets busy knocking the teeth out of every villain in town and putting them under her pillow until she has a huge bag of coins stashed under her bed.
Instead of painting children as idealized, angelic little innocents and assuming that young viewers can’t understand anything but absurdly simple plots, the show’s creators fearlessly give us kids as they are — impulsive to the point of being reckless, imaginative to the point of being self-involved, and misguided to the point of being downright weird. By focusing on kids without getting bogged down in gender, McCracken manages to portray his young characters realistically, thereby appealing to young audiences who recognize themselves and to adult audiences who enjoy recalling the ways their minds worked as children.
The movie won’t disappoint fans of the show. The story is something of a prequel in which we learn how the girls decided to use their powers to help the city of Townsville. At first, like any other kids, they have a lot of destructive fun with their abilities, ripping up roads and blowing stuff up in a game of tag that’s a visual parody of those absurd chase scenes in big-budget action thrillers. But eventually, Mojo Jojo threatens to take over the town from his not-so-secret secret hideout, and the girls leap into action, superhero style.
While it’s tough to sit through two hours of any cartoon, this is no “Pokémon,” a movie that killed its franchise’s golden goose. The Powerpuff Girls movie shares all the rapid references, jokes and dry humor of the show — as well as its flexibility about gender. At a low point, when Mojo and his cronies have almost won, the girls are reunited with Professor Utonium, who performs that Teri Garr “Stop trying to save the world and finish your dinner” role like a fussy queen. “Oh, girls! Thank goodness you’re OK!” he says as he hugs them. “Now let’s get out of this town and find a new, safe place to live!”
No one tells the girls to save the day. All the townspeople, including the professor, are frightened wimps who are only out for themselves. The girls have to decide as a group whether to help. Instead of being too good to be true, they struggle with the decision like normal kids.
But for all the unspoken lessons in ethics, the movie and the TV show avoid the heavy-handed morality of other children’s fare, and this subtlety may be another reason the girls have become a symbol for some adult fans. One of Groucho Marx’s most memorable quips might be rewritten for our times as, “I wouldn’t belong to any target demographic that would have me as a member.” Despite the tendency of marketing executives to see the world through the haze of peer-group goggles, real human beings dislike being lumped into categories. Thus, the absence of Powerpuff T-shirts and movie posters that say, “Girls Rule!” or “Girls Kick Ass!” may be a testament to both the wisdom and the self-restraint of the franchise.
Of course it makes complete sense in a world without gender-role stereotypes that these superheroes never tout their appeal as females or decry the unfairness of being girls. Why should they, when their daddy is a mommy, their boss is their boss’s female secretary, and their foes are always, ultimately, conquerable without the help of outside forces? That our heroes’ girl-ness is beside the point might just be the most revolutionary aspect of the show.
In some ways, these likable squeeze toys have pulled off the ultimate branding feat: They represent girl power without having to mention it. Given a recent Gallup poll that found that only 25 percent of women today consider themselves feminists, the Powerpuff Girls may reflect a shift from embracing political and social labels to choosing between carefully packaged products that have ideologies encoded deep within their shiny exteriors.
Firmly held beliefs are naturally rife with stigmas, awkward internal contradictions, and ideological pitfalls. But in a branded universe, such beliefs are reduced to unspoken preferences, revealed only when the light is shining directly on them — and even then, they sparkle as subtly as body glitter. Why take on a political label when you can wear a cool-looking T-shirt that says the same thing, but without any of the negative associations? Is she a feminist? Oh, no! She just loves those Powerpuff Girls!
Can a new generation of gender-blind Powerpuffs conquer inequality simply by optimistically refusing to recognize its existence? For many girls today, this approach seems to work. They don’t cry out against inequality; they simply take for granted that the world will treat them fairly — and in some cases the world seems to follow suit. “Of course I should be able to play football, or wrestle,” they tell us nonchalantly, as if suggesting otherwise is downright absurd — and it is, isn’t it? A lot of boys seem to agree. (McCracken is one of them.) Power isn’t something that many women feel they should have to struggle for. And for them, dressing sexily or behaving cute is beside the point — those things should enhance their personal power, not diminish it.
It’s tough to disagree with such a refreshingly self-actualized approach, particularly since it eliminates the need to put a male face on oppression. Perhaps assuming that justice will prevail is the quickest route to achieving justice. Still, with the rise of the sexy heroine in movies like “Tomb Raider” and “Enough” and TV shows like “Alias,” “Dark Angel” and “She Spies,” the more salient question for budding feminists may not be whether it’s acceptable to be powerful and pretty at the same time, but whether being powerful without being pretty is even an option.
When Janet Reno’s appearance garners more sniping than her policies, and Britney Spears’ looks get more glowing reviews than her songs, it’s difficult to see how real power in the absence of beauty could ever be enticing to a new generation of girls, even with the help of the Powerpuffs. Power that depends on beauty may remain forever in the eye — and in the hands — of the beholder.
Still, the real impact of “The Powerpuff Girls” may lie in its unrelenting focus on giddy fun for the sake of fun, its hints of a new era of popular art that plays with gender instead of struggling under the weight of it, thereby creating an imaginary world as appealing as it is unbound by archaic stereotypes.
Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.More Heather Havrilesky.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)