UPDATE: One of the writers for the episode has apologized, and clarified that she never intended the episode as a gender allegory — it seems that came from the executive producers. It’s a very good apology, and we urge you to read it.
Why we’re covering this: We love unicorns (duh) and the newest episode of The Powerpuff Girls features a transgender storyline about a unicorn who wants a horn. We love ground-breaking television, and this episode deserves a closer look!
A lot of hay has been made about “Horn, Sweet Horn,” the special transgender-metaphor episode of the new Powerpuff Girls reboot series — and make no bones about it, it’s explicitly intended to be about being trans. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, executive producer Nick Jennings had this to say about it:
We did an episode where there’s a unicorn. Basically when it starts out, he’s a pony, but he wants to be a unicorn. He has to go through a transformation to become a unicorn and so it’s a whole [episode that asks], ‘What are you on the inside? What are you on the outside? How do you identify yourself? How do people see you?’ There’s a lot of subtext in that.
Not only that, but Jennings even cites Steven Universe as a template for approaching gender issues. Some of the LGBTQ media has picked up on this — but generally with fluff pieces, pointing out that the episode ends with The Powerpuff Girls’ heart logo in the colors of the trans flag.
Unfortunately, however, as good as it seems on the surface — Yay, a cartoon about trans issues! Yay, trans flag! Yay, trans kids get to see themselves reflected in a show they watch! — they could have done better had they consulted with the trans community first.
How badly did it go? This bad — if you search “PPG” on Tumblr, it suggests “transphobia”:
That’s not exactly a word you want to see to describe your Very Special Episode set out to handle gender issues a la Steven Universe. But is it really that bad?
Tumblr user jitterbugjive says so — and they’ve done an extensive debunking of the episode. Jitterbugjive’s post is way too long to embed — though it’s very much worth reading in whole — but the short version is: After Powerpuff Girl Buttercup forcibly outs Donny the Unicorn as having a false horn, Bubbles befriends Donny; not out of a sense of justice, but because she wants to be friends with a unicorn (and not necessarily Donny in particular — the unicorn in her mind looks nothing like Donny). So the Powerpuff Girls then approach the Professor to help Donny transition using a risky process that goes wrong — before the process, the Professor makes Donny sign a looooooong form of disclaimers including “FOREVER PAIN” listed as a possible side effect:
Unfortunately, the magical process turns Donny into a monster, and he becomes the villain of the episode — at least until it’s revealed that he actually had a horn all along, just under his hair? WTF? Add in a bunch of phallic references, jokes reinforcing the gender binary and the trans-villain trope, and you’ve got yourself a hot load of unicorn apples.
Also: It seems interesting that the official episode synopsis (and LA Times article) refers to Donny as “Donny The Pony”, which strikes this reporter as the metaphorical equivalent of deadnaming or misgendering, if one can do that to a magical cartoon equine.
Jitterbugjive wasn’t the only Tumblr poster upset. Bisexualowain says:
Rockbusted tries to fix the episode:
And Trans-boy-dick-grayson wonders whatever happened to that PPG reboot they’d heard so much about:
It’s worth mentioning, too, that last week’s episode of Powerpuff Girls, “Princess Buttercup”— where Buttercup joins a roller derby team — also features a transphobic joke, where one of Buttercup’s roller derby teammates is a big, burly man in a dress named “Bobby Suza Ray Lynn”.
We reached out to Manic Pixie Nightmare Girls transgender cartoonist Jessica Udischas about the episode.
Unicorn Booty: What could the episode have done better?
Jessica Udischas: Gosh, where do I begin? The whole episode was a train wreck for the beginning and I suggest everyone read the jitterbugjive post. But simply, it would have been nice if the overall episode was more affirming to Donny the ‘trans’ unicorn character — which it was not.
First, they humiliate the character by ripping off his horn and call him a drama queen for being rightfully angry, employing all these stereotypes on how trans people are just angry for no reason. Can you imagine if in real life someone ripped off a trans man’s packer? But it’s ironic because there is a war being waged against us to keep us out of public spaces, which of course we’re angry about.
Then instead of affirming Donny’s identity as a unicorn, it weirdly turns into Bubbles’ desire to have a unicorn friend and they push this horn surgery on him which they warn will last FOREVER. Trans people don’t need to be reminded about the long lasting effects of surgery. With the hoops we have to jump through to get treatment, and the harassment we often get from our families, we know medical treatment will have permanent effects. And the whole “trans regret” thing is completely rare and sensationalized. So the episode would have been better if it focused around Donny’s feelings and not Bubbles’.
Then Donny gets the horn surgery and it turn him into a fucking monster! He even calls himself a freak! WTF! I am not a freak. It would have been much better if the bad guys were the ones insisting he’s not a unicorn, and then getting the surgery and having him feel good and confident in himself no matter what anybody says… and then having a few people come around to the idea that he really is a unicorn, but a few bad guys still being a jerk about it… Maybe even bad guys who go out of their way to stop the surgery, because that’s what trans people actually face. At the end they try to put a band-aid on all the transphobia but having it turn out he was a REAL unicorn the whole time, awww!
What would you recommend so this doesn’t happen again?
If they don’t want to have a disaster like this again I suggest actually consulting trans people who know trans politics and trans feminism. Trans cartoonists like *cough* me *cough*, or just ask the question, is this affirming to trans people? Be bold! Make a cartoon that in five or 10 years from now people say was ahead of its time instead of embarrassingly regressive.
What would you point to as a good example?
Steven Universe handles gender stuff in such a delicate lovely way. I love the whole idea of fusion because there are many ways it can be interpreted. Steven and Connie fuse together to become Stevonnie and many trans people I know who saw that couldn’t help but think of how Steven was now in the body of a woman… and later we learn from creator Rebecca Sugar that Stevonnie is actually non-binary — it’s so good! Even better, you could tell that Pearl was uncomfortable, but Garnet encourages Stevonnie to be themselves.
Even more blatant, later in the series, Steven wears makeup, a crop top, skirt and heels and sings a pop song, and everybody cheers. Likewise, when they explore how Garnet first became herself, she says “Why am I so sure that I’d rather be this than everything I was supposed to be, and that I’d rather do this than anything I was supposed to do?” That line made me cry thinking about my own transition.
Are you a Powerpuff Girls fan, and how progressive do you think the original series was?
I was a huge fan of Powerpuff Girls when it first came on — I even saw the movie opening night. But that was back when I had no idea I could actually ever be myself. And in fact, the character HIM sent shivers down my spine. He scared the hell out of me. Because, of course, I didn’t realize at the time I was actually female and felt nothing but shame about my feminine inclinations. And the HIM character just reinforced all the bad feelings I had about myself being trans. But at the time I just buried it.
But yeah the new PPG has yet to introduce HIM which I am sure is going to upset more trans folks. But exploring HIM as a transmisogynistic trope can be a subject for another time. Still, it’s things like this that keep trans people from feeling invited to be fans. HIM fucked me up big time; he is like the Buffalo Bill of kids shows.
It wasn’t just HIM that was transphobic; episodes that put men in the Powerpuff Girls’ girls outfits always included extra hair on the arms and legs.
Do you think there’s a blatant anti-trans agenda at work?
Some people think so — but I’ve heard through the grapevine that the woman who wrote this episode has trans friends. So it sounds like she’s either just clueless and messed up big time, or the network made changes. I think she just has some unchecked transphobia. Either way, I worry about how this will affect trans kids.