On The Importance of Advisement

For today’s “Trans* Tuesday” post, I want to talk a little bit about the importance of advisement. Specifically, the importance of having someone intimately familiar with a marginalized group of people (preferably from inside the group) as an advisor to writers and directors for film and television.

This can, of course, be applied to any piece of media or literature which aims to discuss the issues of any group, be they black, hispanic, asian, the homeless, drug users, etc. But today, I’m going to focus on the importance of transgender advisement as it relates to Cartoon Network.

Please bear with me here. This sounds silly, but I have a point I’m trying to make, I assure you.

In a fairly recent episode of the new Powerpuff Girls series on Cartoon Network entitled “Horn, Sweet Horn”, the Professor tries to make Donny the Pony a unicorn at Bubbles’ request, but Donny is turned into a monster that threatens Townsville.

Now, I want to pause here for a minute. This sounds like a perfectly legitimate concept for a Powerpuff Girls episode. Normally, I would have no problem with it. However, the writers attempt to allude to transgender issues with the story, and they do so in an incredibly problematic way.

powerpuff-girls2_640x345_acf_croppedIn the episode, Bubbles and her class take a field trip to the Townsville zoo, where Bubbles excitedly asks when they’re going to see the unicorns. Everyone laughs and tells her unicorns aren’t real, and so Bubbles wanders off feeling rather dejected when she runs into a young colt names Donny with a horn fashioned from a stick stuck to his head.

At this point, Bubbles’ sisters show up to tell her that the bus is about to leave. After catching sight of Donny, Buttercup asks, “Hey. What’s up with the horse?” Bubbles defends Donny’s identity saying, “He’s not a horse! He’s a unicorn!” And this is where things start to get upsetting. Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 3.24.50 PM

Really upsetting. Buttercup responds with, “I hate to break it to you Bubbles, but that’s
not a unicorn. That’s just…” Buttercup proceeds to knock the makeshift horn off Donny’s head. “…sad.”

So, let’s stop here for a minute and think about this one action. If Donny is our transgender analog, let’s go the full monty and assume he’s a transwoman. And if we’re going to do that, we need to make Donny’s horn an analog for a transwoman. Let’s just say, a wig for simplicity’s sake. Now, if Donny is a transwoman wearing a wig, and Buttercup comes up to her and says, “Sorry to break it to you Bubbles, but your new friend is a man.” And then pulls Donny’s wig off? Would that seem right to you? How do you think Donny (the transwoman) would react?

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 3.30.16 PMKinda like this? I know that’s how I’d react. And Donny reacts in kind. From here, Donny goes on to defend his identity vehemently. “Well excuse me! I may not have a horn, but I do have a heart! And in that heart I know I’m a beautiful unicorn!” Well said, Donny.

And how does Buttercup react to this? “Whoah. Drama bomb.”

I’m going to take a second here to sigh in frustration, if you would like to join me, dear reader. See, as a transwoman, when someone invalidates my identity that I fight so hard for every day, I tend to defend myself passionately. Especially if it happens in a situation as humiliating as the above example. So, drama bomb? Buttercup isn’t even taking responsibility for her wildly inappropriate behavior.

But let’s move on, because this scene isn’t over yet. Bubbles suggests having the Professor turn Donny into a unicorn, so she can have a best friend who is a unicorn. Because, deep down, it doesn’t matter why Donny would want to do that, or even if. All that matters is that Bubbles gets to be friends with a unicorn. Right? Let’s return to our transgender analogy for a second here.

Actually, I’m not going to spell this situation out for you, cause I’m hoping you’re following along pretty well, but just imagine for yourself the “trans version” of Bubbles suggesting surgery for Donny for her own selfish reasons. Pretty offensive.

From here, the episode then moves on to the Professor’s lab, and Donny being shot with a “transmogrifier ray”, etc. There are a few more problematic details in this episode, but this is a long post already, so we’re just going to focus on the scene above, which was the most problematic part of the whole episode.

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 3.49.37 PMAnd at this point, I hope you’re thinking, “But based on the episode descriptions alone, they didn’t seem to suggest trans* anything… It doesn’t seem too offensive.” And I’d agree with you. Earlier, I wrote that it seemed like it would have been a normal episode for the Powerpuff Girls in my opinion. However, the writers and director did something very deliberately which paints the entire episode in a very tainted light: They included the transgender flag at the end of the show.

The inclusion of the transgender flag (Light pink, white (or light yellow), light blue) makes the writers’ intentions quite clear. This was supposed to be an episode that tackles transgender issues and themes of acceptance. Donny is supposed to represent a trans person. However, this episode is a wonderful example of what happens with a group of cisgendered writers take it upon themselves to be a voice for the trans community.

Now, I could be wrong. There could be a transgender person working on this show. I have no idea. But it seems to me that if there is, they would have realized how problematic this episode can be. Had the production crew just reached out to any person in the transgender community to advise and consult, this episode could have been a great thing for transgender youth. Instead, I fear it may have made things even harder for kids struggling with their identity.

Long story short (and this post is definitely long), if there is going to be a voice for the trans community in the media, make sure that a trans person is helping write those words. Because more often than not, people assume they can speak for others. And like the old addage, when you assume, you make and ass out of you and me.

Thanks for reading today, and if you got this far and read all of it, I’d love to hear some comments and opinions about the Powerpuff Girls episode, and this blog post.

And if you want an LGBTQ affirming cartoon to watch, check out Steven Universe. It’s very entertaining, has a compelling story, and is a great voice for the LGBTQ community.

EDIT: So, after reading my post above, a friend asked me how I would have written this episode. I’m not sure it could have been handled better, just cause I don’t think PPG is really the best place for this. To me, this type of show requires writing that isn’t really compatible with trans issues. Because the episodes usually focus around a villian and how the Powerpuff Girls stop said villain, etc. And making the trans character a villain is not a good way to handle something like this.

However. A start would have been actually writing a transgirl. Like a human classmate, who’s struggling with a bully at school. It could even be Buttercup, if they want to make her the bad guy. But there has to be an immediate rebuttal to Buttercup’s inappropriate behavior and a character progression for her character. But then again, I don’t write for film and television.

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