Let's be frank: 2017 is a bad year in the lives of America women. While a list of '90s feminist cartoons to revisit in 2017 may seem far too frivolous antidote for this era, I disagree. When feeling like you're living in the darkest possible timeline, spending the entirety of your free time reading up on the most enraging latest developments in the news isn't realistic. At some point, you're going to have to take a second to unwind, and maybe it makes sense to do that to a form of entertainment whose politics (at least broadly) line up with your own.
Perhaps we're obsessed with the '90s because it felt like a safer time. As with most past eras that people look back upon with a nostalgic fondness, this isn't, obviously, true. For example, there were higher levels of violence (especially in 1990, in which homicides peaked in New York City) than there are now. And many of the shows we look back on as progressive seem now to be pretty offensive or just no big deal compared to what's on TV now.
So don't make the mistake of rubbing away all of the rough edges of the era. Instead, pay tribute to the great feminist characters and cartoons that were produced in response to this climate. This list is a good place to start.
Arguably the best show on MTV of the era, Daria outlined the possibilities of feminism, whether you wanted to be a high-achiever like Jodie Landon, a bicurious artist like Jane Lane, or as boldly misanthropic as the titular character. It hit home that uneasy truth that women shouldn't have to bend over backwards to come across as likable and sugar sweet to get by in the world.
2'The Little Mermaid'
The TV spin-off of the Disney film functioned as a prequel, and pre-Eric Ariel is pretty formidable. She's fiercely independent, loves going on adventures, and even spends Season 2 developing magic in order to save her world. The control she exerts on her own environment makes her the opposite of a passive Disney princess who needs saving.
Miss Grotke was your introduction to intersectional feminism long before that term existed. With statements like "Let's read how the barbaric Europeans stole this country from the Native Americans" and descriptions of Amelia Earhart as embodying "rugged feminism," she wasn't letting anyone zone out and enjoy their TV in a braindead fashion.
Because while the show has a boy's name in the title, it focuses almost as much on Helga G. Pataki, who, even at 9 years old, is a fully-fledged feminist. Even in moments when she's pressured into behaving in a more conventionally feminine way (as in the above), she generally reverts back to being herself, suggesting peer pressure doesn't work in the long term for her.
Lisa Simpson was the role model young girls needed. She was smart and compassionate and highly observant about gender inequality. In “Lisa The Beauty Queen” she used the extra media attention she won via her title to improve her city, in “Mr Lisa Goes To Washington” she made sure to swing by a women’s rights activist memorial on a trip to Washington DC and in “The Springfield Connection,” when Marge becomes a police officer, Lisa expresses why she doesn’t think the police can fix everything, arguing “Don’t you think we ought to attack the roots of social problems instead of jamming people into overcrowded prisons?” Heck, even her Malibu Stacey doll had her own weekly feminist newsletter.
Where to begin, really? We got Betty Deville, who challenged heteronormative cliches about marriage by living for football and letting her husband do the cooking and washing up. Then there was Charlotte Pickles, who may have been a little too much of a workaholic for your taste, but you've got to admire her commitment to being both a mother and having a thriving career. On top of that, characters like Susie Carmichael showed us that you were never too young to start standing up to bullies like Angelica.
7'X-Men: The Animated Series'
Boasting four women who were treated as every bit as strong and competent as the male characters and, with the show exploring social issues from divorce ("Proteus") to AIDS hysteria ("Time Fugitives"), X-Men: The Animated Series may have been about mutants, but it was all about imparting wisdom you could use in your day to day life.
8'The Magic School Bus'
Given that we're getting a Magic School Bus reboot, you're definitely due a re-watch. Ms. Frizzle didn't just teach science; she brought it to life through a series of magic adventures — as such, she was the ultimate advocate for women in STEM.
Pepper Ann might have only been 12 years old, but she wasn't afraid to get political, spouting truths about the wage gap and the lack of female presidents. Besides which, featuring a single working mother and a sister who didn't conform to gender norms of how little girls should present themselves, Pepper Ann was far more radical for its time than you realized watching it the first time round.
10'The Powerpuff Girls'
Where would a feminist cartoon list be without The Powerpuff Girls? Bubbles, Blossom and Buttercup didn't just have different hair colors, but distinct, developed personalities. And the whole gag — that tiny cute girls couldn't be strong and badass — challenged your own assumptions and prejudices about girls.
OK, fine, it only launched in the final year of the '90s, but this one's important. Sandy Cheeks was arguably the only competent character on Spongebob Squarepants — and how. She wasn't just a scientist. She was also an inventor, and her karate skills weren't to be trifled with. Watching this squirrel do her thing makes me believe women can have it all.
The prejudice Reggie Rocket faces as Team Rocket's sole female member told me how much feminism was necessary even as a kid. She's also, much like Sandy, competent and independent, managing to be incredibly sporty, rock purple hair, and run her own magazine despite not even having hit her teens yet.
13'The Wild Thornberrys'
We didn't get one, but three, strong female characters in this show: Marianne and her daughters Debbie and Eliza. Neither Debbie nor Eliza Thornberry seemed to spend much time caring what they looked like; Eliza was too absorbed in science, while Debbie was an engaged environmentalist. This could have had something to do with their mother, who operates the film camera (hiking, jumping, climbing to get the perfect spot) and edits the nature show starring her husband that the family makes.
So, no, the '90s were in no way a perfect time for women. But, as these cartoons show, by this point in time, feminism had made it out of universities and independent publications and onto your screens. Feel free to indulge in your favorite '90s cartoons minus the guilt; these shows don't count as you tuning the world out.