It’s been a big summer for feminism. With Beyonce and Taylor Swift recently “outing” themselves, and the snarky battle between feminists and “women against feminism” continuing to play out on Twitter and Tumblr, feminism be well be 2014’s word of the year. Contrary to what many of my younger millennial friends might think, pop culture feminism didn’t begin with Disney’s Frozen or Katniss Everdeen. Even before Buffy and the Powerpuff Girls came along, a sort of proto-pop culture feminism was already brewing in kids’ television back in the 1990s. As a pre-/teen girl growing up in the 1990s who rejected all things princess-y but was bored with superhero cartoons, I can recall several positive female characters who shaped my understanding of what it meant to be a girl.
Babs Bunny (Tiny Toon Adventures)
Oh, Babs. Despite the Tiny Toons animators saddling her with baby-pink fur and ribboned ears, mascara’ed blue eyes, and a little cotton tail suggestively poking out from her skirt, Babs was the real deal. Babs and her counterpart, Buster, were meant to be the proteges of Bugs Bunny, each of them emphasizing different parts of the Bugs persona. Buster was the carrot-munching, “What’s Up Doc?” straight man, while Babs was the featured comedian. Ever the entertainer, Babs had a killer knack for celebrity impersonations and frequently made references to contemporary (at the time) pop culture. She was smart, sassy, and hilarious, and proved that you can hang with the boys without being one of the boys.
Clarissa Darling (Clarissa Explains It All)
Clarissa Darling, the only non-animated character on this list (make of that what you will), was an exceptionally cool girl, before “Cool Girl” became a character trope. Clarissa was relatable – she didn’t have any of the big, character-defining traits (ambitious, reserved, high-strung, etc) that traditionally round out the supporting cast, she was just the protagonist of her own story. A well-adjusted, independent adolescent with a typical nuclear suburban family and an opposite-sex best friend (Sam), Clarissa’s weekly adventures generally revolved around mundane family or school activities. For example, in a quintessential first-season episode, Clarissa hatches a plot to avoid having to wear nerdy dress clothes—picked out by her mom, of course—for her school picture. (N.B. for the unfamiliar, Clarissa had a killer fashion sense for the time – she’s like a walking dELiA*s catalog). In the 3rd-act plot twist, all the other students show up in navy blazers and sweaters, and Clarissa is marked as the oddball in her funky, bright colored hip-hop inspired duds. The moral is clear: it’s important to be yourself, but sometimes mother really does know best.
Julie Winters (The Maxx)
If you were watching MTV for a brief moment in 1995, you might remember seeing a dark, trippy animated series about a big, purple crime-fighting schizophrenic superhero and his hippie-chic social worker. In The Maxx, Julie Winters is a free-lance social worker and one of the show’s two protagonists. While the titular Maxx dealt with plot elements involving perception vs. reality, and hunting down villains and man-eating monsters, Julie simultaneously embodied feminism while being openly antagonistic toward the movement. She paired provocative attire with a f**k-you attitude toward slut-shaming, while also embracing Camille Paglia, and referring to feminists as “professional victims.” Though it’s heavily implied throughout the 13-episode series that Julie’s views are her attempt to cope with her own sexual assault, the show never treated the issues with kid-glove simplicity. Also, Julie rocked the hell out of bell bottoms before anybody else in the 90s.
Daria Morgendorffer (Daria)
No list of influential female characters of the 90s is complete without mentioning Daria. Spun off from Beavis and Butthead, Daria Morgendorffer was notable for her sarcastic, cynical commentary on high school, family life, and teenage pop culture, nearly always delivered in her memorable monotone voice. Daria was pre-irony, representative of a time when people recognized that not every lame thing deserved to be emblazoned on a T-shirt and worn with a self-referential wink. Daria rejected the interests normally given to adolescent female characters (“boys, clothes, bouncy hair” as her sister Quinn might say), and she rejected any attempts by her peers to make her feel self-conscious. Daria was the ultimate outsider, the one we all imagine ourselves to be, who stands “above it all,” interchangeably mocking or dismissing those around her. (Perhaps not an ideal blank-slate character for the audience’s projection, but I’ll take her over slack-jawed Bella Swan any day).
This is, of course, a small sample of the female-focused youth TV that was available at the time. What shows have I forgotten? Leave a comment and we’ll reminisce.