Working from home, stressing about housing court and of course, Covid-19 have really sucked what little life there was out of this blog, and I guess my life. I haven’t had as much time or will for articles, and 2020 so far is shaping up to be my most scarce year ever. Which would stink, since this past July was my 6th anniversary doing this blog. Six long years. A part of me admires the dedication to this blog, the people who read get some enjoyment or fulfillment from it, and the self-perspective and analysis I have gained from it. Another part of me wonders how things would have gone had I just doggedly tried OkCupid or PlentyOfFish more since 2014. Now, of course, with everything shut down and a handicapped mother to fear getting sick, dating is done.
But, enough about the grim present. Let’s focus on the nostalgic past! This is actually the post I would have written last time, if my only online romance guru hadn’t have gone and admitted to being a creeper back in June. Back in May, I had a discussion with one of this blog’s commentors and the conversation led towards crushes on cartoon heroines. Although the conversation led somewhere I wasn’t willing to go — living vicariously through an imaginary fictional girlfriend, basically — it did get me thinking about where my fundamentals of attraction came from. I’ve written articles based on chats with this blog’s dedicated readers before; where else would I have gotten my “Top 10 Flaws & Strengths” articles from?
Now I suppose someone may ask: “how far into your own lack of a love life’s past can you go, Dateless-Man?” And my answer is, far enough so that I can break the space/time continuum, visit myself in my youth and tell myself to date more, therefore ensuring that in at least one timeline, I became somebody’s boyfriend. Besides, until there’s a Covid vaccine, the present isn’t about to get any sexier. And in terms of sex appeal, I’d have to work my way up to ALF.
As a caveat, I’d like to preface it to say that despite the title, there were no long term “fantasies” involving any of these characters. There were no fan arts, no shrines, and no naughty dreams. I seemed to always know the difference between animation and real life, even as a kid when I watched nothing but animation. The girls and women I would dream about were either ones I knew in real life, or most often, ones created by my own imagination. However, I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit there weren’t some animated girls/women I “attached” to a little as I grew up. For all I know, they could have helped shape the qualities that I find attractive in women now. After all, when I was a kid and teen watching cartoons, I still had hope.
Without giving away my age specifically, my memories began in the early to mid 1980’s. One of the first handful of cartoons I remember attaching to during my pre-kindergarten (or “pre-K”) years was Inspector Gadget, and that means the female character who made an impression on me at my youngest was Penny (or Penny Gadget as she’s informally known). The original series ran for 2 seasons from 1983-1986 on broadcast syndication and has remained in circulation on some channel more or less ever since. The niece of the title character, she was voiced in the first season by Cree Summer (in her first role) and in the second by Holly Berger.
Penny was hardly the first notable heroine in animation during this time. Other examples include Teela from He-Man & the Masters of the Universe, Firestar from Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, the titular heroine She-Ra, the girls from Jem & the Holograms, Scarlett and Baroness from G.I. Joe, and Cheetara on Thundercats. And for weirdos, Smurfette from The Smurfs, or even Cleo from Heathcliff for the furries. But for whatever reason it was Penny that first stuck with me, and I’ve never quite figured out why. Now, remember, at the time I wouldn’t have even been in first grade yet, so technically Penny was an “older” kid at the time.
That may have been one of the reasons why Penny did make an impression, though. Unlike the others, who were all either teenagers or adult women, Penny was a kid, like me. She was older but still a kid. And she didn’t have any combat skills or super-powers, or dressed in an unrealistic outfit. Penny was super-smart, brave, and resourceful, and had many skills, but she wasn’t a martial arts master or a warrior. And while she did get imperiled a lot, most times she got out of it herself. Besides, at the time (and even today), Penny was very unique. She may have been a cute pig-tailed blonde, but she dressed like a tomboy — right down to patches on the knees of her pants. No dresses or bows for her, or pink of any kind, even. Yet she was also a computer genius who didn’t look the part; and trust me, in the 80’s, “dork” characters were usually easy to spot design wise. Maybe to pre-K me, Penny was “realistic” for a cartoon girl and reflected qualities I liked.
After 1987-1988, though, my child life was almost completely dominated by one franchise: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That thing hit like a truck full of surfer catch phrases, half-shelled heroes and pizza and few kids realized how big it would get. It was the top of the heap for kids media for at least 4-5 prime years until 1992-1993, when things started to wane (and it faced stiffer competition). And even then, the original cartoon still lasted 10 seasons, 7 of which were on CBS. The show ran so long that in the last seasons in 1996-1997, characters started using “the Internet.”
And of course you can’t have the Ninja Turtles without April O’Neil. Voiced by Renae Jacobs, her animated appearance comes with a bit of history. She, like the rest of the Ninja Turtles, were based on comics from Mirage Studios circa 1984. In those, April was originally heavily implied to be a woman of color. The interior art was black and white, but many of the issue covers made it more obvious. She was based on the then-girlfriend of co-creator Kevin Eastman, who was Asian. But the cartoon made her (and villain Baxtor Stockman) Caucasian, and then from then on reprints of the original comics sort of amended that. Considering how popular April became with boys, I always wondered what would have happened if she’d remained a woman of color in the ’87 cartoon.
At any rate, unlike Penny there’s no deep rooted mystery as to why I attached to her at the time. As the female lead of the biggest franchise around, it was impossible not to attach to her. I imagine for some kids, the skin tight yellow jumpsuit and red hair helped. Her design was inspired by Fujiko Mine from the Lupin the Third franchise, who wore stuff like that all the time. However, it’s still an odd outfit for a TV reporter! Speaking of which, in the original comics she was a lab assistant, whereas in the cartoon she was an anchorwoman and also got imperiled a lot. Unlike Penny, despite being an adult (in her mid 20’s if I recall one line properly), she had to be rescued almost all the time.
As a kid, April was essentially the damsel in distress; she was pretty and an adult and a key bit of exposition within the franchise. She still bravely ventured towards danger, even if it almost always led to her capture. On rare occasions she helped save the day, and at least often gathered info for the Turtles, or was their main contact with the human world. There’s some subtext there that I missed as a kid but saw on a rewatch years ago. Her boss at Channel 6, Burne Thompson, is kind of a gruff creep who dates a woman half his age who clearly hired April for her looks, and would get irritated when she insisted on being a journalist. One episode even has April stress once her contract is up, because she doubts Burne will rehire her. And her snooty co-worker Vernon Fenwick is always trying to one-up her or get her fired, or demoted, despite being a coward. By the end of the series, April becomes an “independent freelance journalist,” not beholden to one network, and she ditched the yellow jumpsuit.
Ironically, while I had no interest in April’s pal Irma (the secretary at Channel 6) as a kid, she definitely is a character who is more amusing if you rewatch when older. Despite her homely fashion, cave-woman hairstyle and thick glasses, she was very thirsty. She’d flirt with anyone, get jealous anytime April or any other woman got more attention than her (even as a hostage) and got misty eyed anytime she even talked about men. It didn’t matter if they were humans, mutants, aliens, or even robots. It’s very funny. And the show never “cheated” and ever claimed Irma was “Hollywood homely.” They never had that moment where she took off the glasses and pony-tail strap and suddenly she was a model. Nope, not even when she got zapped by rays and briefly became “Super-Irma,” she always looked the same.
But, April and the Ninja Turtles had plenty of rivals. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t give a mention to Lydia Deetz, the pre-teen goth girl from 1989’s animated Beetlejuice animated series. Voiced by Alyson Court (also from Big Comfy Couch), the cartoon was based on Tim Burton’s classic 1988 film of the same name, and was so popular that at one point during its 4 season run it was airing on ABC and Fox virtually at the same time. It aired on Fox during weekdays and on ABC Saturday morning, which is nuts. Pale, with black hair, a tunic ripped off Spider-Man’s back, and thick purple eye-shadow, she may have been many a boy’s introduction to “goth girls” at the end of the 80’s. In fact the weirdest thing about the show was Lydia’s relationship with Beetlejuice.
In the film, Lydia’s a teenager (played by the then-18 Winona Ryder) and Beetlejuice attempts to marry her. Yet in the cartoon, Lydia’s in middle school and is merely “good friends” with Beetlejuice. Such good friends that Beetlejuice often calls her “babe” and they celebrate anniversaries (and at times treat a brief end of their “friendship” as if it were a break-up). And more than one Netherworld being tries to marry her. Regardless, no matter how gross, ugly, lazy, and mean-spirited Beetlejuice often was, Lydia was nearly devoted to him for three reasons. He accepted her as she was, he often would aid her in her own revenge schemes against either her parents or her snooty classmates, and he could always make her laugh. As “the class clown,” a part of me always liked that last part.
However, by 1992-1993, my interest in Ninja Turtles was starting to wane. I was growing up and better, more serious cartoons were hitting the small screen. The first among them which caught my eye were another team of mutants, the X-Men. Based off the popular comic book and hitting Fox only about 3 years after NBC passed on a pilot, it plastered Jim Lee’s costume designs all over TV screens and action figure aisles. Although the team are called the “X-Men,” about half the team are women, and the one who caught my attention was Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann). Clearly a product of the 1980’s, Rogue combined super-strength and nigh invulnerability with a sassy Southern attitude and her curse of being unable to touch anyone. I suppose it may not shock people that an older male virgin would attach to a character like that.
Unlike those other heroines, there was more genuine angst and tragedy to Rogue. It was clear that if left to her own devices, she was a confident woman who would have a healthy love life. But the same powers she relied on every day kept her from touching anyone without killing them (or risking their psyche and powers bonding to her forever). She wasn’t always a bundle of sadness, but now and then it would hit her, and she would consider, say, a “cure.” Unfortunately, I can’t say I ever connected to Gambit, her self proclaimed immortal lover. Sometimes he’d ware her down and other times she was as annoyed by him as I was. He was like a spandex clad, trench coat wearing Pepe LePew with five o’clock shadow. Besides, what competition in the “lady” department did Rogue have? Jean Grey shifted between delivering exposition and screaming. Jubilee (also voiced by Alyson Court) was usually annoying. And Storm often spouted haughty, melodramatic weather-related dialogue which was so bonkers that it’d make Thor blush. At any rate, it was that mixture of assertive sass with deep seeded vulnerability which likely helped me attach to Rogue as a kid. And no, the spandex didn’t hurt.
By now there were tons of quality cartoons on the air. Batman: the Animated Series was arguably the king of the heap with plenty of cool characters of both sexes. The irony is that unlike some other franchises, I was already well aware of Batman and his cast due to the syndication of the 1966 TV show. And there was Gargoyles, which is still awesome, but as a kid for whatever reason I didn’t watch the show as often as I should have. But if we’re talking about lady cartoon characters I attached to as a kid for reasons, then it’s Felicia Hardy (voiced by Jennifer Hale) from 1994’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Hardy, as the Black Cat, was a longtime character from Spidey’s comics, but the version from the cartoon was almost a new character. A wealthy trust fund youth, she was initially interested in the jock Flash Thompson before growing closer to Peter Parker, and ultimately his alter-ego, Spider-Man.
In the comics, of course, Spidey’s true love is Mary Jane Watson. In the cartoon, though, Mary Jane went through all sorts of weird stuff, such as being banished to another dimension, cloned, and mingled with Hydro-Man’s DNA as a clone. It was Felicia who made a stronger impression as she went from a spoiled little rich girl to someone who grew to appreciate others, and ultimately became Spidey’s partner (and briefly lover) as the Black Cat (whose origin was mixed with Captain America’s for some reason). Whenever Spider-Man was going through something really rough, Felicia, or Black Cat, was always there. She wasn’t just someone he fought for; she could often fight with him. Her only demerit was getting intertwined with Morbius the Living Vampire, who sucked. Fox’s censors had so neutered the science vampire that he was essentially an angst ridden variant of Count Chocula. It certainly was fun when Hale got to reprise the role for a Spider-Man game from the original PlayStation 1! Although not as tragic as Rogue, Felicia did have pain in her life and went through more of a journey than April did.
As the 1990’s ended I was getting older, going to high school and all that, and I was mostly weening myself off of broadcast network cartoons to obsess about Japanese anime for a while. Nowadays, comics and anime are fairly mainstream, but in the late 90’s it was still niche territory (or “only for kids”). There were still plenty of fodder for Saturday mornings, but the last cartoon which had female characters that “connected” to me when I was still young enough to be impressionable was 2000’s X-Men: Evolution on Kid’s WB. It really was a “crossroads” kind of show. Production would have begun in 1999, and it debuted at the start of the 21st century as Fox’s “X-MEN” film became a hit. As such there were design and plot elements which seemed to represent the end of the 90’s and the start of a new era no animator could entirely predict.
By the year 2000 I was in my late teens, finishing high school and beginning the shift to college. And the last two animated heroines who made any impression on me while I was still technically a juvenile were in some ways “back to the future.” They also represented the archetypes of the sorts of girls I was attracted to at the time. A new incarnation of X-Men meant a new incarnation of Rogue, this time voiced by Meghan Black. She was a teenager like most of the cast, and this time redesigned as a goth. Pale skin, dark or odd clothing, and more angst ridden than flirty.
Alongside her was a longer term X-Men member who finally got a chance to be a regular, Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat, voiced by Maggie Blue O’Hara. Kitty was the exact opposite of Rogue; perky, upbeat, optimistic, and with endless “Valley Girl” lingo. And as I said, they were essentially the animated avatars of the sorts of young women I usually crushed on during my social life at school. I either liked happy-go-lucky upbeat balls of energy who I imagined could get me out of my shell like Kitty, or edgy fringe-crawling goths like Rogue who would hang back with me and mock the “norms” with me in between sharing our traumas. At the time I’d become well know for wearing a black leather trench-coat and steel toed boots, even during the summer, and acting “too cool for school” to mask my crippling insecurity. It never worked.
So, what did we learn from this? About the only thing all of these characters had in common was being smart, and fighting bad guys. Many of them were career driven, confident, and often were driven to excel in worlds dominated by men (even if a few of them were often saved by men). I wasn’t obsessed with any of them and I certainly don’t wish to live vicariously through any now, even if I can understand the power of imagination to get one through the day. It was fun to revisit this, if only to remember a more innocent time in my life where I still had a shred of hope for a better day. I doubt I’m the only American dude who “noticed” some heroines in animated form, even to a minor degree, as he grew up.
It’d be nice to have some genuine experience to compare a lot of the imagination to. But, those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, blog. At least I got to treat an article here a little bit like the day-to-day geek articles that I write in my alter ego, much like when I discussed The Mask or reviewed “The 40 Year Old Virgin.” Thanks for reading, everyone. Maybe next time it’ll be something deeper or bleaker. And hopefully I can get in at least enough posts here to match 2019!