Why the cartoons of the ’90s were more progressive than you think

Cartoons, whether they do so intentionally or not, play a large role in shaping the beliefs and prejudices of children. Lucy Zee looks back at the ’90s cartoons of her youth and how they may have been more forward-thinking than they’re given credit for.

There’s nothing better than being 8 years old, nursing a big bowl of off-brand coco pops in your lap, sitting smack bang in front of the TV (maybe way too close to the screen than was healthy) and watching hours and hours of cartoons on a Saturday morning. And it was only until the Natural Glow infomercials started did you realise you had pins and needles in your legs and you were busting to pee.

We are lucky enough in 2016 that we’re able to flick on the television and enjoy several mainstream cartoons that have championed increasing visibility towards the LGTBQ community. A few of the more progressive offerings of late include Steven Universe, Adventure Time and Rick And Morty, who have same-sex, bisexual and gender-fluid main characters.

But is this kind of representation as new as we think? Looking back at the cartoons of my late 90s/early 2000s childhood, they actually weren’t too far behind, slowly and subtly introducing gender-fluid and androgynous characters into popular cartoons. Here are some of the most memorable.

The Gromble – Aaahh!!! Real Monsters


You have to give props to someone who can spend a whole day on their feet in a pair of heels, but you’ve gotta give double props to someone who spends all day on their feet wearing TWO sets of heels.

With red pumps and matching lipstick, a riding crop and patent leather belt, The Gromble was a perfect example of how to ‘dress for success’.

Nearly every school has that one teacher who is a mixture of a Paula Bennett haircut and Voldemort, wears a Hillary Clinton two-piece polyester pantsuit, exudes authority, and demands respect. You don’t mess around with this teacher, you don’t question their attire. No, you keep your damn eyes to the floor and pray to the 6 God that you don’t get a lunchtime detention because it’s sausage sizzle day.

The Gromble ruled the monster academy as headmaster, underground in a dump in the middle of a huge city. You cannot deny that although his teaching methods are dangerous and extreme, he got the results from his students and looked fabulous doing it.

HIM – Powerpuff Girls


A truly genderfluid, androgynous character, HIM was one of the most terrifying and intriguing villains of the Powerpuff Girls universe.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that most of these trans/genderfluid characters are depicted as the villain, using their appearance and mannerisms as a device to make their audience feel uncomfortable. This could have perpetuated a harmful stereotype for the community if these characters were written one dimensionally and if they appeared to be weak or lacked any charisma or style. Thankfully the majority were quite the opposite.

Serving you Tyra Banks legs for days, a Boyband goatee and Lil’ Kim pink fur realness, HIM was a fashion icon in the city of Townsville. Guaranteed, if HIM was a real person he would have been friends with Paris and Nicole Richie, he would have spread rumours about Tara Reid, and he would have been the firecrotch of that generation. HIM gives you fear, fashion and fierceness in one satanically hot package.

At the time of airing, there was outrage from people labeling this cartoon character as a “Transvestite” and asking “Why would they put a devil dressed as a gay guy, on a kids show??” it made conservative people very uncomfortable but in the fitting words of Junior Labeija in Paris is Burning we ask, “Why y’all gagging so?”.

The Red Guy – Cow And Chicken


One of the most memorable traits of ‘The Red Guy’ was that he would walk everywhere on his butt which he called “butt-walking”.

Already set in an insane world where a man and woman with no torsos have children who are a cow and a chicken, there was a devil-esque character who would turn up in a costume just to fuck shit up for his own enjoyment. From dressing as a pantless door salesman to a flight attendant in fake boobs. You could almost liken The Red Guy to that one friend we have who LOVES to dress up. You know the one – they have an emergency devil horns headband in their desk drawers, they’re the first to suggest going to LookSharp in town on your lunch break and you know if you need a wig, this friend has it in three colours and two styles.

The Red Guy taught us that to play the part, you have to dress the part. And you must commit to the part to the extreme – this guy was basically method acting on mephedrone.
No matter what he wore, or what gender he was playing, he didn’t let anything hold him back. He was always himself, his insane, buttwalking, mid-sentance screaming, devilish self. Respect.

Bender – Futurama


There was a an episode in this prime-time award winning series where Bender, a misogynistic, problematic, drunk fuccboi male-robot, got a “sex change” to become a lady-robot. Think a futuristic version of the classic film Tootsie (that people who studied film love to talk about but no one has actually seen). Bender gets a physical sex-change, but at the same time still keeps his current male-programed mind. He happily takes advantage of all the perks of being a robot-woman, then tricks a male-robot into marrying him.

Bender eventually begins to question his own motives and resolves the situation by going back to being his original self, ending the episode by revealing that he still has a small emotionally-romantic attachment to the male-robot he seduced.

A cartoon created in 1999 with a target audience of males aged 18-35, this was a pretty woke episode to show people who might not know much about transgender community that there is more to trans people than just a shitty gross joke being made walking down K Road.

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