Representation matters a lot, especially when you’re a young child. I don’t think I’m alone when I say as a kid I sought out characters–often in cartoons–who I was similar to. And I was lucky enough to never be lacking in representation, being Caucasian. I was always the “tomboy” of any friend group as a child. I wore a lot of baggy clothes and would often gravitate to the boys’ clothing section rather than the girls’ as I got older. I wasn’t necessarily athletic or into sports, but I remember almost always having a bruised knee or dirt-smudged cheek from playing rough with other kids. There are a lot of brunette female fictional figures that follow the bookish/brainy or pale/goth-like tropes, and although I loved them, I tended to prefer the more tough and tomboy-ish girls (who also happened to be brunette), because they were similar to myself.
Looking back, it’s almost embarrassing how my own personality as a child was dictated by my idol tough-brunettes in Western animation.
Here are the badass brunettes that I loved during my childhood into my adolescence.
Dot Warner from Animaniacs (1993-1998)
This may be a cheat right off the bat, but who cares? Dot and her two brothers are generic animal creatures with black fur, so she isn’t a typical brunette. All of the Warner siblings are, as the theme song says, “zany to the max,” but Dot is known as the cute one. She is extremely adorable, with her soft voice and flower hair/ear tie; however, she had a dark side that I was drawn to as a kid. One of her most recognizable sayings was, “Call me Dottie, and you die.” This cracked me up and was probably the beginning of my love of grim humor.
My mom was close friends with someone who owned an independent video store (wow, I’m really dating myself), and every week I would always take out one of the two VHS tapes they had of the Animaniacs. I didn’t care what else there might be–even if it was a Disney or Ghibli favourite–I exclusively picked out the Animaniacs because of their over the top antics, pop culture references (most of which went over my head), and dark undertones that, as a very young child, I loved.
Ashley Spinelli from Recess (1997-2001)
Spinelli was (and remains to be) a true icon of mine, so much so that I was nicknamed “Spinelli” at an after school Boys and Girls Club and have been her for Halloween three times. She was always known as the toughest person in school, but was also an amazing artist. I not only wanted to be her as a kid, but felt a kinship with her character (it’s possible her Italian roots played a major part in that). Spinelli also sought out positive female role models throughout the show, like Miss Finster and Miss Grotke. It was through these mentors that we saw a more vulnerable side of Spinelli, showing that she had more interests than scaring other kids.
Recess is an excellent show and even the movie School’s Out is a great stand alone film that doesn’t rely too heavily on callbacks and nostalgia. It is a wonderful example of world-building that understood children, including the hierarchy of grades, how our social status ranks us, and how a playground can be divided by these factors. I may sound like an annoying ’90s kid, but Recess was a near-perfect show, with well-rounded characters inhabiting a normally ordinary setting, that was made fascinating through the storytelling.
Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2005)
Despite the Utonium sisters having relatively the same superhero-level strength and endurance, Buttercup was the bruiser of the group. She was always ready to fight someone at any given moment, and, like Spinelli, she was quick to anger and her first response was to punch something. Similar to myself as a child, Buttercup didn’t really like school and hated to lose. She was also the only one of the Powerpuff Girls in the opening title sequence not to smile (and had that badass electric guitar riff), which immediately appealed to me. She was the embodiment of being tough.
The Powerpuff Girls introduced me to the visual Blonde, Brunette, Redhead trope that is freaking everywhere. It’s in the three primary Batgirls, Gotham City Sirens, Kanker Sisters, the girls of 6teen, etc. All of the brunettes of these trios were the more tough and tomboy-ish of their groups, but Buttercup is still, to me, the peak example of this trope.
Fa Mulan from Mulan (1998)
Although Aladdin is my favourite Disney animated movie, and I love Jasmine so much, it’s hard to compete with Fa Mulan, who defeated the Huns without being saved my a man in the end. Mulan is a film about strength, of both force and character. Mulan wasn’t angry or violent; she joined the army, first, for her family, and second, for her nation.
X-23/Laura from X-Men: Evolution (2000-2003)
Before her debut in comics and cinematic turn in Logan, X-23 first appeared in the cartoon X-Men: Evolution. Created as a genetic twin to Wolverine by H.Y.D.R.A., Laura was made to be a living weapon (similar to her origin in the comics). In her intro episode, Laura was able to take down the entire X-Men team and the young mutants residing in Xavier’s mansion. From moment one, she was a badass and left such a strong impression that she remains to be my favourite X-Men character to this day.
X-Men: Evolution was a different take on the X-Men compared to the (then new) film franchise and previous 1990s cartoon, as it focused on the day-to-day teenage aspects of the mutants’ lives as much as it did their superhero personas. Although Laura was created in a lab and kicked major ass, this didn’t deter writers from focusing on her emotional arc. In her first episode (“X23”), when she confronts Wolverine for her existence, he offers her a shoulder to cry on and aids her escape. He even tells Nick Fury to scram and learns the importance of kids being able to be kids. If that doesn’t pull at the heart strings, I don’t know what will.
Ingrid Third from Fillmore! (2002-2004)
Ingrid was the first of many pale, (sorta) moody brunettes that I fell in love with. Maybe it was because I was starting puberty and was getting moody myself…Who knows? She wasn’t temperamental, just reserved, and reminded me a lot of Dana Scully from The X-Files (already a great start). Ingrid is very kind and smart, but doesn’t broadcast herself as much as other people.
As a member of the Student Safety Patrol at X Middle School, Ingrid gets caught in the line of duty often. (If you’ve never seen Fillmore! get on it. The action scenes–as ridiculous as some of them are, as they all take place in a school–are incredible.) Ingrid is a wonderful character who is smart and strong enough to take down any pre-teen mastermind that might be roaming the halls without a pass.
Raven from Teen Titans (2003-2006)
Teen Titans is still one of my favourite shows and a perfect example of how amazing DC animated content is compared to their live action equivalents and Marvel counterparts. Raven was sullen and tormented, and epitomized who I wanted to be during my peak melodramatic pubescent years. And her comeback one-liners were absolutely killer because of her deadpan tone. The dark clothes and black eyeliner-look spoke to me as I repeatedly played my favourite Big Shiny Tunes songs as I got easily annoyed by everyone else’s nonsense.
Raven was arguably the most powerful member of the Titans, but had to constantly keep that power in check for the safety of everybody. She seemed to have no limits when it came to her powers (which were of an awesome demon-witch variety, so another big plus). The multi-episode story arc of of Slade working for Raven’s father, Trigon, is one of the most memorable plots of the show, second only to when Terra came back and died/turned into a rock. (DAMN YOU, SLADE!!) But regardless of her overwhelming power, it was Raven’s sardonic attitude and devotion to her friends which made her one of the best characters on Teen Titans.
Violet Parr from The Incredibles (2004)
Looking back, Violet Parr embodied how I felt at 12 years old when The Incredibles came out. When I originally saw the movie, I liked Violet, but thought she was a little annoying when it came to her parents. But in reality, she was reacting to them the same way I was reacting to my own mom and dad. And I mean everyone acts like that towards their parents as a (pre)teen, really.
What I did really like about Violet and gravitated to was her awkwardness and insecurity; she used her power of invisibility to shelter herself from people, and when she couldn’t do that, hid behind her long hair. And her insecurities affected her control over her superpowers, which was a beautiful, simple metaphor for being a teenager. It was when Violet stopped suppressing who she was by the end of the movie that she was able to control her powers and feel more comfortable with herself. This message of self-acceptance is wonderful and is a perfect example of the depth Pixar films go into with their characters.
Toph Beifong from Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
Toph was a throwback love for me; I was in middle school when Avatar first aired–just at the tale end of my obligatory emo phase–and the show ended the summer after my sophomore year of high school. Like Spinelli and Buttercup, Toph was the “tough one” of her group, but unlike them, she was also a major tomboy. She wore more “boyish” clothing compared to most of the other girls, was a big slob, and also enjoyed when a grown man portrayed her in a play. Toph felt like a cartoonish (no pun intended), over-the-top representation of my younger self.
The Avatar series has so many strong female characters, but it was because of Toph’s personality that I was drawn to her. She was stubborn, brash, and unapologetic about who she was, and truly personified the element earth. When teaching Aang earthbending, she says, “Rock is a stubborn element. If you’re going to move it, you’ve got to be like a rock yourself.” And that’s exactly like Toph! She never let people’s views of her physical disability of being blind impair her role as the team tough guy, which is extra badass.
Nikki Wong from 6teen (2004-2010)
Nikki reminded me a lot of Spinelli, only six years older; both worked hard to maintain their tough personas, were easily agitated, and had parents with embarrassing retro styles. But she also had that snarky edge that I loved in characters like Raven. Toph felt like a throwback to myself as a kid, but Nikki was a throwback to all my favourite characters growing up, just in teenage form.
When 6teen ended, I was 17 years old. I talked to a few friends at school about how influential the show was, and how it not only was a great representation of our adolescent years, but perfectly encapsulated it.
6teen is still, to me, an iconic Canadian show. I don’t know what it is about my country, but we make solid content representing teenagers (I dare anyone to fight me on DeGrassi). Its premise was nothing new. For anyone who had watched Friends, it probably looked very familiar (out-of-her-element rich girl joins the group in the first episode, creating a gender-equal ensemble). What set 6teen a part was its writing and humor, which didn’t seem to care that it was a children’s cartoon and not something meant for an older audience. A perfect example of this is the character Ron “the Rent-A-Cop,” who was an amalgamation of Christopher Walken (looks and speech affectation) and Clint Eastwood (tendency to talk about teenagers as though they’re all punks). No kid is gonna understand those references, which made the show hilarious on another level!