There is a revolution going on and its objective seems to be about empowering little girls. Is it really an attempt, however, to redefine the personal interests and tastes of young ladies to meet the criterion of a particular marketing agenda?
Disney, for example has been actively distancing it’s princess characters from their “damsel in distress” stereotype. Recent animated films like Frozen, Brave, and Tangled along with live action versions of Maleficent and Cinderella actively seek to portray strong female characters that exemplify bravery, courage, strength and conviction. Are their efforts more about empowering young girls or corralling, back into the fold, those that are showing interest in the strong female characters that have been popping up in superhero films?
Marvels cinematic girl power
When Disney purchased Marvel in 2009 they gained a huge library of superhero characters, many of which were dominant females. The current success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has already propelled a number of these strong women characters into the forefront. Black Widow, Lady Sif, Gamora, Nebula, Scarlet Witch, Agent Peggy Carter, Pepper Potts, Maria Hill, Melinda May, Daisy (Skye) Johnson, and others have all proven their ability to more than hang with the male characters. They are all powerful and independent women that have proven they can take care of themselves. Do not expect to find dolls, costumes, toys or any other merchandise depicting them, however, because they will not appeal to the boys that the superhero market is deemed to be intended for.
The girls of Big Hero 6
One merchandising company’s response to a mother in search of girl characters from Big Hero 6 for her daughters says it all:
Thanks for your email! Here is a little background on how we develop our designs. When designing for a new film, we are developing well before the film is released and long before we have seen the movies ourselves. Thus, we rely on the filmmakers to provide a recommended target audience. Disney’s target audience for Big Hero 6 is boys 5-12 and secondary are girls 5-12 and teens. Since this is geared toward boys, we chose to focus either on the main characters (in this case Baymax and Hiro), or on just the boy characters. We have found boys do not want girl characters on their things (eeeww girls! Yuck! Haha). Should Big Hero 6 continue to resonate in the market place I think you will begin to see more product and even fabric with all the characters including the female characters.
I hope this helps explain why you might see product this way. We enjoy hearing feedback like this. So please, continue to do so.
Emily Robbins Kelly
Springs Creative Products Group, LLC”
This marketing ideology goes both ways and though we would love to believe that the intent of strong characters marketed to our youth, both male and female, is to empower our children as they develop strong personal identities, they are more likely being used to define and manipulate a specific demographic to market to.
Disney of course is the master of marketing but the House the Mouse Built has established a model of success that is frequently emulated.
So here comes DC/Warner Brothers with an attempt at cornering a superhero market targeted at little girls ages 6-12 in hopes of competing with the princesses that have owned the market since the new millennium.
DC Super Hero Girls focuses on the female superheroes and super villains of the DC comic book universe while they are young teens that are relatable to the intended audience. Iconic characterts like Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, Harley Quinn, Bumble Bee, Poison Ivy, Katana and others will grow as young women discovering their full super-power potential.
DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson says it all with this statement:
“DC Entertainment is home to the most iconic and well-known superheroes including Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl, DC Super Hero Girls represents the embodiment of our long-term strategy to harness the power of our diverse female characters. I am so pleased that we are able to offer relatable and strong role models in a unique way, just for girls.”
Just for girls.
This is from the president of one of the largest companies in an industry that is screaming for comics to be inclusive and diverse!
Is it not possible to create a product that appeals to a demographic like young girls without being exclusionary? Didn’t Nelson herself do that when she oversaw the marketing of Warner Brothers’ Harry Potter franchise?
And then there is the other problem. The featured characters have been icons in a market that has been dominated by boys and men for decades. They have been sexualized, objectified, tortured, and even raped in comic books. Are these the characters we want our six-year-old daughters to identify with? Sure, these will not be the stories that will be exposed to in the “just for girls” club, but what happens when the young, new converts look across the aisle at Wonder Woman in a titillating “broke-back” pose or see Batgirl in bondage, or Harley Quinn in a maniacally bloody rage on the cover of another comic in the local comic shop How do we explain the sexy pinups of those strong female role models when our daughters want to go to a comic con? How do we prevent the stand-off when feminists and sexists clash, as they continue to, over images such as the sexy covers parodied by Frank Cho?
This is why corporations protect their trademarks. Their value lies in their broad appeal which is preserved by avoiding being offensive in general. The best trademarks appeal to everyone and you only have to look as far as Mickey Mouse for a stellar example. Nobody messes with Mickey! But DC has tarnished their trademarks from the inside out, focusing primarily on the interests of an audience of young to middle age men. The characters that DC is now trotting out for little girls may have been meant for young readers forty or fifty years ago but have long grown away from being suitable for that audience. It will be like making Betty Page comics for little girls. She can be drawn wholesomely and have wonderful, empowering adventures but what happens when the girls discover that Betty grows to be a pinup queen with a troubled life that led her into exile?
DC has a lot of work to do. They either need to clean up their house and redefine the integrity of their trademarks or create new iconic characters that are suitable for the intended audience. If they want to empower little girls, allow them to feel included instead of separated. “Just for girls” is no better than “back of the bus.” Why can’t we all be able to pick up a comic, enjoy a cartoon, or play with a toy and enjoy it because we like it, not because some corporation told us we should?
Because target markets make it easy to sell product. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
Girls can like superheroes, that doesn’t mean that they need to see men or women in comics be subjugated.
Boys can like princesses, that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate a strong male or female character. When our culture strives to empower each other equally and as individuals. Not how we or some corporate marketer thinks they should be. That’ is s when we will all be superheroes and it won’t matter who likes pink or blue.
This is not to say that there can not be all kinds of comics and all kinds of superheroes. Walk into a book store or a library and you will find sections dedicated to personal interest, appropriate age group or subject matter. Comics and characters need to be better defined in a similar way so that audiences can identify them and easily determine what appeals to their personal interest or maturity level. Marvel did this successfully with their release of Daredevil on Netflix, a platform that allowed for a more violent and mature content, a far cry from the PG-13 Avengers fare that will appear across the board in media and merchandise. Daredevil will also not be popping up on party plates and kiddie underwear and nowhere did Daredevil show runners describe the series as “Just for Men.”