Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

On National Super Hero Day: Can DC Super Hero Girls be What Girls Need?


Today is National Super Hero day. Super hero stories are often stories that empower and inspire. They tell of imperfect heroes, flawed but powerfully rooted in moral codes. We cheer heroes on as they fight against the dark forces of the world. Their stories lead us to want to be like them, to make the world a better place.

So today, of all days, I’m especially aware of the fact that there is a lack of female super heroes in popular culture. Just like the rest of us, girls and young women want characters that can inspire them. I watch my three daughters as they look for characters to identify with. They don’t want to be the sassy sidekick or the passive romantic interest. They want to be a hero themselves! As young children, they tied on capes, wielded swords and shields, and donned masks, ready to save the world.

The power team of DC Entertainment, Warner Bros Animation, Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Mattel are launching DC Super Hero Girls. It is billed as “Super Heroic storytelling that helps build character and confidence, and empowers girls to discover their true potential.” The project focuses on famous female heroes and villains as teenagers. It will be aimed at girls aged six through twelve years. Along with the content from Warner Bros, Random House will create books, Mattel will produce fashion dolls and action figures, and the LEGO Group will develop a new line of building sets.

Super hero franchises have a well-earned bad reputation for excluding girls and women in their target audience. The merchandise for the Avengers franchise from Marvel has consistently excluded Black Widow, the only female Avenger to be featured in their films so far. Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise also leaves off Gamora, the only female guardian. Even Big Hero Six, which features two female leads, has dropped the female heroes from most merchandise. Fans have noticed that female heroes are missing, and have let their displeasure be known. So this move by DC, Warner Bros, and Mattel could give girls a consistent way to connect with hero stories.

There is a lot for parents, girls, and girl empowerment activists to get excited about in this new DC Super Hero Girls line. It sounds like a commitment to creating a positive product and content line focused on girl empowerment. What could go wrong? As the mother of three daughters, a psychology professor and girl advocate, I’m afraid that there’s a lot that could go wrong here.

It is imperative that these characters have a wide range of interests and skills that mirror the diversity found within the real girls that they hope to empower. Sexy stereotypes are not empowering.

But Mattel is well known for making over even the most empowering heroines, such as Brave’s Merida, into sexier versions of themselves. Even their product lines like Monster High, which are marketed as empowering, have characters with sexy clothing such as sky-high heels, short skirts and stockings that would be more at home in a nightclub than in a high school. So what on earth might they do with super heroes? The sexualization of childhood is a big problem, with girls at ever-younger ages being told that they need to be sexy to stand out in the crowd. Girls don’t need sexy promoted as super, and with Mattel as a main partner, this could be a problem.

To make this line truly empowering, DC and friends need to give the teenaged heroes and villains complex stories that build upon their strengths and challenges. They need to stay away from focusing heavily on looks, romance, and sexiness. Clothing needs to be appropriate for super hero action, not going to a nightclub.

Another problem lies with the LEGO Group. Sure, they have created strong female sets such as Research Institute, but then the line is quickly retired. Their Friends line for girls, while including some diversity in play themes, has a heavy emphasis on salons, baking, and small animal care. Girls continue to complain about the lack of female representation in regular LEGO sets. What if they like Star Wars or the City Line rather than Friends? It is not empowering to girls to have their interests represented so narrowly.

I have high hopes for this new girl focused super hero line, but this is something that DC and Warner Bros. must get right. If they really want to create a superhero line that’s empowering to girls, they must stay away from the sexualization that runs rampant in the entertainment industry. They must give these teenaged heroes a realistic look that doesn’t focus on their bodies as sexual objects. DC and Warner Bros. have a chance to tell super hero stories in a way that inspires girls to be creative, courageous, and accepting of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Can they step up to the challenge?

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2015 by in Acting and tagged , , .
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