The Significance and Possibilities of the ‘DC Super Hero Girls’ Line
Yesterday, DC Entertainment announced a new consumer products line called DC Super Hero Girls, which will involve them teaming up with partners like Mattel, Random House, and Lego to create product for girls ages 6-12. This is a big deal not just in terms of comics, but in terms of licensed products for kids. But is this kind of gendered initiative what we need? Or is it, as some have stated, "pandering"? Unsurprisingly, I have a lot of thoughts on this matter.
To really understand why DC has framed this initiative the way they have, you have to understand how products for kids are licensed, made, marketed, and sold. It's a complex system that puts the toys and clothes in the hands of kids, and it's affected by any number of research and assumptions about what kids buy and why. For instance, DC won't be making the majority of the DC Super Hero Girls products themselves --- they'll be working with licensees like Mattel, Random House, and Lego, who will use this branding in their own ways.
The press release stated that Random House is the Master Publishing Partner for the brand, which is a layer of the fascinating world of licensed publishing where a publisher licenses their properties to another publisher. A lot of this has to do with money and how it flows around a corporation, but some of it also has to do with broader outreach. DC alone could certainly place products all over, but with the help of licensees they can really spread this brand --- and announcing with high-profile licensees in place legitimizes it as well.
The most important part of the whole children's licensing process, ultimately, is where things are advertised and shelved. Because of a lot of occasionally ridiculous market research, many companies that make stuff for kids are convinced that anything marketed to children must be gendered. Rare is the product that gets designated as simply being for "kids" --- everything must be for either boys or girls. Items that aren't gendered run the risk of causing issues with retailers. After all, if toy aisles are primarily broken into two genders and a product isn't for one or the other, how will retailers decide where to sort it? Even Lego ran into this issue.
It's for this reason in particular that I think this new branding initiative by DC is incredibly smart. Because of all these assumptions about gender and what's for boys and what's for girls, we live in a world where you will actually hear parents say in toy aisles all across the US, "No, you can't get that super hero toy. Those are for boys." This is a real thing that happens, and if you hang out long enough in the action figure aisle at Target, you'll hear it. (Not that I'm hanging out for long periods of time in the action figure aisle at Target. Shut up.) If DC had decided to come out with a new brand of action figures that happen to be entirely made up of their super heroines, but did not announce it as being for girls, it's very, very likely that they would've been shelved in the "boy aisle."
Instead, by making a huge fuss about this initiative and the broad range of products they'll be offering, as well as including a specific art style for it, DC made sure that all their licensees and retailers know how to market and display this line. Which means, for one of the first times ever --- if not the first time ever --- there will be action figures in the "girl aisle" that are made to teach girls to love super heroes. There will be super hero books made to introduce girls to the characters. That's pretty amazing.
Of course, in an ideal world, the toy aisles wouldn't be so intensely gendered. Lego wouldn't have to push a "girl line," because their generally non-gendered building block sets would be understood as being for everyone. Super heroes would be accepted as being for everyone. We don't live in that ideal world, though, and we do live in a world where a great many people still believe the narrative that comics and super heroes are for boys and men.
In terms of whether or not this is "pandering" by making a special line just for girls, well, for one, see the previous paragraph. I also think there's a real value in taking something that's so often assumed to be for boys and spending time to develop it and brand it for girls. Too often, assumptions are made about girls being willing to play with "boy" toys, but that boys will not play with "girl" toys. This is also true in television and movies. Look at how Marvel's licensing in the last year has left girl and women characters off of products for Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. If there's concern about boys not wanting to get something from a movie they saw and enjoyed simply because a woman was in the movie they saw and enjoyed, we're in trouble.
Society pushes us to perceive that things for girls and women are lesser than the same things for boys and men. Women are either expected to accept a lot of preconceived gender roles, including being made subservient to men, or to adapt to a male idea of power and strength. In business, women are taught to be more like men in order to succeed. This is a real thing that has been researched at length --- it's more acceptable for a woman to take on masculine traits than it is for a man to take on feminine traits. Stay with me, I swear this is relevant to DC's new kids' line.
Part of all of this is that women often reject things related to femininity either because it is expected or because they want to be in a position to have more power or strength. While pushing preconceived gender roles on kids in particular is problematic, there's something to be said for letting kids be who they are, including if your daughter or son wants to embrace femininity. Writer Amanda Deibert wrote this great piece about wanting her daughter to be okay with wearing pink or bows if she wants to, which I think is relevant to all of this.
Teaching girls that they can be super heroes too --- and that super heroes are for girls, not just that girls can like the super hero things made for boys --- is really, really important. Girls should be raised to not be ashamed of whatever set of traits and gender presentation they feel fits them, and that includes being feminine. Having products about tough super heroines made for and marketed towards girls can teach a lot of great lessons, including about being proud of your gender, whatever it is. There's also the potential bonus that these products might end up in the hands of boys, who will absolutely benefit from the message that girls and women can be super heroes, and can be interested in super heroes.
One day, we might live in a world where things don't need to be so gendered, or promoted in such an obvious way. For now, though, this is a good step towards pushing super heroes into the hands of girls, which is really important for the future of comics.