Wifey Material: DC’s Sexist Superhero Shirts And How Licensing Works -UPDATED With Comment From DC
DC Comics has been the butt of a lot of jokes and criticism about sexist depictions of female characters and the company's lack of female creators. But recently DC has been making strides towards employing more women in creative roles and publishing more progressive, women-centric books like Gotham Academy, the new Batgirl and the Wonder Woman anthology Sensation Comics that seem to have a lot to offer women readers. It’s disappointing, then, to see a rash of new licensed DC apparel aimed at women with sexist slogans like “Training to be Batman’s wife.” This kind of clothing does not send women the message that they are welcome within the DC Universe as anything but prizes to be won.
The first problematic tee that popped up via DC Women Kicking Ass was this one featuring Superman embracing Wonder Woman, with a burst reading “SCORE!” and a caption that says “Superman does it again.” Wonder Woman’s arm is awkwardly angled so she’s not fully embracing Superman, but he is fully embracing her. The reason for that is that it was taken from this Jim lee cover:
On the original cover, Wonder Woman has her lasso in her hands and it’s also wrapped around Superman, making them seem more equally interested in what’s going on. This licensee’s altering of the artwork makes it seem like Wonder Woman is way less into Superman than he is into her.
And what exactly has Superman done again? Touched a woman? Banged Wonder Woman? Reduced a powerful woman to nothing but his sexual interest? This shirt, which is for men, allows the wearer to tell the women of the world, “I see you as a score.” It also implies a sort of, “Oh that scamp Superman” tone that is so far from what the character actually is that it’s hard to believe the company responsible for the shirt has ever seen a Superman or Wonder Woman comic.
The second tee popped up in the resulting discussion and is sold at Walmart. It’s a juniors tee and it says “Training to be Batman’s wife.” Not only is this tee saying that women can’t train to be superheroes, just to be wives, it’s also made for teen girls. This isn’t a shirt for an adult woman. This is what these companies want to teach girls between the ages of 13 and 20. There are so many alternative options to this tee that it’s crazy they would come up with this particular option. How about “training to be Batgirl”? Or “training to be a superhero”? Or “training to defeat Batman”? The list of better options goes on and on.
There’s nothing wrong with being a wife (hell, I’m someone’s wife) but the implication on a shirt like this is that you’re aspiring to be loved by someone powerful, not to be powerful yourself. That’s not inspirational, it’s sad. (It also begs the question: how exactly does one train to be Batman’s wife? Practice curling up inside a refrigerator? Learn how to excuse the death of your wards to the police? Testing your endurance to wait up late for your vigilante husband to come home?) This licensee decided the emphasis should be put on being a wife rather than a hero, like we’re still in the 1950s.
Finally, and maybe even most problematically, we have this set of baby outfits seen in Target by educator Aimée Morrison.
I asked clinical psychologist and CA contributor Dr. Andrea Letamendi what affect these kinds of shirts have even when placed on infants who can’t read. She said, "Obviously, babies can’t read. But that doesn’t mean they are not impacted by the expectations the garment (and ones like it) are establishing. By ‘joking' that female youngsters will grow up to ‘date' superheroes, clothing with these gendered messages introduce and maintain the standard that women are extensions, possessions, and accessories to men, who are the ones encouraged and ‘allowed' to aspire to be heroes. The real harm lies in teaching that a woman’s value in society (what makes her ‘cute' in infancy) is directly tied to her ability to win the attention of men."
As a consequence of these shirts, a lot of people have questions about how the process of licensing works and how involved DC would’ve been in getting these tees made. Individual licensing agreements vary based on the licensee and their trustworthiness as well as the particular kind of products. These are not shirts produced by DC Comics itself or by its parent cpmpany Warner Bros., but they are tees that have to be approved by one or the other.
When I worked as an editor at DC, I didn’t have much interaction with the licensing department (which is standard for editorial unless it’s licensed editorial), but of course there was a licensing department and there were people there with focus on specific types of merchandise, such as an editor who handled licensed publishing specifically. How much this setup has changed with the company's move from New York to Burbank, I couldn’t say, but there are people that oversee licensing and approve new products.
What I can tell you more specifically is how another multinational corporation specializing in protecting its characters behaves. From my time at Disney, I learned the company had very specific, clear processes for handling licensed products, including an online system for them to be submitted to the various approvers within the company. For instance: I worked on Marvel kids magazines that were made internally at Disney and then sold to licensees around the world. Not only did these magazines have to be approved by a person at Marvel before we could give them to our licensees, then the licensees had to submit any changes they made (whether it was a translation or inserting additional pages or adjusting content somehow) via Disney’s system for approval. At very least there was one person from Marvel and one person from Disney who needed to give the thumbs up.
When the Disney-produced and already Marvel-approved content was not changed at all, well, there were little to no approvals. New products created using existing, approved assets had to go through a more rigorous process. And of course new products created entirely by the licensee had to go through the most rigorous process with approvals at various steps along the way, not just for the final product. I once rejected a couple of Frozen magazine submissions where the licensee had changed the colors to options that were outside of the approved, official Frozen color scheme.
This might seem strict, but it’s important to understand that if the characters are used wrong or presented wrong, it comes back not to the licensee necessarily, but to the company that owns those characters. It’s for this reason that the fact that DC approved these tees, or trusted these licensees enough to let them create this content unsupervised, shines a bad light on DC as it makes moves to course correct and re-engage female fans.
There’s a reason geek women love companies like HerUniverse and Black Milk and pour a lot of hard-earned dollars their way. Those companies understand what geek women want to wear -- they don’t want to be pandered to, they don’t want regular superhero logos turned pink -- they just want quality geek gear that is aimed at them as people, not objects. This is clearly a message DC Comics’ license partners have missed by an incredibly, depressingly wide margin.
Fortunately, DC itself agrees. The publisher released a statement addressing the matter specifically:
DC Comics is home to many of the greatest male and female Super Heroes in the world. All our fans are incredibly important to us, and we understand that the messages on certain t-shirts are offensive. We agree. Our company is committed to empowering boys and girls, men and women, through our characters and stories. Accordingly, we are taking a look at our licensing and product design process to ensure that all our consumer products reflect our core values and philosophy.