Bringing the superhero girls – and the princess girls

This morning, I watched Dr. Christopher Bell, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, ask an important question: why are the superhero girls in the movie theaters not present in stores?

It’s not like I didn’t know that superhero merchandising skews heavily towards males, but when you see it on display, when you hear the facts and figures, it’s honestly shocking. As Dr. Bell points out, not only are female superheros not represented, they are actually removed and replaced with male characters.

The video is a little old (it’s from a TEDx talk held in October 2015), so I decided to do a little research and see if this was still the case. After all, the gendering of toys has been a topic of much debate for a while now, and I figured maybe things have changed. So I went ahead and googled “childrens superhero toys.”

This is what I got:

These are the first results that are not ads. As you can see, the very first thing that comes up is a post from “Joys for Boys.” And look, I am all about boys having joy. Boys deserve joy. But the fact that is the first result, before stores that actually sell superhero toys, goes to show just how heavily gendered the media has made superheros. As you may well know, Google ranks results by popularity and by how well they connect with similar content, so this is pretty telling.

But just to be fair, I checked out the top two toy stores that came up to see what they were selling.

Amazon:

Of all the results on the first page (you can only see a small part here), only one of the toys featured a female character as prominently as it did the males.

Here’s Toys R Us’ Marvel section:

Hey, the very first toy is a girl! She’s being promoted by the site, sure, but hey! GwenPool is a great character too – because not only is she an awesome female hero holding her own in the Marvel Universe, but her outer appearance reflects a pink girly vibe that is often looked down upon in comic book culture (and let’s face it, the world in general). Sadly though, dear Gwen is alone – the rest of the page is dominated by male characters.

So yeah, not much of a difference in the last year and a half. Although in fairness, Disney specifically has introduced female superhero toys from its Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Hooray for progress!

For me personally, though, the problem is not with the representation of female characters in merchandising as much as it is with the notion that the qualities and interests we associate with girls are inherently beneath the qualities and interests we associate with boys. This is something that Dr. Bell addresses in the video, but there’s a link here that he doesn’t really expand on; namely, that part of the push for female superheros (in my view) is a result of that subconscious preference we as a society have for “boy things.”

We have gendered qualities like smart, strong, and just, and made it so that the women we see embodying those qualities most are women functioning in a male-dominated environment doing activities that have been long associated with males (all while remaining conventionally attractive). In many ways, that is a reflection of society at large, where many women often find themselves in male-dominated environments doing “guy stuff.” And in those situations, they have to prove that are just as smart and strong as men.

The thing though, is that yes. Yes absolutely, let women be superheros, kicking ass and taking names. Let them wear black on black on black, leather jackets, and high-thigh boots. Let them wear torn jeans and no makeup while they punch people through walls. Yes! I’m all about that stuff.

But I’m also about “girl stuff.” Let them wear dresses and cute shoes and makeup. Let them delegate the dirty work because they don’t want to break a nail. (It takes time to get your nails done properly! You wouldn’t want to ruin all that hard work either. And no, it’s not superficial to care about how you look – it’s human nature, as evidenced by the long aisles of male hair care and skincare products). And don’t roll your eyes at them or make fun of them. They’re kicking ass and taking names their own way, and they are just as smart and just as strong as men. They’re just as smart and just as strong as YOU.

This is what we should be teaching children, all children. You can like superheros and be cool, and you can like be princesses and be cool, too. You can like both! Because the qualities that make you a good person have no gender.

Racebending vs. whitewashing: Whys, whens, and hows

If you have a Twitter account and a vague interest in movies, you’ve likely heard of the rising furor over recent casting choices in upcoming movies. Specifically, the casting of British actress Tilda Swinton as Asian character The Ancient One of the “Dr. Strange” comics, and the casting of Scarlett Johansson as the lead character in the movie version of the Japanese series “Ghost in the Shell” caused outrage over the whitewashing of Asian characters, culminating in the trending hashtag #whitewashedOUT.

Of course, Asian characters aren’t the only ones being whitewashed in pop culture. There’s a lot that has been written about race and representation in the media (some of it by me). The concept of representation is simple: people should see their world reflected back to them in what they consume. The process of representation, however, can sometimes be more complex, because we can have disagreements over what constitutes representation, particularly when it comes to changing the race or gender of already established characters. For the record, I am all for race and gender-bending – I actually wrote an article highlighting some great examples of it here. But there are times when race and gender-bending is appropriate and fun, and times when it is not.

Context matters

One of the major criticisms of the movie adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” is that the casting of Scarlett Johansson ignores the specifically Japanese context in which the story takes place. That’s not to say that you can’t adapt a story from one culture into another – you can, and that’s a great way to share cultures. But the key is that you adapt the whole story, recognizing that there are some aspects to the original that won’t translate or are not relevant in the receiving culture. A movie like that wouldn’t be “Ghost in the Shell,” it would be something else, something different, that’s inspired by “Ghost in the Shell.”

This is particularly important when we consider manga and anime works. Because of the way they’re drawn, a lot of Western audiences perceive anime characters as being white – they’re not. Anime and manga stories are created in a Japanese context and are often set in Japan. If you’re going to translate anime directly into another medium, you have to acknowledge the characters’ Japanese identity.

See this beautiful setting? It's Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO. via sailormoonnews.com
See this beautiful setting? It’s Crystal Tokyo. TOKYO.
Image via sailormoonnews.com

Where diversity is now

If you’re going to racebend a character, don’t do it to one that’s already underrepresented in mainstream media. Our goal should be to increase diversity, not decrease it.

Although there’s been some improvement in the representation of minorities, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, not just in numbers but in how these characters are presented as well. As this wonderfully detailed post by Nerds of Color demonstrates, major franchises sorely lack in representation of not just people of color, but also women and women of color specifically. What little representation there is often relies on harmful stereotypes and double standards for male and female characters.

The "diverse" world of The Avengers.
The “diverse” world of The Avengers.

This leads to another question – should you switch out one underrepresented group for another?

I’m going to go ahead and say no, and here’s why: a lot of Western culture tends to treat minority groups, especially those from similar cultures or close geographical areas, as though they’re the same and therefore interchangeable. Indian and Pakistani cultures are often conflated, Arab cultures are treated as one monolith, Asian people are seen as “looking the same,” and people deem it socially acceptable to say things like “I went to Africa.” Where in Africa? Apparently, that’s not a distinction that’s necessary to make.

Minorities are not interchangeable. You cannot, for example, replace an originally Arab character in a story with an Indian one and call that a win for diversity. When production companies do this, they’re basically saying, “Well, Indians and Arabs are basically the same.” Now think about it. If someone told you that Arabs and Indians are the same people, wouldn’t you consider that ignorant and racist?

I rest my case.

What purpose does race/gender-bending serve?

When we examine race and gender-bending in the media, we need to ask why it’s being done and to what end. I don’t include fan art in this because a lot of artists use these techniques to see themselves reflected in the works they love and admire, and I think that’s something we can all relate to. But when studios and production companies do this, I think we as an audience are entitled to ask questions.

For example, a good question here would be, "Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on."
For example, a good question here would be, “Is this a costume party? Because otherwise I have no idea what is going on.” Image via trevorcamis.tumblr.com

1. How does race/gender-bending fit in the original story being presented? In a story like “Ghost in the Shell,” for example, we can see that it doesn’t fit very well at all. In others, it might work better.

2. What does race/gender-bending add to the character? A black Superman, for example, would make a lot of sense given the science and the fact that, being an alien, Superman doesn’t (or shouldn’t) have a particular ethnicity associated with him.

3. What are the motives of the production companies in charge of making these decisions? One of the main arguments for the casting of Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton as Asian characters (and for whitewashing in general) is that these names bring in big bucks at the box office. We don’t need studios casting minority actors in an attempt to be edgy or to pacify “angry minority hordes.” Diversity should be reflective of the world around us – it’s that simple.