The days of comic books being for kids are long since past, but that doesn’t mean that kids don’t like or need superheroes. Little boys still pretend to be Spider-Man and little girls still run around as Supergirl. To help fulfill this common desire for superhero stories in kids, the major comic publishers have kids’ lines that specifically tell stories about their major, popular heroes for kids. Sounds great, right? One problem. Someone at these companies seems to have failed to notice all those girls, because the default assumption in the kids’ lines is very clearly that girls don’t need superheroes.
The team that makes up the DC Super Friends consists of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, and Aquaman. All six work together in basically every issue of the comic to solve problems and save the day. The above cover is from the second trade paperback, which collects several issues of this comic. Notice anyone missing? She’s missing from the first book cover too. Worse, she’s not in the toy line. Not a single female character is. There’s probably six versions of Batman in the line as well as any number of other characters not central to the stories (Cyborg, Hawkman, etc.), but not a single woman. And they have no intention of ever making one.
Marvel’s little kid super hero team is called (creatively enough) the Super Hero Squad. That’s them in the picture above. In Marvel’s team there isn’t even a female character to begin with! If you dig through the website about them there is exactly one woman listed under “Heroes” and one under “Villains”. The female hero is Ms. Marvel who is explicitly not a part of the Super Hero Squad, although she does work for the same organization, and is actually referred to in her bio as Ms. Crankypants. Nice. The female villain has a crush on Thor. I couldn’t find either anywhere on the site except for the section listing characters.
What I noticed most about both of these superhero properties is that both have women characters, but both are explicitly marketed without them. This is most marked in DC Super Friends, since Wonder Woman is a central character in the stories, yet is completely removed from all marketing materials for the property. She doesn’t appear on any book covers, in any merchandise or in any of the ads that I’ve been able to find.
These are particularly notable properties because they are, for both companies, the property aimed at their youngest customers. Marvel has “all ages” versions of several of their major characters which they market to kids, but they involve more complex stories and art, pushing them to a slightly older audience than the easily pre-school and young elementary friendly Super Hero Squad. DC has a whole line of kids’ properties, but they too are largely aimed more at older elementary and middle school kids who are comfortable reading on their own and desiring more complex stories. The only title they have which can easily be enjoyed by such a young audience besides DC Super Friends is Tiny Titans, which is clearly written with an audience in mind that already knows the characters at least a little bit and does not show the characters being superheroes, but rather focuses on superheroes living regular kid lives.
So the question is, why market them this way? If you don’t want girl customers, why include the female characters at all? What’s the point of Wonder Woman even being on the team if you only plan to pretend she isn’t there? And if you aren’t explicitly trying to alienate female customers, why specifically leave the female characters out of all marketing and some major parts of the product lines?
The biggest problem here is that this doesn’t make financial sense – a girl pays just as much for a comic book, t-shirt, action figure or costume as a boy does, so why deliberately ignore them when they are half the market and when appealing to them at the young ages these product lines target could mean you get a customer for life? It’s not even that getting a kid hooked on comic books young means they’ll read them forever, lots of people read comics as kids and stopped at some point just like lots of adults never read them as kids but do now. It’s more that if you tell that customer base that you don’t want them from the start, the message sinks in deeper, so you’re deliberately turning away someone who might otherwise have been interested, and then you’ve probably lost them for life. The messages we hear as kids mean a lot, even when we don’t think about them. So why would you ever want to make your message “we don’t want your money, superheroes aren’t for girls”?