an Ad a Day

A look at the marketing that surrounds us.

Reading the Message: Because Girls Don’t Need Superheroes

Posted by Rosepixie on April 22, 2010

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”?

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3 Responses to “Reading the Message: Because Girls Don’t Need Superheroes”

  1. Adam said

    Traditionally comics were thrown in with boys toys. It’s only in recent years that greater numbers of girls (and women) have shown interest in many niches that were predominantly male orientated.

    The female characters are included because they were always there. Similarly, there is always at least 1 female character in most kids cartoons. Cheetara in ThunderCats, RC in Transformers, April in the Turtles. But their purpose is usually to simply be there for completeness or to need rescuing.

    I think X-Men got it right because there was a fairly even mix of male and female characters. Kudos to Marvel for that one. The again, DC created Cat Woman who was awesome in her own right.

    From a marketing point of view, it’s easy to peddle the well known characters who are male to a mixed audience. Will you go and watch Iron Man II this spring? I bet you will!

    Adam 🙂

    • Rosepixie said

      Comics have been included with “girls” toys too, though. The She-Ra action figures all came with their own comics back in the day just like the He-Man ones did! And Barbie had a successful comic book for a while too. Not to mention the girls from Archie’s line have had their own comics for decades and those have always been primarily marketed to women (as have most of the other girl comics from that company – Katy Keene, Sabrina, Josie, etc.). So girls are not at all new to the industry – they’ve always been there. They’ve just often be restricted to comics about romance and fashion.

      And, seriously, how do you think it feels to be included “simply there for completeness or to need rescuing”? What do you think that tells the little girls looking for something to watch on Saturday morning? We’re half the population but usually make up 1/5 or so of any given character group.

      The X-Men are awesome – a great mix of characters, each with story beyond their “gimmick”. But Marvel tends to market them with mostly the male characters at the forefront (Wolverine) despite the fact that there are a huge number of women who love them. In DC there have been only a few “groups” with a good mix and they *never* market them to illustrate that. The Justice League frequently has a good gender mix, but we only ever see the “all guys and Wonder Woman” version. The Bat-family actually has about as many female characters as male, but they always seem to forget about the female characters or turn them into little more than love interests for Batman or Robin when it gets to marketing (and when it’s in the hands of some writers, too). And there’s Wonder Woman, who comes from an island of only women, yet seems to live in a world where she’s the only one if you look at her marketing!

      It could be just as easy to “peddle” female characters if a little effort was put in. Think about Buffy. She’s got fans of both genders, in a wide range of ages and in all races. And yet she’s still a female character. How does she manage it? Because she wasn’t sold so much as a “female” character, but as a character – period. And no, I almost certainly won’t go see Iron Man II. I wasn’t that enthralled by the first one and as a general rule don’t see action movies in the theater. On the other hand, if Wonder Woman got a movie, I’d break my rule and go opening day. If the Birds of Prey got a movie with Oracle and everything, I’d go twelve times and take along everyone I know!

  2. Margaret said

    The “it’s easy to peddle the well known characters who are male” argument also doesn’t explain why Wonder Woman is excluded from current Super Friends marketing. (Was this also the case back when the original Super Friends cartoon was on the air back in the 1970’s? I seem to recall at least some Super Friends promotional materials back then featuring WW as well as the guys.) Wonder Woman is certainly better known to the general public–i.e., people who aren’t already big enough comics fans to be familiar with any but the most major, multimedia-publicized superheroes–than Green Lantern or Aquaman, who most people probably didn’t know existed until a fictitious movie about him became part of a subplot on “Entourage.” (One Saturday several years ago I was at the comics shop when a woman who was evidently there keeping her boyfriend company while he shopped looked at the racks of new releases and exclaimed in surprise,”Aquaman is a real character? I thought he was just a thing on ‘Entourage.’ “) Similarly, probably almost no one who wasn’t already a fan of Marvel comics had heard of Adam’s example Iron Man up until the first Robert Downey Jr. movie about him became a big hit last year.

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