Friday, April 24, 2015

Did DC Comics Turn Their Female Characters Into Disney Princesses?

Today we're going to talk about comic books. Specifically DC Entertainment and WB partnering with toy-maker Mattel announcing the launch of 'DC Super Hero Girls' this fall. It will be Mattel's first set of action figures for girls. The mash-up will also include digital content (which may be comics?), TV specials, straight-to-video episodes, toys, and apparel, among other products.

I'm going to try my best to be as objective as I possibly can be with this piece.

Since the press release was issued on Tuesday, response has led to two different teams: those who love the idea, and those who think it's further separating girls from the fandom.

Earlier this year an 11-year-old girl called out DC online and through a letter campaign about the lack of women in their comic books. The few that do exist are stereotyped or sexualized in an unrealistic manner, that most women don't feel comfortable associating with comic books. DC responded in kind and promised the young girl that they would do better. I don't want to suggest that because of that girl that we have the 'DC Super Hero Girls' bonanza, but she helped pushed the announcement of it up a few months sooner. Because an undertaking of that precedent takes years. Not days. Not weeks. Years. There are contracts to review, run through legal, and sign. There are products to test, tweak, and polish before they hit the manufacturing floor. There are drawings to draw. Even as the technology for animated television shows has improved dramatically, there are still people sitting at a desk drawing these characters frame by frame. It takes time.

As a whole, it appears that people appreciate what DC is trying to do. They want to make comics more inviting to girls by showing their current female line-up (5 heroes, 2 villains) as accessible. The story will revolve around these 7 women in their early teen years. I'm assuming they are fighting crime, but I don't know why Poison Ivy or Harley Quinn would join the good guys. Aside from the flaws in comic logic, this alternate universe offers some promise to young girls and maybe it'll show some of the boys that the female characters can be just as cool as Batman.

Many commenters noted that they are happy to see this line. It'll give them a chance to introduce comics to their girls by having the super heroes presented to them in a different way. It's a lot less intimidating to go to a toy store then it is a comic shop (and I speak from a vast amount of experience).

On the other side of the discussion, a number of people say that DC and WB are giving these super hero women the "Princess Effect." Essentially turning the few female characters that they have into Disney Princesses. After one look at the promotional image, it's difficult to argue against this lot. With the exception of hair and skin color, all of the heroes and villains on that poster look the same. Same face shape, body type, large eyes, trim waists, long flowy hair, height, I could continue on. But it is striking to see just how little variation there is better the characters outside of hair color and skin tone.

In essence, the heroes and villains look like Disney Princesses by harboring many of the same traits you would see of a Disney or Pixar movie. In 2010, artist Oceanstarlet created a tutorial on DeviantArt covering how to draw a female Disney character. It gained international attention in 2013 as more people began to examine the art behind Disney, and how little variation exists with women. More recently in 2015, Tumblr user Something Classy did an examination of Pixar and computer generated characters in Disney films. It went viral on a level of Gangnam Style views. After doing a basic trace of faces from random characters, to see if the Disney Princess principle applied, it is startling to see how unique the male faces are, and utterly depressing that every female face looks the same. It's sparked many to start questioning the content being produced to children. No wonder we (and I mean that in the general sense) all have body issues if even Disney is telling us that women need to have baby-faces, large round eyes, trim waists, while the men can look however they like.

When you apply this principle to the 'DC Super Hero Girls' promo art, you can see where the concern lies.

The other argument this side claims is that by having these super hero girls not involved in the universe with the boys, we're further separating girls from the comics. "You can play with this, but you can't play with the boys stuff," since the content is targeted specifically to girls. Many comments on the DC press release webpage mirror this concern.

"Congratulation WB and DC and completely missing the point of the campaign to see more gender diversity in media. You missed the word "diversity" by once again sectioning girls off in their own little universe and applying the princess model." User stevedesigner commented.

And he's right. This isn't including girls. It's shuttering them from the rest of the DC Universe by excluding them from the comic experience.

There is potential here for something good to happen. It's good to see that DC recognizes that girls and women read comic books too. These fans want to see their favorite female heroes and villains take center stage. But we shouldn't separate the genders. That's where this whole issue started in the first place over a century ago when comics became mainstream.

Where do you weigh in on the debate?

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