Most of the time, my sister is a complete nuisance. She’s loud, obnoxious, and steals my clothes. Something that we have in common however, is our profound love for the Marvel and DC franchises, and the frustration that accompanies our love of action movies, reflects something much bigger about action-based franchises.
Most of our anger and annoyance that accompanies our profound love for superhero or action themed series is the severe lack of powerful and well written girl characters. Have you ever wondered why your favorite superhero show was cancelled? Why the girl superheroes were never put on the merchandise alongside the boys? Why, as the seasons progressed, the boy characters became more and more interesting, and the girls slowly faded away?
The answer lies in top-down and segregated marketing strategies. Shows like Teen Titans, Young Justice, and Green Lantern: The Animated Series want to cater to only boys so that their merchandise will sell better. It’s much more efficient to sell things to people when you can easily divide them up into tight subcategories that have almost nothing in common. As a result, when too many girls are watching the show, it implies that the boys shows are “stealing” the girl views from the girl-targeted shows that own female viewers. (Girl Market Animation). However, in general, this problem almost never occurs— viewership demographics have never posed a threat to any “competing” shows for girls.
The polarized, and sometimes inaccurate representation of girls in the media isn’t just something that happens— it’s a result of deliberate planning so that TV executives can get more money. Paul Dini, a writer/producer for Cartoon Network said on a podcast, “That’s the thing, you know I hate being Mr. Sour Grapes here, but I’ll just lay it on the line: that’s the thing that got us cancelled on Tower Prep, honest-to-God was, it’s like, ‘we need boys, but we need girls right there, right one step behind the boys’—this is the network talking—’one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as boys, but right there.’” (Paul Dini). Cartoon Network and Warner Brothers consciously made the decision to dumb down their female characters because they wanted to push their female viewers away. The show Tower Prep was even cancelled because it had too many female viewers and the girl characters were too well-written, and as such, continuing to “steal views” from girl-oriented cartoons.
This isn’t just a problem with Cartoon Network— Nickelodeon completely changed The Legend of Korra in the 3rd and 4th seasons because the female avatar was too well-written and was being watched by too many girls. There is no Korra merchandise— no action figures, t-shirts, or posters— like there were for the hit original series Avatar: The Last Airbender.
This is proof that gender roles are socially constructed— shows are being produced and the market is being manipulated so that companies and networks can make more money. Advertising has become more and more polarized than it was twenty or even ten years ago, and as a result, girls are losing their role models in the TV shows that they want to love, but just can’t, because the girl characters in the shows they love are purposefully dumbed down to make their male counterparts look better.
I am tired to having to see my sister struggle to find merchandise for her favorite superheroes. I am tired to seeing our favorite shows ruined and cancelled because girls are too well-written, and I am sick and tired of explaining that this “isn’t the way things have always been”, and that demeaning girls in the media, depriving girls of role models is a deliberate choice that reveals much deeper cracks in our society. The gender divide in the media and marketing is toxic and deprives everyone— not just girls of positive female role models. We can’t create, revel in, and constantly depict girls as sub-characters beneath their counterpart and simultaneously expect our daughters and sisters to be larger-than-life, independent, intelligent, and strong-willed. Whether we like it or not, the things we watch on TV, the music we listen to, and the fictional characters we revere so much dictate a large part of our personality and behavior. Simply catering all action-type TV shows and movies to boys is counterintuitive because it objectively decreases viewership, rather than increasing it (The Gender Divide in Television).
While we can’t immediately force multi-billion-dollar companies to do a 180 and change their marketing strategies, what we can do is begin to create an environment where girls can look up to a role model with no catches— where everyone has somebody to look up to that represents them. Marvel’s Ms. Marvel series with protagonist Kamala Khan is a great example of this— a 16 year old Muslim girl who doesn’t answer to anybody. Harry Potter has amazingly well-written female characters as well. If there aren’t shows for you or your sister or daughter to watch, pitch them. If there aren’t books to read, write them. If there aren’t songs to listen to, sing them yourself. If we want to see a more positive and integrated media, we have to make it ourselves.