Girls haven’t been totally sugar and spice and all things nice on TV for decades. They also haven’t been cool, or silly, or just plain human, which is some of what Warner Bros’ DC Super Hero Girls changes.
When DC Super Hero Girls premiered on Cartoon Network in Asia in November, it brought not only a diverse group of kickass teens learning to deal with life and their superpowers, but also another way of portraying girl leads in TV stories.
The animated action adventure series, produced by Warner Bros Animation, stars young versions of superheroes Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Bumblebee, Batgirl, Zatanna and Green Lantern, with boy superheroes in supporting roles.
“The tone of the show, with the cuteness and the silliness, sets us apart,” series creator, Lauren Faust, says.
It’s not a show for girls alone. “Girls will watch because it features girl characters they know about. Boys will tune in for the action and slapstick comedy,” says Leslie Lee, Asia Pacific vice president of kids content for WarnerMedia Entertainment. “They come in for different reasons, but stay for the same. It’s super fun, super funny and has lots of action and comedy,” he adds.
DC Super Hero Girls adds to the TV population of girl-strong stories born more than two decades ago by the likes of the Power Puff Girls, a badass feminist trio who packaged female power in a whole new way and tried to upend traditional gender stereotypes. The 2016 reboot returned Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup with a new mission – gender, including transgender, equality – mixed into the entertainment. There’s also Gwen in Ben 10, a cast of strong girls in Gumball and the diversity built into We Bear Bares. So that’s all good, but there’s still a long way to go.
Girls, Faust says, are still too often portrayed on TV as “perfect angels all the time”. That’s definitely not the case here. “Our girls have flaws and they mess up... I don’t know if you see that very often in girls shows, them just being idiots,” she says. They’re also cool, a characteristic Faust says is in short supply. “Girls get shortchanged in the cool department way too often,” she says.
“Too many shows for girls are less about inspiring them, less about entertaining them, less about reflecting their experiences back to them... Too often they come across as lectures in how we expect girls to behave... they end up being very soft, very nice and everyone is very concerned about everybody else’s feelings all the time,” she says, adding: “That’s important to a degree but is that really exciting to watch? And is that something that’s going to follow you as you grow up and go on with your life?”
DC Super Hero Girls is part of a broad global and ongoing trend away from portraying girls as make-up obsessed shopaholics talking on the phone a lot. Or smart alecky characters who are the conscience for boys. The emerging environment is one where kids programmers, like almost everyone else, are focusing on diversity, a real one where, Faust says, “girls and boys laugh at the same things”.
Lee highlights the show’s diversity, from ethnicity to body shapes. “Kids come in all shapes and sizes and so should cartoon characters,” he says, adding that very few animated series can rival DC Super Hero Girls in the have wide range of personalities with whom viewers can identify.
There’s a lot more depth to the next generation of TV girls, Faust says. “We’re seeing female characters across animation and live action that have more depth because we are giving them the gamut of human emotions, not just what we think is exclusive to girls and women.” She adds that the strength of the series is not just in the writing and the pacing. “It’s in the characters themselves... She’s Supergirl. she punches people through the planet... goes for it”.
Whatever DC Super Hero Girls does for young female audiences today, the show premieres in a kids animation environment still dominated by shows for boys. The reason, Lee says, is that boys still watch a lot more animated TV than girls do. “Girls migrate earlier to live action and general entertainment than boys,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean that we should ignore girls – a good show will always appeal to both boys and girls,” he says.
Lee points out that a more even gender balance is being brought to marketing activation in Asia as well. The Power Puff Girls, for instance, were attached to a themed sub-race of the Spartan Race, with a MMA fighter and women racers dressed in Power Puff Girls-inspired race suits.
Most important, Lee says, is for “us to look at kids content that reflects gender balance without putting off boys. We don’t want to make a show that boys or girls don’t come to. We have to strike a balance, with authenticity... make a show that is real and fun and relevant, not put a girl character in there to tick a box.”
A big question is whether the gender re-balance on-screen in other parts of the world are – or will be – flowing into original kids content being made in Asia. One of Cartoon Network’s few originals in Asia, Monster Beach, has a strong female lead. Another two (as yet unannounced) originals out of India will also dial up the gender balance. But, Lee stresses, “it’s not about putting girls at the forefront for the sake of it... They have to be real and have a purpose”.
Elsewhere in the world of kids TV in Asia, girls, boys and dogs are also being rebalanced as international brands track social changes and reflect these back to their young audiences.
Syahrizan Mansor, Viacom International Media Networks’ VP for Nickelodeon in Asia, points to bi-racial princess and knight in Nella The Princess Knight, the karate-extreme-sports-loving Sandie Cheeks in SpongeBob Squarepants, female student entrepreneurs in Game Shakers, a female quarterback in Bella and the Bulldogs and a blue female puppy in Blue’s Clues. The diversity effort is driven globally to represent Nickelodeon’s audiences all over, she says. “We also have very strong female leads, starting way back in shows like Clarissa Explains It All, The Wild Thornberrys, Dora The Explorer, and more recently in Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Butterbeans Café,” she says, adding that the effort is not confined to what goes on screen. “Whether it’s hiring writers and crew members from different backgrounds or putting females as leads, we make sure that our stories are authentic, which we achieve by creating characters that viewers can see themselves in,” she says.
Multiculturalism in Asia plays out in different ways, but will continue to rise, Mansor adds. The licensing agreement with Chinese streaming platform iQiyi, for instance, involved reworking iQiyi’s original IP, Deer Squad, for broadcast in the U.K. with input from China, the U.K., U.S. and Singapore. Are any kids shows being made in Asia with any kind of gender breakthroughs that are not evident in American programming? None for now. But, Mansor adds, “that means opportunities for all content creators in Asia”.
Published in ContentAsia's Issue Seven 2019, 4 December 2019