My twins are now 6 years of age. In this short span of time the girls have had a go on almost every Disney princess: Rapunzel, Elsa, Anna, Ariel, Jasmine, Moana…..you name it and they have lived the story. Last year I kept a track of how many ‘Disney-Princess’ theme birthday parties the girls attended. I lost track somewhere deep in the double digits. You’ve probably witnessed this princess parade: pint-sized Disney heroines, shuffling up and down in their polyester finery. It’s a daily routine at my home, the twin princesses having a tea party, getting rescued by a prince, a wedding scene, fiddling with hairstyles, being ‘pretty’, magic and oh yes glitter…lots and lots of it 🙂
Girls’ empowerment, to be fair, has been part of the Disney princess marketing message. Ever since The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, Disney has been customising fairy tales to make them palatable to modern sensibilities — injecting some level of spunk or work ethic into one-dimensional characters, tweaking story lines so princesses could play at least some role in their own saving. But I have felt these efforts to be faulty given how the tie-in consumer products have turned out. Segregated toy aisles — Cars vs. Dolls, Lego Star Wars vs. Lego Friends, pink vs. blue, delicate toys vs. masculine toys — and the messages they send to both boys and girls about ambition, interests, and career possibilities. Their purpose is to primp, pose, and drum up a global appetite for bling.
Then something wonderful happened…..DC and Marvel released ‘Wonder Woman’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ respectively. Both of these super heroes were powerful, unemotional, strong and intelligent character who did not rely on anyone else. My twins had never seen a female character like them before, and were quickly able to connect with them and be inspired by them.
Between the fangirl thrill, the parental nostalgia, and the built-in empowerment messages, superheroines seem like a modern parent’s dream. They have an agency, abilities, and a mission to do good. And unlike most Disney princesses — with a few notable exceptions like Anna and Elsa — they don’t need princes to fill out their story arcs.
One of the biggest fandom universes in the world happens to be the universe of superheroes. It’s a powerful universe, and even if you aren’t a part of it, almost everyone can name their favourite superhero. The thing is—more often than not—these movies or comics are centred on an archetypal white male. Young girls and women, on the other hand, don’t really have anyone they could connect with, relate to or see themselves as. The very essence of a superhero is that they are these amazing, strong, inspiring, awesome individuals who are using their talents to do good for the world. Why should a superhero be any different because she’s female? Even though we have so many empowering female superheroes (Black Widow, Jessica Jones, Scarlet Witch, Gamora, Wonder Woman, Nebula, Wasp, Captain Marvel, etc.), there is still so much work to be done. This number of female superheroes is in no way comparable to that of male superheroes, and there is no diversity amongst them either.
The idea that representation matters may have already seemed obvious. But a new study from Women’s Media Center and BBC America, has finally quantified the impact female sci-fi characters and superheroes on television and in movies have on girls.
The study, “Superpowering Girls,” (which I have attached below) suggests that female leads make girls feel more “strong, brave, confident, inspired, positive and motivated,” and ultimately empower them to feel like “they can achieve anything they put their mind to.” It also found that female superheroes play an even more impactful role in inspiring female confidence than male superheroes in their male counterparts—58 percent of girls said female heroes made them feel that way, while 45 percent of boys said the same of male heroes.
Other findings from the study included:
- A “confidence gap” means that only 70 percent of girls ages 15 to 19 feel “confident” compared to 81 percent of boys, and 57 percent of girls feel “not listened to” as opposed to 38 percent of boys. The feeling of being not listened to was “significantly higher” for girls of color.
- Female superheroes are extremely rare—DC’s Wonder Woman is the only woman-led superhero blockbuster. Not coincidentally, Wonder Woman was far and away the most popular superhero role model among girls, and the next two most popular role models among girls aged ten to 19 were male heroes.
- Eighty-one percent of girls said that having a female Doctor Who “makes them feel like they can become anything they want,” and 73 percent felt it was “long overdue.”
- Two out of three girls from age ten to 19 felt that there weren’t enough female “strong characters,” “relatable characters,” or “role models” on screen.
- Two out of three boys said they enjoy watching female characters just as much as watching male ones. Seventy-one percent said that a female Doctor Who will be “just as exciting.”
The influence of female superheroes has had a tremendous impact on my kids, so just imagine how much it would have on a young girl who is growing up in a society that is constantly making strides in feminist rights. These characters will shape the way that young girls will view themselves, and put an empowering female superhero on the screen allows girls to envision all the possibilities that they have and will help them to realize the amazing things that they can do. We have to continue to show these girls that they can truly be and do anything if they work hard, and female superheroes may have the power to manipulate matter or have super strength, but their greatest power is the ability to shape the future of how women everywhere view themselves.
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