You know what was great? Teen Titans. While I don’t need to make a list of reasons why Teen Titans was great, I could throw a couple at you. Starfire wasn’t a walking sex toy. A skilled writing staff managed to write jokes that made me laugh without wanting to put my head into a desk. Cyborg was clearly Black, but not an Erkel or a thug. Then there was Terra, who presented complicated notions of heroism, loyalty, and betrayal for a young audience. There was also the Puffy Am—shut up!—Puffy Amiyumi theme song. All of these things and others made for a great show. But it went the way of the dinosaur. If you ask Wil Wheaton, that was because the season 6 pitch didn’t go over favorably with the execs.
That’s the way it is with television shows. Many great shows are here today, gone tomorrow. Despite the efforts of many a Kickstarter or online petition, it takes much more than a vocal and obsessive fanbase to convince a company to reverse the decision to terminate a show. See: Firefly (which, by the way, was a decade ago, so maybe we should just let that wound heal). So many different things go into the cancellation of a show because it takes the cooperation of actors, animators if a show is animated, the owners of the creative property, production companies, etc., and I recognize that these things happen, but the cancellation of Young Justice genuinely broke my heart. There aren’t that many DC properties that I’ve ever really been into, so it was sad to see a critically acclaimed, Emmy-winning, mature, and compelling show disappear. That’s all right; I will learn to love again.
But the other day I was listening to Kevin Smith’s Fat Man on Batman podcast, which is a goldmine, and he was interviewing Paul Dini. Dini is a writer with a long career and a longer resume, and he has written for a show you like, no question. Dini gave a rather troubling answer as to why Young Justice was cancelled, along with other shows like Tower Prep. Apparently, those shows are too mature. They appeal to audiences that prefer complexity, and apparently those audiences don’t buy toys. Now, I acknowledge that televisions often live and die on advertising and merchandising. But there’s something much more disturbing in his answer. There’s a transcript here, and if you read far enough down you’ll encounter this comment about studio executives:
They’re all for boys ‘we do not want the girls’, I mean, I’ve heard executives say this, you know, not [where I am] but at other places, saying like, ‘We do not want girls watching this show.”
You have to be saying “What?!” right now. That doesn’t make any sense. Why on earth would you want to exclude an entire group like that? As Smith responds: “WHY? That’s 51% of the population.” Apparently, as Dini continues:
They. Do. Not. Buy. Toys. The girls buy different toys. The girls may watch the show—…But, the Cartoon Network was saying, ‘F***, no, we want the boys’ action, it’s boys’ action, this goofy boy humor we’ve gotta get that in there. And we can’t—’and I’d say, but look at the numbers, we’ve got parents watching, with the families, and then when you break it down—’Yeah, but the—so many—we’ve got too many girls. We need more boys.’
Now, as io9 notes: “One thing that is interesting is that, in 2012, action figures and roleplaying toys accounted for $1.39B in sales, while dolls, which are typically aimed at girls, accounted for $2.69B in sales.” That would seem to indicate that this notion, apparently held by many studio executives, is wrongheaded. I think that any woman reading this knows that. Girls buy merchandise. Girls and women buy all sorts of themed swag, from action figures to iPhone covers. Why wouldn’t they? They’re people and people like stuff. I’d posit that if women aren’t a rewarding market for companies that sell merchandise relating to comics and superheroes, it’s because they historically haven’t been marketed to. It’s because they’ve been constantly and purposefully excluded from those communities, though they persist in spite of all that.
Toymakers will tell you they won’t sell enough, and movie people will point to the two terrible superheroine movies that were made and say, You see? It can’t be done. It’s stupid, and I’m hoping The Hunger Games will lead to a paradigm shift.
There’s this belief that female superheroes are too complicated because feminism and/or emotions are haaaaaaaaaaard. I don’t want to overwhelm my critical eye here, but if you look at this next to the “fake geek girl” phenomenon it seems that there’s a vicious cycle here that revolves around a lack of faith in women to be genuine appreciators of art or buy merchandise. That’s nonsense. Very costly nonsense.
The problem is that executive decisions not to market to those who appreciate complexity, or to an entire freaking gender, in favor of those who buy the collectible action figures, is that it denies whole sectors of money-making potential. On top of that, it’s detrimental to the class, quality, and diversity of comics and their related properties. If we keep going on like this, we’re going to end up with a community dominated by a childish and vocal minority of privileged white men and tha—oh. Well, you see the predicament this places us in.
I feel like there’s only one solution to this problem: those of us with good sense must become as vocal about it as possible. There’s two ways about that. The first is just to say that we want these films and these television shows. We want them complex and diverse and we will shell out money to see them. If Katniss Everdeen can sell ¾ of a billion dollars, in the box office alone, then surely a well-done film can be successful with a female superhero. I actually believe that the Hunger Games films are essentially superhero movies, but that’s a different argument.
The other option is to make our own art. There’s a well-established and growing tradition of fanart, fanfiction, and fan-films. We can produce our own content as we’ve been doing for years. We can change it around in cool and radical ways that industry executives won’t, at least at first. Eventually, someone will learn to do math and they and their companies will come around or go the way of the dinosaur themselves.