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TEDxColoradoSprings

Christopher Bell: Bring on the female superheroes!

October 17, 2015

Why is it so hard to find female superhero merchandise? In this passionate, sparkling talk, media studies scholar (and father of a Star Wars-obsessed daughter) Christopher Bell addresses the alarming lack of female superheroes in the toys and products marketed to kids -- and what it means for how we teach them about the world.

Christopher Bell - Media studies scholar
Dr. Christopher Bell specializes in the study of popular culture, focusing on the ways in which race, class and gender intersect in different forms of media. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I spend most of my time
00:12
thinking about little girls,
00:16
which is kind of a weird thing
for a grown man in our society to say.
00:20
But I do. I spend most of my time
thinking about little girls,
00:24
and I think it's primarily
because I have one.
00:27
This one's mine, and I think
you would really like her.
00:30
She is smart and funny
00:34
and kind to people and a good friend.
00:36
But when I talk about my daughter,
the word I find myself saying most
00:39
is "athlete."
00:44
My kid's athletic.
00:46
She is strong and fast
00:48
and has great balance
and good body control.
00:50
She is a three-time,
back-to-back-to-back state champion
00:53
in Shaolin Kempo.
00:57
At nine years old, she is already
halfway to a black belt.
00:58
My daughter is athletic.
01:02
Now, when a man who is six feet two
and 265 pounds stands in front of you
01:04
and says his daughter is athletic,
01:08
you might think
that's a reflection of him.
01:10
It is not.
01:12
(Laughter)
01:13
My wife in high school
was a two-time all-state soccer player
01:15
and a two-time all-state
volleyball player,
01:18
and I played "Dungeons and Dragons."
01:21
And that is why,
01:23
although my daughter is an athlete,
01:25
she's also a huge nerd, which I love.
01:27
She walks around our house
in a cloak of flames
01:30
that she made herself.
01:33
She sits on the Iron Throne --
01:35
(Laughter)
01:37
even though she has never
seen "Game of Thrones,"
01:39
primarily because we are not
the worst parents who ever lived.
01:41
But she knows there's someone
called the Mother of Dragons,
01:45
and she calls herself that
and she loves it.
01:48
She's a huge comic book fan.
01:50
Right now, her favorite
character is Groot.
01:51
She loves Groot.
01:53
She adores The Incredible Hulk.
01:55
But my daughter really at heart,
01:57
her thing is Star Wars.
02:00
My kid is a Jedi.
02:03
Although some days she's also a Sith,
02:05
which is a choice that I can respect.
02:07
(Laughter)
02:10
But here's the question
that I have to ask.
02:11
Why is it that when
my daughter dresses up,
02:14
whether it's Groot or The Incredible Hulk,
02:16
whether it's Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Maul,
02:19
why is every character
she dresses up as a boy?
02:22
And where are all the female superheroes?
02:28
And that is not actually the question,
02:30
because there's plenty
of female superheroes.
02:32
My question really is,
where is all the female superhero stuff?
02:34
Where are the costumes?
Where are the toys?
02:38
Because every day when my daughter
plays when she dresses up,
02:41
she's learning stuff
02:45
through a process that,
in my own line of work,
02:47
as a professor of media studies,
02:50
we refer to as public pedagogy.
02:51
That is, it is how societies
are taught ideologies.
02:53
It's how you learned what it meant
to be a man or a woman,
02:59
what it meant to behave
yourself in public,
03:01
what it meant to be a patriot
and have good manners.
03:04
It's all the constituent social relations
that make us up as a people.
03:07
It's, in short, how we learn
what we know about other people
03:11
and about the world.
03:15
But we live in a 100-percent
media-saturated society.
03:16
What that means is that every single
aspect of your human existence
03:21
outside of your basic bodily functions
03:24
is in some way touched by media.
03:27
From the car that you drive
to the food that you eat
03:29
to the clothes that you wear
03:32
to the way you construct
your relationships
03:33
to the very language
you use to formulate thought --
03:35
all of that is in some way mediated.
03:38
So the answer in our society
03:42
to how do we learn what we know
about other people and about the world
03:44
is largely through media.
03:47
Well, there's a wrinkle in that,
03:50
in that our society,
03:52
media don't simply exist as information
distribution technologies and devices.
03:54
They also exist as corporate entities.
03:59
And when the distribution of information
is tied to financial gain,
04:02
there's a problem.
04:08
How big of a problem?
04:10
Well think about this:
04:12
in 1983, 90 percent of American media
were owned by 50 companies.
04:13
In any market, 50 companies
doing something is a lot of companies.
04:20
It's a lot of different worldviews.
04:24
In 2015, that number has shrunk to six,
04:26
six companies.
04:31
They are NBCUniversal Comcast,
AOL Time Warner,
04:32
the Walt Disney Company, News Corp,
Viacom and the CBS Corporation.
04:36
These six companies produce
nine out of every 10 movies you watch,
04:42
nine out of every 10 television shows,
nine out of every 10 songs,
04:46
nine out of every 10 books.
04:49
So my question to you is,
04:51
if six companies control
90 percent of American media,
04:53
how much influence do you think they have
over what you're allowed to see every day?
04:57
Because in media studies,
05:03
we spend a lot of time saying
that media can't tell us what to think,
05:05
and they can't; they're terrible at that.
05:08
But that's not their job.
05:10
Media don't tell us what to think.
05:12
Media tell us what to think about.
05:14
They control the conversation,
05:16
and in controlling the conversation,
05:18
they don't have to get you
to think what they want you to think.
05:20
They'll just get you thinking about
the things they want you to think about,
05:23
and more importantly, not thinking about
the things they don't you to think about.
05:27
They control the conversation.
05:31
How does this work in practice?
05:32
Let's just take one of those companies.
05:34
We'll do an easy one.
05:36
Let's talk about the Walt Disney
Company for a second.
05:37
The reason why I always pick
the Walt Disney Company is this.
05:40
Is there a single person in this room
who has never seen a Disney movie?
05:43
Look around. Exactly.
05:46
I picked Disney because they have
what we call 100 percent penetration
05:49
in our society.
05:53
Every single person
has been exposed to Disney,
05:54
so it's an easy one for me to use.
05:56
Since 1937, Disney has made most
of its money selling princesses to girls.
05:58
It's made a huge chunk of its money.
06:04
Unless, of course, the princess
your daughter is interested in,
06:06
as my daughter is, is this one.
06:09
See, in 2012,
06:11
Disney purchased LucasFilm
for the sum of four billion dollars,
06:14
and immediately they flooded
the Disney stores with Han Solo
06:18
and Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Darth Vader
and Luke Skywalker and Yoda
06:22
and not Princess Leia.
06:25
Why? Because this princess
messes up the public pedagogy
06:27
for these princesses.
06:31
So Disney did not put Princess Leia
merchandise in the store,
06:32
and when people went to Disney and said,
06:36
"Hey, where's all
the Princess Leia stuff?"
06:38
Disney said, "We have no intention
06:40
of putting Princess Leia
merchandise in the store."
06:42
And fans were angry
and they took to Twitter
06:44
with the hashtag #WeWantLeia.
06:46
And Disney said,
"Wait, that's not what we meant.
06:48
What we meant was,
06:51
we don't have any Princess Leia
merchandise yet, but we will."
06:53
And that was in 2012, and it is 2015,
06:56
and if you go to the Disney Store,
as I recently have,
07:00
and look for Princess Leia merchandise,
07:02
do you know how many Princess Leia
items there are in the Disney Store?
07:04
Zero, because Disney has no intention
of putting Princess Leia in the store.
07:07
And we shouldn't be surprised
because we found out that was their policy
07:11
when they bought Marvel in 2009
07:14
for the sum of 4.5 billion dollars.
07:18
Because when you make a lot of money
selling princesses to girls,
07:21
you also kind of want
to make money from boys.
07:25
And so what better to sell boys
than superheroes?
07:27
So now Disney had access
to Captain America and to Thor,
07:30
The Incredible Hulk,
07:33
and they had access even
07:34
to a group of superheroes
no one had ever even heard of.
07:37
That's how good Marvel was
at selling superheroes.
07:40
Last year, they released a film
called "Guardians of the Galaxy."
07:43
It's a film that absolutely
should not work.
07:46
Nobody knew who they were
except for comic book nerds like me.
07:49
One of the characters is a talking tree.
07:53
One of the characters
is an anthropomorphic raccoon.
07:55
It should not work.
07:58
And they made a killing
off of "Guardians of the Galaxy."
07:59
This character here in the middle,
her name is Gamora.
08:02
She's played by Zoe Saldana,
08:05
and she is strong and smart and fast
and fights like a ninja,
08:07
and she is played
by a beautiful black woman,
08:11
and my daughter fell in love with her.
08:13
So like any good nerd dad,
I went to buy my daughter Gamora stuff,
08:15
and when I got to the store,
I learned a very interesting thing.
08:19
If I wanted to buy her a Gamora backpack,
08:22
well, Gamora's not on it.
08:25
They probably should have marketed this
as "some" of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
08:28
(Laughter)
08:31
And if I wanted to buy her a lunchbox,
she wasn't on it,
08:33
and if I wanted to buy her a t-shirt,
08:36
she wasn't on it.
08:38
And as a matter of fact,
08:40
if I went to the store, as I did,
08:42
and looked at the display,
08:44
you would find a small picture
of Gamora right here,
08:46
but if you look at any
of the actual merchandise on that shelf,
08:48
Gamora is not on any of it.
08:52
Now, I could have taken to Twitter
with the hashtag #WheresGamora,
08:55
like millions of fans did
across the world,
08:58
but the truth was
I wasn't even really that surprised,
09:02
because I was there
when Disney had released "The Avengers."
09:06
And just this year, we got
a new Avengers movie, the "Age of Ultron,"
09:10
and we were very excited,
09:13
because there was not one
but two female superheroes,
09:14
Scarlet Witch and Black Widow.
09:17
And we were very excited.
09:19
But here's the real thing about this.
09:20
Even though Scarlett Johansson,
09:22
who is one of the most popular
actresses in America, plays Black Widow,
09:24
and Black Widow is the star
09:28
of not one, not two,
but five different Marvel movies,
09:29
there is not a single piece
of Black Widow merchandise available.
09:34
Not one.
09:39
And if you go to the Disney store
and look for a Black Widow costume,
09:40
what you will find, is you will find
Captain America and The Incredible Hulk.
09:43
You will find Iron Man and Thor.
09:47
You will even find War Machine,
09:49
who isn't even really
in the movie that long.
09:50
Who you will not find is Black Widow.
09:53
And I could have gone to Twitter
with the hashtag, as many people did,
09:55
# WheresNatasha.
09:59
But I'm tired of doing that.
10:01
I'm tired of having to do that.
10:03
All over the country right now,
10:05
there are kids playing
with the Cycle Blast Quinjet play set,
10:06
where Captain America
rides a motorcycle out of a moving jet
10:10
and it's really awesome.
10:14
You know how awesome it is?
10:15
So awesome that when
it happened in the movie,
10:17
it was Black Widow that did it.
10:19
Not only has she been erased,
10:22
but she has been replaced
with a male figure.
10:25
And so what is this teaching us?
10:31
I mean, over the next five years,
10:34
Disney and Warner Bros.
and a bunch of movie studios
10:36
are going to release
over 30 feature-length films
10:40
with comic book characters,
10:43
and of those 30 feature-length films,
10:45
exactly two of them
will have female solo leads.
10:47
Two.
10:52
Now, there will be females
in the rest of these movies,
10:53
but they will be sidekicks,
they will be love interests,
10:56
they will be members of teams.
10:59
They will not be the main character.
11:00
And if what we learn, what we know
11:02
about other people and about the world
we learn through media,
11:04
then these companies are teaching
my daughter that even if she is strong
11:07
and smart and fast
and fights like a ninja,
11:11
all four of which are true of her,
11:14
it doesn't matter.
11:17
She will either be ignored like Gamora
11:19
or erased and replaced with a boy
11:21
like Black Widow.
11:24
And it's not fair.
11:26
It's not fair to her and it's not fair
to your sons and daughters either.
11:28
But here's the thing:
11:32
I'm raising a little girl,
and she has a little tomboy in her,
11:33
which by the way is
a terrible thing to call a girl.
11:37
What that basically is saying is,
those traits that define you,
11:39
they're not really yours,
11:42
they're just on loan to you
for a little while from boys.
11:44
But do you know how much grief
she's going to take in her life
11:47
for having a little tomboy in her?
11:50
Zero. None.
11:53
People will think it's cute.
11:55
They'll call her feisty,
because in our society,
11:56
adding so-called male traits to girls
11:59
is seen as an upgrade, seen as a bonus.
12:01
I'm not raising a little boy, like Mike.
12:04
Mike is a little boy in Florida.
He's 11 years old,
12:08
and the thing that he loves
most in the world
12:11
is a show called "My Little Pony:
Friendship is Magic,"
12:13
like millions of other children
across America.
12:16
Now, the show is marketed to girls
ages five to nine,
12:19
but there are millions of boys
12:22
and grown men
12:25
who enjoy "My Little Pony:
Friendship is Magic."
12:27
They have a club.
12:29
They call themselves Bronies,
12:30
pony bros, guys who like ponies.
12:32
I happen to be one of them.
12:35
And what are Mike and myself
12:37
and millions of other boys and men
learning in this feminine,
12:41
sissified world of "My Little Pony?"
12:44
Well, they're learning to study hard
and to work hard and to party hard
12:47
and to look good and to feel good
12:51
and to do good,
12:54
and heaven preserve us from teaching
these wussified concepts to boys.
12:55
So the other kids in his neighborhood
pick on Mike and they beat him up
13:00
and they make fun of him,
13:04
and at 11 years old, Mike goes home,
13:05
finds a belt, wraps it around his neck,
13:08
and hangs himself
from the top bunk of his bed.
13:10
Because we have developed a society
13:13
in which you would rather be dead as a boy
than thought of as liking stuff for girls.
13:16
And that is not Mike's fault.
That is our fault.
13:22
We have failed him.
13:25
We have failed our children.
13:27
And we have to do better for them.
13:29
We have to stop making it
so that the only female superheroes
13:31
appear on shirts that are pink
and cut for girls.
13:34
We have to stop.
13:38
And when I was putting this together,
people said to me,
13:39
"Well, that's never going to happen."
And I said, "Oh really?"
13:42
Because just this year, Target announced
13:45
that they were going to stop
gendering their toy aisles.
13:47
They were going to mix it up.
13:51
Now, before we break our shoulders
patting Target on the back,
13:52
just this week they released a shirt
13:56
in which one of the most
iconic scenes in "Star Wars: A New Hope"
13:58
where Princess Leia stands up
to the Dark Lord of the Sith,
14:01
was released on a t-shirt
14:04
in which she's mysteriously
replaced by Luke.
14:05
So let's don't pat ourselves
on the back too much.
14:07
Just this week also,
14:10
Disney announced it was no longer
going to gender its Halloween costumes,
14:12
which I say, "Thank you, Disney,
14:16
except the only costumes you make
are of male superheroes,
14:18
so does it matter
who you have wearing them?"
14:21
Just this week, Mattel, who makes Barbie,
14:24
announced they're going to release
a line of DC superhero girls.
14:27
And the funny thing is,
14:30
they met with girls
14:31
and asked them what they
wanted to see in dolls,
14:33
and you can see, they have calves
14:35
and elbows that bend
so they can do superhero stuff.
14:38
And please buy them.
14:41
And don't just buy them
for your daughters,
14:43
buy them for your sons.
14:45
Because it's important that boys
play with and as female superheroes
14:46
just as my daughter plays
with and as male superheroes.
14:51
As a matter of fact, what I would love
14:55
is a world in which every person
who goes to the store
14:57
goes with a little flowchart in their head
15:00
of whether or not they should buy
this toy for a boy or a girl,
15:02
and it's a real simple flowchart
because it only has one question on it.
15:05
It says, "Is this toy
operated with you genitals?"
15:09
(Laughter)
15:12
If the answer is yes,
15:14
then that is not a toy for children.
15:17
(Laughter)
15:19
And if the answer is no,
15:22
then it's for boys and girls.
15:25
It's really simple.
15:28
Because today is about the future
of the future, and in my future,
15:29
boys and girls are equally respected,
15:33
equally valued, and most importantly,
equally represented.
15:36
Thank you.
15:42
(Applause)
15:43

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Christopher Bell - Media studies scholar
Dr. Christopher Bell specializes in the study of popular culture, focusing on the ways in which race, class and gender intersect in different forms of media.

Why you should listen

Dr. Christopher Bell is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies and the Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS).

At UCCS, Bell teaches both theory and methodology courses in critical analysis of popular culture, rhetorical theory, representation theory and mass media. His academic books include American Idolatry: Celebrity, Commodity and Reality Television (McFarland 2010), Hermione Granger Saves the World! (McFarland 2012), Legilimens! Perspectives in Harry Potter Studies (Cambridge Scholars 2013), From Here to Hogwarts (McFarland 2015) and Wizards vs. Muggles (McFarland 2016).

For more than ten years, Bell has been a featured professional speaker on a variety of college campuses, both large and small, nationally touring on issues of race, class and gender in the media. In what little spare time is left over, Bell is the author of the children's books Do Not Open the Door! and Do Not Look Under the Rug!, a competitive gamer (competing on regional and international circuits), and he travels with his wife and daughter.

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