Christopher Bell: Bring on the female superheroes!

Recorded atOctober 17, 2015
Duration (min:sec)15:34
Video TypeTEDx Talk
Words per minute208.57 very fast
Readability (FK)67.74 very easy
SpeakerChristopher Bell

Official TED page for this talk


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.

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 I spend most of my time thinking about little girls, which is kind of a weird thing for a grown man in our society to say.
200:25 But I do. I spend most of my time thinking about little girls, and I think it's primarily because I have one.
300:31 This one's mine, and I think you would really like her.
400:34 She is smart and funny and kind to people and a good friend.
500:39 But when I talk about my daughter, the word I find myself saying most is "athlete."
600:46 My kid's athletic.
700:48 She is strong and fast and has great balance and good body control.
800:54 She is a three-time, back-to-back-to-back state champion in Shaolin Kempo.
900:59 At nine years old, she is already halfway to a black belt.
1001:02 My daughter is athletic.
1101:04 Now, when a man who is six feet two and 265 pounds stands in front of you and says his daughter is athletic, you might think that's a reflection of him.
1201:12 It is not.
1301:14 (Laughter)
1401:15 My wife in high school was a two-time all-state soccer player and a two-time all-state volleyball player, and I played "Dungeons and Dragons."
1501:23 And that is why, although my daughter is an athlete, she's also a huge nerd, which I love.
1601:30 She walks around our house in a cloak of flames that she made herself.
1701:35 She sits on the Iron Throne -- (Laughter) even though she has never seen "Game of Thrones," primarily because we are not the worst parents who ever lived.
1801:45 But she knows there's someone called the Mother of Dragons, and she calls herself that and she loves it.
1901:50 She's a huge comic book fan.
2001:52 Right now, her favorite character is Groot.
2101:54 She loves Groot.
2201:55 She adores The Incredible Hulk.
2301:58 But my daughter really at heart, her thing is Star Wars.
2402:03 My kid is a Jedi.
2502:05 Although some days she's also a Sith, which is a choice that I can respect.
2602:10 (Laughter)
2702:11 But here's the question that I have to ask.
2802:14 Why is it that when my daughter dresses up, whether it's Groot or The Incredible Hulk, whether it's Obi-Wan Kenobi or Darth Maul, why is every character she dresses up as a boy?
2902:28 And where are all the female superheroes?
3002:30 And that is not actually the question, because there's plenty of female superheroes.
3102:34 My question really is, where is all the female superhero stuff?
3202:38 Where are the costumes? Where are the toys?
3302:41 Because every day when my daughter plays when she dresses up, she's learning stuff through a process that, in my own line of work, as a professor of media studies, we refer to as public pedagogy.
3402:53 That is, it is how societies are taught ideologies.
3502:59 It's how you learned what it meant to be a man or a woman, what it meant to behave yourself in public, what it meant to be a patriot and have good manners.
3603:07 It's all the constituent social relations that make us up as a people.
3703:11 It's, in short, how we learn what we know about other people and about the world.
3803:17 But we live in a 100-percent media-saturated society.
3903:21 What that means is that every single aspect of your human existence outside of your basic bodily functions is in some way touched by media.
4003:29 From the car that you drive to the food that you eat to the clothes that you wear to the way you construct your relationships to the very language you use to formulate thought -- all of that is in some way mediated.
4103:42 So the answer in our society to how do we learn what we know about other people and about the world is largely through media.
4203:50 Well, there's a wrinkle in that, in that our society, media don't simply exist as information distribution technologies and devices.
4304:00 They also exist as corporate entities.
4404:03 And when the distribution of information is tied to financial gain, there's a problem.
4504:11 How big of a problem?
4604:12 Well think about this: in 1983, 90 percent of American media were owned by 50 companies.
4704:20 In any market, 50 companies doing something is a lot of companies.
4804:24 It's a lot of different worldviews.
4904:26 In 2015, that number has shrunk to six, six companies.
5004:32 They are NBCUniversal Comcast, AOL Time Warner, the Walt Disney Company, News Corp, Viacom and the CBS Corporation.
5104:42 These six companies produce nine out of every 10 movies you watch, nine out of every 10 television shows, nine out of every 10 songs, nine out of every 10 books.
5204:51 So my question to you is, if six companies control 90 percent of American media, how much influence do you think they have over what you're allowed to see every day?
5305:03 Because in media studies, we spend a lot of time saying that media can't tell us what to think, and they can't; they're terrible at that.
5405:10 But that's not their job.
5505:12 Media don't tell us what to think.
5605:14 Media tell us what to think about.
5705:17 They control the conversation, and in controlling the conversation, they don't have to get you to think what they want you to think.
5805:23 They'll just get you thinking about the things they want you to think about, and more importantly, not thinking about things they don't want you to think about.
5905:31 They control the conversation.
6005:33 How does this work in practice?
6105:34 Let's just take one of those companies.
6205:36 We'll do an easy one.
6305:38 Let's talk about the Walt Disney Company for a second.
6405:40 The reason why I always pick the Walt Disney Company is this.
6505:43 Is there a single person in this room who has never seen a Disney movie?
6605:46 Look around. Exactly.
6705:49 I picked Disney because they have what we call 100 percent penetration in our society.
6805:54 Every single person has been exposed to Disney, so it's an easy one for me to use.
6905:59 Since 1937, Disney has made most of its money selling princesses to girls.
7006:04 It's made a huge chunk of its money.
7106:06 Unless, of course, the princess your daughter is interested in, as my daughter is, is this one.
7206:11 See, in 2012, Disney purchased LucasFilm for the sum of four billion dollars, and immediately they flooded the Disney stores with Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi, with Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker and Yoda and not Princess Leia.
7306:27 Why? Because this princess messes up the public pedagogy for these princesses.
7406:33 So Disney did not put Princess Leia merchandise in the store, and when people went to Disney and said, "Hey, where's all the Princess Leia stuff?"
7506:40 Disney said, "We have no intention of putting Princess Leia merchandise in the store."
7606:44 And fans were angry and they took to Twitter with the hashtag #WeWantLeia.
7706:49 And Disney said, "Wait, that's not what we meant.
7806:51 What we meant was, we don't have any Princess Leia merchandise yet, but we will."
7906:56 And that was in 2012, and it is 2015, and if you go to the Disney Store, as I recently have, and look for Princess Leia merchandise, do you know how many Princess Leia items there are in the Disney Store?
8007:08 Zero, because Disney has no intention of putting Princess Leia in the store.
8107:11 And we shouldn't be surprised because we found out that was their policy when they bought Marvel in 2009 for the sum of 4.5 billion dollars.
8207:22 Because when you make a lot of money selling princesses to girls, you also kind of want to make money from boys.
8307:27 And so what better to sell boys than superheroes?
8407:30 So now Disney had access to Captain America and to Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and they had access even to a group of superheroes no one had ever even heard of.
8507:40 That's how good Marvel was at selling superheroes.
8607:43 Last year, they released a film called "Guardians of the Galaxy."
8707:46 It's a film that absolutely should not work.
8807:49 Nobody knew who they were except for comic book nerds like me.
8907:53 One of the characters is a talking tree.
9007:56 One of the characters is an anthropomorphic raccoon.
9107:58 It should not work.
9207:59 And they made a killing off of "Guardians of the Galaxy."
9308:03 This character here in the middle, her name is Gamora.
9408:05 She's played by Zoe Saldana, and she is strong and smart and fast and fights like a ninja, and she is played by a beautiful black woman, and my daughter fell in love with her.
9508:15 So like any good nerd dad, I went to buy my daughter Gamora stuff, and when I got to the store, I learned a very interesting thing.
9608:23 If I wanted to buy her a Gamora backpack, well, Gamora's not on it.
9708:28 They probably should have marketed this as "some" of the Guardians of the Galaxy.
9808:32 (Laughter)
9908:34 And if I wanted to buy her a lunchbox, she wasn't on it, and if I wanted to buy her a t-shirt, she wasn't on it.
10008:40 And as a matter of fact, if I went to the store, as I did, and looked at the display, you would find a small picture of Gamora right here, but if you look at any of the actual merchandise on that shelf, Gamora is not on any of it.
10108:55 Now, I could have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #WheresGamora, like millions of fans did across the world, but the truth was I wasn't even really that surprised, because I was there when Disney had released "The Avengers."
10209:10 And just this year, we got a new Avengers movie, the "Age of Ultron," and we were very excited, because there was not one but two female superheroes, Scarlet Witch and Black Widow.
10309:19 And we were very excited.
10409:20 But here's the real thing about this.
10509:23 Even though Scarlett Johansson, who is one of the most popular actresses in America, plays Black Widow, and Black Widow is the star of not one, not two, but five different Marvel movies, there is not a single piece of Black Widow merchandise available.
10609:39 Not one.
10709:40 And if you go to the Disney store and look for a Black Widow costume, what you will find, is you will find Captain America and The Incredible Hulk.
10809:47 You will find Iron Man and Thor.
10909:49 You will even find War Machine, who isn't even really in the movie that long.
11009:53 Who you will not find is Black Widow.
11109:56 And I could have gone to Twitter with the hashtag, as many people did, # WheresNatasha.
11210:01 But I'm tired of doing that.
11310:03 I'm tired of having to do that.
11410:05 All over the country right now, there are kids playing with the Cycle Blast Quinjet play set, where Captain America rides a motorcycle out of a moving jet and it's really awesome.
11510:16 You know how awesome it is?
11610:17 So awesome that when it happened in the movie, it was Black Widow that did it.
11710:22 Not only has she been erased, but she has been replaced with a male figure.
11810:31 And so what is this teaching us?
11910:34 I mean, over the next five years, Disney and Warner Bros. and a bunch of movie studios are going to release over 30 feature-length films with comic book characters, and of those 30 feature-length films, exactly two of them will have female solo leads.
12010:52 Two.
12110:53 Now, there will be females in the rest of these movies, but they will be sidekicks, they will be love interests, they will be members of teams.
12211:00 They will not be the main character.
12311:02 And if what we learn, what we know about other people and about the world we learn through media, then these companies are teaching my daughter that even if she is strong and smart and fast and fights like a ninja, all four of which are true of her, it doesn't matter.
12411:19 She will either be ignored like Gamora or erased and replaced with a boy like Black Widow.
12511:26 And it's not fair.
12611:28 It's not fair to her and it's not fair to your sons and daughters either.
12711:32 But here's the thing: I'm raising a little girl, and she has a little tomboy in her, which by the way is a terrible thing to call a girl.
12811:39 What that basically is saying is, those traits that define you, they're not really yours, they're just on loan to you for a little while from boys.
12911:47 But do you know how much grief she's going to take in her life for having a little tomboy in her?
13011:53 Zero. None.
13111:55 People will think it's cute.
13211:56 They'll call her feisty, because in our society, adding so-called male traits to girls is seen as an upgrade, seen as a bonus.
13312:05 I'm not raising a little boy, like Mike.
13412:08 Mike is a little boy in Florida. He's 11 years old, and the thing that he loves most in the world is a show called "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic," like millions of other children across America.
13512:19 Now, the show is marketed to girls ages five to nine, but there are millions of boys and grown men who enjoy "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic."
13612:29 They have a club.
13712:30 They call themselves Bronies, pony bros, guys who like ponies.
13812:36 I happen to be one of them.
13912:37 And what are Mike and myself and millions of other boys and men learning in this feminine, sissified world of "My Little Pony?"
14012:47 Well, they're learning to study hard and to work hard and to party hard and to look good and to feel good and to do good, and heaven preserve us from teaching these wussified concepts to boys.
14113:00 So the other kids in his neighborhood pick on Mike and they beat him up and they make fun of him, and at 11 years old, Mike goes home, finds a belt, wraps it around his neck, and hangs himself from the top bunk of his bed.
14213:13 Because we have developed a society in which you would rather be dead as a boy than thought of as liking stuff for girls.
14313:22 And that is not Mike's fault. That is our fault.
14413:25 We have failed him.
14513:27 We have failed our children.
14613:30 And we have to do better for them.
14713:32 We have to stop making it so that the only female superheroes appear on shirts that are pink and cut for girls.
14813:38 We have to stop.
14913:40 And when I was putting this together, people said to me, "Well, that's never going to happen." And I said, "Oh really?"
15013:45 Because just this year, Target announced that they were going to stop gendering their toy aisles.
15113:51 They were going to mix it up.
15213:52 Now, before we break our shoulders patting Target on the back, just this week they released a shirt in which one of the most iconic scenes in "Star Wars: A New Hope" where Princess Leia stands up to the Dark Lord of the Sith, was released on a t-shirt in which she's mysteriously replaced by Luke.
15314:07 So let's don't pat ourselves on the back too much.
15414:11 Just this week also, Disney announced it was no longer going to gender its Halloween costumes, which I say, "Thank you, Disney, except the only costumes you make are of male superheroes, so does it matter who you have wearing them?"
15514:25 Just this week, Mattel, who makes Barbie, announced they're going to release a line of DC superhero girls.
15614:30 And the funny thing is, they met with girls and asked them what they wanted to see in dolls, and you can see, they have calves and elbows that bend so they can do superhero stuff.
15714:41 And please buy them.
15814:43 And don't just buy them for your daughters, buy them for your sons.
15914:46 Because it's important that boys play with and as female superheroes just as my daughter plays with and as male superheroes.
16014:55 As a matter of fact, what I would love is a world in which every person who goes to the store goes with a little flowchart in their head of whether or not they should buy this toy for a boy or a girl, and it's a real simple flowchart because it only has one question on it.
16115:09 It says, "Is this toy operated with your genitals?" (Laughter)
16215:14 If the answer is yes, then that is not a toy for children.
16315:19 (Laughter)
16415:22 And if the answer is no, then it's for boys and girls.
16515:28 It's really simple.
16615:29 Because today is about the future of the future, and in my future, boys and girls are equally respected, equally valued, and most importantly, equally represented.
16715:42 Thank you.
16815:43 (Applause)