The conception of female empowerment in modern-day media is beginning to seep into the realm of Western animation. Both Steven Universe (based on popular opinion) and Star vs. the Forces of Evil are presently-broadcasted, highly-rated animated series that portray female characters in a powerful and unproblematic light. In this sense we can argue that the series which are currently of high-status in the world of animation come from feminist perspectives.
But these aren’t the series of focus in this article.
The series under the critical telescope is DC Superhero Girls, webisodes featuring the prominent females of the DC universe (e.g. Wonderwoman, Harley Quinn, Batgirl, etc.) interacting in a high school-based setting- one tailored to the superhero lifestyle, of course. The webseries follows a similar format to Monster High and Ever After High, which also consist of short online episodes set in high schools of their related themes.
The most significant feature of each of these webseries is that their creation is based on the sole purpose of selling associated merchandise.
Unfortunately, defining animated series’ success based on toy sales is becoming a norm in children’s programming. Advertising revenue just doesn’t cut it anymore with the rising number of online streaming sites (especially those of the legally-questionable variety). A few animated series have even been cancelled over the lack of toy sales or inability to land a merchandise contract (e.g. Young Justice and Sym-bionic Titan). So one way of combating this is to release low-budget mini-series via YouTube that contain heavy branding which can be carried over to merchandise production.
Keep in mind, there is nothing wrong with selling toys that are based off of a television series. In order to create content there has to be some form of financial payoff for its production to be viable. However, based on my experience as a viewer, series with heavy branding tend to be very simplistic in narrative. The intent of these series is clearly to reach commercial ends, which is the basis of production companies and businesses in general; however when this fact is made painstakingly obvious in work meant to entertain, it prevents the viewer from being fully immersed in the content. In other words, despite arguments against animation being an inferior form of storytelling, it’s series like DC Superhero Girls that maintain this “for kids” mentality towards animated works.
The issue that arises from DC Superhero Girls is that the concept of “girl power” is being used as a selling point for associated dolls and action figures. In other words, it’s not much of a stretch to say that the merchandising attempts promotes the commodification of social issues.
As mentioned previously, series like Steven Universe address many societal issues in their narratives. However, this isn’t done to sell products, instead these issues are incorporated into different plots for the sake of telling meaningful, insightful, and socially-reflective stories. On the other hand, DC Superhero Girls (along with Ever After High and Monster High) takes female empowerment and places it in an overly-simplified premise, which is further held back by its heavy branding.
Despite the commercialized elements of the webseries, it does have some positive features. First of all, it is very female-led (which can’t be said about the other two webseries). With female showrunners, writers, and creators, the chances of negative female portrayals or even female-empowerment done wrong is minimal. The second noteworthy feature is related to the series’ merchandise. In a girls’ toy aisle that’s blinding with pink coloration, DC Superhero Girls products stands out with its unorthodox blue packaging.
So I guess you can say that the webseries subtlety fights the patriarchy- even if it is through surface-level narrative and heavy branding.
A/N: This series has excellent potential and a great premise. I am an avid DC fan and enjoy keeping up with its webisodes. So rather than this article undermining the series’ enjoyment level, it’s simply meant to be critical of widely-spread media content.