Note that when writing about “DC Superhero Girls” in this article, I am referring solely to the webseries. Cartoon Network has recently announced that Lauren Faust is developing a full-length version of the series which, to anyone who is familiar with her work and her stance on progressive female characters, sounds incredibly promising.
The concept of female empowerment in modern-day media is slowly becoming a central theme within many Americanized animated works. Both Steven Universe and Star vs. the Forces of Evil are highly-rated animated series that portray female characters in both a positive and powerful light. In this sense, we can argue that a portion of current high-status animated series support feminist perspectives.
However, the title under the critical telescope in this article is DC Superhero Girls, a webisode series featuring prominent female characters of the DC universe interacting in a school setting—one tailored to the superhero lifestyle, of course. This webseries follows a similar format to Monster High and Ever After High, which also fall under the category of webisode series set in themed schools.
The most telling feature of each of these webseries is that they’re created with the intended purpose of selling associated merchandise.
Unfortunately, measuring 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 questionably-legal streaming sites. Highly-rated series, such as Young Justice and Sym-bionic Titan, have even been cancelled due to the lack of toy sales or inability to land a merchandise contract. So one form of combating the lack of profit in animation is to release low-budget mini series via YouTube that contain heavy branding which can be carried over to merchandise production.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with providing memorabilia to fans of a show, content containing heavy branding tend to be simplistic in narrative. The intent of these series is to meet commercial objectives—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. Despite arguments against animation being an inferior form of storytelling, it’s series like DC Superhero Girls, Monster High, and Ever After High that solidifies the for-kids mentality commonly held towards animated works.
Now before continuing, allow me to point out that it is okay for cartoons to create and promote associated merchandise. These works will always find fans so long as they are somewhat engaging. The issue that arises specifically with DC Superhero Girls is that it relies on the concept of girl power—and in turn, girl power is being used as a selling point for associated dolls and action figures. From this perspective, merchandising efforts promote the commodification of feminist ideals.
As mentioned previously, series like Steven Universe address many societal issues in their narratives. However, this isn’t done to sell a physical product; instead, these issues are incorporated into different plots for the sake of telling meaningful, insightful, and socially-reflective stories. Merchandise is an afterthought. On the other hand, DC Superhero Girls takes female empowerment and places it within an overly-simplified premise—which is further held back by heavy branding.
Despite the commercialized elements of the webseries, it does have some positive features. First of all, the series’ production is very female-led. With women showrunners, writers, and creators, the chances of negative female portrayals or even female-empowerment done wrong despite its narrative simplicity is minimal. Its second noteworthy feature is related to the series’ merchandise. While the color pink consumes the majority of toy aisles targeted at young girls, DC Superhero Girls products stands out with its unorthodox blue packaging.
So, in small ways the webseries can be seen as in support of feminist ideas—or at least does the best it can within its domineering restrictions.
Here’s hoping that Lauren Faust’s rendition of the series presents a stronger fight against patriarchal standards, while providing excellent storytelling.