Hand-Held Harlequins! : The Super-Humor of DC’s New Girl Powered Action Franchise

“Get your cape on, and let’s take flight! We can be who we like!” – DC Super Hero Girls theme song.

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My daughter is a Caped Crusader.

Even in her toddler phase, she always preferred colorful costumes and cataclysmic combat over Barbification or Dora-mania. Yet, as far as we can tell from her second grade peers and pals, she is not a “geek” or a “mean girl.” She’s not a tomboy either, since prim princesses and personified ponies and adamantly American Girls and absolutely anything related to Alex Morgan all fill a good quotient of her 8-year old day. She does quite well in school, just completed her First Communion, plays two sports with aplomb, and has recently survived her first ear piercings, not to mention a fairly brutal soccer-smashed fibula.

Yet, when she really wants to cut loose and get her missy mojo working, she always turns to cosplay.  Over the years, she has done turns as Super-girl, Maleficent, Frozen‘s Queen Elsa (Elsa is, ironically, her actual name!) and Leia Organa, but her more recent repertoire includes Batgirl, the Scarlet Witch, the Wasp, and most especially of late,  Cat Woman and Agent Carter.

She is hardly alone among her age group in her inclinations toward super-couture, and believe it or not, neither Mom nor I have had much influence on her passionate attraction to wonder-duds. In fact, there isn’t much superhero merch about the house beyond my basement hobbit hole of a Media Studies library. Nor are we a particularly super-duper family, aside from fond memories of the original Super Friends and the occasional spontaneous viewings of The Incredibles or Big Hero 6.  For further proof, just ask my 10 year-old son, who completely skipped over all of the superhero genres and contexts that fascinated many of his friends. From his earlest safaris around our home, he has always favored scouts, birding, tennis, and baseball. So super-stuff abides in our lives, but it does not beckon, inundate, or restrict our offspring’s access to other forms of generally pleasant and genuinely good-hearted American middle class fun. Still, on her own time and in her own mind, my daughter is definitely a Super Hero Girl.

Thanks to a number of recent social and commercial changes in what Henry Jenkins and others have labeled “spreadable, participatory” consumption of fan and franchise-based entertainment, my daughter and her alpha girl pals are potentially at the forefront of a new age of super-gendered humor and HER-oic media.  For years now, the super hero and video game industries have been aware of significantly rising marketshares founded on the interests and tastes of women and girls of all ages, but there is something extra special in the way that Disney/Marvel, Warner Brothers/DC/Dark Horse, and lately even Archie, have begun to cross-market marquee properties of all eras as chic, strong, and most importantly – FUNNY – idols and idylls of feminine and often Feminist power.

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This may have something to do with changes in the actual comic-books themselves. Most contemporary mainstream titles are now little more than raw rehearsals – published storyboards really – for potential new mass media launches. Still, the new emphasis on tough babes, hybrid heroines, and alterna-grrls is ridiculously obvious.  Core Marvel properties have all developed re-gendered splinter cells with fairly rabid followings. These include the “She-verine” mutant X-23 from NYX; blithe remixes of Spider-man and Deadpool that resuscitate the genre-defining murder of Spidey’s main squeeze, Gwen Stacy as Spider-Gwen and Gwen-Pool;  a variety of other arachna-gals like the Chicana Araña (admittedly a bit earlier), Silk, and a highly empowered new Spider-Woman; socially relevant new heroines and aliens like the new Muslim Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan) and the powerfully revamped Captain Marvel; super-fatales and S.H.I.E.L.D. assassins like Black Widow, Agent Carter,  and Anita Hill; quirky, self-conscious parodies like The Great Lakes Avengers’ Squirrel Girl; and, finally, actual a**-kicking warrior goddesses like The Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora and Nebula, and what one dealer pal of mine gleefully celebrates as “Disney Princess Thor.”

Never before in the history of what are usually fairly desperate trends in the comics industry have both creators and fans paid so much attention to the power of gender, and in particular, the fundamental value of female markets. Sure, there are still far too many over-sexed fanboy fetish fantasies, as Kate Beaton’s recent tweet-screed against Cloak and Dagger has brilliantly exposed. Yet, there is an undeniably new, gender-positive theme in mainstream super-stories and a revolutionary new mode of joy, mirth, and fun that they deliver to consumers of all ages and interests. This surprising trend is nowhere more obvious than in DC’s Super Hero Girls concept.

With all of the mega-money, media remonstrance, and bloggy bologna that surrounds every single teaser, trailer, and hiccup in pop commerce of late, it seems strange that so little has been made of the DC Super Hero Girls launch, except for a lengthy stream of predominantly positive commentary and encouragement from estimable blog-star, The Mary Sue.  The entire concept –  announced last year – is unprecedented in its healthy and discrete emphasis on family friendly, action-comedy rooted in the  positive collaboration and team-building achievements of all of the gifted youth at Super Hero High.   DC, Mattel, Lego, and others are involved in the all ages, butt-kicking slapstick which drives the animated web series and its supporting online games and merchandise. The attendant webisodes, games, and smart phone apps are actually quite fresh and funny, focusing predominantly on the same themes of friendship, responsibility, and individual difference that has made Hasbro’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic a cross-cultural, gender-blending, inter-species phenomenon.

In some sense, DC Super Hero Girls renditions of iconic heroines like Wonder Woman, as well as more obscure and diverse characters like the African American Bumble Bee and the Japanese Katana, make good on the revolutionary promise of gender and racial equality which fueled William Moulton Marsten, Elizabeth Holloway, and Olive Byrne’s original Wonder Woman concept, as it has been brilliantly documented by Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman.  Much like these pioneering tales of equality, liberation, and endurance, the Super Hero Girls revel in their eventual mastery of complex social codes and the inevitably triumphant defeat of lesser vices and intimidating antagonists of various genders. Though many webisodes deserve more scrutiny and a much wider audience, their value as pro-feminine parables of confidence, trust, and happiness is almost too didactic and delightful.  What interests me even more is the surprising, insistent, and altogether underappreciated potency of the Super Hero Girls toys that my daughter and her super-sisters so adore.

The action figure’s perpetual prominence in cultural conversations of all stripes, including play, comedy, and humor,  remains grievously under appreciated. From Lego to Xena, the hand-held humanoid figure, the bobble head, and the keepsake statuette have become central elements of not only nurseries, toy boxes, and happy meals, but also classrooms, cubicles, and collectors’ “man caves” and “she sheds.” Though much needed new critical acumen will likely arrive with Jonathan Alexandratos’ highly anticipated McFarland anthology of pioneering “Action Figure Studies,” the global debates over these heavily gendered, over-signified “household gods”  cry out for fresh and frequent theoretical attention.

Case in point: a few months ago, the new girl-riffic DC and Mattel-derived Super Hero Girls franchise hit Target end caps across the nation like a cosmic bomb. Encompassing traditionally sized action figures, larger fashion dolls, prefab cosplay outfits, wonder-shields, and dynamic diaries, the first wave of sweet and strong super-BFFs disappeared from stores in a thundering herd of grateful moms, giddy girls, and obsessive collectors of geek chic.  As Dan Greenfeld comments in his 13th Dimension blog post, “This is a new, girl-power-driven initiative by both companies designed to inspire young girls to find their inner superheroes (and to buy a lot of toys, books and videos). There are two 12-inch lines for different wallets (but they kinda veer toward fashion dolls) and there are role-play playsets. But I was most interested in the 6-inch line — because these are full-on action figures, end of story. And I think that’s awesome and I hope they catch on. If I had a young daughter, I’d buy everything in sight.” Judging by the nearly naked shelves in every Target I have entered in my recent travels across the Midwest; as well as  the frantic searching, bargaining, and pleading that has popped up on collectors’ Facebook groups and online chat boards; and the hefty premiums now required to acquire the figures via Amazon or Ebay, it seems like the Target-going nation agrees with Greenfield.

In recent weeks, DC’s Super Hero Girls have also begun to infiltrate my daughter’s classroom, lunch box, sleep-overs, and scout meetings, though I doubt that a single one of her friends have yet seen the Web series. Vibrantly designed to compete in clever, conspicuous ways with the goth-gantuan success of Mattel’s own Monster High and Hasbro’s Equestria Girls toy lines, the six characters in the first wave of releases represent an especially compelling mixture of fashion, diversity, and  – wait for it– dignity! Who knew it could happen in a toy genre long reviled for its contributions to negative body image and increased chemical toxicity in both boys and girls?

The series includes some fascinating and, dare I say it, heartening design decisions in terms of body value and fashionable fun. The positively preppy Super Girl rocks her famous “S”-sigil on a tasteful sweater over a starched white dress shirt accessorized with playfully mismatched red and blue wristbands and a no nonsense headband that matches her classically WASPy, blue-eyed blond smile.  Along similar lines, Wonder Woman is, for once, comfortably clad in an athletic body suit that continues the red, blue, and gold Amazon-American color scheme that has propelled her to marquee super-hero status. Her tiara does double duty as a sweatband to keep her dark locks in order and her lasso is a flexibly fun and functional tool that stands in bold contrast to the generally phallic and violent world of brutal blasters, scorching light sabers, and other pugnacious paramilitary accessories. Along with Super Girl and Wonder Woman, comes a very flashy Batgirl whose blindingly bright yellow kicks and sassy hoodie/cowl hybrid seem to channel Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher’s hyper-hip make-over for the child’s market.

 

Each of the three major super-prefixes – Super, Wonder, and Bat – are all represented in ways that safely and pleasingly introduce girls and families to the play and potency of these rich media myths.

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The final three figures present an even more intriguing trio. Though two are technically villains with complex backstories involving abuse, compulsion, and criminality, these particular avatars manage to reduce the antagonism and amp up the fun. This is especially true of Poison Ivy, a longtime  fan favorite inmate of Arkham Asylum rogues’ gallery which so frequently plagues Gotham City’s Batman-iverse.

 

Since her arrival in 1966, Ivy has developed a complex and often conspicuous history of unsavory eroticism and adamant objectification at the hands of numerous creators and directors, but her central role, as voiced by Dian Pershing, in Bruce Timm and Eric Radowski’s Batman: The Animated Series and its many popular sequels, recasts the mad, rad botanist as a kind of eco-environmental femme fatale whose sly capers were often rooted in playful science and always more interesting that the caped buzz-killer himself.

Poison Ivy remains a somewhat conflicted character in DC continuity, but the Super Hero Girls action figure completely obliterates the painful memory of Uma Thurman’s pervy python-like performance from Joel Schumacher’s 1997 Batman & Robin. Instead, we meet a cheery, red-maned flower child. Her clothing is loose and her shoes are sensible, with comfy and prudent knee-high leggings and a sassy dash of cross-gartered ivy to match her blossom-bedecked belt and hair.

Alongside Ivy’s transformation, there is also exciting ethnic resuscitation.

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The Super Hero Girls line is adamantly intercultural, as Mrs. Amanda Waller, the African American Principal of Super Hero High confirms. The most interesting ethnic statement arises from the exciting return of righteous black Teen Titan, Bumble Bee. As recent cutting edge works like John Jennings and Frances Gateward’s The Blacker the lnk have shown, the general history of African American superheroes has been rooted in disgrace, disappointment, and despair for nearly a century.

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At Super Hero High. however, things are quite different. While Wonder Woman deals with her Amazonian outsider status and Barbara Gordon plays heroine on the sly as Batgirl, the vivacious Bumblebee reps her school as the official ambassador and impassioned tutor. She is sharp, kind, and filled with excitement for other people’s discoveries, even to the point of tolerating Cheetah’s constant violations of school speed limits in the hallways. As far as the action figures go, Bumblebee enjoys the best wardrobe and attitude of the bunch with both versions sporting a proud smile, a pretty spiff black and yellow body suit, and wicked cool wings that beg to be put in motion. Most importantly, any doll loving young lady will tell you that, from ponies to princesses, the most important component of any action figure is its hairdo. Bumblebee’s coiffure, in both the six and twelve inch versions, is a marvel of color, style, and pizzazz. When we first came across the Target toys, we enjoyed watching every little girl grab Bumblebee first and stare longingly through the blister-packaged plastic at the wild waves of attitude. Considering the traditionally sad cultural politics of African American dolls going back more than a century, Bumblebee’s bright smile and bold updoo is a welcome response to decades of Topsys and Jemimas. Somewhere, Jackie Ormes, creator of Patty Jo,  the first African American designed black doll, is smiling down on her super-powered progeny.

Finally, we come to the figure most likely to succeed with fans and families alike. Welcome, Miss Harley Quinn, to Super Hero High.

Harley Quinn, in all of her many complicated incarnations, might signify the single fastest rise to fame and notoriety in super hero history. Rooted in the equally esteemed traditions of the Commedia Dell’Arte and the colorful criminal community of Arkham Asylum, Harley Quinn has reached unprecedented popularity in comics, animated cartoons, computer games, live action TV series, and, very soon thanks to David Ayer’s 2016 Suicide Squad, feature films.

Not all renditions of the romantically demented and violently inclined Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, M.D. are suitable for family viewing or children’s playtime, but her original turns on Paul Dini and Bruce Timm’s The Batman Adventures are remarkably charming. Concocted out of equal portions of Bugs Bunny, Judy Holliday, and  Punch’s pugilistic pal Judy, the Joker’s gal pal, “Harle” is – almost from her very first moments – a very endearing super-kook!

Originally voiced by Arlen Sorkin, and for years after by a variety of nasally gifted “New Yawkers,” Harley has spawned a daffy deluge of media and merchandise. Her origin story, as depicted in Timm and Dini’s Mad Love, is considered a contemporary classic and her more recent hijinks span over a dozen ongoing titles, specials, and spin-offs.

Again, much of Harley’s world is decidedly “for mature audiences,” though the wit and humor employed in her foibles generally remains remarkably sharp. That said, the DC Super Hero Girls Harley Quinn is a triumph of thoughtful reprogramming.

This time Harley’s wardrobe emphasizes the clown over the criminal. Her over-sized hammer and motley coat match her red, blonde, and blue hair and her sly smile sells a much more empowering and assured sense of nutsy wackitude. She is Pinky Pie in blue Doc Martens, the Cheshire Cat and Alice fissioned into one lively lunatic. Of all the Super Hero Girls, the Harley figure begs to be posed and played with. She is by far, the most ably and progressively revamped persona in Super Hero High’s freshman class.

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So, back to my daughter and her super-world of friends and fun and fussitude. Every night she takes the five figures that we now own (Batgirl continues to elude us), and arranges them on our coffee table, to greet her in the morning. This particular composition is about three weeks old, but it speaks to the warmth, welcome, and whimsy that are paramount within each armchair production. She has seen only a few webisodes so far, but she loves and laughs with them every chance she gets. More importantly, she has learned, through play about possibility and empowerment and pride. These figures and their “spreadable” media net of interactive games, apps, and animations are not only funny, they are also predominantly good toys that teach tolerance, togetherness, and tenacity from an insistently feminine perspective. Every time she picks them up, they fill her hands with hope and humor.

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