DC and Mattel look to turn girls into superhero fans

A New Super Hero Universe Designed Just For Girls, Slated For Fall 2015.
Source: DC Entertainment

Last Halloween, math teacher and comic book enthusiast Jenn Reddig found one of her advanced seventh-grade students drawing a picture of her favorite superhero, Batman, during a costume-making project. But her student had made one major adjustment: She had reimagined the iconic 75-year-old character as a girl.

"She had never heard of Batgirl and she couldn't be Batman because he's a boy," Reddig said.

Batman publisher DC Comics and its parent Warner Bros. are hoping to change that. Last week, the Time Warner-owned companies announced they would launch a new slate of animated features, books, apparel and toys for girls 6 to 12.

Dubbed DC Super Hero Girls, the brand will feature the publisher's female characters—including Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl—portrayed as teenagers who are still learning to master their superpowers and crime-fighting skills.

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The companies will also seek to dislodge dolls from at least part of playtime by partnering with Mattel to create the first line of action figures made to appeal to girls.

Reddig said she is thrilled DC has decided to reach out to girls. Her female students often find her after class to ask for comic book recommendations when they find out she's a fangirl. Up until fifth or sixth grade, these same girls have no problem playing with "boys' toys," she said.

"It's around this age they start realizing that boys and girls are different and start becoming afraid to consume the material produced for boys of similar age," she said.

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Toy and media analysts, too, say the endeavor is not so far-fetched.

Piper Jaffray senior research analyst Stephanie Wissink said it dovetails with two-major trends in the toy industry: the rise of the rebel or independent girl and the strength of products backed by media content, such as My Little Pony.

The same holds true for movies and television, said Eric Handler, who covers Time Warner and Mattel at MKM Partners.

"I think it's a very interesting potential franchise. Girls content has been very strong. We've seen that a lot of movies that have been girl-oriented have done very well, from 'Frozen' to 'The Fault in Our Stars,'" he said. "Strong female-driven characters are resonating well."

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Time Warner is the big winner in the deal because the company can not only make money from television specials and direct-to-video content, but profit by signing additional leases for DC Super Hero Girls-branded products.

He noted that DC has performed well in animation, producing shows and movies that demonstrate range, from the dark and critically acclaimed "Batman: The Animated Series" to the more recent comedic romp, "Teen Titans Go!" on Cartoon Network.

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The stakes are high for Mattel, which will lose its lucrative Disney Princess license at the end of the year to rival Hasbro.

The leap to action figures from dolls is not a big one because whether girls play with Supergirl or Barbie, it all boils down to using their imagination to create stories, analysts said.

Still, Mattel must take into account a lesson that took Lego years to learn, Wissink said. While girls are likely interested in the type of toys traditionally marketed to boys, they play differently. Lego created multiple girl-oriented products before finally marketing one, Lego Friends, that acknowledges girls want to keep their play sets after they construct them—not demolish them, as boys more often do, she explained.

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The rise of Batgirl could also be bad news for Mattel's Barbie, Wissink said.

"Anything you introduce in the girls category comes at the expense of something else. The toy industry is only growing 3 or 4 percent a year, so if you want a category to really dominate, it's going to come at the expense of something else."

Will teens stick around?

Whether or not DC can bring more girls into the broader world of comics remains to be seen.

The relationship between women and comics has long been fraught. In an industry dominated by men in creative positions, women have often been portrayed as hypersexual and frequently play second fiddle to their male counterparts.

DC has recently tried to appeal to a younger female demographic by rebooting Batgirl with a more buoyant tone while keeping the action and derring-do intact.

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Still, Reddig believes publishers have not achieved enough progress to make the superhero genre truly appealing to a wide range of teenage women. She said middle-school children aging out of the DC Super Hero Girls brand will find the more adult-oriented comic books jarring.

"These girls need a follow-up piece to demonstrate the characters in DC Super Hero Girls transition into the current lineup of comics, something palatable for girls of high school age," she said. "While it's great for the grade school girls, it's leaving the high school ladies with nothing."