“Where’s Black Widow?” “Where’s Gamora?” “Where’s Rey?” These are questions fans have been asking toymakers lately about the conspicuous absence of toys based on their favorite characters from blockbuster films.
Though Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars: The Force Awakens all feature prominent female protagonists, their respective action figures have been missing from store shelves. Historically, this disparity has been answered with “girls don’t play with action figures.” But in an era where Katniss Everdeen sets the box office afire, many parents are demanding better gender representation for their kids.
While some toymakers are playing catch-up—Black Widow gets a Lego set for this summer’s Captain America: Civil War—El Segundo-based Mattel identified this demand years ago and this month have responded with its DC Super Hero Girls line of toys, available exclusively at Target stores. A major multimedia collaboration between DC Comics, Warner Brothers and Mattel, DC Super Hero Girls is an alternative DC universe revolving around heroes like Supergirl, Batgirl and Wonder Woman.
“Having the opportunity to reimagine DC’s iconic female characters as teenagers was so much fun,” says alumna Jenn Rahardjanoto (BFA 13 Illustration), an art director at Mattel who was tasked with laying down the visual foundation for this new creative universe.
“DC has so many female characters with great stories,” she continues, discussing the ambitious project she undertook just one year after graduating from ArtCenter and a mere six months after starting at Mattel. “But in the past they’ve been drawn in a pin-up style that mostly appeals to men.”
After conducting research on what appeals to today’s girls and diving into DC character encyclopedias, Rahardjanoto presented her ideas to DC. “They loved it and the rest is history,” says Rahardjanoto, of the 12-inch action dolls that differ from fashion dolls in multiple and significant ways.
“They don’t wear high heels and short skirts, they wear flats or boots along with their iconic outfits,” says Rahardjanoto. “We’ve crafted their bodies to be toned and muscular. They stand on their own without a doll stand, something no fashion dolls have ever done. And at 12 inches high, they stand half an inch taller than most fashion dolls. So their proportion itself speaks power.”
And what do these girls stand for? “They stand for power, they stand for justice, and they save the day,” she says. What don’t they stand for? “Going to the mall, shopping, and texting their boyfriend,” she laughs. “It sounds funny, but in focus testing groups, we’ve seen six-year-olds pretending to play with their Barbies like that. With these dolls, we saw girls saying, ‘Wonder Woman is going to save Barbie from the Dream House!’ Which is so great. They’re pretending to save their friends. That’s the messaging. That’s what it’s all about.”
It’s also about selling merchandise across many platforms, which means these 12-inch dolls are just the tip of the iceberg. Also available on Target shelves are six-inch action figures, roleplay costumes, Batgirl’s utility belt, Wonder Woman’s shield and more. Beyond the toys at Target, there’s also apparel, a middle grade Wonder Woman novel by Lisa Yee (with a Supergirl novel, also by Yee, coming this summer), an iOS app (with an Android version on the way), a Finals Crisis graphic novel (also coming this summer), animated online episodes from Warner Bros. and even a one-hour special on the Boomerang channel this Saturday morning, also by Warner Bros.
In both the online episodes and the one-hour special, many of Rahardjanoto’s early playful ideas come to life thanks to Warner Brothers Animation and teams of artists working on the project. Some of her favorite details include the loft space where the heroes live and decorate their individual spaces (Wonder Woman likes to display her framed awards; Batgirl goes for a high-tech cave aesthetic), lockers stacked high for the convenience of students with flying powers, and the silliness that ensues during a costume design class.
“This is very different from any other project I’ve worked on in terms of passion and talent,” says Rahardjanoto of the groundbreaking work, which, if successful, could usher in a new era of toys for girls. “There was a different kind of energy. Everybody who worked on this project really believed in it. We all believed that this is the time when girls can feel like they’re super powerful. We’ve all been so excited for this line to come out and to empower girls for generations to come.”