Lauren Faust, who developed and executive produces DC Super Hero Girls, which airs on Cartoon Network, took part in a one-on-one session today at MIPJunior with TV Kids‘ Kristin Brzoznowski to talk about empowering young viewers and breaking gender stereotypes.
Entitled The Rising Power of Female Superheroes, the keynote conversation in the Grand Theatre touched on the importance of developing a new generation of female superheroes, breaking gender stereotypes and the representation of girls in kids’ entertainment. The Warner Bros. Animation and Cartoon Network series features Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl and other renowned DC superheroines as they’ve never been seen before, with an ultra-modern and empowered take.
“It’s a show about balancing your super life with your teenage life and finding the metaphors of teenager-type coming-of-age stories and how that might look for a superhero,” said Faust. “A lot of shows about teenage superheroes go for the typical superhero story, that is, who’s the bad guy, what are they doing wrong, what do we need to save the day and how would a teenager do it? This show is a bit the opposite: we start with what’s a story typical of teenagers, life lessons, coming-of-age stories and put a super spin on that.”
The series was born from a set of shorts Faust did for Cartoon Network’s DC Nation block called Super Best Friends Forever, which featured Batgirl, Supergirl and Wonder Girl. “Those shorts performed pretty well, and we tried to develop it as a TV show and couldn’t quite find the footing for it at that time.” DC went on to make a show called DC Super Hero Girls and it came “swinging back” at Faust a few years later that they were interested in a reboot, going back to the tone, humor and characterizations of Super Best Friends Forever.
Faust’s iteration is a ground-up reboot. “The first version of DC Super Hero Girls was about teenage characters going to a high school to learn how to be superheroes,” she explained. “They didn’t really have secret identities and the characters we knew as villains, like Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, were ‘good guys.’ I felt like that was taking some of the fun out of what we all love about superheroes. With this version of Super Hero Girls, one thing I really wanted to bring back was the idea of secret identities. The girls have a regular teenage life, they go to a regular school, and they are superheroes at night when they need to fight crimes. And they really do fight crimes!”
A lot of time and care went into developing these characters to have depth and reflect the teenage experience. “I want these stories to resonate with kids and with teenagers and to reflect back experiences they have themselves with this super spin,” said Faust. “So I took a look at these superheroes we are working with; everybody knows them, especially ones like Supergirl and Batgirl. But I thought about, what can I take that people know of these superheroes and what is the teenage reflection of that?”
For example, the teenage reflection of Wonder Woman, who is known as the perfect superhero, is the valedictorian and the most popular girl at school. Supergirl is the muscle—”she’s all about strength! She punches first and asks questions later,” explained Faust. The reflection as a teenager is the rebel. Batgirl, as a hero, is a sleuth and acrobat, and as a teenager, she is the “fangirl.” Bumblebee is the rookie, the youngest one with the most fear but a lot of heart. Zatanna is a magic-user who is mysterious and powerful; her teenage mirror is the show-off, a drama geek who’s flamboyant and fashionable. Green Lantern, as a hero, is the protector—”she’s not going to be the one to hit the bad guy, she’s going to rescue the victims.” As a teenager, she’s the activist, a pacifist and a vegan. “We like to say, she’s always got a pamphlet for you to read and a petition for you to sign, which is very relevant for kids today. She wants to change the world as a hero, but she also wants to change the world as a girl.”
The strong female characters impart an empowering message for young girls, but the show is also mindful of including boys in on the fun. “What resonates with girls is the relatability; we worked really hard to make these characters have something about them a girl can see in themselves,” said Faust. From her prior experience of working on The Powerpuff Girls, she found that there was an even greater boy audience than girl audience because of the fighting. “Our teenage superheroes have teenage villains and they fight. And we do not hold back! We have episodes where Ivy, quite specifically, is trying to kill people! In our pilot, Wonder Woman and Supergirl meet for the first time and get in a fight, and Wonder Woman literally pounds Supergirl’s face into the floor. There are times when we can use their superpowers to be exciting and we can do it to be funny.”
Humor, she added, is another way that the show plays to both genders, which was also present in Powerpuff Girls. “It invites boys to watch a ‘girls’ show; it’s just fun and funny to watch!”
A show like this, with empowering representations for young girls, is hitting in the cultural zeitgeist. “We’re living in very interesting times right now in terms of gender politics,” said Faust. “Things are changing faster than they have in a very long time. Girls are feeling more empowered; boys are feeling more open to that.” From the show, she gave as a highlight a scene where the boy crew decides that Wonder Woman can and should take the lead.
Not only is there female empowerment on-screen, but behind the scenes as well. “It’s also an exciting time because there are more and more women coming into animation,” Faust said. “We have a lot of women working on this show. Most of our character design team are women, most of our storyboard team are women, and most of our directors are women. What is so fantastic is that these young women are able to bring their own experiences and feelings to these stories… And they’re not just guessing. It’s not like, ‘Hmm, what do girls think about this? Or, what do girls really like? Let’s go to the mall and observe.’ They know! It comes through in the storytelling, and I’m exceptionally proud of that.”