A kids’ cartoon that premieres Saturday has conservatives in a tizzy. It features 12-year-old, skateboarding every-boy Guy Hammond who fights villains as SheZow, a female superhero. According to conservative commentators, that sort of gender-bending has no place on children’s television.
“SheZow” first aired in Australia. It comes to America by way of the Hub, a struggling television network owned by Discovery and Hasbro. The Hub’s programming targets school-age children, and its big shows to date have been in the My Little Pony and Transformers franchises.
I’ll spare you the whole SheZow superhero back-story. Suffice to say, Guy finds power ring, puts it on, says the magic words “You go girl!” and becomes a girl with superpowers. (Warning: Be careful searching for SheZow online. Fan art can be a scary, terrible, inappropriate thing.)
Margaret Loesch, chief executive of the Hub, explained the decision to pick up the show to the Los Angeles Times. “When I first heard about the show, my reaction was ‘Are you out of your minds?'” She said. “Then I looked at it and I thought, ‘This is just funny.’ ”
I watched a couple of episodes, and it is funny at times. Like many of the best children’s shows, enough subtle humor occurs beneath the in-your-face stuff to amuse adults. “SheZow” has geek references galore and a lot of potential.
As the series progresses, no doubt Guy will learn important lessons about identity and gender, and that’s the last thing many social conservatives want. Over at The Washington Times, the comments section of a story about “SheZow” lit up with tired tirades about how this sort of thing destroys families and traditional gender roles. The outcry has been so great that Al Jazeera English has even picked up on the story.
Progressive defenders jumped into the fray, and smart commentaries have explained that this is neither new nor dangerous. Gender-bending has been a literary trope for millennia. Even Huck Finn put on a dress.
Still, I have to wonder whether defenders have actually seen the show. SheZow is hardly a model of modern feminine power. If it were not for reflexive opposition to conservative attacks, they might not jump so quickly on the SheZow wagon.
She wears a purple skirt and cape with pink, leopard print top and tights, and elbow-length gloves. A lock of pink hair falls over one shoulder. Her thigh-high boots are white, high-heeled, Go-Go dancer style. Her arsenal includes a boomerang brush and lipstick laser sword. Her weakness, her Kryptonite if you will, is messed up hair.
Could SheZow be more superficially girly-girl?
Superhero comics and cartoons rarely have treated women well, but times are changing. Activists have worked hard to bring attention to how sexualized female superheroes are, especially compared to men. Under the umbrella of The Hawkeye Initiative, for example, fans depict male superheroes in the ridiculous poses women endure in comics.
They have had some success. Wonder Woman received a new costume during a 2010 reboot. Gone were the short-shorts and impossibly supportive top in favor of pants, tank top and leather jacket. More recently, when Disney named Merida (from “Brave”) their newest official princess and tried to make her more girly, fan outcry was so great that the company backed off.
This trend is a good thing for comics and cartoons. There will always be pubescent boys who want to see a lot of cleavage, but graphic media have matured in recent years. Adults read and watch, and many of them want characters, not stereotypes.
SheZow has a chance to break some stereotypes of its own making. It could start by putting the hero in some sensible, butt-kicking boots and finding a better weakness than messy hair.
Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance, pursues a couple of book projects and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.