It’s a bird? Is it a plane? This is Word Girl! In 2006, a new children’s show arrived on PBS that introduced audiences to a new superhero: Word Girl. Set in a town riddled with grammatical crimes, WordGirl is a fifth-grade student with a sidekick monkey who uses her extensive vocabulary and mastery of grammar to send her town’s toughest and often stupidest villains to jail. Battling villains like Chuck the Evil Sandwich Making Guy and Lady Redundant Woman, WordGirl taught young PBS viewers the power of the English language.
Dorthea Gillim created the show with the idea that children’s television wasn’t smart enough. She felt that children’s television underestimated their sense of humor and intellect, and Word Girl would change that. She wanted a television that made children laugh and a little smarter at the end of the episode. Another addition to the children’s show space was the decision to cast the superhero as a fifth-grade, non-white girl. Technically, her race is “lexiconian” because she’s not from Earth, but we can deduce from her appearance that although she’s not from Earth, she’s still not white and that has an impact on the television viewers. Children grow up watching Word Girl and idolizing a little non-white superheroine were the same kids who grew up to demand diverse new superheroes in the Marvel franchise.
In the same way that the children’s television space needed an overhaul, Marvel needed an overhaul as well. After years of all white male superheroes getting their own feature films (with the inclusion of a hyper-sexualized Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow), fans demanded more representation in the franchise in race and gender. In 2013, two new films entered production that expanded the definition of what a Marvel superhero could look like. Black Panther and Captain Marvel were the first two diverse Marvel characters from a plethora of applicants who were chosen to get their own feature films.
As the first female-led Marvel movie, there was a lot of pressure on creators, writers, and actors to create a character and movie that represented all women. It’s no secret that in Hollywood, action movies featuring women are unpopular to produce due to the belief that women can’t wear an action movie and attract a good audience. Around the same time as Captain Marvel was in production, Universal Pictures was on damage control for their ghost hunters reboot this kind of original film. Blatant racism, sexism and ridicule ghost hunters face proved that even in 2016, women couldn’t successfully star in an action movie without backlash. Cautious but not afraid of controversy, Captain Marvel embraced centering the hero’s femininity in the story. Captain Marvel wouldn’t be a superhero who happens to be female, she would be a female superhero.
When it comes to being first in class, WordGirl and Captain Marvel have a lot in common. Both gave audiences something new they were desperately looking for. The superhero genre is riddled with sexism and gender stereotypes. For female superheroes, their job is to save the world and look sexy while they do it. Taking on the skimpy outfits of their comic book days, the female superheroes are stuck in their revealing, sexist retro outfits. And while giving Captain Marvel his own movie was a big step in the right direction, both Marvel and DC movies are filled with one sexist trope after another. From hyper-sexualized outfits to women needing to be constantly saved, just about every stereotype and trope of women can be found in superhero movies. Captain Marvel and Word Girl give examples of how things could be different in the superhero/action space. The marketing and commercialization of superhero movies suggests that children are a huge audience for production companies like Marvel Studios. Data has shown that more adults watch Marvel movies with children in their homes than without. Thus, the impact of these films on children must be considered when making films.
In children’s media, there are twice as many male characters as female characters. This fact and the consistency with which children’s media reinforce traditionally masculine characteristics (such as being aggressive, being strong, being a leader, taking risks, etc.) leads children to believe that masculine characteristics are more valued in society. . A study found that the more television a child watches, the more likely they are to believe that boys are better than girls. Gender stereotypes are also very restrictive. Children who witness gender stereotypes learn what their hobbies should be, how they should act, how they should feel about themselves, and what careers are an option for them. In a more extreme sense, sexism in children’s television is associated with power-based personal violence and sexual assault. As children learn to be more stereotypically masculine, they also become more stereotypically masculine. And while it’s impossible to draw a straight line between stereotyping in children’s media and violence against women, it’s something to consider.
Creating a show or movie featuring a woman or girl in action can have a devastating impact if it’s not done right. Captain Marvel is great for being the first of its kind, but it’s certainly not flawless. The film’s critics pointed out Captain Marvelher superficial view of feminism. The idea was that a film with the message “girls are as good as boys” was inherently sexist because it only valued women over men and didn’t let women lead and her powers speak for themselves- same. Captain Marvel was reactive instead of proactive. Even though the movie was released in 2018, there was still a long way to go.
Word Girl took a different approach to female superheroes. With an audience as young as a movie like Captain Marvel, Word Girl decided to forget about the background that preceded it and give kids what they should have had all along: a confident, smart, and powerful superheroine. From the age of 2, children form stereotypes. And by the time they turn 4, they act on it. Since Word Girl audiences may tend to be younger even than Marvel audiences, it’s important to make sure the stereotypes they see at 2 correctly inform their actions at 4. Instead of comparing Word Girl to Superman and showing how just as good, if not better, WordGirl has been able to exist in her own space, being her own strength. This was a very proactive approach to combating gender stereotypes in children’s media. Word Girl also excelled in diversity. Besides supporting characters, the first female superhero of color was Ms. Marvel of the show of the same name which has just finished its first season. What Word Girl made in 2006 took Marvel 14 years. When discussing stereotypes and how children constantly form and act on learned stereotypes, it is crucial to include race in this discussion.
One thing that both Word Girl and Captain Marvel excelled in understanding his audience and hiring writers accordingly. The creators of Word Girl wanted to create a show that spoke to the intellect and sense of humor of children. Considering it’s more of a comedy show than a children’s show, the Word Girl the team hired writers from onion, family guy, and actors of comedy groups, Saturday Night Live, Development stopped, and solo stand-up artists. Playing on the comedic nature of the show has allowed the show to stand on its own instead of being seen more as a show that only kids like. The show took itself seriously enough to create something worthy without losing the innocence and silliness of a children’s TV show.
The creators of Captain Marvel were a little less sure of the best way to address their audience at first. When the project was announced, the Marvel exec Kevin Feige was quoted as saying he didn’t think hiring a woman as director was necessary to make Captain Marvel a great movie. Marvel was quick to add that this was something important to consider. Eventually, a largely female team was hired to write the film, and one of the film’s directors was a woman. Having filmmakers or TV creators who don’t understand what story they’re trying to tell or who the audience for the content is can create a huge reception and impact problem.
Writing characters like Black Widow or Dora in such a way that they play in the male gaze has a catastrophic impact on young viewers. Ensuring creators are aware of the impact helps ensure they are telling the story correctly. Women who have been negatively impacted by the hyper-sexualization of female characters or the sexist portrayal of women in action movies will do a better job of producing characters that challenge those stereotypes. With Word Girl, the different approach to children’s television earned them seven Daytime Emmy nominations, winning four in Outstanding Writing in Animation and Outstanding Writing in an Animated Program.
Word Girl and Captain Marvel were both the first in their class to bring feminism to superhero stories. They took different approaches, but in the end, they opened the door to new storytellers and more diverse stories. Word Girl and Captain Marvel are the founding mothers of diversity in the superhero space that shouldn’t be forgotten. The same thing Captain Marvel did in the Marvel universe, Word Girl was doing for PBS. These game changers paved the way for Mrs Marvel, DC superheroes girls, and so many others. You can learn a lot of techniques Word Girl and Captain Marvel used to pass their points. Specifically, diversity is important for children of all ages and there are many different ways to convey diverse stories.