Many fans and geek blogs have already discussed DC’s latest vocal commitment to diversity. When they first announced DC Super Hero Girls, there were problems with how they phrased their press release. That’s a pattern, it seems: “Here’s diversity! Now watch us continue to disenfranchise minority characters!” That’s how it feels when DC speaks these days. Yet fans like me are constantly hopeful with each new thing that they’ll finally get it right.
The new Super Hero Girls website gives an introduction to younger tween/teen female characters of the DCU: Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, Katana, Harley Quinn, Bumblebee, and Poison Ivy.
THE GOOD: DIVERSITY
There is a lot of good here—DC has made an effort here to finally address the gaping void of stories and merchandise for a young female audience. While I’m not quite sure what they’re going to end up putting on the website, Monster High and Barbie have succeeded are in the realms of making the stories technologically interactive. I’m guessing that may be where DC begins: read a few paragraphs then maybe have options to click and see a vignette. So as far as a concrete purpose goes, there’s nothing to judge or critique yet. The goal was to do something for this demographic, and they’ve begun, and the new age-appropriate costumes and non-sexualized poses are great to see.
What has been published on the site so far is up for discussion. We can see that of the seven girls, two are people of color: Katana and Bumblebee—characters DC hasn’t used enough even though I’ve never seen either get a bad reception from fans. They seem to willing to give Katana more of a try. Hopefully we’ll see more of Bumblebee than we do right now.
Katana may be the character who checks off the most trope problems. She’s described as “worldly” and “fearless,” which makes her sound like every other female Asian character. Her personality traits include being “funky” and “loyal.” I have hope that they can do something to keep her from being bland with a sword. Bumblebee’s bio tells us she’s “outgoing” and a scientific genius. She’s definitely what’s been lacking in a lot of the “girl power” at DC, since Amanda Waller is probably the most used leading woman of color, and she’s rather unlikable. Renee Montoya as a teen could have helped balance out this spectrum even more. Sad to see her absent from the lineup.
Diversity is good here, but it isn’t perfect. Since the goal is to appeal to tween girls, it’s unfortunate that there’s subtle white dominance shown. Wonder Woman is the clear cut leader, based on the profiles and website. She’s first in the lineup to click for selection. She has barely an edge over Batgirl in their position in the foreground of the main page’s art. The other characters seem far more distant. It’s saying these two could go head to head, but Wonder Woman is the chosen one.
There looks to be a balance of characters with supernatural powers and characters with finely honed human abilities. Katana, Batgirl, and Harley Quinn have better than average strength, agility, and weapons training, but they appear to be “normal” as far as comic characters go.
THE BAD: STIGMA
The biographies posted have some glaring disappointments. I’m especially picky about how mental illness is handled; there are certain things that jump out at me where others might not see problems, just like some people focus more on racism or classism or ableism. Mental illness and how women are treated in violent stories happen to be the things I tend to delve further into. So we know DC Super Hero Girls has a high school setting, so the girls are going to be maybe 13-17 years old. Therefore, the bio of Harley Quinn was something I found troubling as soon as I read it.
Young Harley hasn’t been explored before; we were introduced to Harley as the adult Dr. Harleen Quinzel in Batman: The Animated Series. She was already a psychiatrist, and was only beginning to get ambitious about her choices in life. After the cartoon, Harley took off in popularity and became a hotly debated character, in part because because various creators in comics and gaming have tried to balance her sex appeal with her insanity. Her smarts rarely seem to shine. No one takes Harley’s decisions and plans seriously, but her ample chest gets shown at every turn in nearly every incarnation. They’ve put Harley’s sex appeal before her brains.
As far as we know, Harley may not have suffered any symptoms of mental illness before she met the Joker or Batman. It’s certainly likely that the symptoms were there and misunderstood—something that often happens to kids. Many end up not taken seriously and therefore never treated or end up over or incorrectly medicated. Here we have an opportunity to address an important part of Harley’s history. Unfortunately, DC did a terrible job with her bio.
Initially the bio seems decent, calling her “fun” and “the wacky class clown.” That’s kind of what anyone would expect from this character. The reason it feels off to me is that the earliest known Harley, the one from B:TAS, doesn’t seem fun or wacky when she’s fresh out of med school. She seems quite sedate actually. So, how did Harley go from this wacky girl to reserved and studious, and then back to wacky and also homicidal?
That could be a massively debated topic. For now, take a look at the rest of the words in her bio. “Unorganized”—I don’t know how anyone could get through med school if they were unorganized. Is that going to be yet another personality trait that she had repressed then had return again? I don’t mind the word “unpredictable” because that isn’t something that you would use specifically regarding someone with mental illness. You could say your girlfriend is so unpredictable that you never know what she’s going to get you for your birthday. Harley could be unpredictable in that sense. She could be the type to get up on a stage and sing in a talent show when she’s never sang in public before. Or she could start a flash mob in order to ask someone out on a date.
The other words, too, are quite bothersome: “unhinged” and “unbalanced.” These are words carefully chosen to foreshadow the Harley who lives with some kind of mental illness later in life. But to throw them here, in a teen girl’s bio, is dangerous and poorly done. As I said, we don’t know that Harley had any problems as a teen other than typical teenage drama. Other characters are described as “awkward.” That’s a big leap to “unhinged.” Unhinged and unbalanced are words you use when describing a guy who goes to school with an AR-15 and murders dozens of people. If they wanted Harley to sound “fun” and “unpredictable” then they should have stayed consistent and chosen better words to round out her bio. These choices on DC’s part were flat out careless, insensitive, and insulting.
I wouldn’t mind seeing a teen Harley that suffers from early symptoms because it could be a prime opportunity to introduce the proper language to discuss mental illness, how friends can express love and concern, and growth of character as she learns about who she is during her formative years. If that were DC’s mission with Harley, they are not off to a good start.
As we know, language matters and young girls are vulnerable to stigma. They are taught as pre-pubescents to hate their bodies. Words and phrases can echo inside the mind and then be used as openly shared self-hate. Things like: “You’re so lucky you’re thin. I’m so fat.” “I wish my collar bones showed more.” “I wish my thighs didn’t touch.” “I wish the school nurse didn’t have to move the scale to the heavier notch.”
These examples focus on the problems of self-esteem and weight. The same kinds of things happen with other issues besides weight. Girls don’t feel as smart. They don’t feel as talented. They aren’t welcomed into certain clubs and teams. Can you imagine young girls questioning their own minds and calling themselves “unbalanced” or “unhinged?” That does not sound like the kind of content to appeal to the young girls they are hoping to woo with this endeavor. Unless DC plans to get deep into dark drama with this Mattel-style content, I can’t see where this language is proper. Are they making young Harley suicidal so the others can get their After School Special themes in play to save her? It feels like a massive mistake for the colorful, light, breezy vibe they are giving off.
Think about Harley Quinn, the one you already know. Now think about what got her there. She would have had interests in biology, anatomy, psychology, engineering (she could build traps for Batman), singing, and gymnastics or maybe cheerleading (she was Joker’s cheerleader in a big way, and her fighting style is very gymnastics-heavy). There’s no reason to exclude Harley’s intellect because she’s “wacky” and a “clown.” DC has already stuffed her into a box of failure. They keep trying to sexualize mental illness without realizing or showcasing how difficult it is to function on a day-to-day basis for someone. It takes strength and in Harley’s case, intelligence.