Dec 21

Action Cartoons, Girl Viewers, and Misogynistic Marketing

Recently there was a small controversy in the animation community where fans found out that the networks don’t want girls watching the boy’s shows. Worse they don’t actively don’t care, to the point where shows have been cancelled due to too many girl and family viewers. Misogynistic marketing was exposed and there was an outcry against it. This isn’t new, it’s been going on for decades and this type of misogyny is deeply engrained in our culture.

This started when Paul Dini was on Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman podcast. He made some remarks about the current status quo of cartoons which lead into the reasons why some shows get cancelled. Listen to it here from about 41:00. Transcription from here:

DINI: “But then, there’s been this weird—there’s been a, a sudden trend in animation, with super-heroes. Like, ‘it’s too old. It’s too old for our audience, and it has to be younger. It has to be funnier.’ And that’s when I watch the first couple of episodes of Teen Titans Go!, it’s like those are the wacky moments in the Teen Titans cartoon, without any of the more serious moments. ‘Let’s just do them all fighting over pizza, or running around crazy and everything, ’cause our audience—the audience we wanna go after, is not the Young Justice audience any more. We wanna go after little kids, who are into—boys who are into goofy humor, goofy random humor, like on Adventure Time or Regular Show. We wanna do that goofy, that sense of humor, that’s where we’re going for.’”

DINI: “They’re all for boys ’we do not want the girls’, I mean, I’ve heard executives say this, you know, not Ryan, but at other places, saying like, ‘We do not want girls watching this show.”
SMITH: “WHY? That’s 51% of the population.”
DINI: “They. Do. Not. Buy. Toys. The girls buy different toys. The girls may watch the show—”
SMITH: “So you can sell them T-shirts if they don’t—A: I disagree, I think girls buy toys as well, I mean not as many as f***ing boys do, but, B: sell them something else, man! Don’t be lazy and be like, ‘well I can’t sell a girl a toy.’ Sell ‘em a T-shirt, man, sell them f***ing umbrella with the f***ing character on it, something like that. But if it’s not a toy, there’s something else you could sell ‘em! Like, just because you can’t figure out your job, don’t kill chances of, like, something that’s gonna reach an audi—that’s just so self-defeating, when people go, like… these are the same fuckers who go, like, ‘Oh, girls don’t read comics, girls aren’t into comics.’ It’s all self-fulfilling prophecies. They just make it that way, by going like, ‘I can’t sell ‘em a toy, what’s the point?’
DINI: “That’s the thing, you know I hate being Mr. Sour Grapes here, but I’ll just lay it on the line: that’s the thing that got us cancelled on Tower Prep, honest-to-God was, like, ‘we need boys, but we need girls right there, right one step behind the boys’—this is the network talking—’one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.’ And then we began writing stories that got into the two girls’ back stories, and they were really interesting. And suddenly we had families and girls watching, and girls really became a big part of our audience, in sort of like they picked up that Harry Potter type of serialized way, which is what The Batman and [indistinct]’s really gonna kill. But, the Cartoon Network was saying, ‘F***, no, we want the boys’ action, it’s boys’ action, this goofy boy humor we’ve gotta get that in there. And we can’t—’ and I’d say, but look at the numbers, we’ve got parents watching, with the families, and then when you break it down—’Yeah, but the—so many—we’ve got too many girls. We need more boys.’”
SMITH: “That’s heart-breaking.”
DINI: “And then that’s why they cancelled us, and they put on a show called Level Up, which is, you know, goofy nerds fighting CG monsters. It’s like, ‘We don’t want the girls because the girls won’t buy toys.’ We had a whole… we had a whole, a merchandise line for Tower Prep that they s***canned before it ever got off the launching pad, because it’s like, ‘Boys, boys, boys. Boys buy the little spinny tops, they but the action figures, girls buy princesses, we’re not selling princesses.’”

All that shocked fans who didn’t know how these shows were marketed or how TV and toy marketing works. That these shows are made to sell toys to boys so girls aren’t included and actively ignored where possible. If women watch that’s an insignificant figure compared to how many boys watch. This is how series marketing works, the target demographic matters and anything else doesn’t, especially anything that eclipses the target demo.

Regular TV works through advertising, and advertisers buy certain key slots that appeal to their desired customers, the demographic. Demographics can be things like “men aged 18-35” or “women 20-40” or many variants, but it’s all very targeted to a certain gender and age range; sometimes the demos are mixed which is why some action thriller shows have shirtless men in them, one appeals to men the other to women. Its so advertisers know what products to put in the ad space. Even if ratings are high it doesn’t matter unless they are from the key demos. The Blade TV series was cancelled because it got high ratings from women when it was sold to advertisers as a Male show on a Male network, Spike TV. Cartoon shows are a little different, though.

Since cartoons cost more to make and ad revenues aren’t as big for the time slots for children as they are for other time slots they have to make money elsewhere. Action cartoons make most of their money through toy and merchandise sales and that is the deciding factor in their existence, not ratings. Since action cartoons are sold to boys, conventional wisdom dictates girls aren’t into action, it means the merchandise is centred around boys’ toys only.

That same conventional wisdom says that boys don’t want to watch a show about a girl. Which is why some shows have girls “one step behind the boys, not as smart as the boys, not as interesting as the boys, but right there.” That means some executives aren’t going for inclusive shows where boys and girls are equal in story and screen times. Not every show is like that, there has been a lot of improvement in character and gender dynamics in recent years. The problem is the executives pushing for more ‘boys up front, girls shouldn’t get the spotlight’ because they fear their demographic will not watch if there are too many girls on the screen.

The other big thing is the toy reliance and toy marketing. Recently shows like Young Justice, Green Lantern TAS, and Beware the Batman got snubbed by Cartoon Network for not having enough toy sales and were cancelled. (Batman’s not cancelled yet but since it only has one toy for sale it’s pretty safe bet it’s next on the chopping block) But all of them relied on action figures for their merchandise. All of which were shoved into the boys section of the toy stores.

The thing is is that not all girls mind buying boys toys but its conventional wisdom that they never do, so they are never thought of when trying to sell merchandise for these shows. That thinking has them to put shows into two categories, boys shows and girls shows. This was caused by the gender divide for toys. That girls buy ‘princesses’ and ‘traditional women’s domestic items’ things for cooking, cleaning, and nurturing babies. Whereas boys buy ‘Manly items’ such as guns and other assortment of action related paraphernalia. This division is what causes the Pink Aisle to appear in stores, a section for the girls that is entirely pink. Because conventional wisdom says girls like pink so pink is the colour for girls and everything to sell to them has to be pink. Such as when Nerf released a new girls line, starting with a bow called “Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Bow” which is pink. Whereas the boys bow is called the “Nerf Action Blasters Big Bad Bow” and looks like a gun. There’s no reason for one to look like a gun and the other to be pink but they need to do that because they don’t know how to sell to boys and girls any other way.

But this doesn’t just happen, we haven’t evolved that way, this is all societal conditioning. Pink was once a colour for baby boys until it was decided it would suit girls better, so now it is associated with girls. As such that thinking has taken our culture to branding everything for girls in the colour pink. When we strip away societal influences we can see that those gender lines aren’t as clear, and aren’t really there at all. We see girls acting “masculine” and boys acting “feminine” all the time because we are not programmed like that from our gender. The big companies want there to be very specific types of people so they can sell stuff to them.

That’s why they invent ideas for how men should act if ‘they’re real men!’ In order to sell cologne or deodorant to men it has to make them ‘manly’ or ‘sexy’ so they make up a ‘perfect man’ for that ad. This makes us think we need to be like that in order to be ‘perfect’ or ‘normal.’ Women have it worse since ads are telling them how to look, what to wear, that they need to look good and be ‘sexy’ in order to exist. This makes any woman who doesn’t look like the ‘perfect’ supermodels in those ads seem somehow not normal. Which leads into the ‘size zero’ phenomenon and other trends that have women try to look like a ‘perfect’ figure that doesn’t actually exist. Which also leads to men thinking women always have to look ‘sexy’ and that there’s ‘something wrong with them’ is they’re not. Plus a whole of other host of problems too numerous to get into.

For children’s toys this gender pigeonholing means kids and parents have unrealistic ideas of what the genders are like. Heaven forbid you be a girl who doesn’t like pink, because that’s what most your clothes, toys, and other assorted stuff is going to be. Or if you’re a boy who doesn’t mind pink, you’re going to get picked on for ‘being girly’ because it’s apparently so horrible not to be ‘manly.’

If the advertising for cartoons was more gender neutral then the companies could get more money from both genders rather than sticking to just the single gender. But that means changing ideas and cultural norms, which is riskier than just sticking with what supposedly works for them. If Young Justice and Beware the Batman were marketed towards girls as well as boys, both have important female cast members which already attracted girls to the shows, then they could’ve expanded things beyond action figures.

Even if girls aren’t the majority of the audience they’re still there, and willing to participate in these shows. They will buy merchandise if the merchandise is there for them. Make the t-shirts, plush toys, and other clothing part of the merchandise range. Don’t ignore principle members of the cast just because they’re girls and that conventional wisdom says boys may not buy something that also interests girls.

The executives need to actually make the merchandise for shows that appeal to both genders rather than cancelling those shows over not selling enough merchandise when there wasn’t much to buy. Executives need to get out of their old gender biases and stop making shows just for boys because it’s safe while gutting any real efforts to prove them wrong. They can market action shows to both genders, it has happened in the past when DiC and Bandai brought over Sailor Moon. Here’s how they sold it in an incredibly over the top and 90s hype style:


They showed how much money it could make for them, they it can appeal to both genders as others shows did in the past, and that it has “universal audience appeal.” Now with a few tweaks you could use that strategy to market Wonder Woman or other well known female action heroines. Why won’t they? Because conventional wisdom says it won’t sell. As should be noted “conventional wisdom” is outdated ideas that don’t actually work when you look at the real world. But it’s used again and again to keep the gender lines as far away from each other as possible. You can make action shows for girls (Sailor Moon), you can make merchandise for both boys and girls (Adventure Time), you can make shows that appeal to everyone rather than just “boys who are into goofy humor, goofy random humor” (Young Justice).

The larger issue that stops this is the massive feedback loop that sticking to cultural norms are causing. The gender pigeonholing is done to effectively sell to one gender (because selling to one small group is easier than a larger group) which in turn leads into them becoming cultural ideas of what those genders are meant to be like, so that makes the marketing think that this is how the genders are so it’s the only way too sell to them. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy. Worse is that the companies don’t sell toys to girls because they don’t buy them, which is proven by them not having anything to buy. This is prevalent in many media forms as things are given less money for marketing or budget because ‘men don’t want to watch women in action movies’ or ‘boys don’t want to watch girls staring in action cartoons’ or ‘guys aren’t going to buy a video game with a girl protagonist’ etc. So with less money given to them, because of the conventional wisdom that they won’t sell, they will sell less than the ones conventional wisdom say will sell.

Not everything is doom and gloom though. While marketing is all for the patriarchal gender biases the actual shows aren’t, for the most part. We are moving into getting cartoons without the gender divides of old. Young Justice, Adventure Time, Beware the Batman, and the like present women as just as important and well characterised as the boys. There’s a reason why these shows draw a large audience from every gender, they don’t discriminate or talk down to them. They’re intelligent shows that are made by people who know more than just the networks target demographic is watching. I don’t know how to fix all of these problems but so long as the entertainment is intelligent and attracts a lot more than the targeted demos then sooner or later marketing will figure out how to sell to multiple genders.

The best we can do now is to not encourage gender stereotyping and discourage the blatant misogyny that comes with the “conventional wisdom” thinking. Such as stopping bullying of people just because they don’t fit into gender norms or other such things from happening. Small steps will lead to larger ones that can change our culture and society. We’re already getting large shop chains in the UK gender neutral toy aisles rather than segmented gender aisles thanks to an initiative called “Let Toys Be Toys.” So there is hope that things will change in the future.