with reporting by Barbara Sirois Doyle
One day, John Marcotte’s little girl, Anya, came home from first grade in tears. She had worn her Spiderman t-shirt to school and kids, both boys and girls, made fun of her. Why? Because everyone knew Spiderman was for boys.
Like any good father, John explained to his daughter why that made no sense. Superheroes are for everyone. He says, “We talked about why that was absurd, and she got over it. She and her sister actually started cosplaying later that year, but it made me think that there were probably other girls that had a love of superheroes and that they might need more resources so they wouldn’t feel so strange and alone in their fandom.”
John had another reason for wanting to reassure his daughters, one that went beyond their choice of wardrobe. Social learning theory tells us that one of the ways humans learn to form their own values, beliefs, and self-concept is by observing others. We look for role models, not just in our every day lives but on television, in film, and in books or comics. In fact, role models in these mediums stand out so much that we tend to learn and imitate their behaviors easily, especially if we reinforce that learning by reproducing it. 1 (Bandura, 1977) For example, children copying their favorite superheroes may learn not just about magic hammers and slinging webs, but also about courage, strength, and generosity. By imitating heroes, we learn heroic qualities. In rehearsing this behavior, we internalize it. Why should girls be limited in their choice of role models?
Eventually, this line of thinking would lead John to found Heroic Girls. The About page on the site reads:
“Girls need heroes
Heroic Girls is an organization dedicated to empowering girls by advocating for strong role models in alternative media — particularly comics.
We want to get more girls and women involved in the creation and consumption of comic books as a tool to increase assertiveness and self-esteem, and to help them to dream big.”
Girls, John realized, need to see heroic girls and women in pop culture. Studies have shown that gender-matching plays a significant part in how children connect to role models and process the information they receive from watching them.2 (Zirkel, 2002) He discussed it in his TEDx talk, which is well worth viewing, and he answered some questions for us.
Q: What are you most proud of when you think about the site?
I think I’m most proud of the TEDx Talk I was able to give based on ideas from the site. It was an amazing experience, and it was really well received. It challenged me to boil down concepts to their essence and to present them in a new way to new audiences.
Q: As a man advocating for this need, do you think other men are more likely to listen to you? Why or why not?
Perhaps some guys are more likely to listen to other men. But I think the only real advantage I have is that the arguments that are consistently used to marginalize the opinions of women generally don’t work when applied to men. I throw them off balance. If I am really lucky, it might make them stop and think.
But they have other names for men who support women’s rights. “White Knight” is common. My favorite is “Social Justice Warrior.” The fact that they believe that is an insult is frankly a little insane. It says more about them than me.
Q: What should the role of men be in addressing the lack of female heroes in mass media?
Well, first, we can’t just sit idly by and say it’s not our problem. We all have girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters. But more importantly, we have sons. We are teaching future generations how to value women. What are we telling them when women are constantly marginalized or completely absent from popular media? We are denying our daughters role models and our sons the opportunity to empathize with women and to see their value.
Q: What are your goals for the site?
Long-term, I would love to make Heroic Girls a non-profit so I could make advocacy my full-time job, but it actually takes a lot of money to say “we’re not making any money.” So, it will remain a hobby for the time being.
I’d like to start a book club, and to create a greater real world presence for Heroic Girls. Maybe start getting tables at cons.
Q: How did you make the connections you have made to such power players as Aisha Tyler and Felicia Day? Do you partner with other organizations (like Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls) on any initiatives?
I’ve made connections by simply talking to people – either virtually or in person. I sent Aisha Tyler one of the articles I had written for the Huffington Post on a whim when she first joined Tumblr, and she sent it out to all of her followers on Twitter and started following me. Kelly Sue DeConnick found the girls’ cosplay on Tumblr and reblogged it. When we went to WonderCon that year, she spotted my youngest dressed as Captain Marvel and yelled, “Stella!” She’s good peeps.
I guess we’ve made connections just by sharing what we are doing and occasionally asking for help. There is a great community of advocates for women and girls in geek culture out there, and everyone tries to help everyone else out. I’m glad we’ve done things that resonate in that geek girl space, and that we have gotten some really great people to help us get our message out there.
We’ve partnered with Women You Should Know on several initiatives and teamed with Legion of Leia to promote the #WheresNatasha hashtag this last summer.
Q: Have you received any particularly supportive comments about the site? Have you had to address any negative comments?
The level of support has been enormous. Over and over again, I hear from women who say, “That was me when I was a little girl,” or “My daughter loves Iron Man and gets teased at school.” Sharing my experiences with the girls and ways we have found to express their fandom helps kids and adults realize that they are not alone. That was why we made the site, so that is very gratifying.
Of course, we have negative comments. There are socially maladjusted men who see every advancement of women as an encroachment of their own rights. They are not above calling an 6-year-old girl “a little bitch” or saying a 9-year-old is “ugly” on the Internet. I’ll take whatever abuse they care to heap on me, but I have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to my kids.
We also occasionally run into women who find Barbies and “princess culture” empowering and think I am on the wrong track in my analysis. I’ve clarified my position and won some over, while others remain skeptical. We agree to disagree.
Q: If you could create her, what would be your ideal superhero for young girls (and boys) to look up to?
That’s too much pressure to put on any one heroine. Many feminist geeks were upset with the way the Black Widow’s relationship with Bruce Banner developed in the last Avengers movie, or that she felt like a monster because sterility was imposed on her as a child because they felt that meant children defined her.
The real trouble is that even after a dozen movies, Black Widow is the only female hero that many fans knew. Her perceived flaws were magnified because she carried all the hopes and dreams of female fans alone. That’s not fair.
Superhero teams did this a lot back in the day. They would have one character who was “the girl.” The Justice League had Wonder Woman. The X-Men, Marvel Girl. The Fantastic Four, Invisible Girl. The Avengers, the Wasp. Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora. The male members of a team were defined by their personality: smart, funny, wise, patriotic, or hot-headed – the woman was defined by her gender.
What we need is for Marvel to create a movie universe that is more reflective of the diversity that the real world provides. Female protagonists can be just as flawed and nuanced as male characters, as long as there are a lot of them. If half of the heroes are women, then no single heroine will have to carry that burden of perfection – the idea that they need to be all things for all women.
We now have the Scarlet Witch. The Wasp and Captain Marvel on the way. So, hopefully Marvel is getting that memo and the movies will be better because of it.
Q: In addition to more female-led entertainment options, how do you think that traditionally male-led comic series, shows or movies can help address the issue of sexism in mass media?
Women make up half of the real world. Make sure they make up half of any fictional world you create as well – even if it is a male-led project. Put women in crowd scenes. Make them police officers, or the head of corporations. Examine every role and think, “What if this character was a woman? Would it change things? Would it make things more interesting? Would it make this world a little more believable?”
And please give us some threatening female villains. No more sexy cat burglars that actually want to sleep with the hero. We have enough of those. I want a crazed scientist with an army of evil robots intent on destroying the world.
Q: The exclusion of Black Widow as a viable movie or toy: what are your thoughts on that? Do you have any hope that Wonder Woman in the new Superman vs. Batman won’t be given the same raw deal?
Excluding Black Widow was a travesty.But every time they do something like this, the outcry is getting greater and greater. I don’t think they can ignore it anymore. It’s a national news story when female heroes get marginalized. They have already announced some action figures for Batman v. Superman. Superman and Batman come in a two-pack of 6” figures, while Wonder Woman is available as a Barbie (although a badass-looking Barbie.) The trouble is that they have made the figures incompatible because they are different sizes. The girls cannot play with the boy toys and vice versa. That was completely unnecessary and hurts both genders for no good reason.
On the other hand, at least we are getting something decent for Wonder Woman. That already puts her ahead of Black Widow.
Q: How do you feel about the Disney princesses? Good for girls? Bad? How can “traditional” princesses become more female positive?
The Disney princesses started bad and are slowly improving. Recent princesses such as Elsa and Anna from Frozen, or Merida from Brave have successfully subverted the traditional princess narrative and replaced it with something better.
But even as the movies get better, the way those princesses are marketed to girls outside of the movies has gotten worse. I dislike “princess culture,” which I feel reinforces a very narrow version of femininity for girls – a version that emphasizes physical beauty, materialism and passivity.
They came out with a Merida action figure that slimmed her down, took away her bow and put her back in the dress that she hated so badly in the movie that she ripped her way out of it.
I think the movies are better than ever. It is time for the toy aisle to catch up.
Q: How did you feel about GamerGate? Obviously, it’s horrible, but how do you think we, as a public, should address it?
Don’t be afraid to confront GamerGate, especially to come to the aid of another. And don’t be afraid to then block and ignore them. Engaging them just encourages them. They love to fight, and you can’t win an argument with a monkey throwing its own feces.
Q: Cosplay: any thoughts? Are hyper-sexualized costumes a problem for women and girls? What is your favorite female-forward cosplay? (If you have a pic to support that we can use, that would be awesome.)
I think hyper-sexualized cosplay can be problematic, if that is all that is offered to women, or if the amount of skin shown is the only criteria that we are using to judge them. But many women at cons actually like sexy costumes from what I can tell. I don’t think it’s our place to judge them for it. We just need to make sure that “sexy” is just one choice on the rack – not the entire store.
Maybe it is because sexy costumes are so common, but I like female costumes that convey other emotions or ideas: strength, fear, anger. Those are not done often enough, so I think they have a little extra emotional punch.
My girls have been cosplaying for three years now. Stella’s favorite was Captain Marvel. Anya’s was Big Barda.
Note: as we prepared this story for publication, John discovered he was facing a difficult challenge.
On July 31, John went to the emergency room for what he thought might be appendicitis or kidney stones. Instead, the results of a CT scan showed a 10 centimeter tumor on his kidney. 2 weeks later, John and his wife Patti found themselves at the UC Davis cancer center arranging for surgery to remove his right kidney, as well as a 7 centimeter tumor on his liver.
Says Patti, “We had a really hard time breaking the news to the girls. We agreed that it was best to tell them the truth and not just tell them daddy was having a ‘procedure.’ We wanted to be able to talk openly – my kids are smart and perceptive. They hear everything. So, once we had enough information we sat them down and explained that their dad had cancer. They pretty much responded the way John and I did. ‘Wait, what?’ We went on to explain to them that he was going to be ok and that it meant he had to be in the hospital for a little while. They were understandably scared. They both immediately wanted to stop talking about it. We explained the importance of talking and sharing and making sure nothing was off the table as far as questions they wanted to ask. We explained that now more than ever is the time to show emotions – be angry, be sad, laugh when you can. These are all coping mechanisms. We explained that if they couldn’t talk to us to find someone to talk to. Just so they were talking and not bottling up the fears inside. I think being strong also means being able to recognize when you need others to help you.”
Online and in real life, the Marcotte family continue to support and model heroism. To help with medical expenses that will not be met by their insurance, friends have set up a GoFundMe campaign. To donate even a few dollars, click here. You can also follow Heroic Girls on Facebook here.
1 Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
2 Zirkel S. (2002). Is there a place for me? Role models and academic identity among White students and students of color. Teachers College Record.