Earlier this month, Target released the above ad, for Star Wars action figures and toys, which prominently features girls. Early in the ad, one young girl says in a voice over, “Watching Princess Leia take charge, I thought, girls can do that.”
While the ad’s reception was mostly positive, there were some who claimed that it was self-interested, because Target’s only motivation is to sell merchandise. My argument is that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can, in fact, be seen as a good sign of things to come.
Of course Target wants to sell stuff. That’s their sole reason for existing. But prominently featuring confident young girls in their ads because it sells stuff isn’t inherently something to be worried about — it means that Target is seeing the benefits of improved representation, and that’s a good thing. What we do need to worry about is whether campaigns like this ad are executed correctly (more on that later).
Sana Amanat, Marvel’s director of content and character development, has said on the Women of Marvel podcast and elsewhere that, in years past, she would attend panels at conventions and female fans would tell her they wanted to see more women and girls in Marvel’s comics. Her reply was typically something along the lines of, we want that too, so show us there’s a demand by buying current comics that feature women, and recommending those comics to your friends. Amanat says fans did just that, and as a result, we now have amazing characters like Kamala Khan, Riri Williams, and Lunella Lafayette.
We want companies – whether it’s retailers, comic book publishers, or movie and TV studios – to respond to us. We want them to realize that featuring compelling women puts asses in the seats and stores. And when they do that, it’s not that they’re pandering (at least not always) – it’s that they’re finally starting to get it. This is how we improve representation. It’s certainly not the end goal, but it’s likely a positive sign. If executed properly, it can be the first stage in moving toward the real end goal of an entertainment and retail landscape where we have more creators and executives who really do care about representation.
In an ideal world, companies would genuinely care about improving representation, and they’d do it because it’s what’s right. And some of them do. I think Marvel, for example, genuinely cares. And Lucasfilm seems to be truly invested in developing admirable female characters in the Star Wars movies. But we know that’s not going to be the case across the board. That’s not to say that the onus is on us as viewers and consumers – that the responsibility doesn’t fall on the companies to do the right thing. It absolutely does. But unfortunately, many of them will only do what’s right when it’s in their own interest.
We all wish that companies would grasp the importance of diversity and the difference between token diversity and real representation all at once. But as we know, it rarely happens that way. It more typically seems to happen in a series of steps, an unfolding process (that, frankly, needs to unfold a lot faster):
First, the company needs to realize that diversity is in its best interest. That’s step one. When companies create ads like Target’s Star Wars commercial, that shows that they’re starting to grasp step one. It might still just be about money at this stage, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. While reaching stage one is a good thing, the problem with it is that, since the motivation is money, there’s often a lack of understanding about the relevant issues, and companies and studios miss the mark. They add “diverse” characters or on-screen talent, but they reduce them to stereotypes or narrative devices. They’re trying, which is a positive step, but they’re getting it wrong, which can actually do more harm than good. When this happens, we need to call it out, in order to encourage those companies and studios to change their approach and try again, so that they can eventually move on to…
Step two: the company starts to understand that token diversity isn’t enough – nuanced, respectful, compelling representation is what’s needed. How will the company achieve this? Ideally (step three) by increasing the diversity of its creators, in addition to its characters or on-screen talent. When this happens, we’ll hopefully have creators who genuinely do care about representation – who aren’t in it just for the money. A female writer is less likely to create a female character who’s just a damsel in distress. A queer writer is probably less likely to use a queer character as nothing more than a plot device. A writer of color likely won’t reduce a character to tropes and stereotypes. So right now, many companies and studios are at an interim stage. (Admittedly, this is very much a simplified explanation of a complex process, but I think the general framework holds true.)
Essentially, what these companies and studios need to realize in order to move on to the next step in their evolution is that it’s not as simple as just throwing in a token woman, or queer character, or character of color. Those characters have to be portrayed in a way that’s realistic, nuanced, and respectful. They can’t just play out old tropes, or be used as plot devices, because that only makes the situation worse by actually reinforcing stereotypes.
For example, you’re probably aware of the huge controversy surrounding the death back in the spring of Lexa, an LGBTQ character on the CW series The 100. What made her death so devastating was that she was, sadly, somewhat of a rare phenomenon on TV. A queer character who’s portrayed not just as a best friend or sidekick, but as a hero. And to many fans, her death seemed unnecessary. Also, many hoped Lexa’s relationship with Clarke would succeed – and that would have been huge! How often do you see happy endings for queer couples on TV? Very rarely.
The creator of the series, Jason Rothenberg, admitted at WonderCon that, “My social media interaction with the fans in some way set up around this relationship an unrealistic expectation that Lexa would be okay, that she’d walk off into the sunset.”
And he went on to add that, although he would still kill Lexa if he could do it over, he would do it differently.
“The death had nothing to do with the fact that she’d just had sex; it was this powerful, transformative figure who was killed because she was trying to change her people, and that’s always dangerous, as I think history has proven. That’s why she died and that’s why I allowed those two scenes to coexist like that. But in hindsight, I wish I’d found a way to separate them somehow.”
Lexa’s death sparked a larger conversation about the disturbing frequency with which queer characters are killed off. For more on that, check out this article from the Washington Post, and this one from Entertainment Weekly. It’s part of a phenomenon often referred to as “Bury Your Gays,” wherein a show includes queer characters – which allows the show to appear diverse – only to kill them, otherwise write them out, write them into the background, or have tragedy befall them to further the storylines of straight characters.
So what’s the lesson here? It’s not enough just to give screen time to queer characters (or women, or characters of color). These characters need to be given the same respect as their straight/white/male counterparts.
As I mentioned in another blog, Jody Houser has done a great job of this lately with Faith, the series she’s writing for Valiant Comics. Faith is a plus-sized super hero, but her identity is not wrapped up in her size. It’s not even mentioned. She just goes about her business stopping villains with as much competency as any other hero. And what’s more, she’s not used as a plot device to drive the story arcs of male characters, or of thinner women. Nor is she relegated to the role of a best friend or side character. She’s the protagonist! She’s driving everything!
So how do we get more stories like Faith’s and fewer like Lexa’s? One aspect of it is a heightened awareness on the part of the creators. But, as mentioned above, one of the most important factors is diversity among creators – not just characters.
So the point is this: The fact that Target and companies like it are focused on representation because it’s in their own best interest isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself — it’s how they respond to that realization that matters. If they get it right, it can be a step toward a more genuine interest in representation, which is what we really want. But if they get it wrong, it can actually create setbacks, and we need to vocally call them out when this happens. At the end of the day, what we’re seeing with the Target ad, while it’s definitely not the end goal, is a move in the right direction. If a company understands that representation benefits its bottom line — and actually responds to that in a positive and beneficial way (that’s the key) — it’s a step toward a landscape where we have more studios and companies that genuinely care about representation for reasons beyond financial gain.