What's So Super About Minimizing Black Girls?

04/24/2015 07:57 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015
Rachel Garlinghouse

I'm a long-time superhero fan. When I was a little girl, I wore my Superman pajamas as many nights as my mother allowed. I still own a Superman action figure I played with during childhood, one where I would squeeze his legs together and his arms would punch furiously. When I turned 16, I had "SPR GRL" license plates registered to my car, and to this day, my primary email address includes "supergirl."

The love of superheroes is something I've passed on to my children. My son has a superhero-themed bedroom, my girls have Superman pajamas and my middle daughter's favorite costume is Spider-Man, complete with built in "muscles." They love borrowing Justice League DVDs from our local library and watch good conquer evil.

In essence, superheroes are, well, super.

Imagine my excitement when I saw across my Facebook newsfeed that Mattel had created an all-female superhero cast! Though we love the male superheroes, as a mom, I know how important it is for my children to see themselves reflected in the characters they admire, emulate in play and enjoy watching.

Unfortunately, I was saddened the minute I viewed a graphic of the new cast of female superheroes. I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed.

Of the seven superheroes featured, two are females of color. One appears to be Asian and the other appears to be black, both sandwiched between all of other characters. Now, this isn't usual. In any given children's book, television show or movie, the cast is almost always the same: a few people of color, primarily present to "diversify" the cast. These characters are very rarely the center of any book or episode, instead assuming the supportive and stereotypical roles. Young, black characters are usually sassy and street-smart, while the white protagonist is intelligent and kind.

The most bothersome part of the Mattel cast of characters is the symbolism that is apparent in the graphic, starting with the size and position of the females. The two characters of color are the tiniest and presented in the background of the graphic, while the other five characters, all white, are larger in size and in the foreground of the image.

Additionally, the character's outfits are bothersome. The white character's outfits are much more bold and bright, making them even more vibrant, visible and alluring to the audience. The reds, blues, and golds, the long-time colors of the most super of superheroes, are sported by the white characters, while both the Asian and black character's outfits consist primarily of black and gray.

I also noticed the stances of the characters. The white superheroes have more powerful and aggressive poses. One is "surfing" on a leaf, and two are flying with their arms wide or high and legs apart. One is running, coming right at the audience, and the other is upside-down, her legs above her head, demonstrating her strength. Meanwhile, the Asian character is behind the upside-down character, making her stance not fully visible to the audience. The black character is flying, but her arms are at her sides and her feet are together. She's smiling sweetly, and unlike a typical superhero, there is nothing powerful about her expression or stance.

Yes, progress has been made over the course of the last few years. Like many moms of black children, I was thrilled when Disney created Doc McStuffins, a black little girl who uses her magical stethoscope, kindness and her intelligence to heal. I was equally as thrilled with the release of Princess and the Frog, where finally, a black princess was the center of the film. Annie and Home, two more recent films, star black girls.

I applaud the creators of these characters because they understand that little girls like mine need and desire to see characters who look like them and are the stars of the show. My girls have often expressed their joy when they see a character of color, exclaiming, "Mom! She's brown like me!" Their excitement is saddening, because it's a rarity, still in 2015, to see a brown-skinned protagonist.

Everywhere we look, there's a lineup of peachy-skinned options, from dolls at the store, to characters in books and films, to birthday cards, to advertisements. When brown-skinned girls are represented, it's often as one character who has brown-ish skin, green eyes, and straight, brown hair: a catch-all "ethnic" character.

It's not okay. It's not enough. Black little girls like mine want to feel pretty, special, powerful, and talented. They want to read a book or watch a movie where someone who looks like them isn't just another stereotype, another side-kick, or another token black friend. They want to wear bold colors and stand with a fist in the air, victorious.

Essentially, they want to be represented as super.

Last March, while visiting Disney World as a family, we stood in the queue to meet Merida. My girls stood around a large rock table, coloring pictures of Merida while we waited for our turn. My oldest, then 5, ran up to me and exclaimed that I must look at her picture. I glanced down to see that she had colored Merida's traditionally transparent skin a shade of brown. "Beautiful!" I proclaimed.

When it was our turn, my daughter shyly approached Merida, the picture extended. I held my breath. Merida looked at the picture and said, "Oh how lovely, lass! Look at my brown skin!" My daughter grinned and embraced Merida as I snapped photos.


My daughters have made it apparent to me that they love their skin, their hair and their deep, brown eyes. They want to share that beauty with others. My girls are wonderful, beautiful and enough just as they are, and they have so much to offer the world.

I'm ready for character creators to start seeing and knowing what I already do: black girls matter, too.