Emily S. Whitten: It’s Hard Out There for a (Fan)girl, part 1 – I Would Like to Buy a Shirt, Please
So in my first column discussing differences in the way guys and gals are treated by the comics industry, I’m totally going to start with a gender stereotype, ‘cause that’s just how I roll. Here it is:
Women love to shop.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read anything by me before that I will now say, “Okay, stereotypes are silly and that’s actually not true of all women. My sister, for instance, hates malls and isn’t a huge fan of shopping in general.” But it is true that I, a grown female comics fan with a desire to occasionally spend money on comic-y things, do love to shop; and since this is my column, we’re going to talk about me! (That’s also how I roll.) And about the fact that I am often disappointed, as both a shopper and a comics fan, by what’s offered to female fans in the way of comics merchandise, and generally by the way the industry seems to view the female demographic.
I do feel like there’s been some (read: glacial) improvement in this area in the past few years. But I don’t understand why it’s taking so long, or why there’s such difficulty in marketing to women (and in, simultaneously, not insulting them in the process).
The way I see it, the goals of comics merchandisers are to take all my monieessssss and maybe have me advertising comics for them along the way, right? And to do that in such a way that I’m overjoyed to give them all my monieessssss and, say, wear the Bat-symbol across my chest? Okay, I don’t actually know what their goals are – although I do know that in 2009 Marvel’s president of consumer products seemed to think that in some way, marketing stuff to women might“alienate” their core of male consumers. Which is hilarious, since literally any geek guy I’ve ever talked to either wouldn’t even notice women’s products at all or thinks it’s cool to see women expressing their geek side.
But if I were a Comics Marketing Overlady, those would be my goals. Which could also be stated, in a slightly less evil way, as “Making successful products that promote the brand and appeal specifically to the target demographic.” Or even, “Making spectacular shit women would punch other people in the face to obtain.” You know, something like that. There could also be something in the mission statement about making people happy, I don’t know. Maybe the marketeers are also genuine geeks and they actually get super-hyped about their products and want us to be too. If so, that’s extra-awesome. That’s where the best products come from.
But if these are their goals, then why isn’t there more truly amazing comics merch out there for women? Don’t get me wrong – I love a good collectible figure just as much as the next geek (and I would, for instance, consider robbing a small child if it meant I could afford to buy this statue). But along with the stuff that anybody might like, there’s also a lot of stuff out there that’s pretty much designed for guys, with gals being a marketing afterthought if they’re thought of at all; and not only is that a saaaaad imbalance, but I also think marketers are missing out on some shockingly easy money-making opportunities.
Here are just a few examples of areas where the comics industry could really do better in marketing to women.
T-shirts: As stated, I’m a woman. Ergo, I ain’t built like a man, and any time I try to wear a shirt cut for a dude I look stupid. No matter how great the image, I never buy a tee unless it’s cut for women. Even if I get a man-cut shirt with a cool design for free the best it can hope for is to go in my “possibly pajamas someday” pile, because I refuse to leave the house looking like I’m wearing someone’s big brother’s clothes. Now, happily, this is an area where there seems to be more choice lately. In fact, I own that Batgirl shirt (photo above) and have worn it to at least two cons. I love it. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think of a bunch of times when I’ve seen a cool shirt design and it isn’t available for women. Despite there being more choice now, a majority of shirts still seem to be available only in guy-cut. And even when there are gal-cut shirts, sometimes the design that looks great on a guy shirt doesn’t work so well on a gal shirt, and I have to wonder if the designers are paying much attention to what women look like (hint: if you put a big rectangular design on the front of a woman’s shirt, it is going to be weirdly distorted and possibly some of it will disappear entirely). Maybe do some women’s shirts with smaller designs on the front, and the big panels on the back of the shirt? Just a thought, y’all.
Also, there have been some weird missteps when the companies do try to aim for that female demographic. Take the “Girls Rule!” shirt with full-grown lady superheroines on it that came out a couple of years ago. Maybe it’s just me, but I think calling women “girls” all the time trivializes them and yet is so culturally accepted that most of us do it without even thinking. But do think about it for a minute – would most grown men gravitate towards a shirt with grown male superheroes that proudly declared “Boys Rule!”
And then there were those oh-so-charming “I heart men in uniform” and “I only date superheroes” shirts. I mean, okay, it’s cute I guess. Some women might buy that. But still – flip the demographic again and think about how many men would go for a “I only date superheroines” shirt over other designs? Although I think this particular issue goes to a much larger issue regarding women in comics, I really feel that we could get some better t-shirt designs for women if more people out there gave a toss about trying.
Beauty items: I love it when the comics industry tries to market beauty items (like make-up and such) to women, because almost always it fails spectacularly and I get to either laugh or rant about it. But, okay, I’d love it more if they actually started getting it right (I feel like the only time I’ve seen that so far was with the JADS International’s Black Widow perfume, and even there, they really should have done at least one more perfume, in a cool scent). Here’s a great example from 2009 of how the industry is kind of clueless about this stuff. The Lotta Luv Cosmetics partnership discussed there had me shaking my head and scoffing. Okay, yes, if they are only aiming at fairly young girls, the bubble-gum colors and flavors might appeal; but if they want to market to the people who are most likely to spend money on make-up (adult women) they should try another tack; and either way, what is with the ‘50s femme vibe they’ve got going on, which is far removed from anything I or most modern gals would identify with? Not what I want to see in my modern female comics products, something I also noted after the recent SpyGal Marvel/Benefit Cosmetics partnership announcement.
Also, I’m going to let Marvel (and everyone else) in on a little secret here: if female fans are going to spend money on comics make-up, it’s going to be because the make-up is good, or unique, or both. Sure, we’ll buy it over other stuff if everything else is equal, or if it’s a super-awesome product, but the product itself is key. Here’s an example: Last weekend I went to the Nebula Awards Weekend, which honors science fiction writers each year. And while a bunch of us ladies were geeking out over our friends’ geek accoutrements (like io9’s Annalee Newitz’s awesome iCufflinks) one showed me her nails – which were painted with tiny planets. Perfect for the Nebulas, and I was totally in awe and immediately jealous of her unique and geeky nails. I would have gone to a salon and plunked down money to get those, too! They were super-awesome, and you know what else would be? Superhero nail decals! Get on that, comics marketers. I’d wear ‘em.
Another example: I think Twilight is awful, at the very least because Stephanie Meyer slowly serial-kills the dignity and grace of the English language page by page, to say nothing of the bizarre lessons it seems to be teaching regarding relationships and self-worth. Nevertheless, when my friend told my there was a blood red Twilight lip plumper product on the market, I bought it. Even though I had never once considered trying a lip plumper before that. Why? Because I actually needed some red lipstick for a costume I was doing, and because I was fascinated and curious regarding the apparent effect of the gloss (my friend’s description was something like, “it stings a lot and then it makes your lips look bigger!”).
Hey, I’m a geek, which is usually accompanied by an appreciation for quirky things; so I had to try this stuff that apparently changed the very fabric (so to speak) of one’s lips. This is also why I bought magnetic nail polish. Because what geek can resist a product that gives your nails awesome designs through science? But I digress. My point here is: if you want to market beauty items to geek gals: 1) remember that we are gals who likely know a lot about make-up, and make sure the product is awesome or geeky, not just the packaging; and 2) make the packaging cooler. And no stuff from the ‘50s, please.
Quality accessories: I won’t go on too much about these, since there’s really not that much to criticize at this point… but that’s kind of the problem. Why aren’t there more, say, necklaces with a nice sterling silver (maybe with enamel for color?) comics symbol charm? I mean, I would wear the hell out of a Deadpool charm, especially if it was classy enough that I could wear it to work without anyone thinking it was out of place in a professional office (stealth geek attire!). Heck, I’ve actually worn my hand-made Deadpool earrings to work any number of times, and have gotten compliments on them from people who have no idea they’re from a comic. They just thought it was a cool design. Also, why aren’t there more cool comics-themed purses or whatnot? I’ve seen people making their own, so clearly there’s a desire for it. What’s stopping the actual companies from jumping on that? Oh, comics companies. I have so many accessory ideas. Why haven’t you had them already?
Costumes: …Okay, we’re going to save that one for another time. Because that’s a whole column in itself.
In summary – I love shopping. I love comics. I love shopping for stuff related to comics. But I’m a woman, which is apparently still the minority in the comics fandom, and there isn’t as much cool stuff out there for me to buy as there should be. Comics companies, it’s hard out there for a fangirl. Make it easier for me to geek out by making more cool stuff I’ll love. I promise I’ll buy it.
Do you agree with me, readers? Then tell me what products you’d like to see (or what marketing missteps you’ve noticed) in the comments. And until next Tuesday, everyone: Servo Lectio!
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