Martha Thomases: Superhero Salespeople
Girls like superheroes. I can prove it, because a major media division has done the market research for me.
You can learn a lot about what people think of you by what they try to sell you. I don’t mean this personally. It’s not like some guy you meet at a conference who sizes you up and either offers you one of his room keys or life insurance, depending on his evaluation of your sex appeal.
No, I mean this on a more macro level. I mean the multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to discovering what you like and using that data to sell you crap.
For example, when I watch the network news in the evenings, I see a lot of ads for prescription medicines for diabetes, arthritis, and erectile dysfunction. From this, I understand that the advertisers think the people who watch the news are old, infirm, or both.
This is in stark contrast to the ads on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where the ads are all new movies, new video games, beer and Doritos. This is where Millennials get their news.
If I have Maury Povich on while I do my morning chores, I see ads for payday loans, attorneys who specialize in personal injury lawsuits, and for-profit colleges that offer two-year (or less) degrees. From this, I understand that the advertisers think I am an unemployed idiot.
When we get into prime-time television on the major networks, the stakes are higher. The audiences are larger, and the advertising rates more expensive. The networks don’t compete to attract fringe audiences. They want the mainstream.
Not just mainstream, but young, unattached, 18 – 29 mainstream. People who are just starting their independent lives … and forming their brand allegiances.
And to television networks, mainstream means both men and women. Some shows may skew more male or more female, and we can tell which is which by the advertising on the program. We see beer and Doritos when the target is the bros. We see make-up and fashion when the target is female.
When I watch the current crop of shows based on superhero comics – Arrow, The Flash, Gotham, Constantine, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – I see a lot of Revlon commercials.
Doesn’t the conventional wisdom maintain that women don’t like superheroes? Why are women watching these shows?
I have theories, none of which I can prove without procuring the services of expensive market research firms. However, in the absence of evidence, here is what I think:
- These shows feature a variety of attractive young people, many of whom are in great shape but none of whom are so over-endowed that we wonder how they can stand up. I mean that for the actors as well as the actresses. They are better-looking versions of people the audience might know in their real lives.
- A substantial number of the writing teams include women. I don’t have the percentages, but, while I would guess it to be less than half, I think it’s more than a third. This means that there are women creating dialogue that, to them, sounds like something a woman would say if she found herself in a situation with, maybe, Valkyries.
- The emphasis is on action, not violence. This might seem like hair-splitting (but watch long enough and there will be a commercial for a shampoo that will fix that), but there is surprisingly little gore on most of these shows. There are fights, but they aren’t bloody. Major characters rarely get killed, and not for the sole purpose of motivating the male hero. There aren’t a lot of women in refrigerators.
- The female cast members often have their own storylines that are not dependent on the male cast members to be interesting. This is most true on S.H.I.E.L.D. and absolutely true on the spin-off mini-series, Agent Carter, least true of Constantine (at least so far), but even then it is more true than it is in the current version of the comic on which it is based.
None of these traits seems to be turning off male viewers. If it does, the advertisers have decided that the women in the audience will spend enough money to be worth the loss.
I hope that the success of these shows encourages editors to hire more women to create mainstream comics. I hope the success of these shows encourages publishers to offer comics that will appeal more to female readers.