This has been genuinely enlightening. Last week, I asked fans for their thoughts on what fondly-remembered media properties ought to be the X-chromosome’s answer to Hollywood’s current love affair with toy, comic and videogame characters of the recent past. On the forums and by email, I got a lot of great feedback – plenty of suggestions, lots of reminiscing, and also some very well-reasoned thoughts on why there hasn’t been a “lady equivalent” to Transformers or G.I. Joe on the big screen as of yet.
One of the things we forget here in the 21st Century, where the breakdown of traditional gender and family structures is such a prevalent theme in popular culture, is the fact that much of the post-industrial age society (particularly but not exclusive in The West) was heavily invested in making sure women “matured” as soon as possible. Men were expected and even encouraged to retain a certain amount of boyish traits like rowdiness and imagination so that they could be channeled into masculine virtues such as war-fighting and stuff-building.
Women’s duty, on the other hand, was to be stable and grownup so as to provide incentive for men to check themselves. As a lot of people’s great-grandmas would’ve put it: “Women were supposed to civilize men.” Society’s message to girls: “Get down to business, kiddo! We’re counting on you to keep our all-important males happy, well-fed and relatively in-line!”
This is probably why, up until recently, the world of female-targeted games, toys, geek material and entertainment in general shrinks down to near-nil once you hit the early-teen zone; couldn’t have girls missing valuable domestic-training because they were busy with “frivolous” things. And while society as a whole has, mercifully, gotten over much of this nonsense, vestiges of the compulsion to domesticate young women by enforcing superficial maturity remain – often enforced not by men or “the world” but by other young women … hence the “mean girls” phenomenon.
And yet, perhaps as a (positive) sign of the times, I got more than enough suggestions to compile a working list of what the Women of Geekdom just might be ready to line up for as the Next Big Thing. Here’s just a sampling of what you all came up with – in no particular order and with links to examples where possible:
Premise: Short version – “What if Hannah Montana was Batman?” A music company heiress uses a hologram-projecting supercomputer to adopt the titular alternate persona: a fictional pop megastar whose earnings and side adventures financially support a home for wayward girls and other philanthropic pursuits. All while battling a rival music-executive and his less-scrupulous rival band, natch. And, why, yes, she is stuck in an awkward Clark/Lois/Superman love-triangle between herself, her clueless boyfriend and her own made-up second-self. How’d you guess?
Prospect: Really good. The number one thing I learned from this experiment, is whoever currently owns the rights to this property is apparently missing out on a fortune by not jumping on the nostalgia-chic train with it. This is easily the most-nominated thing I kept hearing about in the feedback, and also one of the few with a readily-workable premise that’s probably more relevant than ever in a world of Lady Gaga and the aforementioned Ms. Cyrus. Hasbro made the original dolls, and they’ve got a full-time film division, so if they aren’t making this already they probably ought to be. It looks like a big hit waiting to happen.
Premise: It’s pretty much “Girl-Manga Zero” as far as much of world anime fandom is concerned; a fusion of “magical girl” and “Super Sentai” (aka Power Rangers) genres that became a genre unto itself. A group of teenage girls, intergalactic princesses in past lives, gain magic powers and fight interdimensional villains as a superhero team.
Prospects: Complicated. It’s certainly popular enough, and the visual/thematic appeal is readily apparent: big-scale superhero action fought by a (literal) teen girl squad with weapons and powers based around sparkly lightshows, weaponized magic jewelry and talking cats. Problematically, it’s an anime series afflicted with the usual anime problem when it comes to adaptation: Just who/what are these girls, again?
The series is set in a candy-colored version of modern Japan, complete with Shinto temples and plenty of Eastern cultural flavor, plus the characters all have Japanese names, but show any casual observer an image of the Sailor Scouts and they’d guess they were looking at a lineup of caucasian heroines. The title character, in particular, is a blonde/blue-eyed aryan uber-femme. So how does one cast this without either offending its country of origin or looking even more visually preposterous than it already does? (a live-action series, leaning on self-parody, was recently done in Japan featuring Japanese actresses in multi-colored wigs – the result would probably not fly in a big-budget international movie. Remember: While everyone agrees that the Dragonball movie sucked, fans are still divided over whether it was wrong to cast a caucasian actor as Goku.
For what it’s worth, Japanese filmmakers have recently gotten into live-action anime in a big way. The live-action version of Cutie Honey is probably the most accurate translation of shoujo-style visuals to reality. I can sort of see Moon being pulled off in this context. (Yes, you can get that on DVD. Yes, it’s as good it looks.)
Premise: Diminutive, rainbow-colored, sentient equine mammals hang around a utopian valley somewhere in an undefined fantasy world, occasionally getting into mischief and solving personal conflicts. Think gender-inverted Smurfs, except they’re horses.
Prospects: Maybe. My Little Pony was set up as the girl version of the Transformers back in the day, premised on the idea that boys/cars = girls/horses. As with a lot of stuff in this genre, they were essentially blank-slate dolls that didn’t get personalities or story until they made a TV series to promote it. I’ve honestly never quite gotten the woman/horse thing, but if The Smurfs or Yogi Bear can get movies I don’t see why this can’t, though someone would probably have to come up with something resembling an antagonist.
Or maybe not. The initial 80s TV series was started off by the same folks responsible for the famously grim Dungeons & Dragons series; the pilot movie certainly introduces a villainous centaur (okay, that’s five kinds of brilliant) who kidnaps the Ponies to turn them into slaves to pull a chariot. Take a look here (baddies turn up at 1:40.) Yeah, I can see that working.
Premise: And here’s one I completely forgot existed – essentially a line of Victorian-style doll/dollhouse characters, only with anthropomorphic forest-critters instead of humans.
Prospects: Why not? It’s technically a Japanese franchise, and was bigger in Europe than the U.S., but it did spawn at least two TV series already. And even if the nostalgia market isn’t necessarily there, it’d be sure to find an audience with furry fandom.
Premise: Young girl with color-based superpowers rules a fantasy kingdom responsible for maintaining the world’s color-spectrum, fights monochromatic bad guys and the occasional alien dictator. Also, she has a horse … because.
Prospects: Good. Viewed objectively, the whole thing plays out with alarming similarities to Geoff Johns’ universe-expansion of Green Lantern, (Blackest Night in particular) and if he’s getting a movie there’s no reason why this can’t. If nothing else, it’s a novel genre-mix where the lead character is both a leader and first line of defense.
Like most female/younger-kid characters, Rainbow’s adventures were usually subdued scuffles with minor-irritant enemies, but a feature film spinoff The Star Stealer dropped her straight into Star Wars territory with decent enough results.
Premise: He-Man’s twin sister leads an underground rebellion against dictators on an alien planet.
Prospects: Low. Not that the character isn’t interesting, essentially going from Girl Darth Vader to Girl Luke Skywalker over the course of her origin, or lacking in colorful allies and enemies, but let’s face it: They aren’t signing off on this until they’ve made a successful (new) He-Man movie, and that project has stalled out at least twice already.
Premise: Young woman of indeterminate age and friends, all named and themed around fruity baked goods, live in a utopian magic land (why does that sound so familiar?) occasionally bothered by a Purple Pie Man who bears a suspicious resemblance to the Worst Video Game Character Ever.
Prospects: Iffy. Maybe if someone came up with a broader mythology for who these kids are, why all the foodmaking is so all-important and what the Pie Man’s issue is, sure. Otherwise? Who really knows, at this point – they’re making a Battleship movie, after all.
Premise: Inhumanly-proportioned blonde achieves greatness in all known fields of career and study despite crippling handicap of being born without knees.
Prospects: Huge, yet unlikely. Mattel has flirted with a live-action Barbie movie for decades, but the fact is the amount of money the property is worth as-is dwarfs anything a risky feature version might make back, and they’re petrified of damaging the brand. Frankly, I don’t see how it works if it’s not some sort of self-aware affectionate satire, like The Brady Bunch movies – and there’s no way her owners would ever sign off on that. The best Barbie movie anyone could ever make has probably already been made as Legally Blonde.
Fun Fact: How protective is Mattel of Barbie? They actually turned Disney down for license to use her in the first Toy Story (hence, Bo-Peep), and only changed their mind for Part 2 after seeing how drastically the film increased sales of Mr. Potato Head.
Obviously I got a lot more suggestions than could ever be encapsulated in one piece, so if your favorite pick didn’t make the list don’t take it as any kind of dismissal – this is just a sampling, after all. For the sake of space, I left out things that already have movies solidly in development, including American Girl, Sweet Valley High, etc. I’ll also note that I got a lot of nods toward comic book heroines (Wonder Woman and the Birds of Prey especially), books (Tamora Pierce and Astrid Lindgren came up quite a bit), and videogames (Carmen Sandiego) which didn’t make the full list because they’re really part of separate, bigger discussions (re: comic, book and game movies) that I’m sure we’ll have soon enough.
But overall, I’d say we did our job: Hollywood, if you’re listening, this should make it fairly clear that there’s a huge market out there that you’re ignoring; and both you and they are all the poorer for it. So get on it, already!
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.