Inside Mattel’s headquarters just south of Los Angeles International Airport, Christine Kim grabs a shield and fires a plastic disc from it across a conference room. "I'm going to be playing with all my boys, deflecting their bullets and then be like, 'I'm going to shoot you,'" says Kim, one of Mattel’s top toy designers and a mother of three. "It goes up to 20 feet."
Kim has in her possession what Mattel sees as a groundbreaking idea, one that could help end the years of malaise that sunk its sales and stock price and sent the company's last chief executive packing. But even more important is that this may mean the toymaker has reconnected with its most important customer: little girls.
For the shield is not Captain America’s—it belongs to Wonder Woman. And it’s a Wonder Woman designed by women for girls, not one crafted by men for boys. To show what a huge difference that makes, Kim picks up examples of the top-heavy Wonder Women and Batgirl action figures found on shelves today. "Beautiful, but really sexualized," Kim says. "There's a very direct emphasis on a womanly part."
Female superheroes have been around almost as long as their male counterparts—Wonder Woman debuted in 1941, just three years after Superman—and yet they haven't changed much in the past 75 years. The characters reside in male fantasy: often buxom, overly muscular, and dressed in skimpy outfits.
The new Mattel characters, created through a partnership with Warner Bros.' DC Comics, are aimed at a 6-year-old girl. The DC SuperHero Girls line, which launches this spring, will include 12-inch dolls, 6-inch action figures, and gadgets such as a Batgirl utility belt. Some of the products will be unveiled for the first time this week at New York Comic Con. The two companies joined forces last year after seeing a hole in the market, one Warner Bros. wants to help fill with girl-oriented books and animated Web series. The studio also is pushing female superheroes into the mainstream with Supergirl, a television show airing this month on CBS, and a Wonder Woman movie slated for 2017.
Mattel’s research has found that girls already purchase about 9 percent of action figures—and that's despite the fact that most movies, TV shows, and toys aren't made with them in mind. "Everybody has ignored it, but now the world has changed," says Jim Silver, editor of toy review site TTPM.com. "Gender barriers are breaking down, from girls playing with Hot Wheels to boys playing with Easy-Bake Oven. Why can’t girls save the world?"
For Mattel, embracing the girl-power movement has a more pragmatic side. Barbie—the toymaker's biggest brand, with about $1 billion in annual revenue—has been declining for years. Making SuperHero Girls may also help soothe critics who charge the toymaker is behind the times with no better example than Barbie's runway-model looks. Next year, to make the problem worse, Hasbro will snatch away the licenses for Disney Princess and Frozen.
To help reignite the company’s creative juices, Mattel Chief Operating Officer Richard Dickson set up a second office in the company's design center and got more involved with product development. He sees a lost sense of ingenuity. "It's not like Mattel completely lost its creativity; it just didn’t have a champion," Dickson says in an interview. "The art became less important than the science."
Mattel's board replaced the CEO earlier this year while giving Dickson more power to lead a turnaround, and SuperHero Girls will be one of the first major tests of a comeback effort under new leadership. DC supplied the characters from its comic books and then Mattel helped craft a story around them as teenagers in high school—a well-worn and successful plot the company has used with homegrown brands like Monster High. They also softened up the characters for a younger audience. Take Harley Quinn: Joker's girlfriend is described by DC as "psychotic" after "murdering countless civilians." The high school version is a "jokester" who lives for "LOLs."
With a story in hand, Mattel turned to its research arm to figure out what girls really wanted from a superhero. The researchers quickly discovered some big gender differences. Boys are totally fine with killing off the villains; girls wanted the bad guys to be redeemed and turned into friends. Girls also desired different superpowers, including the ability to talk to animals, hear whispers, and force people to tell the truth.
Researchers found that girls didn’t want the superheroes to be too girly, a problem with the first round of dolls that Mattel developed. One girl complained that the toys looked "more pretty than superhero," and another pointed out that Poison Ivy's scarf would only get in the way during a fight. Wonder Woman, meanwhile, was too skinny and not athletic enough.
Kim, the toy designer, instructed her team to use gymnasts, dancers, and basketball players as primers for sculpting more muscular versions of the dolls and action figures. "We wanted to have this very strong, toned body, but keeping in mind that they are still in high school, so they’re not fully mature yet," Kim says. "But they still look like they can save the day instead of being saved." They also stuck with existing colors, leaving Supergirl’s cape red instead of shifting to pink.
The action figures faced another test a few weeks ago during a meeting at Mattel's headquarters with half a dozen of its biggest critics: a collection of feminists, bloggers, and academics. The group included Melissa Atkins Wardy, an author and mother of two who has railed against Mattel for years. So she fully expected to be disappointed, and then she saw the toys.
"It’s everything we’ve been advocating for," she says, "right down to the muscle tone in the dolls."
(Corrects the broadcast network of the new TV show Supergirl.)