SheZow, the Transgender Heroine That Isn’t
In a world where milquetoast scientists become green-skinned behemoths, capable of juggling tanks, anything is possible. But when the cartoon "SheZow" debuted, a show centered around a super-heroine whose secret identity is a boy, the horizons of possibility were pushed that much further.
Mild-mannered characters transforming into super-powered avatars are as old as comics themselves. Introduced in 1939, DC Comic's Shazam merely has to shout his name to go from a child to the fully-grown "World's Mightiest Mortal." Kids of the '80s will remember He-Man and She-Ra, who used magic swords to turn into super-powered alter egos strong enough to move objects frozen in the time-space continuum. But a transformation involving perceptions of gender, while a common theme in Asian comics, is novel in the West.
The brainchild of creator Obie Scott Wade, "SheZow" made its US premier on Hub Network (formerly Discovery Kids), and is an Australian-Canadian corroboration. The plot involves 12-year-old Guy Hamdon who discovers his late Aunt Agnes's "power ring." When he puts it on and shouts the catchphrase "You go, girl!" he transforms into the heroine SheZow. While he gains all the abilities of the heroine persona -- super strength, speed and endurance -- he also gets the immutable appearance of her as well, which includes a fuchsia bodysuit, cape and knee-high platforms, all set off by a glossy mane of hair.
Guy quickly realizes the ring is hardwired for women, and dresses the wearer the same way, regardless of gender. After the initial shock, Guy/SheZow finds that in addition to SheZow's superpowers, he has at his fingertips the use of supercomputer Sheila, and a vast array of weapons including a light saber, boomerang and uber-slick car.
Guy easily recognizes the super-powered pluses far outweighing the minuses and settles into his role as the guardian of his town. And because every hero needs a tragic back-story, Guy cannot take the ring off, and his policeman father disparages SheZow as a vainglorious vigilante, forcing Guy/SheZow into secrecy.
Conservative pundits reacted along predictable lines.
"'SheZow' presents at a pop-culture level what transgender activists believe and what some academics have taught for years: that gender is completely socially constructed and that people can change genders," said Jeff Johnston, gender issues analyst (and resident ex-gay) for CitizenLink, a website affiliated with anti-LGBT group Focus on the Family.
"Instead of giving kids good role models to follow," Johnston continued, "this cartoon reflects our culture's confusion about the two sexes, and kids don't need that confused message."
It should as no surprise that the aggressive anti-gay group, One Million Moms, a side project of the American Family Association, targeted "SheZow," shortly before its premier. The group's officials wrote a statement on their website, slamming the cartoon for obvious reasons.
"The media is determined to pollute the minds of our children and there is no better way to desensitize them than through a cartoon program," OMM wrote. "Everyone knows children are drawn to animated shows; both boys and girls love superheroes. This character especially will appeal to both boys and girls since the superhero represents both genders by crossdressing and being transgendered. This dude becomes the FEMALE superhero SheZow dressed in pink and purple."
That a cartoon could inspire such an overzealous reaction would seem to be overkill on the part of the commentators, but children's cartoons have long found themselves targeted by adult critics. "The Smurfs" was criticized by the right as being an allegory for a Marxist society, Disney's classic "Beauty and the Beast" was condemned as satanic for depicting lycanthropy.
Much Ado About Nothing?
Hub Network, whose own staff was initially astounded by the concept of the show, defends the premise.
In a statement, the company said, "We decided to broadcast ’SheZow’ because we see it as a light-hearted, animated comedy that capitalizes on a concept that goes back to some of the earliest cartoons like Bugs Bunny, who could make kids laugh out loud by wearing a dress and a wig. Hub Network is dedicated to providing quality entertainment that is enjoyable for kids and their families. We want to assure our viewers that there is no other agenda in the show but to entertain and we appreciate that our viewers have differing opinions on this program."
Rich Ferarro, vice-president of Communications at GLAAD, shot back at conservative critics and points out the ironic humor that Guy/SheZow isn’t transgender, transsexual, or even involving any sort of same-sex desire.
"I would expect that there are some larger problems on television right now, like sexual images or violence, that critics might want to think about before taking on a kids’ show," he said, bemused at the controversy the ultra-right are self-generating. "Transgender people don’t put a magical ring on and suddenly become the opposite sex."
Ferraro draws a parallel between "SheZow" and Disney’s "Mulan," whose female protagonist dresses as a male soldier only to save her crippled father from going into battle and facing certain death, not because she wanted to be a man. SheZow, in Ferraro’s view, is an extension of heroes like Batman who works from behind masks and costumes to protect their civilian lives and that SheZow is a female mask makes her all the more effective a cover when her alter-ego is a boy.
"I think it’s a lighthearted television show for children, and that some right-wing activists have attempted to impose their rigid ideas of what gender roles are in society," Ferraro adds. "Nothing changes about this character except for his hair length and outfit."
To drive Fararro’s point home, astute viewers will note Guy’s voice does not change between characters, he never identifies as female and there is a point in the debut where Guy/SheZow describes his outfit as uncomfortably riding up.
To be sure, feminine iconography is played up to a gleefully ham-handed degree. All of SheZow’s weaponry is pink, and puns based on the pronoun, "she," are rife: the submarine and jet forms of SheZow’s car, the Shehicle, are called the USS She Shell and the She C 10 (a take off the DC 10), respectively. SheZow’s precognitive ability is called "She-S-P."
Ironically, all the lionizing of the feminine has led to a barrage of criticism from the other side of the social spectrum. Some left-leaning commentators lament the SheZow avatar as stereotypically "girly" with her preponderance of pink and fuchsia, her long eyelashes and hair, the fact her weapons "hide" in the shapes of lipstick and hairbrushes, and that she can be weakened if her hair is not perfectly coiffed.
It is a comment the comics community itself, who shares GLAAD’s more even-keeled viewpoint, wrote off as hypocritical.
In his review of the show, and the controversy around it, ComicsAlliance writer Andrew Wheeler says, "’SheZow’ is predicated on the idea that there is nothing wrong with being a girl; that a girl can be powerful and heroic and still be ’girly.’ The message is that Guy is empowered by his female alter-ego; he gains from this experience."
He adds that the show "is no more likely to erode the fabric of modern society than ’Phineas and Ferb’."
Which brings to mind another Phineas -- Phineas T. Barnum, who is said to have stated, "There is no such thing as bad publicity." "SheZow" is now in its first few episodes, and it remains to be seen if the show gains a footing with American audiences. In the end, what will save "SheZow" will not be the gender of its characters, but something much more fundamental: Whether it is funny enough for kids.