By Lauren Herman

John Marcotte may not be a woman or identify as a female, but he brought to the TEDxSacramento stage a unique perspective as a husband, brother, son, and father – all identities that are linked to and exist because of the females in his life. His story at the TEDxSacramentoSalon “This Changes Everything: WOMEN” began with two females very close to his heart: his daughters, Anya and Stella.

John Marcotte speaking on the TEDxSacramento stage at  "This Changes Everything: WOMEN" in December 2014.

John Marcotte speaking on the TEDxSacramento stage at "This Changes Everything: WOMEN" in December 2014.

John admits that, “...I am here because I am the father of two little girls, and it’s my job as a dad to try to make the world a slightly better place for them.” He goes on to confess that he is not only raising little girls, but superheroes!

Anya and Stella are the heroes of his talk, inspiring the creation of the organization, Heroic Girls, dedicated to empowering girls by advocating strong role models in alternative media. John founded this organization to breakdown gender roles in the comic book industry, specifically in its characters, for his daughters and all females daring to dream beyond what society dictates girls can and cannot do.

The organization’s mission says it all: “We want to get more girls and women involved in the creation and consumption of comic books as a tool to increase assertiveness and self-esteem, and to help them to dream big.”

But, what speaks most about the organization are its mascots – Anya and Stella. These young females are real life heroes dressed in capes and masks, who have become a huge sensation in the comic industry proving that girls can be superheroes. They may still be in elementary school, but they are world famous.


Superheroes Only For Boys? I think NOT!

There has been a recent surge in mass entertainment based on comic book characters – many of whom are female, including Wonder Woman, Hawk Girl, Spider Woman, Black Widow, and the current X-Men team that is currently an all full female team. Despite the participation of female superheroes in the storylines of movies and comic books, John questions, “Where do our kids get the idea that superheroes are just for boys?”

John Marcotte with his superhero daughters, Anya and Stella.

John Marcotte with his superhero daughters, Anya and Stella.

The concern for society’s narrow definition of femininity is described in a video made by John and his wife about their daughters’ quest for the action figure that mirrors their new idol – Gamora. Gamora is a female comic book character and recent star of the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the video, Anya and Stella travel to Target in search for the Gamora action figure. What they discover is a starkly different set of toys for boys and girls. They do not find their idol let alone any female comic book action figure other than Wonder Woman that is packaged and sold as a set with male comic book characters. Their journey ends with two disappointed superheroes left dazed and confused, unable to complete their mission.

This creative illustration of the gender gap in the comic and toy industry is filled with humor, but also concern around narrowly defined gender roles regarding what is “appropriate” for girls’ toys and boys’ toys. In fact, according to John, toys are more gender specific now than ever before. What John describes as “princess culture” still determines what the toy industry produces for girls, undercutting the potential of both girls and boys.


Surprising Facts from John’s Talk about Superheroes and the Toy Industry

Below are interesting research studies discussed in John’s talk. You may be surprised by these ideas worth spreading and by what you may or may not know about the toy industry and the power of superheroes.

-Toys are More Heavily Gendered Right Now Than Ever Before 

Postdoctoral scholar and lecturer in Sociology at the University of California, Davis, Elizabeth Sweet, found that toys are less gender neutral than ever before.

She writes, “...But while these toys [of today] may broaden the offerings within segregated toy aisles, they do nothing to challenge the underlying fact that the aisles are still segregated. And rather than busting stereotypes, such toys reinforce the idea that gender is the primary determinant of interests and skills.”

Dr. Sweet advocates making toys “gender inclusive,” and other organizations worldwide are pushing for such changes in product design and marketing as well. Let Toys Be Toys, a campaign designed to end gender categorization of toys, has successfully lobbied Toys"R"Us to end the labeling of toy aisles as either “boy toys” and “girl toys.”

By ending such gender categorizations, parents and the toy industry may learn that the interests of children are more diverse than originally thought, proving that Anya and Stella are not the only girls who prefer action figures to baby dolls.

-Even Barbie Dressed in Professional Attire Can Limit the Ambitions of Young Females

According to researchers at Oregon State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz, children can be greatly influenced by their toys.

In a recent study, researchers from these universities found that girls who played with the Mrs. Potato Head doll, compared to girls who played with Barbies, were more likely to foresee that they are capable of the same career opportunities as boys. Even if a girl in the study played with a “Career Barbie,” she was still less likely to see herself as capable of achieving the same occupations as boys. These girls were more likely to select traditional “female occupations,” such as a teacher or flight attendant, as their career ambitions.

One researcher described it as one of the first studies to explore whether, “...something about the type of doll, not characteristics of the participants, causes a difference in career aspirations.” This study gives us pause to how the (dis)empowerment of girls come from toys, and how these objects shape identities.

-Standing in a Superhero Pose for Two Minutes Can Boost Your Confidence

According to research by academics at Harvard Business School and Columbia, body language affects your mood and confidence. It was discovered that holding oneself in “power poses” (defined as expansive, open postures) results in empowerment.

Such poses have proven to change hormone levels, specifically increasing testosterone, resulting in increased dominate behaviors, and decreasing cortisol, resulting in decreased stress. Researchers reported that “ simply changing physical posture, an individual prepares his or her mental and physiological systems to endure difficult and stressful situations.” So, don’t be afraid to stand tall like a superhero because the benefits are “super-isingly” empowering!  


Lessons Learned from John, Anya, and Stella

Knowing all the facts, research, and data about the confines of societal gender norms, John reminds the audience why he is speaking on the TEDxSacramento stage.

John states, “...I am here because I need to tell my girls that there is nothing wrong if they like something that society says is for boys...All of us together have to show our kids that gender lines are not walls; they are meant to be crossed.” John is trying to empower not only his daughters, but everyone to live out who they want to be by explaining the limitations that gender based assumptions and labels can have on individual development.

Empowerment can be a tricky word that is thrown around without much explanation or definition. It has an assumed meaning by those who use it, and it is rarely questioned by people who hear it. But, does it actually have the same meaning to every person? I think not.

Anya and Stella are role models for us all by being who they want to be, not by being what others deem them to be; that’s their own form of empowerment. These girls may attend school by day, but by night and during the weekend, they are inspiring the world and their dad to continue in the tradition of girl empowerment through being the superheroes they want to be (and know they are).

Take John’s message to heart; ask yourself what form of empowerment allows you to be what and who you want to be? Let the superhero in all of us lead the way.


Interested in more speakers from the This Changes Everything: Women event? Then, read these posts also:

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