Last Halloween, I decided to keep a running count of the Annas and Elsas who came to my door. I lost track somewhere deep in the double digits. You’ve probably witnessed this princess parade: pint-sized Disney heroines, shuffling down the sidewalks in their polyester finery. But this year might be different.
After an 11-year reign as the nation’s top costume, princesses have been supplanted by superheroes, a National Retail Federation survey revealed. Expect to be handing out Kit Kats to mini Wonder Women, Supergirls, and Harley Quinns.
And cue the sound of rejoicing. “It’s been so long coming,” says Rebecca Borah, an English professor at the University of Cincinnati who studies fan communities and has been a comic book fan herself since childhood.
Between the fangirl thrill, the parental nostalgia, and the built-in empowerment messages, superheroines seem like a modern parent’s dream. They have an agency, abilities, and a mission to do good. And unlike most Disney princesses — with a few notable exceptions like Anna and Elsa — they don’t need princes to fill out their story arcs.
Girls’ empowerment, to be fair, has been part of the Disney princess marketing message, too. Ever since The Little Mermaid came out in 1989, Disney has been retrofitting fairy tales to make them palatable to modern sensibilities — injecting some level of spunk or work ethic into one-dimensional characters, tweaking story lines so princesses could play at least some role in their own saving.
But those efforts always felt a little forced to me, given how the tie-in consumer products have turned out. Parents have long complained about reflexively segregated toy aisles — Matchbox cars vs. Bratz dolls, Lego Star Wars vs. Lego Friends — and the messages they send to both boys and girls about ambition, interests, and career possibilities. The princesses in the toy aisles are exhibits A through N — and only tangentially related to the characters in the movies or the source material. Their purpose is to primp, pose, and drum up a global appetite for bling.
And the drive to see “princess” as a fashion statement, as opposed to a source of power, surely hasn’t gone away. This year’s Halloween dethroning might just reflect the fact that it has been a few years since Disney’s last princess movie came out. (When I asked one 7-year-old what her friends thought of the Frozen princesses, she sniffed dismissively: “They’re last season.”)
It’s nice to see that some of the role models girls have found in the interim wouldn’t be caught dead in tulle — chief among them Rey, the mysterious heroine from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But the tie-in consumer products haven’t caught up to demand. Last winter, even the film’s director, J.J. Abrams, complained about the dearth of Rey toys in the aisles — and the complete absence of Rey, the movie’s main character, in the first tie-in Monopoly set.
Superheroines face the same challenges. Last year, a leaked Sony e-mail revealed that Ike Perlmutter, the CEO of Marvel — the company behind The Avengers, Spider-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy — was deeply dismissive of female superhero movies, listing several that bombed. The e-mail, Borah says, fed into a persistent complaint that Marvel was underplaying its female characters — and a conspiracy theory that Disney, Marvel’s parent company, was leaving superheroes to the boy aisles.
Into this breach marched DC Comics, a division of Warner Bros. In late 2015, the company partnered with Mattel to create a new product line, with a tie-in Web series, called DC Super Hero Girls. The premise: Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, and Harley Quinn, and various other female DC Comics characters attend the same high school. They have skills and powers and occasionally save the world from villains, but they also spend a lot of time throwing each other birthday parties and working out roommate issues.
In short, they don’t tread far from old stereotypes, says Rebecca Hains, a media studies professor at Salem State University and the author of Growing Up With Girl Power and The Princess Problem. For instance: Male superheroes possess a broad range of body types. But DC Super Hero Girls look uniform, with their skinny bodies, doe eyes, infinitesimal noses.
In fact, they look a lot like Disney princesses in alternate outfits — a common trap for every superheroine. “Her body can’t betray the fact that she is super strong,” Hains says. “A male superhero will be muscle-bound. We don’t have any female superheroes who are muscle-bound. Why is that? Because it’s not palatable.”
Some producers of new superheroine content are clearly wrestling with these messages, with mixed success. The pilot of TV’s Supergirl offers a feeble third-wave-feminist explanation for why the character isn’t called “Superwoman.” And you can make out the traces of muscles beneath star Melissa Benoist’s leotard — which is skin-tight, but not overly sexy.
Hopefully, the superheroine Halloween costumes will tread that line as well. Borah sees endless possibilities for different sizes and genders. Scanning the Halloween costumes online this year, she was especially thrilled at the gender-bending possibilities, like a Captain America tutu dress with a bright blue skirt. “The day I see a Hulk in a tutu,” she says, “I will be so happy.”
If that girl comes to my door, I’m giving her extra candy.Joanna Weiss is a former Globe columnist. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.