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Gender-swapping superhero's creator responds to right-wing backlash

Illustration for article titled Gender-swapping superheros creator responds to right-wing backlash

In SheZow, a 12-year-old boy accidentally puts on a magic ring that turns him into a female superhero, known as SheZow. It's an excuse for lots of fish-out-of-water comedy and some personal growth. Or, if you're Breitbart News, it's a left-wing conspiracy. We talked to SheZow's creator about the controversy.


In case you missed it, there's been a bit of a freak out in the past couple days about SheZow. It started with Ben Shapiro with Breitbart News, which was upset by the notion of a show about a boy who gains superpowers along with a female persona, whenever he says the phrase, "You go, girl!". Shapiro wrote:

Nothing says “child-appropriate material” quite like gender-bending underage superheroes. At least that’s the theory over at the Hub, the network co-owned by Discovery and Hasbro, which is trotting out its latest soon-to-be-dud, SheZow.


The story got picked up by the New York Daily News, which quoted GLAAD's Rich Ferraro as saying, "This Breitbart News article is just a laughable attempt at attention seeking, comparable to Jerry Falwell attacking the Teletubbies, and demonstrates a profound ignorance of transgender people since this show doesn't include any."

Here's the opening sequence of SheZow, so you can judge for yourself:

We talked to Obie Scott Wade, the show's creator, who previously created Julius & Friends. Wade was kind of startled by the freak-out, which he hadn't been expecting at all. The show already started airing in Australia last December, and "it was really well-received by everybody there," says Wade.

"Just based on what they wrote, they're reading a lot into the show that's not there," Wade says of the critics. "I didn't set out to make a show about any sort of political agenda, I just wanted to make a comedy. I wanted to make a cartoon that I would have liked as a kid. So I think people are just reading a lot into it."

There's a long tradition of gender-swapping comedies, from Some Like it Hot to Sorority Boys — but Wade says he wasn't really influenced by those, as much as by classic Bugs Bunny cartoons, where Bugs will put on a dress to outwit Elmer Fudd.


According to the official description of SheZow from The Hub, which is airing the show starting this Saturday, the main character Guy "fancies himself an extreme dude" and has his own macho catch phrase, "It's a GUY thing." But when he gets superpowers from his ring, it gives him an "outrageous female superhero costume," which helps him on "his personal journey to become one heck of a super man."

Illustration for article titled Gender-swapping superheros creator responds to right-wing backlash

So is this a show, at its heart, about a macho 12-year-old who learns to appreciate femininity? Although Wade insists there's no agenda to the show, he does say that Guy learns a lot of stuff from becoming SheZow — in one episode, he gets a "sense of super-empathy."

In another episode, he learns that one key to maintaining SheZow's powers is "good grooming," and "his sister tries to give him a manicure, because that's part of maintaining the power, and he doesn't want to do it. And of course that has a drastic side-effect: part of his fingernail falls into some toxic goo and becomes an evil clone named SheZap," says Wade, who represents "his dark side."


"Yes, there are a lot of experiences he has that broaden him as a character," adds Wade, "but predominantly it's about a laid-back kid who's suddenly forced to save the world. It's more about the responsibility that he has to take on, and less about gender."

And the show is absolutely not laughing at girliness or saying that femininity is silly, says Wade. "I think that it shows a very positive role-model in SheZow. There's been a number of SheZows over the decades, throughout his family. It's something that's passed down from generation to generation. And so women are very much honored in the show, and in his family."

Illustration for article titled Gender-swapping superheros creator responds to right-wing backlash

In fact, the premise of the show is that Guy's sister is about to inherit the ring of power and become SheZow, but Guy snatches it out of her hand and puts it on as a joke. "Because he didn't really believe that there was really SheZow." And then it's stuck on his hand, meaning he's the one with the power and the outfit. If the show gets a second season, Wade would like to explore the history of the SheZow lineage and how far back it goes, and also explore more why the ring was able to work for Guy when no guy has been able to use it before.


And yes, Wade says the show's writers room is pretty gender-balanced.

Fundamentally, the gender issues in the show were something that "we didn't explore too much," says Wade. "We just kind of knew that it was there, and didn't geek out about it."


They set out to "make a good animated superhero comedy that didn't make a big deal out of the situation," adds Wade. It's more about having fun with the comedy, and exploring questions of responsibility, than "what he's wearing."

And one of the biggest misconceptions people have about SheZow is that Guy's body changes when he puts on the ring: it doesn't, says Wade. He's still a boy, just wearing a different outfit and hair. And the only ones who know that SheZow is a boy are his sister, his best friend Maz, and his supercomputer named Sheila — everybody else thinks SheZow is a girl.


So will it be harder for Guy to hide the truth about SheZow as he gets older? Wade says "time shifting is something I'd like to explore in the series. I'd like to jump ahead and see what happens in his future. So we'll see."

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From the previews, I feel like the creators of this show (all cis, presumably) will just be reinforcing problematic notions of gender essentialism—that boys are like this and girls are like and fuck everyone else—and skating around blatant transmisogyny. They even made a "Dude looks like a lady" joke for fuck's sake. And it looks like the creator didn't even consider the repercussions his show will have for the trans community. It all feels so careless.

I wish I could say I was surprised.