By Published: Dec. 1, 2018

superheroes illustration

Christopher Bell has some ideas about how Hollywood can do better.

He’s not afraid to admit it — he’s proud. Christopher Bell (PhDComm’09) likes My Little Pony.

In fact, there’s an entire fanbase of men who call themselves “Bronies,” he said — men who appreciate the long-running TV show and related toys. As Bell sees it, that’s how it should be, even if the main audience is girls.

“Bronies mattered because Hasbro doesn’t get to decide who likes My Little Pony,” said the media studies scholar, a leading voice in the effort to change the way popular culture portrays gender and race. “We do.”

Thanks to his widely viewed 2015 TEDx Talk, “Bring on the Female Superheroes,” Bell, a CU Colorado Springs professor, has found a place of unusual influence in the entertainment business for an academic, including serving as a consultant for Pixar Studios.

His work — and that of like-minded filmmakers — appears to be making a difference: A growing number of lead film characters are females and minorities, such as DC Comics’ Wonder Woman, starring Gal Gadot, and Marvel’s Jessica Jones series, now on Netflix.

The depth of the entertainment industry’s white-maleness struck Bell during a five-year stint in Hollywood in the early 2000s, when he worked as a screenwriter and did tech work for the movies Bring It On! and Deep Blue Sea. Few people producing the stories seemed to care about the social consequences of their habitual use of white male lead characters, he said.

“This whole industry is doing an incredible amount of unintended harm,” he said. “Somebody had to point that out. And that somebody was me.”

Three years later, the Westminster, Colo., native enrolled in CU Boulder’s media studies doctoral program and began researching popular culture’s effects on consumers. When his toddler daughter, Olivia, began interacting with pop culture, he narrowed his focus to race and gender issues in children’s media.

By the time Olivia was 9, she’d become a fan of female superheroes such as Gamora, the green-skinned superhuman female fighter from Guardians of the Galaxy, and Black Widow, the female spy fighter from The Avengers. But when Bell went to the Disney store to buy toys in their likeness, he could only find princess characters. It bothered him.

In his TEDx Talk in Colorado Springs, he lamented the lack of female superheroes and called for equal representation among genders in leading roles. The video racked up more than 200,000 views in a month. (Today, it has more than a million.)

Chris Bell

Soon the head of educational programs at Pixar called and asked him to address a group of about 40 animators. Then he spoke to a group twice that size. Next, he met with Pixar directors and producers.

His main message has been the importance of children seeing characters who look, talk and live like they do, he said.

“This whole industry is doing an incredible amount of unintended harm.”

“It’s my job to judge [Pixar], to evaluate their work and to advocate, in an activist way, what they should do in the future,” he said. “I’d much rather do it to their faces than behind their backs.”

So far, Bell has worked as a consultant on 2017’s Coco and helped shape four other upcoming Pixar movies, including Toy Story 4, scheduled for release next year.

“They’ll send character sketches and ask opinions,” he said. “I can ask, ‘Does it change anything if this character is a girl, or if this character is brown?’”

Since Bell’s TEDx Talk, the amount of female superhero toys and merchandise produced has more than tripled, he said: “I started this collection in my office of every female superhero I can find after my TED Talk, and I have run out of room.”

“The most important thing about the work Dr. Bell does is that it’s something not many people stop to think about, but no one can deny,” said Jayne Simpson (PhDComm’21), a former Bell student. “And when you recognize it once, you see it everywhere!”

As for Bell’s daughter, now 12, she’s got a new hero: Ballerina Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theater’s first African-American female principal dancer.

“If there were Misty Copeland action figures, she’d have every single one,” Bell said. “Someone should make Misty Copeland action figures — that lady is a real-life superhero.”


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Illustration by Tavis Coburn; Photo by Patrick Clark/CMCI