Grade school kids in the 90s didn’t have too many characters of color their own age to admire and idolize. For me, I latched on to female heroes like Jubilee and Storm of the X-Men, and Elisa Maza of the Gargoyles series.
With the advent of diversity in media and a push to invest in science, technology, engineering and math, we are seeing an exponential growth of positive images for young girls of color in STEM.
While comics are the foundation for animation, cartoons are evolving from a vehicle of humor and silliness into inspirational imagery for kids of color.
Francine Greene, aka Frankie of the Transformers: Rescue Bots series, is an 11-year-old black girl who is best friends with main character Cody Burns. The Jeff Kline animation program showcases the pre-teen and her inventor father as vital companions of the Burns family and the Rescue Bot team of Heat Wave, Blades, Boulder and Chase, and, indirectly, the Autobot leader, Optimus Prime.
Providing technical and scientific input when needed, Frankie adds a different perspective every time she’s on screen, an aspect of the show that is both refreshing and delightful. Watching her story line develop, and her relationship with the Autobots and her father build over time is inspiring (and a not-so-unpredictable childhood dream of mine).
“The role of the black character was to support the hero,” explained Dawud Anyabwile, at the Black Comic Book Festival last month in New York City. The author of the Brotherman comic series reflected on his experience with comics as a young man. “You didn’t see yourself as the one making the decisions. We’ve seen so much of this conditioning that we began believing it.”
The same concept applies to animation. Far too many times the most significant person of color was secondary or tertiary, and hardly ever the protagonist (Storm, Green Lantern’s Jon Stewart, Skeeter from Doug who was definitely black under that blue-green skin).
We need stories that do more than show black and brown kids as side characters, despite all the joy and satisfaction I receive from Transformers: Rescue Bots.
Which brings me to Invincible Iron Man: Ironheart, with RiRi Williams.
While I am not a fan of repackaging established superheroes as people of color, I gave this reimagined Iron Man story a shot, for obvious reasons.
Riri is Marvel 2.0’s first push for an adolescent black girl to be portrayed as an intelligent, inventive and ambitious protagonist. Positioned as a super genius with a painful past with gun violence, Riri overcomes the tumult of her Chicago childhood and builds her own Iron Man suit in her M.I.T. dorm room.
Then, an opportunity for her (and a pretty big obstacle for Tony Stark), allows Riri to officially don her suit and take up the mantle of Ironheart, after (jump to the next line to avoid a minor spoiler!) Iron Man falls into coma. While no one expects Iron Man to remain MIA for long, Marvel is planting a healthy seed of opportunity for Ms. Williams.
Riri works at being a hero, and for however temporary her run may be, her story is an enjoyable and engaging experience to follow.
And where Riri is learning to become a better hero with a selfless motive, Lunella Lafayette, aka Moon Girl, is like the kid-sister, know-it-all that’s trying too hard to grow up fast, guided by her idealistic superhero dreams.
Similar to Riri, Lunella is also a reclusive super genius (sensing a trend?). A chance meeting, a couple of mutated genes and a spatial time warp galavanted her presence in Marvel 2.0.
The nine year-old New Yorker, determined to save herself from being transformed into an Inhuman by a Terrigen mist cloud, teams up with prehistoric friend, Devil Dinosaur. all whilst keeping her cool when encountering numerous Avengers, Defenders and other Inhumans.
Lunella, being a fourth grader, refuses to let people tell her what to do. She is always doing best in order to get accepted into a school for gifted genius kids. And along the way she is learning the importance of considering the impact of her actions.
With her infinite ingenuity, unchecked ambition and a three-story tall best friend, Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur are leaving one heck of a (T-rex-sized) foot print in the Marvel Universe.
Honestly, this has been my favorite series to read thus far, and Lunella has been my favorite character to watch develop. The struggles of social acceptance, the effort of facing challenges head on, and relying on your wits to resolve issues are familiar obstacles for many students of color. I believe the lessons learned are valuable for students of all ages and colors.
Delightfully relatable and thoroughly engaging, I can only hope for a long and prosperous future for this dynamic duo.
These three young women of color not only provide black and brown girls a positive representation of themselves, but shows that being smart can led to some pretty amazing (albeit fantastical) adventures.