The IAmElemental Story
By Julie Kerwin, Chief Elemental Officer
I am very lucky. I own a company that sells Superpowers: the sort of powers that reside inside us all. So, basically, I get to celebrate the best of humankind on a daily basis.
Back in 2012, I heard brain expert Jo Ann Deak give a lecture on brain development and boys. One of the points she made was: “Boys and girls are as different from the neck up as they are from the neck down…it’s a scientific fact.” That night, I fell asleep wondering what I would have to do to a Superhero to make her appeal to the “female brain.” I woke with the answer: “It’s not Superheroes. It’s Superpowers.” Twenty-four hours later, I had a fully-formed company mission and the start of a very big idea.
We launched the first-ever female action figures designed specifically for girls (and boys) on Kickstarter in 2014. Fully funded in two days by backers in all 50 states and on six continents, our groundbreaking products were named by TIME Magazine as one of the "25 Best Inventions of 2014" and "Top 10 Toys of 2014,” essentially jump-starting the female superhero movement.
When IAmElemental began, we had three goals:
First, arguing that the female action figures on the market at the time were hyper-sexualized in a way that rendered them inappropriate as playthings for children, we designed a figure with a healthier breast-to-hip ratio, a bum that wasn't offensive, and legs that were proportional to her body.
Second, we reinvented the Superhero myth. In the IAmElemental universe, the child is the Superhero, and our figures represent her Superpowers. Hence our tagline: It's Character, not Characters.
Third, we created a figure that was forward-thinking in its design and engineering. We knew that if it wasn't super cool and fun to play with then there wasn't any point in making them.
However, the truth is, at the end of the day, we really aren't a toy company; we are a mission-based company, embedding a message of empowerment inside our toys.
Whenever I go to an event, I bring life-size IAmElemental shields and I ask everyone - girl, boy, man, woman - to pick their power. No one ever randomly picks a power. They always go through the pile and carefully select the one that suits them the most.
Over time, something strange began to happen. Despite the fact that studies show that words like Bravery and Energy are considered masculine words, while Honesty and Persistence are feminine words, in large numbers, women were choosing the active, “strong” Superpowers like Bravery and Energy, while men kept picking the “softer” Superpowers like Honesty and Persistence. And I came to realize that Jo Ann Deak’s gender-specific “female brain” - the very seed that had given birth to IAmElemental - no longer applied.
The difference? We are not asking people to tell us whether women are Brave or men are Honest. We are asking them to think about their own powers. Free from the limitations created by gender stereotypes, people are able to choose exactly who they want to be. And, really, despite what advertising and media - and toy companies - want people to believe, words like Bravery and Honesty don’t have a gender. So why not stop disseminating the message that they do?
This is at the heart of what my company is trying to change. And, yet, despite recent progress, many in the toy industry are still playing catch up with society’s shifting ideas about play and gender. One of the most powerful executives in the toy industry looked at my products and told me, “You have to dumb it down; girls aren’t going to be able to understand these concepts.” And, “You should really spend some time watching how girls play.“
But, just because a girl loves to play with dolls and princesses doesn’t mean that she wouldn’t also enjoy playing with action figures.
Play is powerful. The toys that girls play with impact the stories that they tell. The storyline that’s implied when a girl plays with dolls dressed as princesses is very different from the story that naturally unfolds when you have two figures that are dressed like knights, for example.
Same with boys.
After I gave some Courage figures to two brothers, their mother told me it was a revelation to hear them playing with female action figures. It hadn’t occurred to her until they started incorporating the IAmElemental figures into their typical play patterns that she had never before heard them say, “She’s coming to save you.” “Here she comes to save the day.”
It’s a subtle but important distinction. It doesn’t change their play, but it does have the power to change their thinking.
One of the nuances of IAmElemental’s Superpower message; the secret sauce that differentiates us from traditional Superhero mythology, is the fact that The Elements of Power aren’t bestowed upon us from an outside force like a spider bite, or a poison, or a Greek god for a father. Rather, strength and power is attainable because it resides within.
I want every child - and every adult, for that matter - to feel that power, the power to use their internal resources to create their own origin story.
One of our taglines is: “Real heroes walk among us.” The most important word in that sentence isn’t hero… it’s real. For, it is only by accepting and embracing our authentic selves that we can access our best selves, and be our own Superhero.