In October 2012, Julie Kerwin awoke with the idea for a new line of female action figures.
The concept was devised to offer both girls and boys a realistic depiction of the female form, while championing the superpowers that people are born with.
By 2017, the action figure line was selling internationally and most recently has caught the attention of The Jim Henson Company, who is now busy at work developing a new animated TV series based on the range.
Hi Julie, can you talk us through IAmElemental? What is the company ethos and what inspired the range?
I awoke one morning and gave birth to an idea so fully formed that I have likened it to Athena emerging fro her father Zeus’ forehead. At the time, I had been thinking a lot about the fact that while Spiderman appeals to both a boy of four and a man of 40, the same could not really be said about the female action figures.
Their most obvious shortcoming, their hyper-sexualised design, however, was only one challenge and a remarkably easy one to fix at that. We simply created a cool female action figure with a healthier breast to hip ratio and more battle appropriate clothing.. The bigger challenge was the reinvention of the superhero myth.
In IAmElemental universe, our action figures are not people but the personification of the powers themselves.
We believe that all of the superpowers a person could ever want or need are already inside of her. Thus, we use existing female heroes as our design muses because we want to highlight the notion that real heroes walk among us – women and men who choose to use their superpowers to do extraordinary things.
What’s more, it is just as important to put a strong, healthy female figure in the hands of a boy as it is a girl. How can we hope to promote gender equality if we only teach girls what it means to be a powerful woman?
The project emerged through Kickstarter, how soon did you know you had a hit on your hands?
From the outset, back in October 2012, we knew that the only way to ask the question, ‘where are the action figures for girls?’ was to test the hypothesis on Kickstarter. We wanted to prove that despite the industry’s belief, people would buy female action figures designed for kids. The only reason we thought we could even consider company creation at all was because we had access to a crowdfunding platform.
Kickstarter removes barriers to entrance and allows lay people like me an opportunity to test the hypothesis and enter markets that used to be closed to all but a few. Two days after our campaign launched, it was fully funded.
The campaign closed on June 12, 2014 and was 465 per cent funded with over 2,520 backers from all 50 US states and six continents.
The partnership with The Jim Henson Company is very exciting – can you tell us how this came about and when we can expect the series to debut?
When we first launched IAmElemental on Kickstarter, we deliberately did not give our female action figures a backstory. We felt that there weren’t enough examples in the media of females saving the day, and we wanted kids to create their own stories with females at the centre of the story.
Having said that, from the very beginning, we understood that storytelling is powerful. And we don’t need research, though plenty exists, to tell us that it is important for both girls and boys to see vibrant examples of strong, healthy female protagonists across all types of media.
We took our time to find a partner who loved and understood our mission as much as we do. We found that in the team at The Jim Henson Company, and we look forward to seeing both our figures and our message of empowerment come to life.
Our Kickstarter was on the forefront of a cultural zeitgeist back when we launched in 2014. Three years later, we are still moving the needle and working to disrupt the market.
At the end of the day, we aren’t really a toy company. We are a mission-based company, embedding a message of empowerment in al that we do. And we really appreciate having been given the opportunity, through content development, to help get our message out to a larger audience.
The animated children’s television series will target children aged six to 12. The deal gives The Jim Henson company the opportunity to develop and produce the television series across all platforms, and Lisa Henson and Hale Stanford of The Jim Henson Company will serve as executive producers.
How involved will you guys be with the production of the show?
We are step one of what will be a very long journey but, at this stage, we are very much involved in the development of the show and are thrilled with the direction that story creation is taking.
What do you think this will do for female empowerment through the toy industry?
As I explained earlier, at our core IAmElemental is not really a toy company and we are not doing this simply to sell toys to the masses (though that would be nice of course).
Rather, IAmElemental exists because we are concerned about a very different kind of research: research that shows that portraying women in the media and, by extension, the toy world in an unrealistic way negatively affects the way that girls perceive themselves, can lead to lower self esteem and body image problems, affect social behaviour and even discourage young women from entering certain professions.
And so, drawing inspiration from ancient Greek warriors as well as modern real life heroes like Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzi, we are trying to put a healthy image of women out into the worldfor young girls to emulate and identify with as they play.
Our true mission is to inspire girls and boys, women and men, grandparents, teachers and warriors of all stripes to identify the power already inside of them and dial them up – never dumb them down.
Have we seen the message of female empowerment become more prominent in the toy industry?
At the American International Toy Fair in New York back in 2015, my company was a novelty act. Girls, the toy industry insisted, do not play with action figures. Over the course of four days, executives from all of the major toy companies paid us a visit, eager to observe a car wreck.
A few years later, and everything has changed. Not only are there female superhero-fronted TV shows and major motion pictures starring female superheroes, but both major toy companies – Mattel and Hasbro – are now selling female action figures targeted at girls.
In fact, last year our action figures were highlighted in the Girl Power section of the Trends Gallery at the Nuremberg International Toy Fair. SO, clearly, the toy industry is responding to consumer interest.