Gangly Sister announces the release of Purple and Nine, a comic book series featuring non-geeks who love science and technology. The mission of Gangly Sister is to encourage girls in STEM and to transform how girls are portrayed in the media.
“Everybody knows that if you dress fashionably, you can’t be that smart,” said CEO Rebecca Rachmany when interviewed from her home office, to which she regularly wears gym clothes. “We wanted to do something ridiculous—like having girls who enjoy inventing things, and having characters who are intelligent and also have great social skills.”
The comics themselves are outrageous. There’s no violence or sex in any of them. The 10-year-old characters are neither frighteningly thin, nor do they have large bosoms. The characters are also oddly multi-dimensional and don’t fall into categories children relate to like “mean girl,” “geek”, “popular kid”, “jock”, or “social reject”.
Rather the protagonists, two girls named Purple and Nine, spend most of their time trying to figure out how to help their fellow classmates using a variety of technologies, most of which really exist. Unlike dumbed-down science programs to show girls they “can do it”, the comic books are somewhat sophisticated, assuming that children of both genders have fully functional brains.
“How many princess stories can you read?” asks girl comic book star Nine Helix. “And why don’t any of the girls in books and movies have a best friend? It’s just weird. Purple and I decided even we could write a better comic book than the ones where they go shopping and get a boyfriend. Yuk.”
“Actually, this was just another one of Nine’s crazy ideas,” claims Purple Isosceles, Nine’s best friend. “When Nine’s mouth opens, which is often, it usually means I’m going to do some big robotics project and Ferret is going to make a mess, filing my room with every technology known to man. Don’t tell my parents about the Ferret. Or the mess. They are going to totally have a hairy when they find out about this.”
There were two main inspirations. One is our daily life. Being the only woman in the meeting room is something we confronted on a daily basis. We don’t want to talk about many of the negative things that have happened to us in high-tech. We all know the issues and we all know fewer women pursue STEM careers. This is a shame, not just because it restricts women’s self-expression, but because it limits the potential solutions available. We know there’s a shortage of engineers, and there’s no shortage of problems in the world. We literally need all the brainpower we can get to address things like disease, new energy sources, and global warming. Women have half the brainpower, so we want to tap into that as early as possible.
The second inspiration is our daughters. We are just appalled at what they are seeing on television and in the media. It’s improving, but not fast enough for our kids. We just had to come up with something better.
We are women in tech, so it’s natural for us. The world needs innovation to resolve the problems we’ve created as humans. Whether it’s solutions to clean our oceans, disease prevention, financial solutions for the developing world, or healthier crops, technology has answers. When we limit the diversity in tech, we limit the range of solutions we can invent.
We don’t think that having girls in tech is an absolute good. We just believe that girls and boys should all be exposed to the widest possible range of self-expression and professional opportunity. If you have no idea what technology is about, you simply can’t make a choice to pursue that field.
Today’s media emphasizes the importance of power and money for men, and the importance of relationship and aesthetics for women. Women are valued for their beauty, or in the best case, for their celebrity. Men are valued for their earning or physical power. When we bombard children with these images at a young age, the damage is difficult to reverse.
My favorite irony is that the fashion and makeup industries are now struggling to find technologists, because, just like every other industry, the fashion industry depends on technological innovation to progress. They’ve spent so many years pushing their goods by frightening girls and women into prioritizing their looks that they left women behind professionally. It’s everybody’s problem – ultimately it’s now even the problem of the people who created the problem in the first place.
Gangly Sister reminds us of the awkwardness we all feel growing up, trying to fit in, and feeling we don’t quite fit in anywhere. As we address the issues of diversity, we find it’s even more relevant. We’re all awkward in some way. It could be our height or color, or our taste in music, or that our parents are immigrants. If you look at the stereotypical models in the media, you might think we all have something to hide. When you’re gangly, you can’t hide it. The best you can do is count on your sisters (and brothers) to accept you as you are.
We don’t know. We just made them up and everybody seems to like them.
Creating the characters Purple and Nine was a group effort. Our original creative team was Ofer Rubin and Michael G. Church, who probably the best writer I know. Along with Miriam and myself, we sat around and talked about the characters. We brought in my daughter, Maya as well.
It was important to us to appeal to the largest range of girls possible. We wanted to address the issues of self-expression versus fitting in, so we created a tension where Purple is a middle child, concerned with how to be accepted in her family and in school, while Nine is a single child and just blurts out whatever she thinks.
We also wanted to emphasize that you don’t need to be a geek or even love science to become an entrepreneur. Purple loves robotics and science, but Nine doesn’t have any particular affinity for STEM. Despite that, Nine is the leader because she is always trying to solve problems for her friends and penpals. She might be ignorant about how to implement the technology, but it’s irrelevant because she cares deeply and surrounds herself with the right resources (Purple and Ferret).
The visuals are 100% Ofer. Nobody can explain artistic vision in words. When I first saw the pilot video I literally cried. The man is just so talented. How did we come up with such appealing characters? We were blessed by the higher powers. That’s the truth.
Both Purple and Nine are 10 years old.
Do we really have to answer that question?
Purple is a person of color, the color being Purple. We wanted her to appeal to as many non-white people as possible. We studied facial structures from a lot of races so that we could come up with a girl who would speak to as wide an audience as possible.
How did you decide on Purple as the main character? Was there an intent to have a person of color as the protagonist?
We intended Purple to be someone that could be relatable to many different people of color. She isn’t specifically Black or Latina or Indian, but she could feasibly be any of those. We trust children can see themselves in her. Pretty much nobody can see themselves in Nine, physically, because so few people are redheads.
Both of the characters are somewhat unusual. That’s intentional. To be normal, you have to make an effort to fit in. Everybody is naturally an individual and then we learn behaviors to make us seem like everyone else. With both Purple and Nine, we wanted to capture the spirit of children, which is that they don’t conform to some standard.
Purple is conscious of being pressured to conform, and she tries to please her family and teachers. Nine is completely unaware, and doesn’t even think of Purple as weird because, well, she’s purple. I think that’s quintessential to the minority experience, the consciousness that you are supposed to be something that you aren’t. Nine, as a white person, doesn’t have any need to be anything but herself, and she doesn’t understand the experience of the person of color. Nine, generally speaking, is fairly insensitive, but that’s part of her superpower. She just says things as they are. That’s clearly one of the privileges of the privileged majority. We never say that explicitly, but it’s something we wanted to be true to when we created the characters.
Women come in twos. It’s me and my bestie. Superhero media tends to show almost no female friendships as it occurs in real life. You see groups of 5 or 3, or individuals surrounded by men, or partnered with men. In real life, for most girls, and most women, the relationship with our best friend is absolutely central in our lives.
Unlike many of the superhero duos, we don’t have a primary and sidekick character. Friendships don’t work that way, and often, even in business, you see female-run organizations don’t run that way. Female-run structures have space for collaboration and compromise, and less room for power plays.
Again, this is never explicitly stated, but as Purple and Nine work through the adventures, you can see that even when they disagree, it’s in a way that allows for full self-expression of both of the characters. Neither one is the boss. Regardless of who says there’s a problem, the two of them work together to solve it.
We talked more about Purple’s hair than anything else in the animation. Having her hair pulled back allows her to be relatable to people with both straight and curly hair. We have had fan mail saying she needs more bushy hair, but that’s not on the table right now. You wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to do 3D animation for hair.
Ferret was created on the 3D printer and Ferret, although it relates to what the girls say, it doesn’t have much emotional sensitivity or judgment, or even much of a sense of humor. We also created Ferret to be relatable for autistic children and their siblings. Ferret does love the girls in its own way, and it is competent and knowledgeable, but it has a limited range of emotion.
Ferret doesn’t have a name (yet), and technically, since it’s made out of plastic, it doesn’t have a gender either. Most kids pick up on that, but most adults don’t. Several parents told us that their child corrected them when they called Ferret a “he”. One said “The voice is of a man but the Ferret isn’t a boy or a girl.”
We played with the idea of a worm in previous renditions of the scripts, because a worm has both male and female organs. Ferret has neither. Writing for a genderless character helps us get into the world of children a bit more, because sex is not a major issue at that age. Society puts the wrapper around what is appropriate for the different genders, and having Ferret in the picture allows us to think about what we would do with gender neutrality.
Fundamentally, we don’t give Purple and Nine gender-specific traits either. They’re kids and they appeal to everyone.
Ferret has the personality of a search engine, quite literally. When you are looking for a solution to a problem, it is absolutely indiscriminate in coming up with hundreds of potential and mostly useless solutions. In conversation it quotes Wikipedia or product information websites.
I grew up in Teaneck, New Jersey, which at that time was diverse. My chose to live in Teaneck because it was one of the first communities in the United States to implement bussing to enforce integration in the school systems. I was a lot like Nine, in that I was quite insensitive to how it might be different to be Black. It had Black friends and white friends growing up and I never allowed myself much room for consideration of race as an issue. I took at face value my parents’ message that it didn’t matter.
I wanted to capture than innocence in Purple and Nine, without overplaying it. That’s why we have Purple being a lot more conscious about how others perceive her than Nine. Nine is still completely naïve about social norms.
One of the things I’m ashamed of, in retrospect, is pretending it didn’t make a difference. It always did, and I was quite numb to that.
It was only in high school that it became obvious to me that the Blacks and whites didn’t hang out together very much. Looking back, it’s distressing how we adjusted ourselves to hang out more and more with people who were physically like us, when as young children it didn’t make much of a difference. In other words, as we matured, we were going backwards in our tolerance for others.
The crazy thing is, now that I look back at that, my best friend in middle school was a black guy who today illustrates comic books and is a recognized novelist in the gay male community. It took me almost 30 years to grow back into something society taught me to grow out of in the 5 years between middle school and college.
Girls aged 7-12, initially English-speakers.
We targeted Purple and Nine for kids aged 7-12. At that age, kids are choosing their own TV shows, rather than watching what their parents choose. Developmentally, at that age, girls are past the stage of princess-worship, but they are still too young to be really interested in boys. This is the perfect age for kids to explore who they want to be when they grow up.
Recent studies show that there’s a major shift in how girls perceive their abilities in mathematics at age 9-10. We want to catch them precisely at that curve. Everyone has bumps in the road of learning, and we need to just get them over that hump to keep them in science and math a few more years.
If we want more women in tech, we needed to plant the seeds in girls’ minds when they are developing their dreams about who they want to be when they grow up. Ooh, that sounds like the movie “Inception,” which is a word I probably shouldn’t mention when talking about a comic book for girls aged 7-12. We are looking to insidiously influence the minds of young children! Bwahahaha! We shall brainwash all girls to believe that they are intelligent, creative and could become inventors when they grow up! Bwahahah! We shall further brainwash them that they do not have to fit into any stereotypes or social norms! Oh, behave!
Purple and Nine does appeal to all ages and genders. Some of the jokes will be funny only to adults, which is a classic tradition in animation and comics. We had to explain a couple of the jokes to the actresses in the rehearsals for the pilot video.
Personally, none of the people on our staff have met a “bad guy”, but all of us could identify problems that needed a heroine to solve them. The world has enough problems without our having to invent them. It is definitely a challenge to write great drama around simple problems in life, like a missing lunchbox, but kids are pretty good at making a drama over these things. We all deal with complex problems and good people doing bad things, or good things with unintended consequences. In order to make Purple and Nine relevant for children, we felt it necessary to choose problems children really deal with, and none of the children we know are dealing with Doctor Evil.
When it comes to writing great fiction, evil villains are a shortcut in the same way stereotypes are a shortcut. Unfortunately, the evil villain is almost always a justification for the use of violence. We think violence in media is completely inappropriate for children. In fact, we’re not crazy about showing violence to adults. We’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s inappropriate for human beings to consume large quantities of media that preach that problems are resolved primarily through violence.
People will tell you that there’s something developmentally essential about telling stories about evil monsters and bad guys to children. We don’t believe that. There’s no proof to indicate that children are too stupid to understand the complexities of being human.
We originally wanted to do video, but the business model is unclear and creating 3D animation is a lot more expensive than creating digital comics. So few comic books exist for girls, so we felt this was an underserved market with an established business model. We felt it was the easiest proof of concept for breaking into this market. Ultimately, we want to do apps, games, video and film as well.
None of the original founders are comic book artists. We started out with the 3D animated pilot, which was well-received by children and parents. The part everyone loved the best was the characters themselves, Purple and Nine. We tried drawing them in 2D. We sent them out to a number of talented artists, and many of the images were good, but none of them were true to the 3D characters, so we decided to keep them as is.
Purple, Nine and Ferret are still 3D animated characters. We do the rigging and poses in 3D animation software, and then output them to jpg format.
Once we did that, we realized to keep them visually appealing, we needed to choose a quieter background style to have the characters really jump out. We know we are breaking all the rules but it’s true to our artistic vision.
Some people will love it and some people won’t. For our creative team, what was important was to stick to our values of providing quality, original artwork. We had a lot of arguments over it and Ofer prevailed, arguing that the quality would show through, even if it isn’t a “popular” style of illustration.
Ultimately, for our target audience, what’s important is that the story carries. If they love the characters and the story, they’ll keep buying. Knowing that we’re also providing an original visual experience is a bonus, in that kids also get exposed to art that isn’t pandering. Again, they may or may not like the style, but as art, it makes a statement that we are satisfied with visually.
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