“It’s true. Women do run the world,” quips the boss of NOV8, a female spy organisation, in Netflix’s new live-action series, Project Mc². She’s intelligent. She’s successful. She’s cool. So far, so empowering.
It’s an admirable quality to have in a tween-targeted show, especially in a society that is full of Barbie dolls and Photoshopped magazines. But the world is changing. Barbie sales have fallen 16 per cent in the first half of 2015, with revenues for the doll’s company falling steadily for the past three years in a row.
(Stick with us. Barbie is more relevant than you might think.)
Some might remember that the ambassador of all things pink and plastic was once rivalled by another troupe of girl dolls called Bratz. They were owned by MGA Entertainment, but were soon taken down from shelves after legal action involving Mattel. The Bratz were dolls that extolled the usual virtues of female figurines: beautiful surface appearance and not wearing very many clothes.
This year, Bratz are making a comeback, as MGA makes another play for younger consumers.
“There is definitely potential for Bratz to be part of the fashion doll aisle again, but it depends on content,” a company spokesperson told Fortune.
That “depends on content” line is a reference to 2007, when MGA tried to release a live-action film based on Bratz. It didn’t turn out very well. But pairings between toys and TV screens is an established trend for toy makers.
Which brings us to Project Mc², MGA’s latest line of dolls. Unlike Bratz, this is a series of toys that celebrates smarts. But they also need their own content to make them stand out.
Enter Netflix. Alongside a string of short-form videos produced by YouTube MCN AwesomenessTV, the streaming giant has created an original live-action series spanning three episodes to promote the dolls – a new marketing strategy for the binge-viewing generation.
But if this is an advert, it’s certainly a promising one. The show – and its characters – are based around the STEAM curriculum, which prioritises the subjects of science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics.
Victoria Vida, Genneya Walton, Ysa Penarejo and Mika Abdalla star as the quartet. There’s the science one (Adrienne Attoms), who likes to bake and mix concoctions from test tubes. There’s the social media-obsessed one (Bryden Bandweth), who takes selfies of her yawn before getting out of bed every morning – and then stops to take second, better one. There’s the one who goes to school on an self-designed motor-powered skateboard (Camryn Cole). And there’s the new girl at school, Mckeyla McAlister, who turns out to be a undercover spy.
Together, they’re geeks but not Geeks, a welcome demonstration that kids can be nerdy without being awkward, or stylish without being dim. The first episode sees them stumble upon a plot to interfere with a prince’s civilian flight to space – a set-up that leaves the women saving the men, not the other way around.
The cast click well enough, despite the occasionally-too-glossy sheen. Familiar tropes are given a slight twist (Mckeyla has a diary, but it talks), while the quartet drop in knowingly made-up slang at every opportunity. “She’s definitely IAWAST,” says one, after meeting Mckeyla. The letters inevitably appear on-screen: Interesting and Weird at the Same Time.
The result is fast-paced, witty and, even if some of the gags are a tad easy, it’s hard to knock a show that – no matter how commercial its origins – takes care to admire female characters because they have brains. One sequence that sees the team invent a home-made fingerprint detector is the kind of initiative-showcasing idea that many TV shows would simply reduce to a convenient app.
There’s some swooning over the prince, of course, but even the royal hunk isn’t a goal in itself: Project Mc² doesn’t just pass the Bechdel Test, it takes it apart and wires a camera into the bottom for handy Instagram posts. If only the body types were as forward-thinking: our group are all thin and relatively glamorous, with no room, it seems, for someone of a size 12 or up. That, of course, takes us back to the programme’s commercial roots: selling thin dolls to children. Perhaps larger dolls cost more to make, because they use up more plastic.
All shopping aside, though, the TV show’s characters are intelligent, successful, cool and – based on the first episode – so far, so empowering. When was the last time you could say that about an advert for a girls’ toy?
Season 1 and Season 2 of Project Mc² are now available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.