Creating Female Characters That Pop

Kathleen Hiraga says children's entertainment presents "a very familiar landscape" of how girls function in the world.

"They're always typical princesses," she says. "They're being saved. They tend to always be subordinate, or they're in some kind of rescue-distress situation."

Hiraga was tired of that narrative, so she decided to change it. Last year the Ann Arbor native founded Pop-Post, a digital entertainment company whose mission statement is "Smart girls, smart digital." This summer Pop-Post will introduce its first products: an intertwining e-book, mobile game and EP entitled "Samurai Bike Messengers." 

The rollout will begin with an appearance at the Ann Arbor District Library's Kids Read Comics convention on June 22. The "Bike Messengers" story follows Mona-Star, a New York City bike messenger who leads her fellow cyclists against the evil Guzzle Thugs, who are out to eradicate walking and cycling in the city. 

"Samurai Bike Messengers"' multi-platform strategy is thoroughly modern, but the germ of the concept came years ago. Hiraga hatched the idea at age 20 while working as a staff designer for MTV Networks (and bicycle racing by night) in New York City. She says something resonated when she originally doodled the characters as a comic strip, so she held on to the work.

"I literally kept it under my bed at my parents' house here in Ann Arbor," she says. "The whole genesis of this was I pulled out this old portfolio a couple of years ago and stared at it, thinking, 'This is kind of interesting.' And it morphed from there."

Although the story's protagonist is a female in a leadership role, male characters and readers are crucial to Hiraga's approach as well. She says all Pop-Post products are intended for girls and boys, and narratives will emphasize the theme of girls and boys working together. 

"I think if we're going to change the landscape of girls and how they're perceived, I think we have to have everyone engaged in that conversation," she says. "By bifurcating the room and creating an all-girl team, it becomes a 'girls versus boys'  situation. And I think that is absolutely not where kids are right now. I think that they want to play together, they want to work together, they want to understand each other a little bit better."

In the interim between her original doodles and the founding of Pop-Post, Hiraga says technology has caught up to the project's potential and the full range of her own professional skills. Since her early design experience at MTV, she worked in Los Angeles art directing films, music videos and commercials. Although she began Pop-Post with the intention of developing a mobile game, the arrival of the iPad opened up the possibility of an interactive e-book that functions as a "mini-movie."

To create the e-book and related media, Hiraga pulled together a team spanning two continents. She employed software engineers, artists and advisors from Bologna, Italy; Savannah, Georgia; Los Angeles; and Ann Arbor. (For her music supervisor on the EP, she hired a local celebrity of sorts: Jon Visger, keyboard player for indie-pop band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.) 

Hiraga says she loves the 20-hour work day spread across 10 time zones, because it means "someone's always working." Having spent most of her career in California, Hiraga experienced initial uncertainty as to where to establish her own base of operations when she started Pop-Post. She conferred with friends in the Ann Arbor entrepreneurship community, including Duo Security founder Dug Song. 

"They said, 'Yeah, you should give it a shot,'" she says. "And so far I have to say it is proving out to be a wonderful move and launch."

Going forth, Hiraga is planning a series of mini-books on the individual "Samurai" characters, and she'll be pitching the concept to several Los Angeles studios as an animated TV or web series. In an age of media superhero saturation, she's on a mission to present entertaining stories that are grounded in social reality.

"It's important to start telling stories that are real," she says. "I don't think they should be about boys or girls. They should be about boys and girls working together as a team. I think that's going to help kids understand and identify more with themselves than with supernatural superheroes that have powers that they'll never be able to attain."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

Hey! Like this story? Then you should "LIKE" Concentrate on our Facebook page.  Click here to show us a little like and... we'll like you back.