Boys Need Female Hero Toys, Too
Once again, Disney has a hit with an action movie prominently featuring a female character. I'm talking, of course, about Star Wars: the Force Awakens.
And, once again, the marketing geniuses at Disney and their various merchandise partners managed to shaft a female action character out of group merchandise.
Much like the issues with Black Widow being missing from group merchandise for the Various Avengers incarnations and Gamora missing from much of the Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise as well.
Rey has been excluded from a number of items, particularly group items, when it comes to SW:TFA merchandise. There was kind of a nice summary in a recent Huffington Post article here:
I would rather not rehash the entire article here, but here's the TL:DR version. Yes, there is merchandise with Rey in it. Yes, there will be more. But there is a lot of merchandise that doesn't include her, especially group merchandise (like action figure packs or the now infamous Monopoly that includes only 4 male playable character figures).
Let me say that again, so that the people who want to Google for Rey (or Gamora or Black Widow) merchandise: Yes, there is merchandise with these women on it available. And some of it is the group merchandise. And there will be more. I get that.
However, the majority of the merchandise fails to include these female characters. From the above linked article, specifically about SW:TFA, this graph tells quite a tale:
Certainly, there are plenty of people complaining, and loudly. Girls everywhere are loving Rey and wanting to see her on their lunchboxes, shirts, bedding and toys, and they can't get it. Not only that, Rey, like her badass female predecessors, is decidedly being removed from toys and products marketed to boys.
There have been plenty of articles and pieces on how action movies are no longer simply the dude's domain. More and more women are seeing action movies, particularly sci fi and fantasy. There have been plenty of viral images of girls angry that they can't find their superheroines in stores or letters that these young superheroines to be have written to Hasbro, Matel and Target, among others.
There is a long held, and mostly false, belief that boys won't play with toys (or presumably wears shirts or eat out of lunchboxes) if there is a girl on them. Perhaps this grew out of the shift in the 90s toward marketing gender specific toys (trucks and building sets to boys, dolls and pink frills to girls) which continues today. And hate it though we do, manufacturers made this push because it sold more toys.
With the shift in attitudes toward gender roles in society, though, there has come a push back by parents to gender specific marketing, and a bigger push to move away from this being a boy's toy and that being a girl's. This piece isn't about that, either.
Even if we accept that we can say some toys are for boys and others are for girls (which, incidentally, I don't) and even if there were some parity in marketing female action heroes to girls as compared to their male counterparts (there isn't), there's a deeper problem with excluding female characters from the so-called boy's merchandise. It tells boys that those characters do not matter.
When Black Widow jumps her motorcycle out of the back of a jet as she comes to the aid of Captain America in Avengers: Age of Ultron, it shows viewers that she is a valuable participant in the story and a part of the team.
If you want the toy that is literally based on that exact scene in the film, you can have it. But not with Black Widow on the motorcycle, it'll have to be Captain America. With one fell swoop, Natasha is removed from the film's iconic scene and the boys can stick to letting the men be heroes and the women to answering the phones and taking notes, and occasionally getting coffee.
There are plenty of other examples, but the Black Widow motorcycle is the pinnacle. The message that boys receive when they go to a movie that includes strong female characters is that women's stories are also important. Gamora, Black Widow, Rey, Honey Lemon and Go Go, they all play an important and central role in their respective stories. And when boys play with action figures, re-creating scenes and new adventures for these characters, it reinforces those heroic roles. However, when their action figure packs do not include those women, the message that kids get is, "Sorry, just kidding. Those female stories aren't really that important."
Excluding Rey from the first wave of action figure pack for SW:TFA, putting Capt. America on Black Widow's motorcycle, or excluding Gamora from the Guardians of the Galaxy bedding set basically says to boys that the women they encounter in this world may have strong story lines, they may even have power, but they aren't really important or worth caring about. Because if those characters are so important, why aren't they in the toy set?
Do we need more Star Wars and adventure stories marketed toward girls? Yes, absolultely. Do girls and women (half of the movie going population) deserve to have merchandise that includes their demands? Positively. But we also need female characters to not be erased in merchandise that is geared toward boys. Creative and imaginary play helps boys to understand different roles in society: kids that play house or pretend to be engineers or police or heroes all emulate the roles they see around them. If they never include women as potential heroes, then they view their female counterparts in life as somehow inferior, as telling stories that aren't integral to their own, as somehow just supporting cast for their own personal hero adventure movie.
It tells boys that the girls who want to play with them don't deserve to join, that they don't matter. So, yes, girls definitely deserve more inclusive toys and merchandise aimed at them, but rather than "fixing" it by targeting more female heroes just to girls, just include the female characters in the merchandise designed for all children. Girls definitely deserve to see all of their heroes and favorite characters on their toys and merchandise, as do boys. More importantly, girls deserve to be seen by boys as potential colleagues, teammates and fellow heroes. Our films, TV and stories are getting better all the time, it's time that our toys and lunchboxes followed suit.
Edit Jan 12, 2016: Apparently there's a second wave of SW toys coming out with a few more Rey toys, and manufacturers are sticking to their guns on that "we didn't want to spoil anything" lie. Even JJ Abrams says it's silly not to include the star in the merchandise.