Distilled Essence: Alcoholism and Abuse in Excalibur

If you’re at all invested in comics culture, then by now you probably know about the amazing podcast Rachel And Miles X-Plain the X-Men. On the off chance you don’t, it’s a podcast where Jay Rachel Edidin and Miles Stokes do exactly what the title suggests, and explain the long-running X-Men comic franchise. They do so in a rapid style that features competent, well-thought analysis and some great humor, with each episode covering around four issues over the course of forty-five minutes to an hour. I really recommend it.

This morning, on the drive to work, I was listening to Episode 89, wherein amongst other things (this episode being a Giant-Size Special) they discuss the very first Excalibur story, The Sword Is Drawn. It’s a great book, and the start of an even greater series, but I’d rather leave the discussion of the overall story to that episode, and instead focus on something else. While listening, I took a look at the book in question (this was after I was done driving, I am not a madman), and something stuck out to me in a big way–the nature of Brian Braddock and Meggan’s relationship.

Now, much was said over the course of the episode about Brian’s alcoholism, how it stems from the trauma he’s undergone, and also how it informs his life, and the decisions he makes in it. What wasn’t covered in depth though (though possibly will be over time, as it would derail the hell out of an individual episode) is the way his alcoholism affects Meggan.

Meggan is an empath–that is, someone who can mentally read the emotions of others–and moreso, as of this story, an empath largely unfamiliar with the world. She’s been shut away, mainlining pop culture in isolation for years, and as such has a very skewed sense of what makes for a healthy, adult relationship, or even a rational adult conversation. When paired with Brian Braddock, who has died multiple times, gotten better multiple times, and who drinks to cope with those facts, the resulting combination is a dangerous one–and I do not say that lightly.

In the first scene featuring the two together in this book, Meggan is stumbling upon Brian as he’s just heard news of his sister’s apparent death. Brian reacts in typical fashion, by cracking open a bottle and wallowing in his grief. Given the situation–I’m very close with my sister and I’d absolutely be heartbroken in Brian’s shoes–the act itself isn’t the problem. No, the problem comes when Meggan attempts to soothe Brian’s pain. It’s a doomed effort–the pain of losing someone dear to oneself is something that does not fade quickly, if ever. It’s still a noble one, though, and Meggan’s compassion in this scene is beautiful to behold.

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Unfortunately, in the very next panel, Brian flies off the handle. He yells, throws a full bottle of liquor, and calls Meggan a cow, and launches into a series of further insults against her character, before shouting at her to go away. It is an utterly unacceptable, childish fit, and had he delivered that same speech to any other member of the team, he’d likely have had the sense slapped into him immediately.

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Imagine Brian calling Rachel Summers a cow. Imagine the hole in the earth where he would’ve once been standing.

Meggan, horrified by his anger, flees into their shared bedroom, where she collapses on the bed, crying to herself. She apologizes to the empty air, for making him cross, complaining that she’s “always saying the wrong thing and doing worse.”

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This moment is where the scene crystallizes. When Meggan flops herself on the bed, she’s apologizing–for the act of showing compassion, even! These are textbook markers of a codependent and furthermore abusive relationship. Brian was absolutely awful to her, and here she is apologizing as though it’s her fault. She’s not angry, she’s not upset with him for the way he treated her (see also: Superheroes and the Gender Politics of Anger, by Jessica Plummer). She’s remorseful. It sticks out, if you’re paying attention, and it’s a very heart-wrenching scene which does an effective job of anchoring the reader’s compassion for Meggan. Unfortunately, it also takes the focus away from Brian.

That focus briefly returns, as Nightcrawler appears, dropping Brian into the water to wake him, before launching into an absolutely deserved tirade about his horrible, nihilistic self-destruction. It’s a wonderful scene, because Kurt really cracks through every flimsy excuse Brian’s able to put up, and just strips the man down, forcing him to take some personal responsibility. Unfortunately, it’s an address of the symptoms, not the underlying cause, and worse, it’s also the only time the book takes to hold Brian accountable. Brian never apologizes to Meggan, and no one ever tells Meggan that it’s not her fault–that none of it is. In fact, when Brian and Meggan later reunite, they embrace and kiss, happily.

She utterly believes in him, no matter how horrible he is to her.

She utterly believes in him, no matter how horrible he is to her.

It’s a testament to Chris Claremont’s writing that we still view Brian Braddock as a “good guy” despite scenes like this, and the reason is that for all of his soap opera flourishes, he allows the characters he writes to have flaws. Alcoholism has cropped up again and again in comics–Tony Stark, Carol Danvers, Hal Jordan, Flash Thompson–but it’s almost invariably treated as a simple obstacle that is easily overcome. “I drink too much” has become the synthesized narrative of the portrayal of alcoholism, and the resulting solution is for the character to stop drinking. Then, hooray! They’re cured!

With Brian Braddock, especially under Claremont’s hand, that’s for once not the case. Braddock’s alcoholism is a recurring problem with no real solution–in the way that alcoholism itself is. It’s not a quantitative problem, it can’t be solved by simply limiting the amount of alcohol consumed. It is a legitimately recognized mental disorder, and one of the chief problems it creates is in interpersonal relationships. I dislike the myth of “angry” drunks and “happy” drunks–there are drunks, period. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re angry, sometimes they’re even sad, depending on the context of their lives around them, their own emotional state, and their hang-ups. They may even be predominantly one of these ways, but distilling the description down to “___ drunk” puts the onus on the alcohol, when those traits were present prior to the imbibing. It’s part of the ongoing narrative of not holding an alcoholic responsible for his actions.

And Brian is responsible–I am not defending his actions in the above panels at all–if anything, exactly the opposite. I want to provide the context of them, so that we can discuss what is the really fascinating portion of this scene: Meggan’s codependency. See, the thing that Brian does? Throwing his bottle, shouting insults? That’s abuse. It’s a loud, violent temper tantrum, and furthermore it’s on the part of a man who by nature of his abilities, can seriously hurt a person. He doesn’t (he’d be irredeemable after that), but only barely. Even so, the situation is bad. Consider Meggan’s background, her isolation and her complete lack of self-identity. This is a character whose appearance reflects what people think of her, and now Brian is carelessly calling her a cow, cruelly belittling her. He’s so invested in the idea of hurting her in that moment that he’s out of his chair, he has to force himself to direct that violent action elsewhere–the bottle. Through all that, Meggan is the one apologizing, because she knows he’s in pain. And yes, he is hurting, given the apparent loss of his sister, but that’s no excuse.

The intersection between alcoholism and abuse is a difficult thing to discuss. As you’ve likely gleaned from these paragraphs alone, each subject is by itself a complex and nuanced problem to deal with, and the point where they overlap is doubly so. As a child of both, I can tell you two things. One, that the way this plot thread is handled throughout this issue is an absolutely excellent and accurate portrayal of the insidious nature of both, how they worm their way into a relationship and redefine the parameters of it, so that those within it have trouble even properly recognizing what the problem is. The second thing I can tell you is that had this book taken the time to reinforce with Meggan that Brian’s actions were Brian’s fault, a younger version of myself might have started learning a lot sooner how better to navigate the troubled waters of his home life. That no one did is, sadly, just another part of what makes this arc so very, very accurate.

 

 

 

Adventure Log 4: The Infernal Deal

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You and the Elders wait for a few moments as Kaiil exits the chamber to retrieve the stone. It’s an awkward, uncomfortable sort of silence until she returns, bursting in through the door. It’s apparent right away that something is wrong. “The stone…it’s gone!” She says, staring wide-eyed at the Elders. As a one, they gasp, then start chattering amongst themselves. It’s a moment before Erden rises from his seat.

A full month since the last session, but it was necessary! After the party split and caught me off guard last time, it took me a bit of time to figure out how I was going to proceed. I spent some time considering the backstory of each character, plus the details of the adventure so far, and worked out some common themes. Once I did that, putting together the next phase of the adventure was much easier.

The session started with the party recovering in the home of their new acquaintance, Kaiil, in the city of Bane. Shortly after, Kaiil brought them before the Council of Bane, a half-dozen strong group of Elders led by a man named Erden. Erden explained some of the history of the town to them, and how they came to be there, before revealing that the town council held another Demon Stone, similar to the one that had brought them here. He had a great deal more information to share with them, but once the party heard about the Stone, they had little care for anything else.

Unfortunately, as they soon found out, the Demon Stone held by the council is gone. They were able to locate it magically, but it was not quite so easy—the Stone was no longer within Bane, but on the far end of a series of underground tunnels. While planning this next session, the dungeon itself, I wasn’t sure how to map it out, so…I didn’t. Instead, I built some random tables:

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I designed a few significant encounters for the encounter table, went through some books and chose some fun monsters for the combat table, and that was it. I’ll note one major change—prior to play I swapped the number ranges for the Scrying Chamber and the Roll Combat Table entries, as on test rolls I discovered that the Scrying Chamber came up absurdly often.

In play, I just kept a d8 and percentile dice on hand, and rolled them for each new chamber—including if the party went back. The idea is that the tunnels, being on the plane of Abbadon, twist back and forth on themselves constantly, the better to torment whatever creatures may wander within them. It was interesting to watch the party tackle it—they understood the basic concept from the start that the dungeon was unknowable, but treated it more as a standard maze than a completely randomly generated dungeon.

Kaiil caught up with the party at some point, and they encountered the Contract Devil in the Scrying Chamber. I knew that that, had Yodelhim been present (instead of being whisked back with the stone last session), he’d have certainly taken the deal, but I wasn’t entirely sure about the rest. As it turns out, Delanna barely hesitated, trading her soul for three wishes. She spent the first immediately on restoring some of her former glory (to be later detailed as her backstory unfolds), then pocketed the other two for later. It was a significant moment, because her actions very clearly sent the message to the rest of the party that she had plenty of secrets. I can’t reveal too much of the private details here (the party will sometimes read this blog), but she made some interesting strides with regards to advancing her character’s personal story.

After that, the party moved on, battling a few other creatures, before finally encountering the last chamber, where the stolen Demon Stone had been used as the centerpiece to a large iron gate, transforming it into a permanently-open portal back to Otharion. Here too, Kaiil found her mentor, Elder Erden, conspiring with the demons. As she surged forward and distracted them, she bought the party an opening to steal the stone and dive through the portal before it collapsed. They found themselves back on Otharion, in the deserted ruins of a palace courtyard, rather than the temple where they’d first made the journey. It took only a moment for Titanus to recognize the place as his long-fallen homeland.

There, we broke for the evening. Next time around I’ll run a solo session with Yodelhim, then we’ll return to see what surprises await the rest of the party!

PARTY STATUS:

Rested. Titanus is suffering from a diseased rat bite.

CURRENT THREADS:

  • Back on Otharion!
  • The Mysterious Tome – Found!
  • What secrets await them in the dead kingdom?

Adventure Log 3: The Infinite Bridge

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Just as you begin to get your bearings, the ground begins shuddering beneath you. Loud cracks echo in the air around you as the earth splits in several places, large stone spires rocketing from the fissures to loom against the blackness, that same faint luminescence highlighting their twisted, craggy shapes. The spires continue to burst forth on either side of your party, from a pair of rows that arc slightly towards each other at each end, methodically forming a circle around you. When the rumbling ceases, there’s only one small opening left—your only means of escape.

As you move towards it, the rumbling resumes, and the crack of the earth in that last open spot echos off of the twisted stone spires forming your prison. This fissure is larger than the others, and you soon see why—it’s not a spire rising from it, but a great, twisted throne, a thousand faces carved into its face, each in apparent agony. Something rests on the throne, but it’s difficult to make out the nature of the occupant; something about him—or her—seems to be hard to look at almost. Every time you try, you find yourself looking elsewhere instead, unable to remember what you saw.

The first part of our third session had the party still clearing goblins out of the temple ruins; they were able to surprise a large group of them in the central chamber, and took solid advantage of that surprise by nearly eliminating the goblin chief in a vicious opening attack. From there, it was essentially cleanup; once the rest of those creatures were mopped up, they had time to apply their first gained level (hooray!), and take stock of their surroundings. The room was dominated by a large dais framed by an archway; in the center of that dais was a notch perfectly sized for the staff they’d found. Stone in staff, staff in notch, and with that, the party took their first steps into the overarching story of the campaign.

They found themselves in the area described above; a sort of twisted arena overseen by a shadowy creature. That creature began attacking the party with minions, but they held their own better than most sacrifices. At some point during the combat, the staff, stuck in the ground in this new place, began flashing once more; only one member of the party took hold of it. The rest focused on the creatures they were fighting. The staff gave a final pulse of light, then vanished taking that party member with it–and stranding the rest in this new realm.

This is where things will get hairy. I’d designed the encounter under the assumption that the party as a whole would either move toward or away from the staff when it began blinking again; silly me, I hadn’t considered that only some (or one) of them might. As it stands, there’s no way for that party member to reunite with his company under current conditions; I’ll be operating with a split party for some time now. Still, since I had two complete adventure paths planned, it’ll be fine; I can just run them both.

At any rate, the rest of the party was saved from a series of ever-escalating encounters by the arrival of a new NPC–a tiefling sorceress by the name of Kaiil. She whisked them away from the arena via a teleportation spell, safely delivering them to the new city of Bane. Bane will be their new base of operations for this leg of their adventure; they’ll have to work on finding a new way home without the staff.

Yodelhim, our half-orc wizard, was the one who made it home; however, upon his arrival back in the temple, his head was hit with searing pain, and the shadowy creature whom the party had faced had an offer for him…time will tell if he accepts it.

Today was the first session where I got to use the new set of Pathfinder Pawns I’d ordered, and they really, really helped a lot. I’m extremely pleased with the purchase, and I’ll definitely be picking up more–especially since the party used a few monster pawns to denote themselves, lacking any other form of representation. I also plan on ordering more map tiles for future dungeons. For the map of Bane, I reached out to someone on Twitter and commissioned a map, giving him a basic description of the locale–and OH MAN, did he deliver. Because I didn’t need a copyright or anything, he posted it on his personal store at DriveThruRPG.com. It’s listed as “The Infernal City.” Check it out, kick a buck or two his way!

PARTY STATUS:

Healthy and rested.

CURRENT THREADS:

  • Stuck in the demon realm–find a way home!
  • The Mysterious Tome – Found!
  • Yodelhim Goes Solo!

Adventure Log 2: The Ruined Temple

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As you approach the site of the warren, you can tell why the goblins chose to roost here—the trees give way to a clearing dotted with the ruins of what must’ve once been some sort of temple. Stone walls jut up from the ground, and the remnants of what must have been a grand entrance stairway are lined with crumbling pillars. The sounds of the woods give way as you near it as well—there’s only the slight whisper of a breeze echoing through the empty stone.

The roof of the temple has long since given in, letting the flora and fauna in to reclaim the area. The stone of the floor is cracked and broken—in some cases, missing entirely—and near the center of the room, you can see what must be the goblins’ customary entrance—a hole in the ground about four feet in diameter and disappearing into blackness. You can tell that the ground slopes—you’ll be able to move down it, but the size of the entrance means you won’t be standing upright.

I never got around to writing the second of these! This bodes ill for the future.

Truth told the session didn’t hold a whole lot worth discussing; it was spent entirely inside of a dungeon (the above-named Ruined Temple). The players have not yet finished it at this point, so I can’t spoil the big secret of the place, but it’s essentially the jumping point for the party to begin the larger narrative. At this point, they have found the tome sought after by the stranger in Hammersgaard. They’ve also found a palm-sized blue stone that appears to be a sapphire; both were inside of a trapped room. The trap in question was not a terribly complex one, but it’s always fun to spring on new players: when they entered the room, both exits slammed shut, and they were simply stuck there until they figured out how to escape. Their weapons would not harm the doors, nor would any form of magic enable them. It took about fifteen minutes for them to figure it out, but finally the party’s cleric tried knocking on the door, and voila: Door opens, entire party slaps their foreheads for not thinking of it sooner.

That one never gets old. It’s the dad joke of traps.

Most of the dungeon has been fairly standard fare for a level one party; enter rooms, kill goblins. I’m lucky to have a fairly competent group of players despite their inexperience–they move slowly and carefully, and they’ve thus far been able to neutralize several potential cascading situations (IE taking out goblin sentries first, so that they can ambush the rest in smaller groups rather than wading through large melees). As it stands, they’ve cleared about two thirds of the dungeon, and have acquired just about all of the major items they’ll need moving forward–in a room very near their current position, they found an old wooden staff with a carved indent that’s the exact size of the blue stone from earlier. Being the curious adventurers they are, they naturally slapped that stone right into the staff without a moment’s hesitation. Nothing has happened with it–yet.

What the party doesn’t know, and what I can spoil without revealing too much, is that the staff and the stone both are relics of the long dead Cult of the Infinite Bridge, which once had its hooks in the vast majority of the continent. More on that in future sessions–in fact, I may make a few posts just on lore of the world as I reveal it to the players–since I’ve built the entire campaign world from scratch, it’d probably be a good idea to expand it. At any rate, the party is just about ready to breach the central chamber of the temple, and we chose to break there. Next session we’ll be leading off with that–boss fight, then next chapter, essentially.

On the mechanics side, the whiteboard solution is working pretty well, but I’ve decided I’d like to have some miniatures to work with, anyway. That search has been remarkably fruitless: It is apparently impossible to just buy a large set of miniatures. They’re either small blind packs or sold individually at absurd markups. Fortunately, I’ve discovered that Paizo sells Pathfinder pawns, which are basically just flat cardboard pieces with monsters printed on either side of them. Those come in packs of 300 for like 40 bucks, so SOLD.

PARTY STATUS:

Healthy, light wounds.

CURRENT THREADS:

  • Exterminate the Goblins – 2/3rds done
  • The Mysterious Tome – Found!
  • Rivalry with the Dames

Context and Choice: Why Crimson Peak Was Great

Last night, my wife and I went to see Crimson Peak. We were pretty excited about the movie from the start; it’s a Del Toro movie, which is enough to pique our interests right away, and listening to Tom Hiddleston talk about it on the Daily Show only interested me further. I’m a complete mark for gothic films. I didn’t get to see it opening weekend, but I did see a great many reactions, and that only made it more interesting. Was it the film as it exists that people were having trouble with, or the film that people thought existed, based on the choices made in the production of the film’s trailers?

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Now, having seen it, I’m struck by the way choice defines this movie. It’s true in the aforementioned ad campaign, the clear sign of marketing folks who have no idea how to advertise a romance film outside of the Nicholas Sparks template. It’s true from a metanarrative perspective; Del Toro’s usage of visuals, dividing sections of the movie with thematic color choices, the several instances where a given scene fades to black by zeroing in on a focal point first. It’s in the design of the ghosts; the focus on their grisly visuals not for simple shock value, but to convey important clues. It’s in the minor visual gag during the final act of each woman reaching for a bigger knife, undercutting the tension and drama only slightly and somehow engaging the viewer even more.

But it’s most true within the context of the film itself. Every action of the film’s lead lady, Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), defines the narrative of the world around her, in a way that is almost never true of this type of film. We’re treated to so many damsels, so many victims of events that transpire that Edith herself is a revelation; a young girl and a writer who knows, even early on, what she’s up against. When she’s rejected early on in the film, she makes the choice to type her manuscript instead, so that she is judged on the content of her work, and not her gender. From the start of the movie onward, she is haunted, quite literally, and even though she shrinks in fear from these apparitions, she never lets that fear control her. She remembers, she contextualizes the information she’s given, and she acts on it.

She is deceived, true; this is a thing that happens to her rather than by choice. But this even pivotal thing is not enough to define her ; merely her location (the visceral reaction she has to Allendale’s nickname is absolutely heart-wrenching). When she moves with her new husband and his sister, the Sharpes (Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain), it’s with the promise of the future, of taking the reins of something and filling it with new life. Even then, as she’s systematically manipulated and poisoned, she’s the agent of her own salvation; each haunting frightens her, as does her new sister-in-law, but she does not back down from the challenges and the mystery that they represent. She gathers clues like a true detective throughout the film; the letter, the key, the wax cylinders, and finally the gramophone. She unravels the truth alone, without assistance, relying only on her intelligence. When her doctor friend, Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) arrives late in the film to “save” her, he’s necessary only for a moment to prevent her immediate death. In that moment, he’s horribly wounded himself, and once again Edith must stand on her own. It’s something she does, as she’s proven herself to do throughout.

Crimson Peak is a movie defined by choices, and what makes it truly great is the way it lets its heroine make her own.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Seven

Over the course of this series, I’ve really given Hasbro a hard time. What I want to stress, though, is that I’m doing so because I like what Hasbro does. I like the product they do put out–I’ve bought virtually every Marvel Legend release this year despite the problems that I’ve stated with the line. But that doesn’t mean the problems shouldn’t be stated. The gender disparity issue is real, and it is a significant problem. It’s easy to be dismissive of it: “These are just toys!”

True, they are. That’s exactly why the issue’s important. These are the things that we’re subjecting our children to. These are the lessons we’re teaching them, without saying a word. The problem is in every aisle divide, every character choice, every design choice for those characters, but it is also not solely those things. It creates a system of rules for What Boys And Girls Should Do. It does so with symbols and shapes, with color choices, reinforcing stereotypes about what’s acceptable behavior, and it does so before they’re even able to articulate what they might personally want. It’s a complex, multifaceted problem with a simple summary: Toy Companies Need To Treat Women Better.

The IAmElemental figures.

The IAmElemental figures.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good examples–Mattel unveiled a new line aimed specifically at girls this NYCC, called DC Superhero Girls. The designs mirror the big-headed aesthetic of other lines, like Monster High or Brats, but feature more athletic designs and articulation on par with action figures traditionally marketed at boys. Elsewhere, enterprising mothers have formed their own company using a Kickstarter campaign and released the IAmElemental line, with specific themes that blend emotional intelligence with Super Sentai aesthetics; like DC’s variously colored Lanterns fused with the Power Rangers (or Captain Planet), only all of them are girls, and none of them look the way DC’s female Lantern characters look.

DC's Star Sapphire and Green Lantern. While the Star Sapphire designs have gotten better in recent years, they still operate on the concept of Love as a power being the province of women, and the Star Sapphire Corps is the only one in which women are the majority

DC’s Star Sapphire and Green Lantern. While the Star Sapphire designs have gotten better in recent years, they still operate on the concept of Love as a power being the province of women, and the Star Sapphire Corps is the only one in which women are the majority. Coincidentally, they’ve also never had their own book, unlike most of the other Lantern Corps.

The thing is, Hasbro is not one of those examples. Hasbro has continued marketing toys the same way, year in and year out, despite the changing attitudes in their customer base. I promised an overview of their upcoming 2016 product line, so let’s get into that. I’ve discussed already the upcoming Spider-Gwen figure; as is custom, Marvel Legends remains primarily divided into Spider-Man and Avengers series. Here’s the breakdown of announced figures so far:

The asterisk for Rogue is due to the fact that she's shown with an alternate Onslaught head, but announced as not yet slotted into a series.

The asterisk for Rogue is due to the fact that she’s shown with an alternate Onslaught head, but announced as not yet slotted into a series.

So far, that’s a 5:13 ratio, which is slightly better, although it’s still only about a third as many female characters being produced. If the Rogue figure is indeed included in the Onslaught series, that’ll be the first series since 2007 to include three female figures–and that 2007 series only counted on a technicality, as the Build-A-Figure was a female insectoid matriarch. It’s still not an especially promising look; two women for every six men to a series is incredibly unbalanced. Also of note is the presentation issue I mentioned in the last piece–of the five female characters presented, only one is a woman of color–the half-Dominican Beetle. She’s also the only one who remains entirely masked, without an alternate head. Three of the other four are white and blonde.

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Left to right: Sharon Carter, Beetle, Mockingbird, Rogue, and the as-yet-unpainted Gwen Stacy unmasked head.

Now, I know the Marvel character roster has a lot of these WASPy types. Similarly, I also know that they have plenty who fall outside that category, and that they’re actively working to improve this sort of thing. So why is Hasbro, as their licensed merchandising arm, not following suit? Why is Marvel, focused on improving representation as they seem to be, not ensuring that Hasbro does this? Beetle’s one example, but why is it so hard to produce a figure of a woman of color? Why is it even harder to do so when that woman is unmasked? Where is the Kamala Khan figure? Or America Chavez? Colleen Wing? Monet St. Croix? Faiza Hussain, wielder of Excalibur? Where is Monica Rambeau, the first female Captain Marvel? Or Tamara Devoux, Captain Universe?

Given that we’re not yet through 2015, it’s understandable that Hasbro likely has plenty more product to announce for the next year; I imagine the two currently announced series will both be out before the end of the first quarter of 2016. That said, I can’t help but be a little worried for the year’s prospects. Two women to a series is not enough. It’s not adequate, fair, or even accurate, and while it might be an improvement over years past, the measurement here isn’t relative to those years, but in how they’re serving the needs of their consumer base.

Hasbro needs to do better.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Six

First, a correction: I wrote last week that the new Black Widow figure came with three pieces differentiating it from the prior release; a new head, a new left hand, and a lower torso reused from the Maria Hill figure. I was, in fact, incorrect about the head. It’s the exact same sculpt as the alternate head for the prior Widow release, which means that the only actual new part on the entire figure is the left hand. I gave Hasbro too much credit.

That said, I wrote last week that I’d be talking about the line’s 2016 offerings in this post, and what the path of the future looks like. I’m actually saving that for next week, as this weekend is the New York Comic Con. I’m not sure whether Hasbro intends on announcing more product there, but if they do, saving the 2016 piece for next week makes a lot more sense, as I’ll then be able to include that information.

Right Hand, Meet Left Hand

I said earlier that I gave Hasbro too much credit, but in actuality, I’ve given them a hard time for what may not entirely be their fault. Sure, they have control over things like the above; what parts are made for each figure, when to reuse vs when to create a new sculpt, but when it comes to character selection, Marvel itself is involved. I don’t pretend to know the organizational chain which defines what characters are made and when, but I do know that Marvel has controlling input; permutations of this arrangement have existed for decades now. Mattel similarly has a master license for DC Comics toys, but still requires approval from DC for product they put out. It’s an obvious and thoughtful measure; Marvel has a necessity to protect their brand, and so of course they would want to approve whatever product another company puts out with their license.

The trouble with this, of course, is that Marvel as an entity is not always as sensitive to these issues as it could be. It does feel like they’re getting better, at least on their publishing front. There’s been a large push lately of heroines who are front and center, who get their own space, their own books, etcetera. Kelly Sue DeConnick’s take on Carol Danvers revitalized her character, and Jamie McKelvie’s design sense gave her the long-needed makeover she deserved. Sana Amanat, G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona then filled the Ms. Marvel-shaped hole in the character roster with a new creation: Kamala Khan, a 16 year old Pakistani-American turned Inhuman. Dan Slott’s Spider-Verse led to breakout hit Spider-Gwen, from an alternate universe where Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy’s roles were reversed. Gwen’s design was done by Robbi Rodriguez, and is a truly original tweak of the classic Spider-costume design.

Designs for the modern Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, and Spider-Gwen.

Designs for the modern Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, and Spider-Gwen.

Similarly, Kris Anka took the old Spider-Woman design, which could best be characterized as “body paint with a crotch arrow,” and turned it into something modern, fashionable and functional. What we’re left with is a wealth of new designs that are begging for more exposure.

Spider-Woman comparison

Left: Spider-Woman’s old costume apparently defied the laws of physics, both individually highlighting her breasts and her belly button. Right: Kris Anka’s newer, more functional design for the character.

The thing is, I know the Marvel offices aren’t that populated. Marvel editorial understands that these are changes that need to happen. The folks they answer to must also at least understand that these changes stand to earn them a decent amount of money as well. It’s widely reported that Ms. Marvel has been a huge digital hit for them, although numbers have not been released, and Spider-Gwen has also been immensely successful, earning a second #1, despite being born of a crossover, existing as a solo title for five issues, then heading into another crossover (because comics). So, if the money handlers understand that these pushes for representation and diversity enable them to handle more money, then why is that policy not applied to their other merchandizing lines?

There’s an argument to be made for turnaround; it may be possible that these figures are planned! The design, creation, production, and distribution of a toy takes more time than the process of a comic book, and it costs more too. Comics are able to recoup some of their print production costs in digital release; while those releases are typically cheaper over time, they’re generally the same price at release (some will cite the cost of server space and bandwidth fees, but I assure you as someone with an IT background that those are nothing compared to the cost of print production and distribution). A notable example of this is the Mattel production of Blackest Night figures for their DCUC line a full two years after that story occurred in the comics. Mattel claims that fans clamored for them while the story was ongoing, only to ignore them on shelves when they were released.

That turnaround argument falls flat though, in the face of details; first, it’s entirely possible to plan ahead of time. It can be risky, sure, but if the design process for figures is begun in advance of the character’s first appearance in fiction, then it’s possible to mitigate some of the delay time between that appearance and the existence of a figure in stores. The other risk of this is that, if design changes occur late in the character process (as they frequently do), the eventual figure may not accurately reflect the character.

The argument for turnaround falls especially flat in one specific instance, though: Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel. By all accounts a very successful book with a wide audience and a ton of reach, Ms. Marvel has still inspired almost zero merchandising, despite her initial appearance being in 2013 and an ongoing series that began in early 2014. By contrast, Spider-Gwen, the other recent breakout character, didn’t appear until late 2014, didn’t get a series until 2015. Guess which of those two characters is getting a figure in 2016?

Spider Gwen

The 2016 Marvel Legends Spider-Gwen figure. Now shown: This figure will feature an alternate, unmasked head.

If you guessed the blonde girl, you win a prize. It’s troubling because, in a situation where there already aren’t enough women being featured, the inclusion characters of color ends up even more of a secondary choice. This year, Hasbro released a Misty Knight figure. That figure is one of only two women of color to be released under the Marvel Legends banner in 2015–the other, White Tiger, is dressed head to toe, her ethnicity completely hidden. Now, as I said, NYCC is this coming weekend, and it’s possible that Hasbro may announce information that will render this point invalid (I really, really hope they do), but as it stands, in an industry where women, and women of color specifically, are sidelined, to see the way that carries down to merchandising is troubling.

There are, as of this writing, no women of color yet announced for 2016. Again, Ms. Marvel is a hugely popular character and title. People want more of her. So why has this not happened? Why is there no Colleen Wing to go along with Misty Knight? Why do masked women of color not get variant heads that show off their faces, as is planned for Spider-Gwen? Of the men of color that have appeared this past year, why first are there only three, and why are two of those the likenesses of actors? Why is the only other one a limited exclusive, away from general retail?

I feel like I’ve asked that last question before.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Five

I’ve put a lot of thought into how I’ve structured this series. I was worried, for instance, that three straight weeks of interviews along a similar subject line would feel too repetitive. In the end, though, I went with it, because I wanted to establish the impact of what I’m discussing. It’s easy to point at a line of figures and say, “more of those need to be women.” It’s a simple, casual, and even correct observation. However, it’s also ineffective.

The point of part one was to identify a current practice as it was occurring; that piece published the same day that the Rescue figure was announced. Parts two three, and four were even more important; they establish the impact of that practice. As I said, it’s easy to point at a line, but that pointing doesn’t establish why the change needs to happen. It needs to happen because it affects people. It affects grown women, who look at something like a Play Arts figure or a Bishoujo statue and see, both clearly and immediately, that their desires, their concerns, and their opinions were not considered. This is, arguably, worse than having those desires and opinions dismissed; dismissal at least requires the chance to raise those things first. No, in this situation, those things are not even on the table. It’s as though they’re not worthy of wasting an iota of thought on, and women get to see that on display every time they walk down those store aisles.

A final caveat: Like in the first four parts, I’ll be confining my explorations largely to the 6″ scale Marvel Legends line. While Hasbro has other offerings in many scales with many other franchises, I quite frankly only have the money to spend on one of them. Also, those other lines would only marginally skew the numbers I’m working with here–in many cases, they’re actually worse than Marvel Legends.

Case in point: This small-scale Avengers Vs. Ultron 9-pack went to great lengths to include a large number of characters, but still managed to not include either of the two women featured in the film, despite the fact that the majority of the characters chosen are easily available outside of this pack.

Case in point: This small-scale Avengers Vs. Ultron 9-pack went to great lengths to include a large number of characters, but still managed to not include either of the two women featured in the film, despite the fact that the majority of the characters chosen are easily available outside of this pack.

The Widow Parallel

I discussed in part one the way that Rescue was initially planned for retail release in 2013, only to finally be announced again two years later as an incentive bonus. The path of the Black Widow figure is not identical, but it is markedly similar. In 2012, The Avengers hit theaters. Hasbro, smartly, used the film as a springboard to restart the Marvel Legends line. The line had been having some trouble that ran pretty parallel with the overall economic troubles the US had been experiencing. Having licensed figures of a smash hit film was exactly what they needed, and so they released a six figure line: Captain America, Hawkeye, Hulk, Iron Man, Loki, and Thor.

You’ll note a character missing from that roster.

It’s worth noting that, despite the rarity of villains from the MCU getting figures, Loki got precedence over Black Widow (and this despite the fact that her best scene in the film consists of playing him like a fiddle). Going back over the timeline, Black Widow’s first MCU appearance was in 2010’s Iron Man 2, which means that she was a part of the franchise before Captain America, Thor and Hawkeye. Still—no figure.

In fact, Widow wouldn’t get a figure for her appearance in Avengers until—you guessed it—two years later. This figure came out as part of a series tied with Captain America: The Winter Soldier—what would be her third appearance in the franchise. Even then, that figure was primarily a Winter Soldier figure in terms of costume design—it just had an alternate head featuring her haircut from the Avengers film. Her release for Avengers: Age of Ultron, part of the oft-discussed Amazon Box Set: a retooled version of the earlier release. The only differences are a new head, a slightly retooled abdomen, and the left hand.

The new Age of Ultron figure on the left, the previous figure on the right. Green circles indicate changes.

The new Age of Ultron figure on the left, the previous figure on the right. Green circles indicate changes. Scowls indicate dissatisfaction with flash photography.

For contrast, Hasbro has released a six-inch figure of every single suit of armor that Tony Stark has worn onscreen in the MCU save only two: The Mark 7, which appeared in the climax of Avengers, and the Mark 45, which appeared in the climax of Age of Ultron. The only repaints in that run are the Mark 3 and the Mark 43, which were repaints of the iteration directly before them in the film as well. Captain America has had four figures (one for each film appearance), Hulk four (two from the Avengers movies, one Norton Hulk and one Banner). Black Widow, who changed costumes for each of her four appearances to date, has only had one costume appear in figure form, and furthermore as an afterthought in both appearances.

It’s what makes the #WeWantWidow campaign an even more egregious oversight on Hasbro’s part—they’ve literally already been called out on this exact subject. The reason Widow came with an Avengers-styled head for her Winter Soldier release was because of how glaring her absence was during that earlier film’s marketing. One such oversight might be considered an easy mistake. Two becomes more suspicious.

Of course, even then, it’s only two if you restrict this criteria to Black Widow only. When you look at the merchandising for the MCU as a whole, you’ll note that only three women have had the action figure treatment: Black Widow, S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Maria Hill, and Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy. That means: No Sif, no Jane Foster, no Pepper Potts (her upcoming Rescue figure is not an MCU version, remember), no Agent Carter, no Hope van Dyne, and no Scarlet Witch, despite what is again a very prominent role in Marvel’s biggest movie of the year. Furthermore, of the three that were made, Black Widow and Maria Hill share retooled versions of the same sculpt (the abdomen on the new Black Widow actually first appeared on the Maria Hill figure). While retooling and reuse is a long tradition in toylines, the decision to use the same sculpt a total of three times in a sub-line where there are only four female figures total is…questionable.

At any rate, that’s the parallel I mentioned earlier in the series–two female figures, sidelined and finally slated for release two years after the fact, while their male counterparts received multiple releases in the interim.

Hasbro’s 2015 Track Record

Now, I don’t want to ignore the progress that Hasbro has made in this regard. 2015 has been a banner year for the Marvel Legends line. This year they’ve put out over seventy three figures in the six-inch scale, up from 2014’s thirty-seven. Of those thirty-seven in 2014, only eight were female characters. To their credit, they’ve gone from being able to count their female characters per year on one’s fingers to releasing sixteen this year alone. Sixteen female characters in 2015, double the previous year’s! That’s great!

Until you start crunching the numbers. If you do, you’ll realize that, in this same year, they’ve released fifty seven male characters in the same toy line—more male characters than the entirety of releases for 2014—and that number climbs to sixty if you count interchangeable parts for some of those characters.

ML2015

A spreadsheet of Hasbro’s Marvel Legends releases for 2015.

That’s a ratio of more than seven-to-two, for those keeping track. For those keeping even more track, you’ll note that seven-to-two ratio applies to both years. That’s where the numbers really stand out: When doubling product for 2015, Hasbro doubled the numbers of male and female characters released almost exactly. Even so, it’s possible to chalk that up to coincidence–which is why I crunched the numbers on Marvel Legends for every year since Hasbro acquired the license. There was one year–2009–where the ratio is the same, and two where the ratios are better (one of those years had no general retail releases). Every other year has been worseThe ratio isn’t accidental. It’s deliberate.

And sure, with a number that high, we’ve gotten a lot of new, obscure characters out of that mix! However, we’ve also gotten:

  • Five Hank Pyms
  • Four Ant-Mans
  • Four Spider-Men
  • Four Iron Men
  • Three Hulks (or two and one Bruce Banner, if you want to split hairs)
  • Three Thors
  • Two Captains America
  • Two Groots
  • Two Hawkeyes
  • Two Daredevils
  • Two Ultrons
  • Two Visions

Again, to contrast: Of the sixteen female characters released in 2015, only three of them qualify (loosely) as duplicates: Spider-Woman, Ultimate Spider-Woman, and Spider-Girl are all separate characters who share similar monikers, as opposed to the list above, where we’re literally looking at duplicates of the same characters over and over. This point is actually good for the sake of female characters! Hasbro is at least releasing different characters, instead of the same couple over and over.

So—female characters are being made at a rate of two for every seven male characters. Not only are the male characters getting a massive precedence in the production rates, but several of those characters are getting multiple figures, when those slots could be budgeted for, say, a Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel, aka Marvel’s breakout hit of the last couple of years.

To highlight the glaring difference we’re talking about, let’s go back to Scarlet Witch. Scarlet Witch debuted alongside her brother in 1964 as an X-Men villain, then from there did a heel/face turn and joined the Avengers in 1965. Like Pepper Potts, this means that Scarlet Witch has been around for quite some time. She and her brother have been around long enough and are popular enough that they’ve appeared in both X-Men: Days of Future Past and Avengers: Age of Ultron despite those movies not sharing continuity. And yet—there is no action figure of Scarlet Witch’s film appearance (for Age of Ultron, she was a small child in Days of Future Past, so we can probably let that one slide). There is an action figure of her as she appears in comic books—sort of. That figure is the first Scarlet Witch figure in the Marvel Legends line in eleven years–and the previous one was from before Hasbro acquired the license.

Again: Five Hank Pyms, one year. Two Scarlet Witches, more than a decade and two different companies. This is what I mean when I say that Hasbro has a problem with women. As much as I’d like to believe that problem is getting better, it’s going to take more than two years of a slightly less dismal ratio in order to convince me.

Next week, I’ll tackle the topic of upcoming figures for 2016, and how these decisions are carrying into the future of the line.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Four

In part one of this series, I spoke first about the problems inherent in the decision to release a Pepper Potts Rescue figure as an online exclusive as opposed to its original slated mass release. Then, in parts two and three, I talked to both Claire Napier and El A. about their experiences in the toy market, and how the idea that there are “boy” toys and “girl” toys can be inherently destructive and marginalizing at a very young age. Today, my third and final interview is with Bailey Poland, author and collector, about her experiences.

I’d start with the question of whether you buy figures regularly, but in your case, I’ve seen (and been a little envious of) pictures of your collection. So I’ll start with: What got you started buying figures?

It is definitely a fairly regular habit with me. When I first started dating Gabe, who is now my husband, I had a couple of loose figures, but I was not actually engaged in collecting. He’s a lifelong collector, and he was sort of a guide as I got more seriously into it. Once I figured out what I wanted my focus to be on (loosely, “badass ladies”/Wonder Woman, and Star Wars) I took off from there.

You’re likely very aware of the outcry over Hasbro’s lack of Black Widow merchandise in conjunction with the Avengers: Age of Ultron release, yes?

Oh definitely – including their decision to place Cap in a toy version of a scene she starred in, and her absence on the DVD covers.

Are you aware of the upcoming release of a 6″ Widow figure as part of an Amazon box set?

I am! It would be nice if we could get a better ratio than 3:1 sometime on these. The set with Maria Hill was also 3:1. [1]

Marvel's Agents of SHIELD 3-Pack

Hasbro’s Marvel Legends: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D 3-Pack. Maria Hill is only the third female character from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to be released by Hasbro.

Pack ratio aside, do you see any other problems with that release?

She’s not as sexualized as some versions I’ve seen. I don’t love that it’s a nearly identical sculpt to the previous release, but that’s not uncommon for figures generally.

That’s true. What are your thoughts on the idea of only making her available as a box set, and furthermore as an online exclusive as opposed to a general retail release?

That’s also prohibitive – I had to buy the entire box set to get the Maria Hill figure, which was a big expense to end up with 3 other figures that are not being displayed. For people on a budget, having female characters limited in that way can really be a problem.

How do you feel about the representation of female characters in action figure form? As a collector with a specific focus, are you happy with the amount of offerings out there, or do you wish there was a better spread? Specifically in terms of release rates; every collector I know wants more of their favorite characters in general.

One of the reasons I settled on using Wonder Woman as a focal point is that she is one of the few female characters you can find fairly reliably. Overall, though, there is a massive dearth of female characters in pretty much every line of toys out there, and it is hugely frustrating. The LCS[2] I go to has probably between 15 and 20 male figures for each female figure, and that’s true of most toy stores as well. Part of that is a problem of the culture itself – male characters still dominate a lot of the stories that figures are coming from. However, a lot of female characters end up getting totally left out of the merchandise, which does not help. I’ve built up a pretty large collection of female characters, but that’s after 2 and a half years of serious work on it, which not everyone has the time or resources to do.

And yet the industry perception is that female characters don’t sell.

Yeah, that is another big problem. They devote fewer resources to the female figures, the ones that do get put out are often lower-quality and hyper-sexualized, and the culture itself still has a lot of gatekeeping to getting women into collecting, when we would be a massive market. Can you imagine how well a Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel figure would sell? They wouldn’t be able to keep it on the shelves.

Absolutely–the recent Carol-as-Captain figure flew off of the pegs. Have you ever felt uncomfortable buying figures?

I definitely have – there are a lot of assumptions about what I’m doing in a specific environment, what I know about what I’m doing, and what my interests are. I wrote about this some in my piece on why comic shops aren’t welcoming to women – all of that is also true in toy shops, especially given the large overlap between the two. There’s definitely sometimes the sense that I’m being perceived as an interloper, or that my interest is not genuine or not as strong as theirs, which leads to some aggression, some posturing. There are also always the guys who orbit in stores like that and try to hit on me or “helpfully” point out things I already know

Have you ever bought a figure of a female character just because it’s the only representation of that character, even if you were unhappy with the design?

Frequently, yeah. Kotobukiya makes some of the most incredible statues I’ve seen, and their Bishoujo line is no exception, but it also cannot be denied that those figures in particular are incredibly sexualized. I’ve heard every defense in the book for it, but it can’t be denied that the superheroines, for example, are powerful women who are being put into often uncharacteristic poses. That is done for a specific audience, and it isn’t inherently bad, BUT there is so little representation otherwise that if you want a Koto statue of many of those characters, that’s your only option. I have a ton of the Bishoujo figures, but I am always a little disappointed that I can’t just get the characters as they are. Ditto the Play Arts Kai Wonder Woman, Black Widow, etc. Really, really cool figures with about a million articulations, and all of them are unbelievably sexualized in ways that don’t feel true to the characters.

I also once had a couple of guys who were collectors harass me online for hours for pointing that out, so that is a bone of contention for a lot of people.

bishoujo

Kotobukiya Bishoujo Starfire, Mystique, and Spider-Woman.

I have definitely been personally embroiled in an argument over whether Kotobukiya figures are unnecessarily sexualized. It’s always fun when people fall back on the, “Well I don’t see it that way, therefore it’s not” defense.

People get super, super heated when it comes up. “I have a right to my opinion!” Yawn.

Do you think the type and level of representation that women and female characters have in toys, especially when combined with gendered marketing and the fact that the target demographic is often kids, contributes to the marginalization of women as those kids grow older?

Absolutely. I think it’s one of those things where media is part of a cycle – women are underrepresented, and represented in limited/limiting ways when they do appear. That affects who feels welcome in those environments, who remains interested, and where the market goes through time. That also becomes a self-perpetuating cycle, where there’s the assumption that women are just naturally uninterested, and therefore nothing about the status quo needs to be (or even can be) changed. Girls grasp from a very young age that they’re not welcome in certain spaces – by the time we get to adulthood, a lot of us have lost whatever interest we may have had at one point.

Had you heard about the Rescue figure before I mentioned it this morning?

I had not! I don’t follow the Iron Man figure releases very closely, so I missed that one.

Well, for background, it’s a figure of Pepper’s armor, and it’s announced as an exclusive for Marvel’s Digital Unlimited subscription for 2016. For more background, it was originally planned as a retail release in 2013, was molded and tooled, but never put into production. It just vanished. Hasbro put out a series of Iron Man figures that year that contained three versions of Iron Man and two of Iron Patriot, however.

I remember there being a massive glut of Iron Man figures for quite some time

It’s interesting to me that the release of this figure so closely mirrors the path of the Black Widow figure.

Yeah, there are some important parallels to draw there.

I’m trying to think of anything to say about that that we haven’t already covered…anything to add on your part?

I think we pretty much hit a lot of the big stuff. One of the key things for me is that even when collecting is frustrating or limited, it’s also still really fun and rewarding, and it’s something I wish a lot more women were into. It’s going to be an uphill battle to change the market to actually be welcoming to women, but getting women interested again will have to be a big part of that.

I’ve talked to a few folks, and the running theme seems to be: Better/less objectifying designs, better availability, and including women both in the design phase and marketing demographics.

Definitely. Having better diversity at all stages of the process will speed that change along immeasurably

Thank you so much for taking the time!

I think that it’s important to note the way that all three interviewees have answered these questions. I selected three of them only on the criteria that they’re generally a part of what’s considered “geek culture”–that’s a whole other thing–and yet their answers are almost uniform in the way that they’ve felt regarding the treatment of women.

I also spoke with the three of them because I’m not a woman. I don’t have these experiences. The collector toy market is, ostensibly, geared directly at me. By and large, my personal relationship to the issue is that characters I’d like to see get made don’t get made on the basis of their gender. I think it’s absurd, but as a man, there are plenty of characters out there for me to identify with. You’ve heard talk of privilege in various spaces of the internet, no doubt, but this is what it is in its essence; I’m considered a prime demographic, these women are not. The extension of that logic is that my expendable income is desired, and theirs is not. Take a moment to consider that concept. These companies are literally willing to cheat themselves out of money in the name of adhering to sexist standards.

Next week, I’ll discuss the parallels of Black Widow and Rescue, to which I’ve alluded in this interview, and also review Hasbro’s overall 2015 track record.

[1]The pack she references was actually a 2:1 male to female ratio. This does not change her point in the slightest, I only include the correction for the pedants out there.

[2]LCS = Local Comic Shop.

Hasbro’s Problem With Women: Part Three

Last time, I talked with Claire Napier about her experiences with buying figures, and what ultimately drove her to give up the hobby. I felt that was an important interview to lead with, because it underscores a big point in what I’m trying to say–these practices are literally driving customers away. This week, I’m speaking with El A. of Femmes In the Fridge, and also a large part of the #WeWantWidow campaign on Twitter around the time of the Avengers sequel–a campaign that spilled over into real life.

For those not familiar, #WeWantWidow centered squarely around the lack of merchandise featuring Black Widow, despite both her appearance in Avengers: Age of Ultron and the sheer abundance of products that came out in support of that movie. There were multiple toy lines put out by Hasbro, and while there were a few things featuring her likeness released, Widow was largely defined by her lack of presence in most of those lines. In fact, in the most egregious instance, Widow was actually replaced on two separate occasions in toys that were specifically referencing a scene she starred in. In fact, the most recognizable representation of the character in toy form only just came out yesterday, despite the fact that the movie released May 1st–over four months ago.

Two Quinjet toys depicting the motorcycle-ejection scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Black Widow is replaced for each toy by Iron Man and Captain America, respectively.

In the interview (and the next one after this), you’ll see me retread some of the ground I covered when speaking with Claire last week–both because I wanted to get differing perspectives on subject and because Claire herself raised some interesting points during that interview that I hadn’t yet considered.

Hello! We talked briefly about figures a few weeks ago–you gave me a wishlist of characters that you wish were being made. Incidentally, that inspired a lot of the thoughts that eventually led to this series, so thanks for that.

Yeah, I remember that! Glad it was helpful!

So, first question: Do you buy action figures regularly?

I probably don’t count as buying them ‘regularly’. I only buy entertaining figures (to me) and the female characters whose design I find empowering. So I have, eh, maybe 30 of them knocking around the house…if I could afford the bombshells I would have them all, natch…

How long have you been buying them for?

Hmm, If you count non-comic characters that I bought at places like Barnes and Noble & toy stores, since Pirates of the Caribbean 1, so 2003…if you just count figures from comic stores, since early 2012.

Does the lack of availability of female characters affect your purchasing habits?

100%, yeah. Availability and design of female character figures is a huge money-saver for me, essentially!

I’ll bet. Does the act buying figures of female characters ever make you feel uncomfortable?

No, though the act of NOT buying the ones that do exist (due to their design or what have you) does make me uncomfortable sometimes!

Can you expand on that?

Sure. I feel guilty because it is a common and legit observation that we must demonstrate that selling diverse-oriented figures, ESPECIALLY to women, is a winning proposition. The reason you often see regressive people say that “the best way to change things is to support the things that exist” is that is creates this guilt. It’s a good silencing tactic in that it makes sense on a surface level.

I feel guilty I own no Batgirl, Batwoman, Spiderwoman, etc figures, but that is being imposed ON me by that tactic, because the reality is that there are no figures FOR me out there of those characters, (except the bombshells) or I would WANT to own them.

Also, I KNOW Hasbro, Disney, Lego actively do not want my money or my active engagement with their products. That adds to the sense that I am doing it wrong; I bought a Captain Boomerang figure recently, because…well, I wanted to annoy my mum by displaying a silly man with a boomerang hat on my shelf where she would eventually see it!

But in so doing, I am effectively invading a space where I know I am unwanted, demanding accommodation from the company that doesn’t want me, and then supporting…making figures of dudes, for dudes. It just generally makes active participation in figure culture feel icky. When DC did that with its comics, I just didn’t buy THEIR comics; for figures, there is no real competitor, certainly not for licensed characters.

So you feel that the solution to the problem is not just to offer a better selection of female characters, but also to actively market to women; to include consideration for customers who are women in the design process, etc.
The solution is to remove the antiquated, self-reinforcing market ‘wisdom’ that women and girls are not viable consumers of toys. Gender-neutral design based on the number of comic readers would fix it. (Even based on the number of physical copy readers, aka the data consumers have access to, which are skewed against new, young and diverse readers, all of whom are far more present on the digital market)

Batgirl of Burnside, who, if accurately molded, would not be hyper-sexualized as a figure, is the second most stable, successful series DC is putting out. A gender-neutral toy market would have made her and released her long ago. Ditto Ms. Marvel, who is the most stable title Marvel sells digitally, and rock solid in physical sales as well.

But instead of targeting characters with the most readers, they target characters with the most male readers, so we have Spider-Woman as one of the Marvel characters I see most often, always in her old, outdatedly icky costume and posed boobs-first. Realistically, many geeky women can and do accept that version in figure form, just like they did in comic form, but that’s never going to be a big draw or a thing that creates new figure collectors among women geeks; we kinda prefer not to see ourselves as sexual objects first, people second.

Marketing to women actively would be swell, but just not deliberately marketing away from women would probably be adequate over time. @LetToysbeToys is huge on that.

I certainly felt that the release of the Spider-Woman figure in particular was especially tone-deaf, given that it occurred right when a new costume was being showcased for the character.

Yeah, that’s either terrible communication between companies or terrible choices by someone in those companies. Especially since the new Spider-Woman costume & art was effectively an apology for the Milo Manara No. 1 variant cover.

 

At the time of #WeWantWidow, Hasbro had a 6″ figure planned as part of an Amazon box set. That set will be available this month. Were you aware of those plans then, and how do you feel about that offering, in relation to the lack of other Widow merchandise?

The Amazon-Exclusive Age of Ultron set, featuring the 6" Black Widow figure.

The Amazon-Exclusive Age of Ultron set, featuring the 6″ Black Widow figure.

Yeah, I was aware of that one. I don’t know that I have any feelings about it? I guess I’m not sure what you mean.

Well, I’m not sure they could have changed their plans for the release anyway; I’m sure certain contracts and deals were signed for exclusivity, but I find it interesting that the one well-sculpted, well-articulated BW figure to hit the market is doing so not only as an exclusive, and not even as a general retail exclusive, but as an online-only offering. I was wondering specifically how you felt about that, and whether it poses a problem.

Oh. Yeah, that’s an ongoing trend. Another example is the only Pop Funko figure of the female Thor being exclusively available in the loot box from Secret Wars (a bit ironic, since she isn’t IN Secret Wars, but whatever..)

It means they don’t put them in their retail catalogs and use up shelf space on the ‘real’ characters, just like the playset that replaced Black Widow with Captain America for the motorcycle scene did.

It is exactly that marginalization of the female characters that perpetuates the notion they don’t sell. She was also in a bundle of already fairly pricey figures, which makes it less likely that mom and dad, having somehow discovered it exists, getting it for their kid, and ditto for the adult fans; $20 on a figure is one thing, but $80 to get the one woman character is a hefty price tag.

(Also, and I’m fine with how we all rallied behind Widow, go with what works, licensing issues may be involved as well, but…you can get AoU Bruce Banner in street clothes, but not Scarlet Witch…)

You highlighted an interesting point re: the marginalization of female characters. Do you think that those choices, combined with gendered marketing and the fact that kids are generally the target demographic for toys, contributes to the further marginalization of women as those children grow up?

Oh, sure. It does. Teaching little boys that they are different from little girls, privileging ‘their interests’ and setting them apart from what little girls supposedly want, cancelling shows because little girls just literally do not count in viewership assessments all help shape the culture that leads to pay inequality, men and women both seeing their counterparts as ‘the other’, does nothing to counteract the negativity society has about those who straddle that gender divide, and, above all, only giving little boys male hero toys, and only giving those little girls who cross into that ‘boy only’ space access to male hero toys is EXACTLY why some dudes grow up seeing geek culture as ‘their thing’ and get hella uncomfy about Lady Thor, etc.

It is training the next generations to grow up with the same privilege sets as the last; the male white people are the heroes, everyone else is on the margins.

The GOOD news is that, as little as I personally like them, shows like Stephen Universe are counteracting those notions while still remaining heavily watched by little boys. The BAD news is that those are not figure-ready properties, and even if they were, toy companies wouldn’t want to make them, since they don’t conform to the standard aesthetics.

It’s definitely a frustrating situation. Thank you again for speaking with me!

El runs the site Femmes In The Fridge, where she discusses comics, pop culture, and the importance of intersectionality in both. You can also find her Twitter at @FemmesinFridges.

Next week, I’ll be interviewing Bailey Poland, freelance writer and ardent collector in her own right.