Not nearly enough has been said recently about the lack of diversity in the offerings of toy companies. It’s an ongoing concern, perpetuated by outmoded views on gendered marketing and the so-called “correct” type of play for boys and girls. While views on this are, thankfully, beginning to change, most of that change is occurring at the store level, with parents who are making informed decisions about what their children can play with. This change has not, unfortunately, hit the level of cultural penetration necessary for toy manufacturers to change their approach in terms of character selection, character design, or marketing, so, it’s important that we keep discussing the subject.
In part one of this series, I wrote a little bit about the way that lack of proper representation can lead to girls–and grown women–being marginalized. This concept is as true in the toy market as it is in any medium; comics, video games, film, right through to non-entertainment-based occupations–recall the story from a few weeks ago of the first two women to graduate the U.S. Army’s Ranger training.
While writing that piece, I felt that it was not enough to simply speak about this subject; I wanted to ensure that it was given weight and proper consideration. To that end, during the writing process, I interviewed three women who have personally interacted with and been affected by this exact topic. One important note: I did not have to search for these women. I simply asked–the experience is a prevalent one. Because I conducted each interview separately, I’ll present them the same way, though each follows a similar thread. First, I spoke with Claire Napier, Features & Opinions Editor at Women Write About Comics, as well as a contributor at Comics Alliance.
Thanks for taking the time to help with this! I’d like to start with the basic: Do you buy action figures regularly?
Not for a long time now.
Okay–can I ask what got you both into and out of the hobby?
Into: I like STUFF. I like things, tangible things, and I like the environment-altering properties of art. An action figure is a sculpture, but you’re allowed to manipulate it.
Out: expense, dislike of buying environments, bad paint application, weird joint decisions, and ugly sculpts. Plus it’s hard to buy a girl without feeling like it’s a sexual transaction.
Can you explain the last in more detail?
On the one hand, way too many female-character sculpts are eroticised. And on the other, it’s hard for me to feel 100% cool about literal objectification when I’ve felt so bad about metaphorical objectification in real life.
Do you feel that improvement on the one hand would make the other less of an issue?
I mean, it definitely wouldn’t make it worse.
Given your perspective on literal and metaphorical objectification, what are your thoughts on the availability of female characters in action figure form? Do you think there should be more?
Keep in mind that my facts are out of date because I was so easily riled by the ratios and the sculpting details. but yes there should be more. More of each type, I mean; there are plenty of Barbies to match the Kens and the action men.
Would “more characters with less objectified designs” be an accurate synthesis of your stance?
Clothing and the semiotics of anatomy should be considered when designing and approving toys; I guess I’m not 100% clear on what you mean when you say “action figures”? I made an assumption that it’s 4-11″ moulded, jointed toys for action-based properties, without additional clothing (or with the occasional fabric accessory)?
That’s a pretty accurate definition, yeah. “Action figures” itself is a phrase that exists generally for marketing purposes–toy companies didn’t want to sell “dolls” to boys. The definition of them has evolved somewhat over time; they tend to be more articulated and have a greater range of motion than the traditional doll.
Which is so unfair. Like…posing. Is it, or is it not, vital to feminine modes of performance? It is! Frankly I’d have had and kept much more interest in Barbies if they could stand up on their own. But no. that’s for boys?
There’s an inherent lack of logic to that, it’s true. What are your thoughts on the idea that a lack of proper representation in toy aisles, especially combined with gendered marketing and directed at children, contributes to the marginalization of women as those children grow older?
I think it’s a perfectly reasonable assumption. I can’t see any reason to object to the notion at all.
Are you familiar with the outcry over Hasbro’s lack of Black Widow merchandising this summer?
At the time of that outcry, Hasbro had a 6″ Black Widow figure set for release as part of an Amazon exclusive box set that also features Thor, Hawkeye, Bruce Banner. That set is due out later this month. As an avid collector myself, I have a great many thoughts about the choices behind the release of this figure, to include both time and venue, but I’d like to hear your perspective on it. Do you feel that makes for an adequate response?
lol, no. Not in the least. The word is “exclusive,” which is…the opposite of “inclusive”, as well as meaning more expensive and hidden away. You can already get Thor and Hawkeye and Banner figures, I’m guessing? I’m also guessing she doesn’t come with a motorcycle.
Thor and Hawkeye, yes. You can certainly get Hulk figures, but this will be the first release of Banner in his civilian identity. And you’re correct: No motorcycle.
I don’t care the tiniest bit about Black Widow, in my own heart. I’m not interested in the character individually, and I don’t care to see the films in question. but it’s deeply frustrating to be confronted with disrespect and disempowerment, and to be so baldly denied care. It matters to girls to see women doing things, and to be able to align themselves with these women. Action figures help, and so does acknowledgement of worth; in the toy sales field, worth is defined by “presence to be sold”. If she’s not there, she doesn’t matter, and so it goes: neither do girls.
The human form of Banner is empowered by his comparison to Black Widow in her super heroic form. “Maybe he’s not the Hulk, but he’s an amazing scientist.” Black widow isn’t magic (count “magic” as whatever extra-human power, in this case), she’s just really good at stuff. Like Banner. But Banner is only present on the team because he’s the Hulk AS WELL; Black Widow is made a graciously-included, lesser extra, by this comparison.
One more question: Given the subjects we’ve covered, regarding your level of comfort with the hobby, representation, and availability, do you think you’d still be a collector if not for these exact problems?
Honestly, I don’t know. I don’t know if my interest has healed over naturally, or as a result of enforced separation. I’d be less mean about toys if not for these exact problems, though.
Toys could use a little meanness. Thank you again!
Claire has recently written heavily about gender portrayal in games as well; those articles are up at WWAC and well worth a read. You can also support WWAC’s Indiegogo campaign here.