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. 
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 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.
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.
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.
LCS = Local Comic Shop.