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