The other day I came across this post on The Mary Sue: Invisible Women: Why Marvel’s Gamora and Black Widow Were Missing From Merchandise and What We Can Do About It, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
The general gist of the article is this: The reason why female representation has been lacking from Marvel merchandise, despite Marvel movies featuring female heroes, is because Disney did not buy Marvel to appeal to the female market. Disney already owns the “girl” market through their princess movies. Disney bought Marvel to appeal to the “boy” market.
As a geek girl, I am understandably perturbed that Disney is leaving us female fans of the out of the marketing for superhero films. I absolutely want to be able to buy Marvel merchandise featuring female heroes just as much as any fangirl. (And by that I don’t mean Marvel’s previous attempt to appeal to girls/women by marketing t-shirts that say things like “My boyfriend is a superhero.” You’ve got female superheroes, Marvel. We women want to be superheroes, not their arm candy.)
But I digress… The more I thought about it, the more I realized there’s a whole other can of worms lurking in the background of this conversation of “boy” market and “girl” market.
And that is the implicit assumption that boys only want merchandise that features, well, boys. Have you ever noticed that when it comes to that “princess” market, the princes never get left out of the merchandising? This is true even in Disney’s most recent princess blockbuster, Frozen, which earned praise for not being prince obsessed and featuring two sisters instead. However, if I want to buy an Anna doll, for example, I can just as easily buy a Kristoff one too. In fact, I can even purchase them as a set. I can also easily snag a t-shirt featuring both Anna and Kristoff.
Now, leaving aside the argument that most of these princess tales focus on a romance, and, thus, it only makes sense that the merchandise would feature both romantic partners (because frankly that’s a whole other rant – how 1950s is it to assume that women and girls are only interested in stories that involve somehow snagging a man?), why do we automatically assume boys don’t want a t-shirt that features the entire cast of Guardians of the Galaxy instead of one featuring only the males?
When discussing why there aren’t more female protagonists of movies and novels in general, I’ve often heard it said that females will read/watch stories starring either a male or female protagonist, but males will only read/watch ones with male leads. So, from a marketing perspective, perhaps it just makes more sense to feature male leads more often. After all, I know plenty of women who are big fans of Harry Potter, but would Ms. Rowling’s book series have taken off quite the way it did if Hermione Granger had been the lead?
Now, this isn’t actually my real point, however. Aside from finding it really annoying that movies that feature female leads are typically considered “chic flicks” or novels that feature women are “chic lit,” while a storyline with a male lead is just “a movie” or a just “a novel,” (or that the above examples are of ensemble casts, and we’re not really actually talking about female leads at all here, but just allowing them to be part of the “team”), my real purpose is to question why any of this is even the prevailing assumption in the first place.
Case in point: As my husband and I are putting together the nursery for our due-in-July baby boy, we are – naturally, being the superhero-loving geeks that we are – deciding to decorate it with superheroes. But it was actually my husband, and, surprisingly, not myself that suggested we needed to throw a few female superheroes in there with the males so that our son will be exposed to representations of both genders.
And there’s more: I know male collectors of action figures who like to buy the female ones as much as the male figures. (I have been told that this is because the females are rarer, and that whenever I see a female action figure I should snatch it up.) And while this makes sense from a collector’s perspective, it still stands that men aren’t limiting themselves to purchasing male merchandise that only features males. And… incidentally, I’ve also been told that the rarity of the female figures drives the prices up. (A Black Widow goes for around $40, while you can get a Captain America from the same collection for about $20 – half the price.) Which makes it more difficult for those men who do want to complete their entire collection to do so. (The husband is very upset he doesn’t yet have a complete Avengers collection.)
And further: Let’s address that discussion above that men only like storylines featuring men. When I was in graduate school, I presented a paper on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and was actually asked the question: “Do you think this is something only women watch or do men watch it too?” After thinking about that for only a moment, I realized that “no” – despite this being a series that features a female protagonist, I knew just as many men that had watched (and loved) Buffy as I did women. And lest we think Buffy is an exception, I also know quite a few fanboys who have seen all those (rather awful) superheroine movies that have been made in the past (i.e. Supergirl, Catwoman, Tomb Raider, and Electra). And I daresay that when DC finally releases Wonder Woman or Marvel puts out its Captain Marvel that there will be plenty of guys sitting in that audience.
So why then are we doing this to our boys? Why are we telling them that they should not want a t-shirt that has Gamora on it right next to the rest of her Guardians of the Galaxy team? Why are we telling them they should not want a t-shirt with Black Widow on it right next to the rest of her Avengers cast? And, even more importantly, why are we teaching our boys that the female members of the team don’t matter? That they are not, in fact, integral members of these teams, but expendable? No wonder we are still fighting for equal representation, still rallying feminist cries; it’s because we’re still teaching our boys that girls don’t matter. (Incidentally, I grew up in the ’80s with the original episodes of Star Wars, and I can remember Princess Leia always being there right next to Luke Skywalker. On t-shirts, on lunch boxes, on posters… Have we taken a step backward? Goodness, I hope not.)
So, just to be clear, I’m not necessarily talking about gender neutrality when it comes to toys. (Although isn’t it interesting that when I was a kid it was perfectly acceptable for me to play with my brother’s G.I. Joe’s but not so much for him to play with my Barbies, and I’m not sure that has changed at all…) But playing with dolls really isn’t the same thing as teaching our boys that they are not supposed to want merchandise that features any girls at all. (Even the G.I. Joe’s had Scarlett.) Or that they are not supposed to want a t-shirt that has a girl on it, a girl that is part of a team of both boys and girls. And, rather unfortunately, continuing to teach boys that the girls just don’t matter.
But they do matter. Where would the Rebel Alliance have been without Princess Leia? The Avengers movies without Black Widow? Or the Guardians of the Galaxy without Gamora? These aren’t just characters that are there as “window dressing,” as token nods to female representation. They are integral players in each of their respective storylines. And if we want to raise our boys to respect women not only as equals, but as their fellow Jedi in the war against the darkside, then we need to stop making the very basic (and false) assumption that boys won’t buy a t-shirt that has Gamora on it, fighting right alongside her male teammates.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments below.