This morning, I watched Dr. Christopher Bell, a professor of media studies at the University of Colorado, ask an important question: why are the superhero girls in the movie theaters not present in stores?
It’s not like I didn’t know that superhero merchandising skews heavily towards males, but when you see it on display, when you hear the facts and figures, it’s honestly shocking. As Dr. Bell points out, not only are female superheros not represented, they are actually removed and replaced with male characters.
The video is a little old (it’s from a TEDx talk held in October 2015), so I decided to do a little research and see if this was still the case. After all, the gendering of toys has been a topic of much debate for a while now, and I figured maybe things have changed. So I went ahead and googled “childrens superhero toys.”
This is what I got:
These are the first results that are not ads. As you can see, the very first thing that comes up is a post from “Joys for Boys.” And look, I am all about boys having joy. Boys deserve joy. But the fact that is the first result, before stores that actually sell superhero toys, goes to show just how heavily gendered the media has made superheros. As you may well know, Google ranks results by popularity and by how well they connect with similar content, so this is pretty telling.
But just to be fair, I checked out the top two toy stores that came up to see what they were selling.
Of all the results on the first page (you can only see a small part here), only one of the toys featured a female character as prominently as it did the males.
Here’s Toys R Us’ Marvel section:
Hey, the very first toy is a girl! She’s being promoted by the site, sure, but hey! GwenPool is a great character too – because not only is she an awesome female hero holding her own in the Marvel Universe, but her outer appearance reflects a pink girly vibe that is often looked down upon in comic book culture (and let’s face it, the world in general). Sadly though, dear Gwen is alone – the rest of the page is dominated by male characters.
So yeah, not much of a difference in the last year and a half. Although in fairness, Disney specifically has introduced female superhero toys from its Marvel and Star Wars franchises. Hooray for progress!
For me personally, though, the problem is not with the representation of female characters in merchandising as much as it is with the notion that the qualities and interests we associate with girls are inherently beneath the qualities and interests we associate with boys. This is something that Dr. Bell addresses in the video, but there’s a link here that he doesn’t really expand on; namely, that part of the push for female superheros (in my view) is a result of that subconscious preference we as a society have for “boy things.”
We have gendered qualities like smart, strong, and just, and made it so that the women we see embodying those qualities most are women functioning in a male-dominated environment doing activities that have been long associated with males (all while remaining conventionally attractive). In many ways, that is a reflection of society at large, where many women often find themselves in male-dominated environments doing “guy stuff.” And in those situations, they have to prove that are just as smart and strong as men.
The thing though, is that yes. Yes absolutely, let women be superheros, kicking ass and taking names. Let them wear black on black on black, leather jackets, and high-thigh boots. Let them wear torn jeans and no makeup while they punch people through walls. Yes! I’m all about that stuff.
But I’m also about “girl stuff.” Let them wear dresses and cute shoes and makeup. Let them delegate the dirty work because they don’t want to break a nail. (It takes time to get your nails done properly! You wouldn’t want to ruin all that hard work either. And no, it’s not superficial to care about how you look – it’s human nature, as evidenced by the long aisles of male hair care and skincare products). And don’t roll your eyes at them or make fun of them. They’re kicking ass and taking names their own way, and they are just as smart and just as strong as men. They’re just as smart and just as strong as YOU.
This is what we should be teaching children, all children. You can like superheros and be cool, and you can like be princesses and be cool, too. You can like both! Because the qualities that make you a good person have no gender.