Seriously, What Will It Take For Female Superheroes To Stop Being Excluded From Merchandising?!

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While superheroes battle fictional enemies in fictional universes, in the real world we are battling a different kind of enemy: the collective push-back and continual exclusion of female superhero from merchandising. Over the past few years there have been some viral stories about this issue, where the male characters from a film are expected to fill toy shelves, but female characters are notably absent.

We are still waiting to see a Black Widow doll hit stores, but frankly there are many moms of daughters who are annoyed at how long it is taking, so some of them have taken matters into their own hands. This brilliant mom from Australia has refurbished a whole range of Barbies and turned them into superhero dolls instead.

The Mary Sue pointed out that when it comes to Marvel and their parent company Disney specifically, their marketing strategies are all about selling to and perpetuating gendered consumer ideals.

“As girls have historically been Disney’s target market, and Disney has all that Princess merchandise, buying Marvel allowed Disney to take a two-pronged approach to merchandising: create two distinct types of merch, gendered; one for boys (male Marvel Superheroes) and one for girls (female Disney Princesses). With this approach, parents are encouraged to buy twice as many products and boys and girls are pressured to want products that fit with their socialized gender norm,” writes Laura Stoltzfus-Brown.

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She even concludes by saying we can’t wait for the top brass (i.e, policymakers, merch companies and studios) to take the lead and hope for a trickle down effect. Instead it is going to be grass roots efforts like the aforementioned mom from Australia to drive change in the market and demand different strategies from brands.

After ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ was released at Christmas, the lead character Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) became a major reason for celebrating that this iconic saga was now bringing some form of feminism into it’s storylines. In fact the very diverse cast, including black actor John Boyega who caused a major stir online by being the first Storm Trooper of color, is taking the brand in an exciting direction which is in turn igniting a whole new generation and demographic of fans, most notably women.

You’d think with the movie going gangbusters at the box office, making it the 3rd highest grossing release of all time worldwide behind ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’, it would be a no-brainer to include the main character in the merchandising line up, right? Wrong!

When confronted en masse by angry consumers, toy maker Hasbro put out a statement to the public saying she was excluded so as not to give away any “spoilers”. Cue the eye rolls…

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But as Forbes.com explains, the real reason was rather different, but similar to the Disney reasoning above.

“According to an anonymous insider familiar with the merchandise push surrounding Episode VII, toymakers were specifically directed to exclude Rey from their products because Star Wars toys are geared at boys and boys allegedly don’t like playing with female action-figures,” writes Erik Kain.

“We all knew before the movie came out that Rey was a major character in it and it isn’t exactly difficult to release toys that don’t contain spoilers,” he continued.

More recently, this issue came to light in regard to the third ‘Iron Man’ installment. The director Shane Black took part in an interview with Uproxx and admitted the villain, Aldrich Killian, was originally written as a female, but was subsequently changed. Why? It had to do with merchandising. Yep.

“We replaced a lot of things… Stéphanie Szostak’s character was bigger at one point and we reduced it. Rebecca Hall’s character was bigger at one point and we reduced it….There was an early draft of ‘Iron Man 3’ where we had an inkling of a problem. Which is that we had a female character who was the villain in the draft. We had finished the script and we were given a no-holds-barred memo saying that cannot stand and we’ve changed our minds because, after consulting, we’ve decided that toy won’t sell as well if it’s a female,” he said.

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The fact that they seriously thought before a movie was even released that a female character could not move merchandising is so incredibly sad. Of course it is all about the bottom line, we get that this is a money-making business at the end of the day. But when female-driven films such as ‘The Hunger Games’, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’, ‘Insurgent’, ‘Frozen’ and others are undeniable global box office hits, to what reason can these film and toy company execs legitimately cling to when they decide to exclude the very character that is the focus of the film?

Why aren’t young girls allowed to have villainous characters marketed toward them with the same intensity as Disney Princesses? These fixed gender norms seem to be angering fans more and more, and we are certainly glad a whole army of parents, young girls, and even media outlets are speaking out about this. Surely now that quite a few of these stories have gone viral we will see the end of this tragic trend?

In an interesting twist, there is one toy manufacturer that looks to jump on this and try to force change within the industry. Mattel, most famous for creating the most popular doll on the market (Barbie) is set to release a range of female superhero and film characters.

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They will be unveiling the range at San Diego Comic Con in July, but have already given details to the media about the characters that will be available. For $80 USD, fans will be able to purchase a Wonder Woman doll based on the character featured in the recent ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ film. Something important to note here, although the film was a major disappointment, Mattel still chose to release a Wonder Woman doll. Perhaps the major studios should be teaming up with them to better market to the female fans who are disappointed every time they don’t see a Rey or a Black Widow on the shelves.

Although we have published a number of articles questioning the way Barbie represents such a narrow ideal of beauty and womanhood to young girls, we admire that they are clearly listening to the voice of consumers and are making an effort to rectify the problem. Mattel isn’t just stopping at the Wonder Woman doll either. They are releasing a $75 She-Ra action figure, as well as a range of Ghostbuster figurines to commemorate the forthcoming female-reboot of the film.

This should not be an issue in 2016. We know that female-driven films sell. We know that there is a demand for female super hero films. But have studios and merchandising companies woken up to this fact yet? Actress Krysten Ritter who plays the superhero with a dark past in Marvel’s ‘Jessica Jones’ put it best in a recent interview with Stephen Colbert.

“Girls Can Sell Toys!” she said, and it’s about time we start seeing this put into action.

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