ByKit Simpson Browne, writer at
Writer-at-large. Bad jokes aplenty. Can be gently prodded on Twitter at @kitsb1
Kit Simpson Browne

Now, when it comes to entrenched sexism, it can sometimes feel as though there's not a whole lot one person can do about it - it is, after all, so firmly rooted in some parts of our society that it can seem near permanent.

As it turns out, though, those roots are often only as deep as we think they are - and are kept strong and embedded through the inaction of everyone experiencing them.

The perfect example of that? Merchandising.

For many of us, the giant piles of merchandise that surround pretty much every movie or TV release nowadays may seem like a pretty gender-neutral example of consumer capitalism - after all, no self-respecting toy company would mind what gender their customers are, just so long as they're buying their products.

For millions of little girls like 7-year-old Olivia Basil, though - as well as anyone paying close attention - the toys that are being produced create a fundamental problem:

Female Characters are Woefully Under-Represented in Most Geeky Toy-Lines

That under-representation means that if, like Olivia, you happen to be a little girl who likes awesomely geeky things like Star Wars or superheroes, you're going to have trouble finding any of your favorite female heroes in toy-form or on licensed products.

Not only are science fiction and superhero-themed toys typically placed in the 'boys' section of toy stores - which, in itself, is a pretty ridiculous way to divide a store - but they're routinely covered in images of male characters at the expense of female ones.

The strange thing?

This Under-Representation Happens Even With Shows and Movies Featuring Bad-Ass Female Characters

Like for instance, Star Wars Rebels, a particular favorite of Olivia's. As she told The Daily Dot:

“I love watching Rebels with my family—I can’t wait for a new one to come out. My favorite characters are Ezra, Sabine, Kanan and Hera. Sabine is super cool—I love how she does art just like me and is also really smart—she knows how to explode things—like when she made the fireworks go off on Empire Day and distracted the Imperials!"

Now, there's been a lot of criticism over the years of the Star Wars universe's notable lack of female characters who aren't primarily the love interest of the leading men - much of it very much deserved - but Star Wars Rebels has so far done a lot to show how far the franchise has come, with the distinctly awesome and non-romantically-sidelined Hera and Sabine kicking ass in an entirely non-gender-specific manner.

And yet, as Olivia's mother Catherine found when she visited the Disney Store, the show's merchandising features barely a glimpse of either character.

Star Wars Rebels pajamas, for instance, feature four male heroes, the main male villain, and two stormtroopers - and omit the two main female leads.

In fact, even when Hera and Sabine do appear, they very rarely do so together - and when Sabine does make an appearance, she's almost always to be found wearing her distinctly androgynous Mandalorian battle armor:

The big, million dollar question, then?

Why Does This Happen?

After all, it's by no means a problem limited to Star Wars - which, on the creative side, is doing more than most to promote the positive representation of female characters in its films and series.

The problem, it seems, lies either with what companies believe we all want to buy - or, perhaps, with what we all actually do buy.

The fact that Star Wars and superhero toys are routinely placed in the 'boys' section of toy stores? That has a whole lot to do with deeply ingrained - and increasingly inaccurate - idea about what sort of toys boys and girls want to play with. For many, the idea that a girl would want to play with a Star Wars Lego set, or an Iron Man action figure, is as difficult to believe as the idea that a boy would want to play with a Barbie doll, or a My Little Pony toy.

Now, for millions of kids, that old-fashioned limiting of what they can and can't like has been washed away by a bad-ass combination of awesome toys and open-minded, forward-thinking parents, but it often seems that some companies - and a whole lot of people - haven't caught up to the progress happening all around them.

Y'see, despite decades of it having been loved by millions of men and women alike...

A Whole Lot of People Don't Understand Girls Liking Star Wars

That's why Olivia has had female classmates tell her that Star Wars is for boys, why many parents won't let their sons play with Barbies, or their daughters play with G.I. Joe's, and why toy stores routinely place universally awesome stuff like Star Wars and superhero toys in their 'boys' section.

Now, odds are that most of those store-owners, parents and little kids are completely unaware that they're re-enforcing gender stereotypes, or that they're inadvertently limiting other people's experience of life.

Similarly, I'd be surprised to discover that Disney, Marvel, DC, or any other producer of bad-ass, highly-marketable female characters, would ever consciously want only one gender to buy their products. Aside from the principle of the thing, it simply wouldn't make good business sense.

Instead, then...

It Seems Like a Whole Lot of People Don't Realize There's a Problem


Like, for instance, Hasbro's recent response to this question from Jedi Temple Archives at the New York Toy Fair...

"Where are the action figures for the female characters from Rebels, like Hera, Sabine, or Maketh Tua? Male characters like Ezra and Kanan have been released multiple times already in many formats and scales, yet the best we've seen on shelves so far is a single Sabine with a non-removable helmet and a yet-to-be-released Hera, both of whom are packed with re-released Stormtroopers. Female characters have always played an integral role in the Star Wars saga, from Leia in the original trilogy to Padme in the prequels to Ahsoka and Asaaj in The Clone Wars and have always been among the first characters released in figure form, yet for this new chapter in the Saga, they've barely been a blip on the radar."

...with this answer...

"Hasbro feels they have released plenty of female characters in the line."

Now, in fairness, Hasbro later asked to refine its answer...

"Hasbro actually has some great new characters from Rebels hitting shelves now such as Sabine and Hera and have recently been releasing more females within our Black Series and Saga Legends line such as Mara Jade, Toryn Farr, Bastila Shan, Luminara Unduli, Padma Amidala (Geonosis), and a number of great Leia’s such as Ep IV, Endor, and the awesome Boushh disguise that was revealed at NYCC."

...but by then it was already pretty clear that the company - or at least the representative answering the question - was worryingly out of touch with the central problem at hand: that women are consistently under-represented in merchandising.

Is There an Even More Serious Problem, Though?

Is it possible, for instance, that many of these companies aren't under-representing women because of inattention and societal blindness, but because they genuinely think that by putting women front and center it'll hurt their sales?

As Catherine Basil puts it:

“If the characters are good enough to be in the show, why are they not good enough to be on clothing items?...It’s preposterous and the only reason I can think of, is that the marketers believe sales will be hurt by including the females. As the mom of a son, I find that insulting too. He loves his sister and sees her as a creative, interesting, brave girl.”

Which is an intriguing - and concerning - thought, and one that many companies could certainly do with spending a whole lot more time thinking about - and addressing.

Ultimately, though, whether it's the result of ideology or inaction, the end result is the same: young consumers lose out, by being discouraged from buying awesome stuff featuring their favorite heroes, and companies lose out, by not having their custom.

As Olivia herself said, when told about the female-hero-less pajamas:

"That’s ridiculous! What a bunch of dummies!...Some girls like ‘boy' things and some boys like ‘girl’ things, it doesn't matter!"

Damned straight.

What do you think, though? What other ways are women being under-represented in geek-dom - and what can we do about it?

via The Daily Dot


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