Mark Ruffalo and others have pointed out that Disney/Marvel hasn't merchandised Black Widow and Scarlet Witch action figures very hard. Adults and children alike will be left out in the cold if their favorite character is female. There are a few Black Widow and Scarlet Witch figures out there, but the lion's share of products features the male characters.
This has started a complicated discussion. Some people, who I'll call "Group A," aren't happy that Disney won't market Avengers to girls. Other people, who I'll call "Group B," are upset with Group A because they think Avengers is a boy's property, and they get defensive at the mention of "sexism." Still others, who I'll call "Group C," are upset that toys and apparel are divided by gender. In other words, Group A is upset that Disney won't cross gender lines in the spirit of equality, Group B is upset that Group A wants to cross its precious gender line, and Group C is upset that there even are gender lines. As a result, it's hard to have a productive discussion about this subject because lots of people are upset about different things. Does your head hurt? Good. I'm gonna whack it with a mallet now.
Consumer gender divisions exist so corporations can sell more of the same product to a narrower group of consumers and charge extra money because the product is now a "specialty" (Dove soap for "MEN," anybody?). Marketers aren't stupid; they've done their research and figured out what kinds of things boys vs. girls like, so they've packaged those select tastes and cranked it up to 11. Examining each group separately, we'll see that our ideas about gender don't actually come from ourselves, but from marketing strategies, and they only have power because we give them power.
Group A: Where's Natasha?
Mark Ruffalo is part of this camp. The current Avengers action figure combo packs don't include Black Widow or Scarlet Witch. To be fair, they don't include Nick Fury, Quicksilver, Falcon, or Vision either, but what bothers Group A the most is that Natasha isn't there. For anyone whose favorite Avenger is Black Widow, this is undoubtedly a bummer. Why aren't the toy makers pushing the female characters as much? Is it an intentional effort to exclude girls? Not exactly.
Disney doesn't see a need to appeal to girls with the Avengers. They have the Disney Princesses merchandise line for that. In fact, the Mouse acquired Marvel and Star Wars because they weren't making much money off of boys. Boys don't buy princess stuff, so the solution was to acquire superhero properties from Marvel and double down on action figures. Boardroom execs don't see products in terms of social equality. They only see bottom lines, and the bottom line for Avengers is that boys will pay out big time. While there are some girls who like it too, the decision-making suits are certain that it's not worth it. It costs money to market products, and the number of girls who like Avengers won't be enough to guarantee big profits and might even lead to losses. If it sounds cold, that's because it is. Disney doesn't want to change the world; it just wants to make money.
Group B: Go play with your girly toys, girly-girl!
Group B practices the politics of grievance more than the other two groups. They feel like they've got something precious: superhero comics, movies, toys, and all the hyper-macho, testosterone-charged goodness that comes along with them, including sexualized, passive female characters. When Group A says, "Hey, this should be changed to appeal more to women," Group B feels like the equality-police are coming to take away their precious and scrub their favorite properties clean of any offensive material. As a result, they get nasty on comment threads.
These are also the people who feel like boys should never play with "pink" toys. But all this does is reinforce the gender divisions that marketers have created. It's anathema for a boy to play with My Little Pony because he won't learn masculine behavior from that. He might learn (gasp) empathy as a way to solve problems rather than competition and aggression! The thinking then goes that if that happens, the other boys, who have been schooled properly, will eat him alive, and he'll never get ahead in life.
Perhaps. Or perhaps he'll learn to relate with people better and not have to rely on brutish aggression to always get his way and – who knows – make more friends? It's a hypothetical case, so it doesn't really prove anything except that Group B's argument about the consequences of crossing gender lines is equally as speculative and improvable.
This doesn't mean that Group B is wrong in thinking that certain kinds of entertainment will appeal to different genders. Disney Princesses have received fair criticism for encouraging girls to value wealth, beauty, and passivity, and comic books have received fair criticism for sexualizing women. But Disney Princesses legitimately appeal to most girls, and macho comics and video games appeal to most boys. Is it wrong for either of them to enjoy that material? That's the million dollar question. Group A says yes. Group B says no. They may never find a middle ground either, but that's a topic for another post.
Group C: Throw off the chains of your corporate masters!
Group C thinks toys shouldn't be gendered. They're right that gender marketing messes things up. Take an ordinary jump rope, a toy accepted by boys and girls. Now color it pink and put a picture of Sleeping Beauty on the handles. Girls will play with it while boys will say, "Eww, it's 'girly.'" A gender-neutral toy is now gendered towards girls.
That's how things go these days. Above I mentioned Dove soap for men. It isn't much different from "women's" soap, except for the packaging and maybe the smell. It still does the same thing, but it costs way more than gender-neutral soap. Group C thinks that if we continue to obey the gender guidelines that marketers set out for us, then Group A will never find the equality it wants. This isn't to say that Group C doesn't care about equality; they just approach it from a different angle.
Wouldn't it be awful if a little girl plays with a toy Hulk figure and engages in the same kind of play that boys do? No. It wouldn't. If a girl's favorite character is Black Widow, she's out of luck right now. But if the issue is just "my little girl can't participate in this because there aren't enough female action figures," then isn't this the opportunity we've been looking for to start carving out new gender behavior codes? The more we internalize corporate gender assignments, the more we allow ourselves to be defined by money-hungry suits who only want to arrange us into patterns that are most profitable to them. Corporations don't care about us; they only care about our money. Do they really care if a girl buys and plays with an Avenger's figure instead of a boy? No. Do they care if a boy likes to play with his sister's Easy Bake oven? Hell no. Their interest ends when the cash register closes. We're the only ones who care, but these rules that we play by were mostly set up by corporations. While gender lines have been around for decades defining how children behave and play, corporations have amplified them to make money from our insecurities.
Maybe it does say something about what Disney thinks of Black Widow by not merchandising her as much as the rest of the characters. Maybe it doesn't. Whether you call it a "doll" or an "action figure," it's just a toy for a child to play with. A girl's self-worth comes from what her family teachers her about herself, not whether or not her gender is reflected in a superhero toy.