Let’s discuss this. Take a moment and read it. I’ll patiently seethe in anger over here.
The #WheresRey hubbub has been going on for a couple of months now, and before her, it was Black Widow, Gamora, Wonder Woman –basically any female character in an action or superhero movie…dare I say it? A “boy” movie.
But we need to talk about this again today because –if the insider described in the linked article is telling the truth, and I’ll be honest with you, I think the insider was telling the truth – it actually confirms that the exclusion of these characters was deliberate.
It would have been bad enough if this was done through ignorance. If, completely unrelated to the character’s sex/gender, toy companies were somehow convinced that nobody was going to care about Rey, because…I don’t know. Heroes are boring? This argument makes little sense in our chosen-one/superhero obsessed era, but stay with me here, I’m trying. The point is, if it was a one-time thing that was done in ignorance, then the mistake could be pointed out, and we could move on.
But this wasn’t a one-time thing that was done in ignorance. It was deliberate. And, it is completely unacceptable that it was deliberate.
I know that there are Rey toys now. The outcry has worked, in this case. But, we need to be seriously discussing the impact that this type of attitude has on us, and how we can change it.
- “No boy wants…a product with a female character on it” is wrong.
I work with kids, and trust me: preschoolers do not really care about toy gender. I regularly see boys play with dolls or dress up as princesses. My friends’ son unabashedly loves Anna and Elsa, every bit as much as he loves Thor and Loki (which is obviously because those movies are exactly the same, but I’ll go back to beating that drum another day). These little boys are not rare, and they are not new. Very young boys of other generations owned She-Ra figurines, played dress-up, watched Disney movies…having a Y chromosome does not appear to predispose you to disregard certain activities, characters, or toys, just because there is a female involved.
2. “No boy wants…a product with a female character on it” is dangerous.
There is a moment, though, when it can all come crashing down. A parent, teacher, or even another child, utters “Boys don’t play with that,” or “Ew, that’s for girls!” and you can see that little boy frown and think about it…and thus begins the process of actively training little boys to grow up into executives who would think little boys don’t want products with female characters on them. What a horrid self-fulfilling prophecy.
This pernicious gendering discourages boys from certain types of imaginative play, specifically the type that helps them identify with others, and it often comes hand in hand with pushing boys towards things that link masculinity with lack of emotion and/or violence. At the same time, it creates and reinforces the idea of the ‘female is other/lesser.’ In combination, these attitudes have hugely destructive ramifications for all genders.
3. Dear LucasFilm, Hasbro, etc, etc…Girls play with these toys too.
The statement that boys don’t want products with female characters contains the implicature that boys are the only ones who will play with these toys. It’s hard to know where to begin discussing how incorrect this is. One only needs to look at #WheresRey to see example after example of little girls dressed as Rey, parents of little girls who are looking for Rey toys, little girls who have written letters to toy companies asking them why there are no Black Widow dolls…
By deliberately excluding certain types of female characters (e.g. the ones from “boy movies”), companies send the message that these types of female characters don’t matter –you might be surprised just how easily children pick up on that message.
4. Playtime matters
I have seen a lot of people online asking “Why does this matter? Don’t we have more important things to worry about than toys? You got a female character in Star Wars, so stop complaining!”
But toys do matter. When children engage in imaginative fantasy play, either with a doll or by acting out a character, this is more than just for fun. It is part of their development of personal and social identity. Children use characters as a proxy for themselves in exploring alternatives, problem solving, and skill-learning, all during unstructured play. They also develop relationships with characters as a proxy for their relationships with other children.
So yes, children need characters/toys who they can identify with. They need to see characters who share their gender, race, and ethnicity, and they need physical representations of these characters to play with. When these toys are missing, children can easily feel they are strange/unusual. And, when characters who do share their gender/ethnicity/race are excluded from specific roles (e.g. Jedi), it needlessly limits the child’s view of what roles they can play.
Children also need characters/toys who help them identify with others. This means they need to see characters who do not share their gender, race, and ethnicity, and they need physical representations of these characters to play with. When these toys are missing, it can engender the idea that other ‘types’ of characters (people) are less valuable. It reinforces privilege. It decreases empathy/sympathy.
So, yes, I know there are other things to worry about, too. But actually, characters in movies, and toys based on them, REALLY DO MATTER. And it is NOT okay that movie studies/toy companies are collaborating to perpetuate unhealthy gender stereotypes, and it IS okay to complain about it. It is also okay to do something about it, by making an effort to minimize the gender stereotyping we engage in with children (and all the time…), to challenge it when other people engage in gender stereotyping with our children, and to challenge misconceptions about the marketability of female characters/toys, as well as characters/toys based on POC, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities…
There are a lot of other things we need to do too, but I’ve been angry enough for one day, and if I want to stay on the Light Side, I need to go do some meditation (this will not happen), eat a pizza (this will happen), and have a beer (this will possibly happen twice).