The Changing Role of Women in Action Figures

Superhero is a gender-neutral term, but when it comes to action figures, the muscular men have more representation than the fierce females. But maybe, not for long.

According to Jason Bainbridge, author of the article Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, Hasbro introduced its G.I. Joe figures—which were marketed toward boys as a “tie-in” to the franchise—in the 1960s. Today, action figures are still mainly marketed toward boys, while dolls are primarily marketed toward girls, with the two play categories in completely different aisles at big box retail stores.

“Action figures were designed for boys, but were not necessarily explicitly marketed to boys in the way they are today,” says sociologist Elizabeth Sweet during a phone interview. “It’s challenging today when manufacturers and retailers categorize [action figures] as being for boys.” Sweet also mentioned that certain stores organize their toy aisles in ways that prove that action figures lean more toward boys. For example, at Target retail locations, as soon as you walk into an aisle for girls, you are met with splashes of pink packaging, long lines of rosy-cheeked dolls, and sparkly dress up accessories. A few aisles down, however, are rows of black and blue packaging, lineups of costumed heroes, and shelved stocked with aggressive blasters.

Most action figures are based on movie, TV, or comic book characters, but since they are marketed toward boys, some companies have excluded popular female characters, instead focusing on the male leads. For example, when Avengers: Age of Ultron released in theaters, the film prominently featured Black Widow, but the heroine was missing from Hasbro’s toy line. Consumers took to social media to express their concern and desire for more female representation in Marvel superhero toys. Hasbro corrected the issue a year later when the Captain America: Civil War toy line hit shelves, which featured multiple Black Widow figures.

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Now, female superheroes are taking center stage in entertainment, sparking a change in their role in the toy aisle. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: Rogue One, and DC Entertainment’s Supergirl and Wonder Woman, all feature powerful female leads. With major changes happening on the big and little screens, there is a new demand for female action figures.

When Star Wars: The Force Awakens released last year, lead character Rey was noticeably absent from Hasbro’s toy line, sparking a #WheresRey movement on social media. Hundreds of Twitter users tweeted about Hasbro’s decision to exclude Rey from the Star Wars toy spread. In response to the backlash, Hasbro stated, “The first wave of Star Wars: The Force Awakens products were released in September, months before the film’s release. Rey was not originally included to avoid revealing a key plot line that she takes on Kylo Ren and joins the Rebel Alliance.”

This year, Hasbro released more Rey figures and role-play items, including a Nerf version of her blaster. According to an article in Time magazine, the inclusion of Rey into consumer products would lead both girls and boys to understand that women are just as strong as men. Hasbro does believe that strong female characters are necessary to children’s play experience: “Strong female characters like Rey are an important part of the franchise, and Hasbro will continue to create and distribute products that highlight these crucial and iconic characters.”  The company also says it will add more females to its action figure line this year and next year, including Lady Deadpool, Ms. Marvel, Nico, X-23 Wolverine, Dazzler, Polaris, and Angela.  These changes and additions are in direct response to consumer feedback.

In 2014, Julie Kerwin and Dawn Nadeau launched a Kickstarter campaign for an action figure line featuring strong, powerful women. Kerwin had the idea to create female action figures with healthy, realistic body types, unlike any female action figures on the market at the time. She also wanted to change the conversation regarding both the hyper-sexualization of female action figures and dolls, as well as the way that girls internalize messages of self-confidence and empowerment through play. Thus, IAmElemental was born.

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IAmElemental is a line of female action figures that is targeted toward girls, but is boy inclusive. Each figure is uniquely designed, and each series is inspired by the strength of historic women. The first series, Courage, was based on Joan of Arc, while the second, Wisdom, is based on Hypatia. Each figure has her own “element,” which highlights her greatest strengths. For example, Bravery “does not run from a challenge,” while Industry is a hard worker. Despite marketing the figures toward girls, Kerwin says, “the fact that they appeal to girls and women, boys and men in equal measure means that our message has a better chance of effecting real change.” Similarly, Sweet says she “does not want to see female characters targeted only to girls, but more diversity in the gender category.”

IAmElemental figures go beyond the basics of action figures. The line was made to tell a story about empowerment and change, according to Kerwin. “We are marketing a message about character and empowerment. As we like to say: It’s character, not characters. We think that kids are far more capable of understanding the idea of power and character than most grown-ups realize,” says Kerwin.

With IAmElemental on the market, along with other new superhero toys including Mattel’s DC Super Hero Girls, female action figures are becoming increasingly popular—a trend that is expected to continue.

There are many upcoming comic books, TV series, and films, such as Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, that will pave the way for even more female characters to be made into action figures. As proven, the power for more progressive toy lines lies with the true superheroes of society: parents.

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