He Said, She Said: Toy Time
by Michelle Erica Green and Steve Johnson

Better Boxes for Boys and Girls


A reader suggested to Steve and myself that we write a column about the outrageous assumptions made by the action figure and toy industries about what constitutes appropriate or marketable toys for boys and girls. Since my colleagues Steve and Chris are veritable action figure aficionados, whereas I am merely a casual collector of Star Trek Playmates toys, I feel like a dilettante taking guesses about the way the industry operates. However, one does not have to be a scratchbuilder to notice the major differences between boy and girl toys, namely:

"Action figures" come with guns, scientific equipment, and practical shoes. "Dolls" come with fashion accessories, recreational equipment, and high heels...well, not the boy dolls, but no self-respecting action figure would be caught dead in the kind of shoes worn by Earring Magic Ken. Those trends have crossed over into film and movie tie-ins to the extent that Disney's heroines all come with brushable hair and removable clothing, even the tough chicks like Jasmine from Aladdin and the new Mulan. Think any boys over the age of five bought that Hercules set where you can put Hercules and Meg romantically in a garden setting?

OK, that's not that big a deal. Truth be told, I was a little bummed that the 9" Janeway action figure didn't come with "real" hair, but my five-year-old son would have lost the comb when he took her and her phaser to play with. There's no escaping the fact that boys and girls do play with different toys much of the time: I believe that has more to do with cultural expectations reinforced from a very young age than with any innate "Monster Truck Madness" genes or "E-Z Bake Oven" genes, but I don't think it's a problem if Mattel wants to make heroines who wear earrings and heroes who fly Stealth planes. The problem is that those are all they make, and market, without seeming to notice the irony of creating "futuristic" toys that reinforce the same old stereotypes.

I'm not going to complain about the lack of spears and swords among female toys: there are too many spears and swords in kids' toys in general, if you ask me...of course, one could argue that many action figures are not really kids' toys at all, but that's a discussion for another column. I just want to know why we can't get a few more Princess Leias with weapons - the one with long hair does not have one - and why we can only get Xenas with spears or archery sets, though Hercules comes with chain-breaking strength, iron fighting maces, and all kinds of other nifty equipment (I've lost track of how many different Hercules are made, but there are at least five). And how come none of the female heroes fit into the Jeeps, shuttles, or most of the fun equipment for exploration and research? They didn't even make action figures for the babes in Lost in Space.

I don't know whether to blame the toy companies, the production companies, or the traditional-minded American consumer for these problems. Most of my gripes with Playmates toys stem from problems with Star Trek which the action figures merely reflect. Female figures are as likely to come with phasers, rifles, and scientific equipment as are males; Professor Data comes with a tea set, while B'Elanna Torres comes with engineering equipment. It's not Playmates' fault that the show put Kira in a catsuit which her action figure echoes. It is Playmates' fault that the first set ever of Trek figures did not include a Dr. Crusher, and did include a Counselor Troi in a purple bodysuit with no phaser. But if Troi hadn't sold, who knows whether we would have gotten Pulaski and Lwaxana Troi and the rest of the women later on?

If toy stores are any indication, the old gender roles of the '50s are still alive and well - women who aspire to beauty and leisure, men who aspire to heroic deeds and physical prowess. This is not a message I want to convey to my sons, though I doubt getting them to play with a Delenn action figure will solve the problem. But I really don't want them to believe that the ultimate proof of their masculinity is a date with Dream Dress Barbie...and we're still telling little girls that that's who they should aspire to be.

Steve, Chris: next time you start designing make-your-own-action-figures, do you think you could make me a heroine who comes with lots of interesting scientific and literary materials, can defend herself when necessary but doesn't carry a gun, has a realistic body which she's comfortable with, and talks about the environment and music and the internet when you pull the little string at the back of her neck? I'd appreciate it.


Well, there are always exceptions: there are some nifty heroines in the X-Men toy line, for example; but by and large I have to agree with Michelle. Female action figures are boring, not because they have to be but because they seem to be made with much less care and forethought than the male toys.

I don't happen to think Counselor Troi should ever be given a phaser, so the lack of one for her toy isn't a problem. Putting her in a purple bathing suit, on the other hand, would only make sense if she spent most of her time lounging around in one on the show. Next Gen didn't go there; it was up to Voyager (and DS9, although there is a perfectly valid scientific argument for skintight spacesuits) to chart that particular seamy corner of Where No One Has Gone Before.

Basically, here's the problem: if anyone, guy, girl or sentient software entity, wants to play dress-up with his/her/its toys, there's Barbies aplenty. And there are also GI Joe and his variants, who are male dress-up and shopping toys loaded with accessories. But if you want to play danger, excitement, adventure and so on with your toys, the female toys lack a certain zing - they don't tend to have action features like kicking and punching, they tend to have less imaginative accessories, and (this is something not often commented on) they don't come in very interesting poses. Look at Cyclops, for example: most Cyclops toys are either standing resolutely or straining mightily, as are Superman toys. Then look at Storm: she's just standing there. Or the Huntress from Total Justice: she's pointing a crossbow. Fine, but the Hawkman from the same line, though just standing there, is molded into such a tautly coiled pose that he looks like he's about to explode into action.

And why is so much more attention lavished on the male heroes? Because toy marketers believe, rightly or wrongly, that most of their customers for "action" toys are boys, and that most boys will want Superman, not Wonder Woman.

The success of X-Men and other equal-time-for-women shows proves that, at least partially, the toy biz is mistaken. But at this year's Toy Fair, the toy industry's national trade show, there were still clearly defined sections: Boy Toys over here, Girl Toys over there. Most boys, and most girls, seem happy with the division, but that may be because of the social stigma involved in crossing "the line."

Or - and let's remember the possibility - it may not. My own daughter was given (and exposed to) the full range of G.I. Joes, wargames, superhero toys, miniature toy soldiers, and so on from age one. She was living in my house, after all; she doesn't yet know the capital of Kansas, but she can point out Stalingrad on the map.

What did she ask for when she was turned loose in Target? Barbie. She dresses them, poses them, has tea parties with them and would put her Barbie clothes on her baby brother if he'd hold still long enough. We didn't teach her that; it just happened.

Not that Autumn is representative of all children everywhere, of course. There ought to be more time and toys devoted to girls who like action, or boys who like whatever it is Barbie, et al, represent. But as long as enough kids have conventional tastes to support the toy business, those boys and girls will remain "niche" markets, and there won't be a lot for them at the Toys R Us.

This column was originally written for AnotherUniverse.com.

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