Garwulf’s Corner: Toying with Business

Originally published in An Odyssey into Video Games and Pop Culture

I’m not a fan of stating the obvious — if you’re going to cover a subject, you should have something new and valuable to say. Lots of people called out the erasure of female characters in toy sets as sexist, but I couldn’t think of a single article that commented on just how strange it was on the business side. Seriously, it was outright weird.

If the column had not been cancelled, this installment would have been #33.

IT’S HARD NOT to notice the outrage around certain things in the world of toys these days — it’s even old news. Hasbro’s latest toy and game lines about big pop culture franchises, such as Star Wars and The Avengers, seem to be in the process of erasing female characters, no matter how important they are to the plot. This has led to situations where Black Widow was removed from her own action scene in one toy, and the Millennium Falcon was sold without Rey, the main character of the new Star Wars trilogy.

It’s been called out as obvious sexism by so many that doing so reached the point of stating the obvious months ago. But what struck me about the entire thing is how strange and weird it is. The more I look at it, the more it just doesn’t make any damn sense.

Like anybody in their late 30s, I was a child of the 1980s, and I remember the Star Wars toy line. Looking back, it reached the point of the ridiculous. Princess Leia got a separate action figure for just about every single costume change. Before long, the threshold of whether a character deserved an action figure became “appeared in a scene for at least three seconds.” Even characters who went unnamed in the movies — such as Jabba the Hutt’s dancing girl — got an action figure, and in the process a name.

Kenner and Lucasfilm merchandised the hell out of every single scene, and in retrospect that made sense. I’ve talked on multiple occasions about how business decisions are made, and about how emotion really doesn’t play a role. There was lots of money to be made by selling toys of everything in the Star Wars saga to kids, so the merchandising squeezed every penny it could out of Star Wars, and more merchandising followed for other franchises. It didn’t take long for the toys to come first, and the media second (GI Joe, anybody?). How much money could be made was the paramount concern.

And that’s what is so damn weird about what we’re seeing right now from Hasbro. The decision to leave characters like Black Widow and Rey out of the toy lines has a direct negative impact on the bottom line — it has all the signs of a business decision made by ideology in a place where ideology should not even be entering the picture. And none of the justifications that get thrown around manage to hold any water.

The big one is that boys don’t want to play with action figures of female characters — and it’s implied, if not directly stated, that this is because they can’t identify with characters who are not of their own gender. But, this explanation doesn’t withstand scrutiny. 10 year-old kids don’t project themselves into their action figures — they project the characters from the movie into the action figures. Being able to re-enact climactic action scenes and then make up some of their own is by far the most important consideration — it could even be described as a type of proto-fanfiction. It’s one of the reasons why so many background characters got names once they were moulded in plastic.

However, the kids aren’t usually the ones buying the toys — the toys are being bought by the parents, who in this day and age are more likely to be politically aware and active in some manner, from social justice to gender politics to proper political action. The kids aren’t likely to be offended that female characters are being left out of their own movie toy lines, but the parents are, and are quite capable (and likely) to vote with their wallets by buying something else.

When you move up to the adult collectors, the logic behind erasing female characters still doesn’t hold. Collectors aren’t interested in projecting their gender roles onto the action figures they buy — they care about completeness. They want all the characters in the set, and they want the set to have all the main characters in the movie. So, leaving major characters out increases the possibility that the collectors will either wait until the missing characters are added or just give the set a pass.

So, the decision to leave out major female characters in toy lines is a very strange one. It violates decades of received and hard-won wisdom about what toys should be on the market and how to market them. It creates ill will between the toy company and their customers. And, it begs the question of why such a decision was made in the first place.

To that question…well, I really don’t have anything resembling a good answer. There’s a part of me that wonders if Disney’s marketing department isn’t just flummoxed that their newest princesses happen to spend a lot of time doing un-Disney-princess-like things such as shooting people with blasters, but that’s more an amusing thought than a working theory. At a guess, at some point a misogynist managed to get hired or promoted to an executive position where they could control the toy lines, decided to get political, and nobody noticed what was happening before customers and the public got outraged. But that too is just spitballing.

Large companies and corporations made bad decisions based on the bottom line all the time. But, there’s always a working logic to the decision, no matter how sociopathic it might be. The apparent erasure of female characters from toy lines seems to have no working logic leading to that bottom line, and that’s just really damn weird.

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Robert B. Marks

Robert B. Marks is a writer, editor, and researcher. His pop culture work has appeared in places like Comics Games Magazine.