Guest post: 'Sexualised action figures limit girls' play - and their futures'
The last couple of weeks have brought us the female Thor and a new Wonder Woman. Both have been designed for the male gaze, argues co-founder of IAmElemental action figures Julie Kerwin - and we need to offer girls some action heroes they can relate to.
Posted on: Thu 31-Jul-14 14:33:14
(49 comments )
A few years ago, my friend Dawn came to me with a request. “You always find the best Girl Power gifts for my daughters. Find me action figures; strong, powerful, age-appropriate action figures.” Much to our surprise, we discovered that they simply didn't exist. Most of female action figures on the market are designed to cater to the male collector community – they are hyper-sexualised in a way that renders them completely inappropriate for the average four-year-old, girl or boy.
And the reason for these ‘curves and bumps and bits’ rendered in cold, hard plastic is simple: historically, superhero comic books have been purchased almost entirely by men. As much as I loved watching Lynda Carter play Wonder Woman on television when I was young, the truth is that an estimated 90% of Wonder Woman’s readership has traditionally been male. She was created for men, and illustrated for men, by men. I imagine the same could be said about almost every female comic book character ever created.
“What’s the problem?” you might ask. If the customer base is largely male, and men like hyper-sexualised female action figures, it makes good business sense. Who cares that the recently revealed female Thor has breasts larger than her head and is missing a few ribs? What does it matter that the new Wonder Woman, who made her appearance this week, is ostensibly saving the world in an S&M bathing suit and Pretty Woman boots?
The problem is that we don't live in a bubble. Already, we can’t escape the dollification of our sex – everywhere we look, Photoshop is erasing real women and replacing them with Barbie-like imitations. But what’s more worrying is that this message – that just ‘yourself’ isn't good enough – is being deliberately pushed by toy manufacturers. Look at transformations of iconic figures like Strawberry Shortcake and Holly Hobbie, as well as the more recent example of Disney’s Brave. Girls and boys are internalising messages about what it means to be a perfect woman – and they aren't real.
Toymakers should know that the ‘storyline' when a girl plays with two dolls dressed as princesses is very different from the one that naturally unfolds when you have two figures dressed like knights.
We know that portraying women in the media in this way negatively affects how girls perceive themselves, we know that it leads to lower self-esteem and body-image problems, and discourages young women from entering certain professions. So why is the toy industry doing this? They should know that the ‘storyline’ when a girl plays with two dolls dressed as princesses is very different from the one that naturally unfolds when you have two figures dressed like knights. Toymakers need to be attuned to these concerns. They need to understand that if you give a girl a different toy, she'll tell a different story; and that powerful female figures have a place in a boy’s toy box as well.
So, Dawn and I decided that we needed to put a healthy image of women out into the world, for young girls to emulate and identify with as they play. We decided to make our own action figures.
We realised that it’s about more than the breast-to-hip ratio. We asked ourselves, why do male superheroes, like Spiderman, appeal to both a four-year-old boy and 40-old man? Because of his qualities. The focus of our action figures suddenly seemed obvious – it’s not about Superheroes, it's about Superpowers. So, we created IAmElemental.
In addition to a healthier, more realistic shape, the action figures embody a message about character and empowerment. Cheesy as it might sound, every child is already a superhero, with all the superpowers they could ever want or need inside of them already, and we think that young children are far more capable of understanding these ideas than most grown-ups realise. That's why we called our action figures Persistence and Industry and Honesty and Bravery.
Dawn and I grew up in a world where we fervently believed that we were equal to boys, and that we could accomplish any goal we set for ourselves. It was the early days of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine and the individuality-themed "Free To Be... You And Me" TV special, and we internalised this truth as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. The iconic documentary film series 7 Up opens with the saying: “Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” We believe that if you change the way children play when they are young, you can change the way they think when they grow older.
Putting strong, realistic female action figures in a girl’s hands will impact the stories she tells. A girl who envisions herself saving the day when she plays will go out into the world better equipped to emulate the strong women who inspire her – be they a favourite teacher, a prominent world leader, or a historic figure like Joan of Arc, who was the muse for our first series of action figures. Armed and confident in her Superpowers, she just might become a real Superhero herself one day. It’s time for girls to Play With Power.
By Julie Kerwin
Sorry I didn't read all your post as trying to multi task and it is so long.
However the gist that girls and boys need more realistic female toys is very true.
A healthy size 12 figure would be great to see. As well as fewer pink sparkly clothes and more outdoor friendly clothes which show girls can get dirty and have fun too if they want as well as dress up.
Meh, the male actlon figures have crazy bodies with tight clothes too. They are action figures based on comics- why would they deviate from the design? Your issue is with the comic book designers. It is sad but true- the male readership would die out if Catwoman wasn't sexy. Society needs to change before we start asking individual companies to ignore what their fans are asking for. I think its fab creating a doll that has an achievable image- but people who collect action figures and those who play with dolls tend to be two different target markets.
With action heros/ heroines, people immerse themselves into the communities, and there is more an emphasis on merit and 'coolness' when talking about them, whereas Barbie is all about makeup, boys and shopping. That seems to feast on little girls insecurities more, I think.
I opened this thinking more feminist trash about toys. But you are right. At the moment ds and dd are happy with happlyland figures, wooden blocks and wooden trains, but ds is wanting Spider-Man and turtles.
We're a sporty family so I won't ever have to worry too much about how comfortable they are with their bodies because we are teaching them that their bodies are for fitness and athlectism, already we enjoy swimming and rock climbing as a family, and they are just 4 and 3yrs old.
I do worry about sexualisation though. I'm pretty adamant about not wanting to get dd a Barbie. I will take a look at your elementals as she adores fairies (thankfully happyland and Ben & Holly are still child shaped).
Ps, talking about clothing on superheroes, I have no issues with wolverine and most of his clothes are tight!
I've just been in your shop. Perhaps a currency converter, postage and packaging costs, and a picture of the dolls inside the tins would be useful.
Why aren't little boys affected in the same way by the fact that most male superheros are ripped and triangular-bodied? I would hazard a guess that it's because male action heroes are 'about' the action and running around and so on. Female action heroes are all about the body.
DD likes Spiderman and Batman because they are cool. That's more worrying to me than the shape, the fact that the men are 'cooler'.
purpleflamingos if you don't like Barbie check out Lottie, a child shaped 'fashion doll' with removable clothes and different outfits to buy.
I like the idea of these superhero toys but I'm not sure about their names. I'd have gone for some classic or Norse Goddess names. Industry and Honesty are a bit goodytwoshoes IMHO.
Great idea - agree with Games about the names! Still thinking of getting some for DS though to balance up Superman, Batman, Spiderman etc...
Erm, so the boys get to identify with Spider-Man and Batman and us girls are left with Honesty? Yeah, right on sister but I'm off to play with the fun stuff.
I agree with Nerf, I mean, it is great that you are trying to make positive toys, but these would have seriously bypassed my interest as a child. Sometimes moral messages are best when they are done in a subtle way.
I loved Batman etc because there was a rich back-story to it all- action figures are a by-product of a franchise of some sort but it seems like you are just expecting people to be hooked on your range of toys without any sort of emotional investment or immersion. They may have right-on names and traits but what have they actually done to prove that they are 'industrious' or whatever? Are you hoping that business will do extremely well and then you will develop some sort of storyline?
I wish you the best of luck, it is good that somebody is having a go at producing ethically responsible toys. I may well end up eating my words if you get really successful, I just think there needs to be a bit of glamour in hero/ heroine toys.
I find this topic very interesting as I have sons and a daughter plus I'm pretty geeky and enjoy Star Wars, Marvel etc
I think that the male figures are pretty sexualised with defined abs and pecs but then again a superhero would naturally be athletic. I totally understand the hyper sexualised female figure problem. My children have raised an eyebrow at the pointy boobs, high heel boots and make up on the female figures.
I agree with one of the posters above that your figures sound too "perfect" thus could easily be seen as boring. My children are bored by superheroes who are goody goodies eg Captain America and how female super powers are usually mind control or invisibility- why can't the women lead the group and be cocky but likeable or have a traditionally" masculine" power like strength. I didn't see any boy figures when I skim read your material. You have a valid point about sexism in this sector but is ignoring all boys the right thing to do? Most kids have male family, friends, classmates... So even if their play is female dominated shouldn't they include male figures?
I was with you until I heard what the names/powers were. Industry and Honesty? Does not compare with being able to shoot spiders webs from your wrists/fly/x ray vision etc.
Why not take inspiration from your brand name? Use the elements Earth, Air, Fire, Water for your heroines and their powers.
Why did they 'sex up' My Little Pony? That was weird.
Sorry but the character names and their powers are not appealing.
Part of Batman's or Spiderman's appeal is their duality, their flaws and thats how we relate to them. Calling your super heroes names like industry and honesty is ignoring the idea that these female characters are multifaceted and there you've lost their credibility.
Human frailty is important, even with kids. Longevity for characters like this is limited because how the heck can kids relate to these perfect females? They even resemble robots!
Look at Buffy for example, not age appropriate for under 10's i agree but she has these super powers and is a typical teen underneath. You need balance.
Couldn't agree more. I hope your dolls will be available in the UK.
The only decent female super hero I can think of is Burry the Vampire Slayer.
There was a tiny space in the 90s when things seemed to be getting better but then along came the lads mags and the pornification of media.
I was thinking about this last night but I noticed that your figures look very similar to each other. I think a variety of looks would be great.
I think superhero alter egos are also important. Eg Peter Parker-Spiderman. Have you thought of selling a human/superhero figures together?
Last q for now. What about the baddies who the superheroes defeat?
New female superheros are a fantastic idea but agree with most of what has been said. I looked at the website. 1. Not sure they are available in the UK. 2. They are too one dimensional to be appealing. Superheroes have to be glamorous. Like all story book characters. That doesn't mean they have to be sexualised but I don't think my dd (too old now) would want to play with Elementals. 3. The overall name is too complicated and character names are too worthy.
4. Comic book characters need a comic book/cartoon - this is missing.
Remember She-ra? Again too sexualised in appearance but I recall she was quite powerful.
A great idea but it needs developing.
Having extolled the virtues of Buffy I would like to point out that the Buffy comics themselves are not immune to the style of drawing which focuses on exaggerating women's bodies which i find hugely disappointing.
I think that what you are trying to do is sorely needed. We need superheroes and their merchandise for girls that are portrayed anatomically correct.
As others have said, i think more development is needed as i don't think turning them into paragons of virtue is really the answer either.
While I agree with what you're trying to do I'm not entirely certain that my 8 year old DD would find them appealing at any age. Do they actually have superpowers? Can they fly? Control things with their minds?/kick some butt? Because that's what many girls want to do. The dolls as they stand seem too preachy and I'm sorry but a little dull.
I would be very interested to see how they develop though.
I would like to get some of these in the hands of my 6yo DD and listen to what she says about a character named Bravery. I like that she can tell the story herself, not have it scripted for her. And hurray for heroines in flat boots!
I watch my 6 year old daughter and her friends play action-filled games at day camp. They are as likely to have tornado-power or water-power as they are to play princess. Being a Ninja is still fun for her at 6.
The great potential of these action figures is the ability for a child to use them to tell their own stories. The appeal is how these can be used to spark creativity.
My hope is that this is a starting point Perhaps as the company receives feedback, there will be an outlet for children to tell their stories and create new characters.
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