Where Did All the (Action Figure) Girls Go?

Black Widow action figure from Hot Toys, 2015

The scarcity of the Black Widow action figure on toy shelves has me thinking about what we think we know about gender identity in play, be that play with toys or play in video games.

When I was a kid, any trip to Target lead to one thing, browsing the G.I.Joe figures in the toy department while my mother shopped. As far as I was concerned, it was the one and only thing to do there. I had no interest in browsing housewares or sporting goods, so salivating over action figures that I might beg for for Christmas or for my next birthday seemed like the only reasonable way of killing time.

Browsing was always a disappointment for me, though. What I did was spend my time rifling through dozens of the same figures, most often Scarlett, the one female Joe in the original set of nine action figures released during the '80s, and Breaker, the only of those nine Joes that didn't come with a gun.

Of the original nine figures, there were only two that I was really ever looking for: Snake Eyes, the only Joe dressed all in black, a mute ninja packing an Uzi submachine gun, and Stalker, a bad ass ranger dressed head to toe in a camo pattern and sporting a beret. Apparently, my peers who could get their folks to buy them toys when it wasn't a holiday felt the same way that I did. Those two figures were always hard to find on a toy shelf, presumably having been the first figures that sold out when inventory arrived at the local Target.

The familiarity of this ever disappointing march to the toy aisle was an undeniable one to me. I remember during the late '70s, when the first Star Wars action figures were released, and experiencing the same thing, just swap out the Target toy department for K-Mart, the presence of Scarlett and Breaker for Princess Leia and some random droid from the first film, and the absence of Snake-Eyes and Stalker for the absence of Han Solo and Darth Vader.

I'm rarely in the toy department these days. I have three daughters, none of whom were ever especially interested in action figures or in toys in general (Betty Spaghetti, Monster High dolls, and most especially Littlest Pet Shop critters were some of the few toy lines that they ever had even a passing interest in). My kids were mostly into art, dance, and sports, so the toy department was never a high priority in their lives.

However, from what I hear around the internet these days, the action figure aisle looks a little different these days. Now it's Avengers action figures that kids are after, and unlike the period that I grew up in, there aren't a lot of Black Widow action figures to be found on the shelves, but it isn't because they were figures that went left unpicked by tiny shoppers.

According to ...But Not Black Widow, a site that claims to be “following the symbolic annihilation of women through merchandise,” the Black Widow is the Avenger with the third most screentime in The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron (charts from ...But Not Black Widow)

However, as far as the availability of toy lines associated with the film go, the Black Widow is one of the most difficult figures to find:

Based on these two charts, it would seem that toy manufacturers have made the assumption that Iron Man and Captain America are the two most popular Avengers. As a result, those manufacturers seem to be supplying stores only with action figures that they believe they will sell more of, or else it does seem that the industry is contributing to “the symbolic annihilation of women through merchandise” -- or maybe both.

Also, underlying this situation is the assumption that the demographic most interested in the purchase of Avengers action figures are little boys and that little boys are more interested in playing with action figures that are male rather than with those that are female.

Of course, this issue of gender representation in forms of play or what gender people want to associate with extends to other forms of media that provide ways of playing roles, like video games. The general lack of female protagonists in video games, for example, was brought up at a talk given by Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch at the 2015 Game Developers Conference. In 2014, Wiseman and Burch surveyed over 1,500 middle school and high school students, both girls and boys, asking them about their gender preferences when it comes to playing video games.

Burch acknowledged the financial concerns that surround choosing the gender of a protagonist for a game, saying, "We as developers, (...) understandably ... are afraid of our games not selling.” (Charlie Hall, "The Gaming Industry is Wrong about Kids, Gaming and Gender", Polygon, 5 March 2015). However, she and Wiseman suggest that what their survey found was that the underlying assumption that boys generally want to play as boys and girls generally want to play as girls may be an erroneous assumption: “It could be that we are falsely attributing the success of past games to things that don’t actually matter to the kids that are playing them."

The responses that they received suggest that, perhaps, my view of the toy aisle as a kid is a bit antiquated and even suggest a differing importance of gender identity for boys and girls. While roughly 60 percent of middle school boys said that they preferred to play as a male character and about 40 percent of high school boys said the same, the remainder said that they had no preference or preferred to play as female characters (though by much smaller margins in the latter case). Further, 46 percent of middle school girls said that they preferred to play as female characters and an even greater number of high school girls, 60 percent, said that they preferred to play a female character, while the remainder of each group said they had no preference at all (and very, very few of either middle school or high school girls said that they preferred to play as male, only six percent in the case of each).

While I'm certainly drawing this conclusion rather generally and I may be reading into these responses, it strikes me as interesting in and of itself that boys seem to want to “protect” their own gender identity more symbolically when they are younger and seem to feel less need to do so as they get older. The older they get, however, girls seem to grow more conscious of their need to identify their own gender identity in the characters that they choose to play as. One way or the other, though, these results seem to differ greatly with my own assumptions about why Princess Leia and Scarlett remained on toy store shelves 30 years ago, since so many of these kids claim to be unconcerned with gender at all.

Of course, I, and probably most G.I.Joe action figure collectors, were even younger than either group surveyed by Wiseman and Burch. My own desire to not play with a female action figure might align neatly with the above observation about the possible tendency for boys who are quite young to be more protective and insistent about aligning their own gender symbolically with their toys. Additionally, of course, we are talking about action figures as opposed to video games, and identity issues may determine preference more in terms of one kind of play than with the other. Indeed, game preferences hardly seem to be reducible exclusively to issues related to gender. After all, genre, game mechanics, and other aesthetic issues may determine whether or not I choose between playing Grand Theft Auto or Tomb Raider, not whether or not I have to play as the game as a man or as a woman.

Which is why it seems useful that Wiseman and Burch asked questions of girls like, ”What games do you play?” (among these results the two found that 26 percent of girls say they play FPSes and 47 percent play puzzle or adventure games) and of both genders, “Are you more likely to play a game based on the protagonist's gender?” (78 percent of males and 70 percent of females answered, “No.”). However, both of these questions got me thinking of the problem with Wiseman and Burch's approach to this issue all together. All of these responses are, of course, self reported, which raises questions about what these young men and young women say and what they actually do or even how aware they actually are of all of the reasons that they make the choices that they do. I want some additional data that is less a matter of self reporting and more a matter of seeing what games these girls and boys are playing (basically, I want somehow to see the actual content of their game collections), how often they are playing the games that they do play (in other words, which ones they are most committed to), and what they actually choose when they plunk their money down at a cash register, not merely what they claim they choose when filling out a survey.

While the attitudes of these youngsters in many instances may seem progressive, there remains the issue that games featuring female protagonists have often not been able to produce the profits that big game publishers warrant to be a success in the industry. Yes, it's clear that Lara Croft has been able to sell games and launch an enormously successful transmedia franchise. However, the success of Tomb Raider does not explain why there are no sequels to titles (some of which have very loyal, but smaller, more cult-like followings) like Wet, Mirror's Edge (which admittedly may finally have a sequel coming), Remember Me, Beyond Good & Evil, and the like.

It's true that Samus Aran of Metroid and Chell of Portal are female protagonists that represent successful ongoing franchises. However, Samus Aran's gender was a secret in the original Metroid. That this armored space mercenary was a woman came as a shock to young boys like myself in 1986 (“I was playing as a girl?!?”). So, this female identity was not a selling point (or something that harmed sales) of the original game (or, seen another way, Nintendo chose to “sneak” gender past their assumed demographic of little boys in 1986) that kickstarted the whole franchise.

As for Portal, Chell's gender identity is one that the player is not reminded of throughout most of the game, since one plays from a first person perspective and Chell never speaks, and unlike first person Mirror's Edge, Portal does not include third person cut scenes reminding the player of who they are. (Indeed, I didn't notice the reflection of Chell in the opening moments of Portal on my first playthrough of the game, not realizing that I was playing as a woman until my battle with GlaDOS at the game's end, when one of her robotic spheres referred to me as “the lady from the test.”).

In other words, two of the more successful games in gaming history with female protagonists were ones that obscured the gender of those protagonists when initially selling them to their audience.

As a college professor by trade, I have spoken to a whole lot of young adults, both male and female, about video games over the past decade or so. In my own experience, it seems clear to me that there are many male and female admirers of games like Bioshock, Mass Effect, The Sims, The Elder Scrolls, and Portal. However, I have quite honestly not yet ever run into a female player interested in Call of Duty, Halo, or Grand Theft Auto, but my male students who are gamers generally are.

Now, I feel quite certain that female gamers exist who are fans of and players of all three of those series and certainly my singular experience isn't enough data to draw certain conclusions on the basis of, but without being privy to all of the numbers, I do still have a sneaking suspicion that demographically, some games break down differently than others along gender lines. And if my suspicion is correct, the question remains, Why do these games break demographically in the way that they seem to and is that related to gender identity exclusively or to other factors? Since these three series that I mention are three of the most money making series of all time, it's clear that shelf space will continue to be made for them along with other games that will emulate them. Which games, then, will occupy the remaining space on those shelves?

Wiseman and Burch's survey asks interesting questions and may be the basis for an interesting review of what we think we know about boys and girls, men and women, and what they want to play and who they want to play as. I'm not completely convinced, though, that the responses they received fully answer how gender identity effects what I'm rifling through on the Target shelf.






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