It’s a fundamental principle of economics. There is something people want (demand). Someone else has it or produces it (supply). A deal is struck, an exchange is made, and everyone walks away more or less happy with the result.
Recently there have been several dust-ups in geek circles about a systematic exclusion of female characters from media properties considered by their parent companies as “for boys”. If you’re not aware of this, you can search up hashtags like #ButNotBlackWidow, #WheresGamora, or the Disney Store controversy concerning the lack of Leia in their Star Wars section (which was reportedly on its way to correction after a #WeWantLeia movement).
I’m going to try not to delve too deeply into the politics of this since a lot of folk have done that. It’s not a particularly new phenomenon, either, since the toy line for mega-popular, gender-divide crossing cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender somehow never came out with the action figures for its two female leads, Katara and Toph, even as they were releasing figures for bit players whose only qualification for production and distribution to the public was that they happened to have penises; an irony considering that no mass-market kid’s action figure I know of is going to actually have a penis. To use a Zombie Ranch comparison, it’s like the toy company making a Forsythe action figure while there still aren’t any for Suzie or Rosa, right down to that I figure a bunch of you probably just thought, “Who the heck is Forsythe?”
I suppose what irks me most about the situation is that there is a quantifiable demand, but no supply, even after repeated incidents. There are responses in the case of #WheresGamora which will point out there are licensed figures produced available online or in specialty shops, but I feel like this is missing the point when you can grab a Star Lord figure off the shelf at Wal-Mart or Target; the exact situation most young kids are still going to be in when they go shopping with their parents. It’s also tougher to justify when an official t-shirt reading “Guardians of the Galaxy” omits Gamora from the team even though there’s a chunk of empty space where she could easily have fit (and even if she didn’t fit, then redesign it so she does, right?). Or how about that the current Power Rangers team is 40% female, but there’s official merch out there that features only the dudes, even though the slogan is “Power Rangers Unite!”? Power Rangers was after my time so I’m no expert, but can you Megazord successfully with only three Rangers?
Again, trying not to be political here, but the official(!) response to these complaints continues to be some variation on the idea that boys won’t buy girl things, or even merchandise representing a woman or featuring a woman on them, even if she’s one out of five. Because focus groups, I guess? Because statistics? And yet above and beyond all of this is just a simple matter of people wanting to spend money on products that aren’t being provided.
When I was a little boy growing up in the late 1970s and 1980s, there was no question of a Princess Leia action figure being on that shelf alongside Luke and Han and Chewbacca. The 1982 version of GI Joe may have launched with a single female character out of the dozen or so in the first wave, but Scarlett was there and available and had her weapons and bio card like the dudes, and over the years Hasbro ended up expanding the female presence in the toy line (Lady Jaye, Cover Girl, The Baroness, Zarana…) rather than getting rid of it. Did they really sell badly, or somehow sell worse than stuff that made sure feminine presence was absent?
Was I just an aberrantion for wanting my action figure team or the folks on my lunchbox to reflect what I saw on my television or the movie screen? I guess yes, and because of that today’s generation of kids aren’t even being given a choice. That’s where this situation utterly and completely breaks down for me. There’s a demand, but a stubborn and inexplicable refusal on the part of suppliers to meet it. At some point the decisions of whether a product is going to succeed have moved from the hands of the consumers to the whims of corporations, with us with the wallets having no say so in the matter.
Except that’s changing. Where the corporations and licensees fail, Etsy and Redbubble are picking up the slack by connecting demand with supply. As I talked about before, 3-D printers and associated “recipes” are becoming more common. I mean, if I want to take gender completely out of the equation, how about the massive ball that was dropped when Disney/Marvel had no “dancing baby Groot” toy ready to release from Day 1? Only a lurching corporate structure mired in dry statistics could have overlooked that, and even though now I’m sure there’s something in the works, it’s going to take months of focus groups and committees and licensing agreements before something hits shelves. Meanwhile a talented fan had a pretty damn good version crafted within ten days of release, and the inevitable cease and desist orders won’t do much against the tide of sheer demand.
No Gamora t-shirt in a women’s cut? She’s missing from the team? Here you go. What’s funniest is that some of the people trying to claim her absence from official merchandise was a lie and an exaggeration were pointing to fan-made merchandise and saying “See! There’s plenty if you just look!”. Indeed, and Disney’s not getting one penny out of the sales.
Illegal? Sure. But it reminds me of one of Lexi Alexander’s rants on piracy, how she would be more than willing to pay for the ability to watch local news feeds from her native Germany, but the only people willing and able to provide that to her are, ahem, “unofficial” parties.
I’ll go on the website of a German public TV channel in hopes of catching up on some (objective) news and up pops the message:
Sorry, the copyright for this program does not extend to the country of your current location.
Huh??? Are you going to distribute DVDs of German news programs to the US? Is there such a massive market for German programming in the world, that you must block all viewers outside your borders?
While it would be nice to think that the corporate culture could change in the face of all these protests, it probably won’t, any more than McDonalds will stop dividing its happy meal toys into “boy” and “girl” options. They’re making plenty of money with their current model, based on their current modelings, and see no pressing reason to change. I suppose it’s easy enough based on their statistics to dismiss any of these Internet protests as fringe groups who wouldn’t actually justify the expense of mass-producing Katara action figures or Gamora t-shirts (or even t-shirts with Gamora as part of them). And you know, maybe they’re right. Maybe there really isn’t enough demand out there to give women equal time, even if it’s just one of them who happens to be a crucial part of a team. Maybe that lurching corporate structure isn’t agile enough to deal with that section of demand and provide a corresponding supply; even if that demand runs into the hundreds or thousands, maybe they need confirmed millions before the creaky wheels get set in motion.
Welp, that’s when people start getting a lot less conflicted over buying a third party shirt or other merchandise based on a part of an IP said corporation flat-out refuses to market, especially when there’s really no way to release a statement like “we won’t make this because people like you aren’t interested” that doesn’t sound both presumptuous and insulting. One retail store was even more brutally honest: “The Guardians of the Galaxy shirt in particular is a boy’s shirt, which is why it does not include the female character Gamora.” Regardless of where on the supply chain that decision was made, them’s fightin’ words.
Look, Big Merch (or Big Toy, or whatever we want to call it), I personally hate that you use institutionalized sexism as part of your business model for success. Boys aren’t born thinking that “girl stuff” is bad or girls have no place among boys, they have to be taught that, and what you’re doing is feeding right into the problem. But fine, if you’re just responding to what we as a majority culture seem to want, and it’s not you but us that are terrible, and you can’t afford to cater to a “fringe element”? Well, fine, how about doing what Hasbro and Shapeways are doing, putting something together where smaller, more agile suppliers can, with your blessing, market fringe to fringe, and meet demand with supply.
Now mind you, it’s hard for me to stomach that in 2014 putting a female member of an action team on a t-shirt is considered a fringe desire, especially given my childhood where it was no big thing. But I guess that’s beside the point. If your corporate structure is such that you can’t make money off of meeting smaller scale demands (as you claim), then start working with someone who does, or kiss all that potential money goodbye because it will happen regardless. Or if you’re really convinced that there’s no money to be made, ever — if your statistics are that ironclad, and you don’t want to deal with the buzzing flies of the “fringe” — then at least do my brain the favor of not spending time sending out cease and desist notifications to the people making and selling the products you say no one will buy. You’re already being soullessly sexist and regrettably short-sighted, so maybe, just maybe, don’t add a steaming helping of asshole on top.