Of Nerfherders and Rebel Princesses

This has been a very interesting week for the blog. Our readership quadrupled, my post on censoring storytime was Freshly Pressed, and my post about the Nerf Rebelle toy line and accompanying tweet were quoted in the Huffington Post (even if they got the blog’s name wrong).

However, many on both sides of the Rebelle issue seem to think the only problem is the color. It is an issue, though not because pink is inherently bad, but far from the only one. But while we’re on the subject, I think this comic sums up the matter perfectly.

Girls liking pink is not the issue. Girls liking fashion and style and purple swishies and love triangles is not the issue. Girls (and everyone else for that matter) can and often do like these things and can even like them alongside “traditionally male” toys, interests, or pastimes.

The issue is when they are told over and over again by every pink-oozing shelf and screen that they HAVE to like pink and fashion and love triangles and look stylish while fighting to the death, and find it difficult to enter or enjoy said traditionally male spheres, activities, or hobbies due to gatekeeping or lingering social stereotypes. As always, the answer is options, not a cookie cutter mold of girliness that everyone has to squeeze into or work around.

“But there are options!” they say. “There are millions of toys out there. If you don’t want this one, don’t buy it.” If only it were as simple as that. NPR recently tackled the issue of gender and toys, pointing out that toys are actually more stridently gendered today than ever before (even more so than in times with much more rigid gender roles or homosocial environments).

And beyond the colors, girls are still getting pushed towards domestic, fashion, or beauty-centric toys while boys are encouraged to like action, building, and science (once again, this SMBC comics sums up my feelings). C’mon! The Hunger Games itself allows its female characters to express their femininity in vastly different ways; why can’t the toys cashing in on it?

Yet even in their limited roles, girls don’t get to be the hero. They instead are cast as support/love interest or in non-participatory, passive roles even in media directly targeted at girls. When an actual, developed female character does come along, they don’t get toys. For example, Avatar: The Last Airbender has one of the larger casts of female characters in children’s programming, yet you wouldn’t know it by the toys. Mattel didn’t seem to think it was worth making action figures of anyone but the boys. They are hardly alone in this.

The Hunger Games and Brave did get the merchandise (Ah, Disney, I love when your powers can be used for good). Yet Nerf’s answer to Katniss comes wrapped not just in pink but a thick layer of condescension. I can repaint the bow like I relabeled my Gameboy as a kid, but marketing execs’ (and society at large’s) attitude towards women cannot be so easily erased.

Once again, women and girls are treated as a niche market that requires a feminine veneer to make even the most mundane objects palatable, not as over half the population. Over 50% of people is not a specialty section or some mystical creature with mysterious ways, it’s the default market.

So don’t put the Rebelle bows and blasters in the girls’ section or the rest of the Nerf guns in the boy section. Put them together in the Nerf section or the toy weapon section or the skills-that-will-be-weirdly-useful-in-college-when-you-join-that-LARPing-group section or whatever you want to call it. Group toys by what they are, market to people like they are people, and let kids play with them as they will.

If a girl wants the pink one, great. If she wants the blue one or the standard grey and orange one, that’s great too. If she and her brother both grab the Rebelle Heartbreaker Bow, head for the woods, and start the first annual Smith Family Hunger Games to see who gets the last cookie, well, at least they’re outside.

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

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