Disney’s animated hit Big Hero 6 is back in the news this week, albeit in a negative light. A Washington State mom was searching for Big Hero 6-themed fabric to make pillow cases for her two kids—and inadvertently ignited an online firestorm over the need for fair female representation in kids’ merchandise. Why? She discovered that the two female leads, Go Go and Honey Lemon, were missing from the fabric, essentially turning Big Hero 6 into Big Hero 4.
The mom, Veronica (last name kept out of the media), emailed manufacturer Springs Creative to voice her dismay. The response she received came as a shock. The licensing manager explained Disney’s primary target for the movie was boys between the ages of five and 12. It read: “We have found boys do not want girl characters on their things (eeeww girls! Yuck! Haha).”
Veronica’s response makes a case for the importance of equal representation of male and female characters. She wrote: “By eliminating the women in your fabric design, you are telling boys that it’s OK to think girls are yucky, unworthy and less than a boy. You are also telling girls they are unworthy, unwanted and that it’s un-cool to be smart and confident.”
When Melissa Atkins Wardy, an advocate for fighting gender stereotypes and founder of media literacy site Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, heard about the issue she took to social media and urged people to use an #IncludeTheGirls hashtag listing other examples of manufacturers leaving out crucial female characters from their product lines. Tweeted photos included products for the Canadian kids’ TV series PAW Patrol without the female character Skye, and the Power Rangers line sans the iconic pink and yellow female rangers. Even a Dottie “Doc” McStuffins doctor bag is noticeably absent in some Doc McStuffins products—because girls can’t be doctors?
The Avengers became a target of the #IncludeTheGirls campaign due to the noticeable lack of Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson in the films) in movie-themed products geared towards kids. Last time I checked, Natasha Romanova was an equal member of the team, something that both my sons and daughter accept without comment. With The Avengers: The Age of Ultron hitting theatres soon, I hope this conversation continues until my kids can buy Avengers merchandise featuring the entire group.
The #IncludeTheGirls campaign is just another example of public complaints against toy manufacturers who ignore the message that people want to see female characters included. Last fall, a #WheresGamora hashtag surfaced after parents were dismayed to discover the green-skinned heroine from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy adaptation was left off t-shirts. There’s also a #WeWantLeia callout that demanded Disney create a variety of Princess Leia Star Wars action figures, as opposed to just the golden bikini-clad version of the heroic princess. Parents and kids are becoming more vocal about the lack of diversity in their toys and clothing, yet manufacturers appear wedded to the notion that boys don’t like girls on their toys, which only perpetuates the vicious cycle. Since there’s a noticeable lack of female characters in many product lines, kids aren’t even given the chance to prove that this archaic notion of what boys like versus what girls like is wrong.
Companies like Disney and Marvel often pass the blame to manufacturers, claiming they just approve licensing and have no final say in which products hit stores. But it’s time for these big companies to pressure manufacturers to create products that include proper female representation. An anonymous former employee at Marvel was recently quoted saying that if you want to see change at the licensing level, you need to pressure the license holders—big companies like Hasbro and even the smaller ones like Springs Creative.
Companies have the chance to be leaders in this area and, should they step up to the challenge, they may be surprised to see how much it improves their bottom lines to have both male and female characters equally represented in a full range of products. Many of the shows, books and movies geared toward kids promote teamwork as a way of overcoming adversity and creating lasting friendships. It’s time for the manufacturers to follow that example.