Girls and boys toys: Is the toy industry demonised for just supplying demand?

girls and boys toys, x-men barbie
Are there girls and boys toys? Our X-Men Barbie – if she was an actual toy (as opposed to Beach Barbie wearing a Storm circa ’96 outfit), would she be categorised as a boy’s or girl’s one?

If the toy industry were at all sympathetic to our issues with the false idea that there are girls and boys toys, we wouldn’t have to keep complaining. But is it fair to criticise them?

Recently, kids brand consultant – and father of 2 girls – Steve Reece (@nevetseceer) wrote this piece on it. Let’s just say it lost me at labelling those like myself, who disagree with the concept of girls and boys toys, as ‘bandwagon jumping opportunists’ – and it went downhill from there. I shared it on Twitter, tagging Steve, and he & others responded.

Rarely does anything useful or constructive result from people with entrenched opposing opinions debating online. This was no exception.

As the twitter back & forth ensued, there were many of his points I failed to adequately address or respond to. Other people, notably scholar Elizabeth Sweet, had a more meaningful contribution. Here’s my tweet, followed by a sub-edited version of the ensuing conversation about girls and boys toys.

Carrie Proctor: Does Steve Reece not see that children pick certain toys because they’re taught to do so by society?

Steve Reece: I agree with you…kids choose toys based on societal influence…majority of parents see boys and girls toys still

Carrie Proctor: That’s why we try to get toys for our daughter in bright primary colours. She’ll pick her own favourite one day. 🙂 (Favourited by SR)

Enter Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, a Postdoctoral Scholar whose current research focuses on gender and children’s toys. So far more qualified than me/most in this area.

Dr. Elizabeth Sweet: My research finds that toys are far more gender segregated and stereotyped now than ever before. Simply not true that toys have always been so gender defined nor that they have to be.

My initial tweet also provoked this response from freelance writer Lisa Granshaw.

I then noticed that Steve had tweeted a response to those criticising his article, and the conversation shifted over to that thread.

(ICYMI – Steve’s hashtag reads: Reflecting current reality, not saying it should be that way, just that it is)

Elizabeth Sweet initially responded (before I butted in).

Elizabeth Sweet: Actually, not a reflection of current reality if you look at demographic & attitudinal measures in re: to gender. I would revise this piece I wrote in 2012 to say that gendering today is far more extreme than in ’50s.

Steve Reece: Really…? Difference between what people say hypothetically versus Behaviour measured by what sells…?

Elizabeth Sweet: When you only offer people one choice (e.g. highly gendered toys), is it surprising that they choose it?

Me: (To Steve) Chicken/Egg. They buy what you sell. I’d buy more female Star Wars & superhero toys if sold.

Steve Reece: You may buy, but are there enough like minded to justify tooling etc? Toy companies supply to demand.

Me: How do you know girls won’t buy/play Star Wars/Marvel, when they’re labeled as ‘boys’ brands?

Elizabeth Sweet: Toy companies are actively shaping demand by offering few and narrow choices vs. responding to it.

Steve Reece: Are there no female characters in those films? Male character sell by far most toys…

Me: Black Widow practically airbrushed from most Avengers merchandise; same with Leia and Star Wars. And both clearly defined as ‘boys’ brands by licensees and retailers, therefore excluding girls

Steve Reece: Commercial reality = if paying major license fees toy companies want every product that will sell.

Me: In the meantime, risk averse toy companies are excluding girls. Where’s the child development in that?

Steve Reece: Hard to stay in biz if don’t sell products made…no child development then?

Me: ICYMI – “Opportunist commentators have jumped on this bandwagon to blow their own trumpets, and… advance their own ends.” Nice Steve Reece.

Steve Reece: Demonising toy industry which positively contributes to development of billions of kids globally, for supplying demand. Also nice.

Me: What’s positive for girls who think science sets, doctors kits, or toolboxes are for boys – because they’re not pink? Not just toy industry – clothes, books, magazines, it’s a problem with most things being sold to kids.

Elizabeth Sweet: Clearly there is a demand for something different…this sold out immediately.

Me: (to Steve) I will never buy into your argument that sexism is justified to sell toys. Is racism too? The removal of Gamora from so much Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise is appalling. But you think that’s ok?

And there the conversation ended, and I’m glad it did as there was nowhere new I was able to take it.

Pretty depressing.

If this is the attitude of the toy industry to our concerns with the notion of girls and boys toys then we have a long way to go, no matter what lip service they pay to our issues with their gender categorisation, and screening of licensed characters by gender – such as the aforementioned cases of Princess Leia, Black Widow, and Gamora being absent from a large chunk of movie tie-ins.

The citing of market research and of responding to consumer demand – without acknowledging the industry’s role in skewing those results through their marketing, or creating that demand – is frustrating.

These companies choose to create products for children, which as far as I’m concerned means they have a responsibility to not only make a profit, but – at the very least – to not negatively impact our children’s lives. It’s not much to ask, and the two things are not mutually exclusive.

And frankly, the idea that the likes of Hasbro, Mattel, or Disney might go out of business if they and retailers sorted and labelled toys by type or function instead of gender, is laughable.

But these industry behemoths do need to evolve their offering, for their own sake. Take Barbie, the queen of the pink aisle. Her global sales have significantly dropped in four of the last five quarters, and for an even longer period in the US (about 2 years). Some of Mattel’s initiatives, like the Barbie Project are interesting. Others, like putting her on the cover of a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, are troubling.

However, if the choice really is as Steve Reece claims, between these companies survival or our children’s positive development, then I’ll happily wave bye bye to Optimus, Mickey, and Barbie.

The toy industry’s ability to generate profit does not supersede our children’s rights to grow up without having profit-motivated limits placed on their imaginations, aspirations, and ambitions. But there is no reason the removal of these limits and the industry’s profits cannot happily co-exist. If anything, it will become necessary for both parties to flourish.

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Oh, for another perspective on the issue of girls and boys toys, please read this excellent post from someone who is at the frontline of all this – working at a toy shop! His point is a very perceptive one that has lead me to question how I would shop as a parent in this situation.

The Guardians have conquered the galaxy – now it’s time for a female superhero to do the same

If Marvel can turn their obscure cosmic superteam into a must-see movie, then there’s no excuse for them not to break the mould again to finally give us a great female superhero movie.

Captain_Marvel_Vol_8_1_TextlessGuardians of the Galaxy, adapted by Marvel from their post-millennial revamp of their 60’s cosmic superteam, has opened to glowing reviews, a $160 worldwide weekend box office gross, and delighted audiences (including this excited English at-home dad). It featured a couple of strong female roles, and while the lack of damsels in distress is great, we need more than empowered women in these flicks – we need female protagonists.

Well, are we seeing the beginning of that? The most likely candidate for a movie has long been mooted to be another cosmic character – Captain Carol Danvers, the former Ms. Marvel,  who like the galactic guardians also had a successful makeover and relaunch in the comics – and is now Captain Marvel. But who could play the smart, confident, kick ass blonde space captain? Many names have been bandied about over the past few years, with a few firm favourites.

Joss Whedon, Avengers director and the self proclaimed Tom Hagen of the Marvel cinematic universe, offered a great hint recently, in response to the recent publicity stunt news that Thor was going to become a woman in the comics.

ICYMI, that’s Katee Sackhoff as ‘Captain’ Starbuck from the revamped version of Battlestar Galactica, of which Whedon is a big fan. Frankly, she would be awesome casting, and would likely get everyone from feminists to misanthropic geeks onside.

Well just to add to the intrigue, Sackhoff herself posted the following cryptic tweets over the weekend.

Even by the time I hit ‘publish’ this will probably be debunked. But #1 could be a face casting for a mask; #2 a close up detail of her red & gold costume, and #3 – a veil = Mar-VEL?!

Clutching at straws? Probably (yes). But we need really a decent female superhero movie, so I am latching on to any nuggets of hope that I can. Selfishly speaking, I need a decent female superhero movie in the next few years. My daughter is 2 1/2. By the time she is 8, I want to be able to take her to see an awesome superhero flick with a fantastic female protagonist.

5 years ago, I would NEVER have predicted there would be a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, much less one as faithful yet mass market as this one. I hope that within 5 years Marvel can do something far less bold – female led fantasy movies are doing great box office – yet far more important.

And in case you’re in any doubt, here’s how awesome Katee Sackhoff would look as Captain Marvel.

**UPDATE**

Katee Sackhoff post the following tweet regarding the ‘secret project’.

Arse.

But a) doesn’t mean she won’t be cast in it, and b) we still need a Captain Marvel movie soon.

Of Mums and Men: Playground Politics, Stranger Danger, Stay-At-Home-Dads, and the ‘Mum-Hub’.

Mum hub, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad, stay at home dad blog,Calling myself a stay-at-home dad is a bit disingenuous. We rarely stay at home, especially when the weather is this good. Today we pay a typical mid-week, mid-morning visit to our nearby playground to meet some friends for a playdate.

We arrive before them. I ask my daughter what she’d like to go on. As she considers her answer (she’s a bit of a ponderer), a mother ushers her crying child past us. “I’ll go and see if anyone has any plasters.”

I call out to her to say I have plasters if she needs any. She enthusiastically answers yes, and she comes over with her crying daughter who has a pair of grazed knees. I tell them I hope Spider-Man ones are ok, and the mother tells her how lucky she is the nice man helped us, and that her brother will be so jealous of the plasters (he comes over and does indeed look on jealously).

With great plasters comes great responsibility.
With great plasters comes great responsibility.

I notice the girl has a snotty nose, the kind that often accompanies such bouts of crying. I offer a tissue. The mother’s eyes widen, and she tells me & her daughter how amazing I am, how great the Spider-Man plasters are, and again how lucky they are the nice man was here – because mummy forgot to bring anything.

The mother laughs when I compare my daughter’s nappy bag to a secret agents ‘go bag’, that’s always packed with necessities so we can just grab it on the way out. Plasters applied, nose wiped, the mother thanks me again and wishes us a great summer.

Warning! Stranger danger!

Moments later, I am cleaning something unsavoury from the bottom of my daughters shoe. A little girl comes up to us, intrigued about what I’m doing. Aged about 3 or 4, the girl starts asking me questions, such as what’s that picture on my daughter’s shoes “Turtles.” I reply. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

It was a nice conversation. Suddenly, her mother strides over and pulls the girl away from us without looking at me or saying anything until they stop beneath a nearby tree, where the little girl is admonished for talking to a “strange man”. The girl looks perplexed. Her mother then drags her back to a huddle of other parents in the centre of the playground – a collective I call the mum-hub.

This is a place where stay-at-home dads fear to tread

This is an elusive and distant group. I have never been invited into its confines. The other week, I spotted a mum who I had met before, who I had been chatting to at a pre-school visit we had both attended, whom I had since exchanged hellos with on the street and in the supermarket. She seemed nice, and I was looking forward to chatting to her again. I made eye contact and smiled, hoping to get at least a smile in return, and she immediately looked away. She spent the afternoon laughing enthusiastically with her fellow mum-hubbers, ignoring me even when nearby.

I have never seen any dads in the mum-hub. Not even partners. The mum-hub is usually a child-free zone too, a place of adult conversation while their children fend for themselves – laughing, playing, fighting, falling, getting stuck, getting bullied, crying. Today, there was lots of crying and distressed pre-school children that needed the attention of strangers before their parent in the hub noticed. Yet, the reaction was swift when a little girl decided to talk to me, the strange man.

None of the other mums I know – actually know as opposed to one I chatted to once – are ever in the hub either, nor was the friendly mother who I offered the Spider-Man plasters to. I can only assume they think nothing of a dad playing with his daughter.

Perhaps the mum-hub is in my imagination, but it represents those collections of mothers that are off limits to at-home dads like me. They exist in playgrounds, playgroups, and cafes.  They are cliques of (usually) at-home mums whose exclusively female daytime community is by design not accident, that prefer their women only social-parenting life. Who find it odd that a man might want to be at home with their children, perhaps even suspicious. Mothers like Loose Women’s Nadia Sawalha, who stated “I don’t really want to talk to them. I don’t want them to be there.”

I obviously find it sad that this is the case. I’m not going to confront them about it. There’s a bit of live and let live, but mainly because it’s pretty ugly in front of children.

What I can do is continue to be the engaged stay-at-home dad I am, take my daughter to the playground, and hopefully little girls will see that there is nothing weird, or anything to be afraid of, about a man accompanying his child there. I also hope all kids will see there’s nothing weird about a girl wearing Spider-Man plasters or Ninja Turtle shoes.

7 ways for Hasbro to sell more Star Wars toys (hint: girls)

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My daughter giving her Hasbro Leia doll (courtesy Emily) a blow-dry

Hasbro, the primary Star Wars toys licensee, has a brand developer vacancy for their Star Wars line.

Like Disney, they still see Star Wars as a boys brand – but using Hasbro’s job ad as a guide, here are 7 ways the new Brand Manager can impress their new employer by improving sales, decreasing costs, and ultimately raising profits – as well as addressing the gendered marketing issue.

In fact, it’s the solution:

‘The primary Duties & Responsibilities of the Star Wars Brand Development role:’

1. Finding innovative ways to grow higher margin businesses.
A: An innovative way to grow higher margin businesses would focus on marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys. This will increase sales with minimal additional costs.

2. Drive product innovations to better meet consumer demands.
A: Innovate by creating Star Wars products with girls in mind, meeting their additional consumer demand. Also market the entire brand to both girls and boys – girls will also buy existing products that are currently (but erroneously) deemed as ‘boys’ toys, and boys will purchase many products you might think of as being for ‘girls’.

3. Develop overall go-to-market product strategy.
A: The strategy needs to focus on the fact that Star Wars is a brand that appeals to both boys and girls, as well as their Star Wars fan parents. Create product for, and market the brand to, all of them.

4. Find ways to decrease development costs and gain efficiencies.
Decrease development costs by marketing current products to girls as well as boys. Efficiencies would be gained by selling an already existing product to a new market with minimal additional cost.

5. Keep up to date on modern manufacturing trends, technologies and competitive practices.
A: Be competitive – and modern – by marketing Star Wars to girls as well as boys.

6. Work with global brand strategy & marketing team to develop special and exclusive products.
A: The global brand strategy for the development of all special and exclusive products must include marketing the Star Wars brand to girls as well as boys, to increase sales.

7. Become the global insights expert and leverage learning across product lines.
A: An insight that Hasbro must learn: The Star Wars brand is in an almost unique position as (despite Hasbro’s insistence that it’s a ‘boys’ brand) it actually appeals to girls too. Additional product made with girls in mind can certainly be produced, but the overall brand is unisex. In addition, today’s parents would have grown up with Star Wars, back when it had overt cross gender appeal, so parents of boys and/or girls will be be primed to purchase product for the daughters as well as their sons. Hasbro should be including, rather than excluding girls from the Star wars brand, as it will lead to increased sales for the entire line. 

OK, it’s not really 7 ways – they all have basically the same answer: Girls.

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‘I am the way’

But you have to admit, the plan has a singular clarity to it.

The successful applicant can now arrive as saviour, with a bold game changing strategy that benefits all.

Or to put it another way, the Chosen One can finally fulfil the prophecy of bringing (gender) balance to the Force.

I posted an earlier version of this piece here.

Who created Batman? His secret identity isn’t Bruce Wayne – it’s Bill Finger

Who created Batman? If you know a little bit about comics, you probably think that Bob Kane created the caped crusader. In fact if you know a lot about comics you still might think he created Batman. That’s exactly what Bob Kane always wanted you to think.  But Bob Kane lived in the Batcave that Bill Finger built.

Bob Kane's original Batman - Birman
Who created Batman? Bob Kane’s version before showing it to Bill Finger

On a Friday sometime prior to the character’s 1939 debut comic hitting the stands, Kane had promised his publisher a great new character by Monday. In his struggle for an idea, he came up with ‘Bird-Man’, a masked Flash Gordon rip-off with wings. Kane had the good sense to show his work in progress to his friend – a writer named Bill Finger, who set about creating a better character instead.

So, who created Batman?

Basically, almost everything that is iconic and cool about Batman, Finger came up with – his outfit, his origin, his alter-ego, his lack of superpowers, being a detective, the Batmobile, Gotham City, and even (in collaboration) supporting characters like Robin, Catwoman, Riddler, and the Joker.

“Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot,” – Bill Finger, Detective Comics (1939)

It was an instant hit. What followed for Kane was a career of taking credit for Finger’s and then others work, and being paid handsomely for it. The writers and artists got what Kane considered a fair page rate, but far less than he was paid by the publisher and with no credit or royalties. As a businessman, you have to admire Bob Kane – in the way you might admire Donald Trump or Tony Montana.

Despite the fact that this all is common knowledge in the comics industry, for decades DC would not name Finger as co-creator of Batman. The rumour is that Kane pretended he signed his original contract as a minor (which would’ve been illegal), and blackmailed DC precursor National into a new contract naming him as the sole creator of Batman, in perpetuity.

If it wasn’t for Bill Finger, ‘Bird-Man’ not Batman would be the icon we know today. No, scratch that. Kane’s Bird-Man would have obviously faded into obscurity as the highly derivative creation it was.

Like many of his peers, Bill Finger’s comic book career consisted mostly of anonymous writing for a basic page rate. He passed away over 40 years ago in 1974. Bob Kane survived him a further 24 years until 1998. But in death, Bob did acknowledge a co-creator for Batman on his headstone – but sadly, it’s not who you think…

Bob Kane's headstone. No mention of Bil Finger as co-creator of Batman - Only God.
Who created Batman? Bob Kane’s headstone. No mention of Bil Finger as co-creator of Batman – Only God.

Yup – God. As co-creators go, you could do a lot worse than THE creator I guess. God was not available for comment.

As mentioned, DC have not actually named Bill Finger as a Batman creator, but they have done the best they can – crediting him as the writer of Detective Comics no.27, the first appearance of The Bat-Man, on the cover of DC’s 75th anniversary edition of the issue.

Despite my love of superheroes, I’m not one to advocate violence because a) it’s usually wrong, and b) I’m a coward. But I can’t help thinking about the following tale that famed comicbook artist & writer Jim Steranko told his followers on Twitter.

So, as well as remembering Bill Finger, the man who created Batman as we know him today, Bat-fans can also celebrate the time Jim Steranko bat-slapped Bob Kane 🙂

Bob Kane – you’ve been Steranko’d!

Jim Steranko slapped Bob Kane
Jim Steranko

‘I hadn’t encountered Kane in my travels, but at one rockin’ SDCC (San Diego Comic-Con), an associate asked me if I wanted to meet him, and walked me into a hallway.

There he was, in a small group of people, wearing patent-leather shoes– and an ASCOT, like he was Vitamin f******g Flintheart in a Dick Tracy cartoon.

For years, I’d heard how he’d taken credit for Bill Finger’s contributions (in addition to half his pay) and other despicable tales from his associates. But nothing aces an in-person encounter.

We were introduced and Kane began talking about my Batman chapter in the HISTORY OF COMICS, which treated him–and everyone else–very respectfully. He felt I credited Robinson & Finger (both of whom I knew intimately) too much. Kane (aka Kahn) was beyond pretentious, an intolerable ass as pompous as they come. I bit my tongue while he regaled us with his many achievements.

The group was waiting for an elevator, which they stepped into when the door opened. Our conversation ended, but not before he said: “See you later, Jim, baby,”and cuffed me across the face–like some rat-pack street gesture he’d seen in some cheap flick. The doors closed…I was stunned by the sheer audacity of a stranger–like him–to lay a hand on me, and boiling with anger.

That night, I couldn’t sleep and the next morning began combing the halls for his Bat Majesty. Around noon, I found him in another group, which I walked into. “Good to see you, Bob, baby!” I said, then bitch bat-slapped him across the face.

But this time, there was no elevator door closing between us. I stood there for about 15 seconds, waiting. He did nothing. I turned and left. But I regret it now. I regret that he didn’t do anything about it, even though he was at least a head taller than me. I wouldn’t have minded bleeding at all for one more opportunity to give Kane the kind of Bat Lesson that Finger, Robinson, Sprang and others only dreamed of.

Finger was THE creative force behind Batman.

ALL the cool Bat elements are his concepts.’

The Batman
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Batman © DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.