It's happening again. Another comic book movie is coming out, and once again the female characters are getting excluded from toys and merchandising. This is becoming a pattern we can now rely on, like the sun rising or Chris Pratt taking a role in every franchise. Marvel will make movies with kick-ass women in them, and then every company producing products for that movie will just act like they don't exist. You're no different than all the others, "Avengers: Age of Ultron!"
Over the past few weeks, a number of companies have unveiled their "Age of Ultron" toy products. There are LEGO sets, Hasbro action figures in two scales, Funko products (including plush dolls, "Wacky Wobblers," keychains and Pop Vinyl figures big and small) and Diamond Select's 7-inch figures and MiniMates. Between those four toy companies, the representation is exactly what you would expect it to be -- which is a nicer way of saying "a plastic sausage fest."
Of the six headlining Avengers, Hawkeye has 6 toys, Captain America and Hulk have 10 toys each, Thor has 11 toys and Iron Man has 17 toys. Black Widow has 4. Iron Man has 17, Black Widow has 4 -- a LEGO MiniFig, a MiniMate, a Diamond Select figure and a tiny Funko Pop Vinyl. Most of her four figures are nowhere near as affordable as her male counterparts. The only way to get a tiny Natasha is to either plop down cash for the "Avengers Quinjet Chase" LEGO set or try your luck with the blind-boxed Funko Mystery Mnis. Thankfully, Diamond Select's MiniMates are affordable and you'll get one of seventeen Iron Man toys with your Black Widow. The 7-incher is $24.99, which is about four times as much as figures offered in the 3.25" scale -- you know, the scale that has every headlining Avenger except for Black Widow. Scarlet Witch, whose role in the film is still kind of a mystery, fares even worse: she has two, a LEGO MiniFig and a MiniMate.
So yeah, this isn't surprising considering what happened when "Marvel's the Avengers" came out in 2012. Black Widow, the character who had the third most screentime in the film, was virtually nonexistent in retail stores across the country while her teammates bro'd out on everything from bed sheets to backpacks. The person behind the But Not Black Widow Tumblr did what I did pretty much every time I stepped into a Target between 2012 and 2014, except they actually took photographic evidence of the cause of their frustration.
When "Guardians of the Galaxy" opened last year, I got proactive and started Except For Gamora, because I knew she would be underrepresented even though the Guardians only have five members in the cast. One could give licensors the benefit of a doubt and assume they thought that six Avengers on one tiny notepad would be too crowded. That doesn't excuse their decision to always remove Black Widow before any of the male characters, but whatever. There are only five Guardians. Every licensor could fit five Avengers on everything, they should be able to fit five Guardians on everything. One of them's even raccoon-sized, so he takes up less space! I was not surprised to learn that licensors could always find room for Star-Lord, Rocket, Groot and Drax, but still excluded Gamora on t-shirts and all the backpacks.
This is very much a problem. Young girls that like superheroes -- and they do and always have liked superheroes -- are still being denied action figures and merchandise with female heroes on them. This undermines the progress made by Marvel's movies and TV shows, which include action-oriented characters like Black Widow, Maria Hill, Gamora, Sif, Nebula, Melinda May and Peggy Carter. Rendering these characters invisible while heightening the profiles of Star-Lord and Iron Man perpetuates the idea that female heroes and male heroes are intrinsically different -- and that one of them somehow isn't cool enough to be on backpacks.
To people that still roll their eyes about this because it's more "liberal feminist whiney blah blah blah," think about how this affects men (probably not that hard to do!). Think about what this lack of female representation does to boys, boys who see women kicking just as much ass on the big screen but then see only merchandise and toy lines where everyone without a Y chromosome has been removed. The classic excuse we always hear, that boys don't buy female action figures, is a self-fulfilling prophecy rooted in sexism. How are boys supposed to buy female action figures if they don't exist? And why should they want an action figure of the one character that is absent from every promotional group shot? This exclusion makes them seem secondary and different. On the off chance a female action figure does get made, they've traditionally been limited to one figure per case in order to make room for all the Iron Mans. This makes them impossible for anyone that's not an obsessive eBayer to have.
I don't get this, and I've never gotten this. I always wanted action figures of female characters. In fact, the action figure adventures I orchestrated as a kid never felt complete specifically because the shows and movies and comics I loved had women in key roles -- and my toy box was a frat house. I never had a Scarlett or Lady Jaye despite them being leads in a ton of "G.I. Joe" episodes. Thankfully "Captain Planet" repped for gender equality in the early '90s; I had to use Linka and Gi as various X-women for a while. I could never find Storm, who was released in the first wave of X-Men figures and then quickly disappeared from toy shelves. And yeah, I partly wanted Storm because my Forge figure needed someone to make ill-advised marriage proposals to. Finding Kenner's mid-'90s Princess Leia figure was tough. That was the first time that I really started equating female figures with the words "short-packed" and "price gouging."
I have to admit that I thought things would be a little different for Black Widow this time around, and then the is-it-really-official Marvel Canada Twitter asked this question.
The demi-god, the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist & the super-soldier - who are you most excited to see in #AvengersAgeOfUltron?
- Marvel Canada (@MarvelEntCA) January 19, 2015
Notice the lack of Black Widow? So did a lot of people, enough to declare her the winner.
- Marvel Canada (@MarvelEntCA) January 21, 2015
And I'm going to try to glass-half-full this for a second: while Natasha's lack of a Hasbro or Funko figure is certainly disheartening, at least she's not getting cropped out of group shots on some licensed products. In a rundown of items, Black Widow's on everything except for the bed sheets. Yeah, Black Widow is on the "Age of Ultron" backpacks! Hopefully this trend of inclusion continues as the rest of "AOU's" merch is rolled out.
When it comes to Marvel's products, this is about making them accurately represent what is onscreen. The Marvel movies have women in them, more and more as time goes on. "Age of Ultron" will have at least three female heroes (Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Maria Hill), and odds are they'll have a lot of screen time. These aren't third-tier characters, and they aren't civilians, love interests or sidekicks. These characters are heroes and deserve to be treated the same way other heroes are. I know this is asking for a lot of disparate licensors and merchandisers, all of whom have different priorities, rules and regulations, to get on the same page, but I feel like if one company could make gender equality a priority, it would be a little company called Disney.
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).