Black Widow: girls and boys need more kick-ass female Avengers action figures

Scarlett Johansson

Even the Hulk wants to see more Black Widow toys.

For real: during April’s Avengers: Age of Ultron promotional tour, star Mark Ruffalo took to Twitter and made a small demand.

A valid point that also explains why his request prompted a response from Disney Consumer Products – who immediately started doing damage control.

“Black Widow is a staple in the Marvel Universe with a robust consumer products program,” the company said in a statement to Vanity Fair. “Tied to The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Marvel has over 60 Black Widow SKUS [stock keeping units] across diverse categories such as Hot Wheels, action figures, video games, T-shirts, costumes, and collectibles, with even more products available for back to school and Halloween.”

And hey, that’s great. By addressing Ruffalo’s concerns in such a public and timely way, Disney obviously understands the urgency in levelling the playing field for the male and female superheroes. But to put their statement in a little more perspective, the back-to-school shopping season is several months away, and Halloween is even longer. On top of that? Sixty lines pales in comparison to the seemingly umpteen available for Marvel heroes such as Captain America, Iron Man, or even Thor. (Hell, even Loki.) Black Widow is a boss who shouldn’t need a crusade to increase the availability of character-based products. (Especially since it’s not as if Disney’s not exactly an independent startup. The funds are there.)

The problem is, Black Widow is being treated less like a boss, and more like The Girl Character™ – which has been especially evident over the last couple of weeks, with everything from Ruffalo having to deflect sexist press questions to co-stars Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans calling her a whore. So, yes: the sexism surrounding this character is very real. And having to fight for toys is another huge indicator of that.

The thing is, this concern over the availability of Black Widow merchandise comes at time when Disney and Marvel can start again – or at least start visibly trying. This isn’t the first time the company’s been called out for excluding Black Widow (Nerdist published a takedown in January), but it’s the first time one of the franchise’sstars has drawn attention to the problem. And it’s also the first time that Disney publicly acknowledged the issue – as well as the first time two stars (Renner and Evans) made frantic apologies following a Black Widow joke. The landscape is changing, and Disney has a chance to embrace it and to help usher in an era in which strong female characters are just as celebrated as dudes who don’t wear sleeves.

To start this now would be key – especially since the summer’s next biggest blockbuster (Jurassic World) has already come under fire from Avengers director Joss Whedon, who scrutinised the trailer, for marketing Bryce Dallas Howard’s character as “a stiff” compared with co-star Chris Pratt’s “life-force”. So, by increasing the availability of Black Widow products now (or as soon as humanly possible), Disney would reiterate the importance of women in the action movie world – or they would at least send the message that female characters deserve more than just being The Girl™. Also, they would help set the precedent when it comes to tie-in merchandise down the road – especially with the release of Star Wars next year. (Lest we forget how Leia was unrepresented toy-wise in comparison to Luke, Han, and Darth Vader.)

Ultimately, the lack of Black Widow toys on store shelves is less about the actual pieces, and more about the message their absence sends: that women aren’t as worthy of representation, that “toys for girls” are unpopular, and that hyper-masculinity prevails over all other character traits. And considering we’re living in an era in which we’re working very hard to diminish gender constraints, to under-represent such an important character tells boys that it’s OK to overlook Black Widow as a person, to consider her as lesser because she’s not a boy, and to diminish her narrative or character traits as just an extension of gender and nothing else.

And what it tells girls is even worse: that you can kick ass, take names, and save the lives of the heroes you see marketed everywhere, but – despite all those things you’re still “just a girl”. Here’s hoping that Disney’s finally gotten the message and that by December, we’ll be singing the praises of there being just as many Rey toys as there are of Poe Dameron.

Powered by article was written by Anne T Donahue, for on Friday 1st May 2015 17.49 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010