Disney has an on-going problem when it comes to lady action figures and swag. With the exception of their Princesses and Tinkerbell, Disney tends to forget their female action stars exist when it comes to merchandising them. It happened with “Guardians of the Galaxy.” It happened with “Star Wars Rebels.” There”s even a Tumblr called But Not Black Widow dedicated to pointing out these disappearing heroines. It”s been an issue since action figures and summer blockbusters made a deal with capitalism devil.
And now it”s happening with “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
Today, Marvel”s released the list of merchandise available on Marvel.com and DisneyStore.com for the upcoming film. Between the two sites, Black Widow shows up a grand total of thrice. Once in a video game starter pack, once on a men's shirt, and once as a shopping bag. Scarlet Witch fares even worse, showing up a grand total of zero* times.
*Hawkeye doesn”t fare much better, being stripped from most clothing merchandise or replaced by Vision.
My immediate reaction to this is that the old divide that superhero toys are for boys and princesses are for girls, lives on.
So here are my thoughts to Disney: Between Disney Animated Studios, Pixar Animation, Marvel Studios, and Lucasfilm, you are the world”s greatest commercial influence on childhood. Don”t put up a bar to what kind of toys kids should play with, whether on purpose or due to the outdated idea that women like glitter and men like grit. To use a completely over-the-top paraphrase, “With great power, comes great merchandising responsibility.”
You”re already on the right track. Way back in 2010, you realized boys might like princess movies. This was something parents have known for years. It”s not just girls who can sing every Disney Renaissance song by heart. You went out of your way to court boys to come see “Tangled”. But you stumbled at the finish line, assuming boys wouldn”t see a movie with the word “princess” in it after the ‘failure” of “The Princess and The Frog.” That led to the current model that uses a single word to describe your animated films. Please stop thinking boys and men will spontaneously combust if you so much as put a feminine pronoun in the same hemisphere.
Yet audiences don”t need femininity scrubbed out in order to flock to the theater, according to the numbers. Top Domestic Grosses (adjusted for inflation) have both “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (#10) and “Sleeping Beauty” (#31) put in an appearance, outranking the likes of “Ghostbusters” (#32) and “Batman” (#50). Even without adjustment for inflation, Snow White still clocks in at #15 for all time domestic gross for G-Rated films. “Pocahontas,” “Mulan,” and “The Little Mermaid” all rank in the Top 40. Statistically, some of those tickets were purchased by humans with an XY chromosome.
Even the much maligned “The Princess and The Frog,” ranks at #34 with over $100 million. Considered a failure, it outperformed the traditional non-princess animated Disney fare that preceded it by leaps and bounds.
Disney needs to have this same epiphany – that courting women across all your ventures is a viable marketing option – for Marvel and Star Wars. You don”t have to scrub out all traces of masculinity for ladies to to watch superheroes punch robots. They”re already watching. Just like dudes are already watching a young Queen learn to control her ice powers. Girls don”t want to date superheroes, they want to BE superheroes. And boys don”t need to learn to minimize the impact of women”s accomplishments from a lunchbox.
Edit 4/20/15 – An early version of this article stated Black Widow appeared two times.