Gone 'girl'?: A look at how the lines that define the 'girls' market' are blurring

Billy Langsworthy

By Billy Langsworthy

June 9th 2015 at 11:05AM
UPDATED June 17th 2015 at 3:54PM
Gone 'girl'?: A look at how the lines that define the 'girls' market' are blurring

While Avengers fans have been asking ‘Where are all the Black Widow toys?’, news of female Transformers toys and DC Super Hero Girls action figures suggest the lines that define the traditional ‘girls’ market’ are beginning to blur. Billy Langsworthy takes a look at how new ground is being broken in this space.

Think of the girl’s market and traditionally, sectors like dolls, dress-up and role-play spring to mind.

It’s been the home of toy titans like Barbie, Baby Born and My Little Pony as well as being key to how some retailers lay out their stores and how some manufacturers advertise ranges.

But the lines that define the ‘girl’s market’ are beginning to blur dramatically thanks to shifting play patterns and toy lines prepared to shake up the norm and stray from tradition.

Both Hasbro and Mattel have serious plans to cater to the girl’s market via action figures, a category traditionally seen as ‘for boys’.

Hasbro is set to debut a toy line featuring an all-female cast of Transformers later this year; the result of a fan poll.

“Our female fans have demanded to be part of the story,” says Sarah Carroll, Hasbro’s senior brand manager for Transformers. “To have them be represented as well is only natural.”

Elsewhere, Mattel has teamed with DC Comics for a new line of DC Super Hero Girls action figures and fashion dolls.

The range, set to launch in 2016, will centre on the teenage years of iconic DC characters like Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Batgirl.

“Our research told us that girls want to be part of the action and not on the sideline,” Wendy Hill, brand activation director at Mattel UK tells ToyNews.

“As master toy licensee, we will create a line of characters for the action figure category, an area of the industry that has been primarily developed with boys in mind, and fashion dolls featuring strong, athletic bodies that stand on their own in heroic poses.”

Elsewhere, The Good Toy Guide’s Amanda Gummer believes these new lines signal a shift in attitudes towards toys and gender.

“There’s a big push to remove gender stereotypes in play and parents are increasingly looking for toys that appeal to girls but also provide access to play patterns traditionally associated with boys’ play,” Gummer tells ToyNews.

“It’s not clear whether the children or the parents are the driving force behind this.It will be really interesting to see how well the girls receive and play with the female Transformers.

“LEGO is an interesting case study for this. Historically LEGO was relatively unisex, but then it developed kits that made it much more of a boys’ toy.

“The launch of LEGO Friends addresses this and  appears to be popular, but I’d argue that the move towards being a boys toy was, for LEGO, artificial in the first place.”

Matt Booker, owner of Automattic Comics and Toys, stocks a wide range of action figures spanning some of the biggest film and comic brands around. In recent years, he has seen more female consumers embrace his offering.

“I’ve noticed a large growth in customer base of women of all ages,” Booker tells ToyNews.

“I’ve had a six year old girl come in, and I said ‘do you want Frozen stuff?’ and she said ‘no, I want Batman figures and Star Wars stuff’. It’s growing.”

As more and more action figures start bedding in to a new home in the girls’ space, the shift is also being reflected on the big screen.

The biggest teen franchise of the last five years stars the arrow-wielding Katniss Everdeen. The biggest animated movie of all time didn’t end with a princess being rescued by a prince, but with an act of true love between two sisters.

After the macho exploits of The Expendables, we’re soon getting an all female version (titled Expendabelles) as well as all female takes on Ghostbusters and 21 Jump Street and female-led superhero movies incoming with Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.

But before Marvel debuts Captain Marvel, it has already introduced a powerful female in the form of Black Widow, one of the stars of Avengers: Age of Ultron. While she’s kicking ass on the big screen, her presence at retail has been somewhat meeker.

High-end firms like Hot Toys have released Black Widow figures (for around $300 a pop no less) and she has appeared in LEGO form, but the assassin has been missing from most Avengers toy sets, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Hulk himself, Mark Ruffalo, who took to Twitter saying ‘@Marvel we need more #BlackWidow merchandise for my daughters and nieces. Pretty please.’

It’s a criticism Disney has faced before with the Star Wars franchise, when #WeWantLeia started trending on Twitter. The studio soon announced incoming Leia merchandise, but only time will tell if the same will happen with Widow.

But just as action figures are gaining ground on fashion dolls, this isn’t, and shoudn’t, be a case of replacing feminine led play, but is instead more about offering options alongside it.

And over in the States, The One World Dolls Project has been shaking up the traditional doll market with a range catering to youngsters who previously couldn’t see themselves on toy shelves.

Stacey McBride and her business partner Trent T. Daniel decided to launch her line of multi-cultural Prettie Girls fashion dolls following the success she experienced at Mattel having created the So In Style line of African American Barbie dolls.

“From the minority and multicultural communities, there was an overwhelming reaction,” Daniel tells ToyNews.

“We are experiencing a complete social shift around the world where we’re seeing greater efforts of inclusion all across the board. We encompass diversity and the toy industry is starting to mould itself to what society wants, rather than what the manufacturers were providing.”

Elsewhere, 3D printed doll firm Makie has introduced a line of dolls bearing birthmarks, scars, hearing aides and walking sticks. The range, a response to the #ToyLikeMe campaign for ‘greater diversity in the toybox’, will soon also welcome a wheelchair bound character.

At the Women in the World summit in New York earlier this year, movie star Meryl Streep said: “We read all of literature, all of history; it’s really about boys, most of it. But I can feel more like Peter Pan than Tinker Bell or Wendy. I wanted to be Tom Sawyer, not Becky. And we’re so used to that act of empathising with the protagonist of a male-driven plot. That’s what we’ve done all our lives.”

If a female Transformers team, DC Super Girls action figures or fashion dolls that offer a vision of beauty other than blue eyes and blonde hair promote inclusion and help more girls engage with figures they can fundamentally relate to, it’s proof of just another important role this industry plays in the wider scheme of things.