How many young women — young black women — went into space programs or into acting because of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols? Astronaut Mae Jemison and actress Whoopi Goldberg both specifically credit watching this black woman in a uniform on the bridge of a starship — not a maid, not a hooker, not a criminal — as their inspiration for pursuing their goals.
Visibility is key when it comes to changing things. We have to see women in roles traditionally only for men. People of color in roles traditionally held by whites. Transgender people as people rather than punchlines.
This is even more true when it comes to children. Children are constantly watching for cues on how they are supposed to behave, what they are supposed to like, what they are supposed to say. How many budding young engineers were stifled by being offered the options of only pink princesses or purple unicorns to play with? And how many young men have been trained that girls don’t matter by the complete lack of female characters offered on the blue aisle?
Marvel is doing a lot of things right when it comes to the depiction of women . Not everything, but a lot of things. Their TV shows and movies show women in authority, in power. Real, complex characters. I give them credit for it.
Where they’re failing us is in marketing and merchandising.
Gamora and Black Widow are almost entirely absent from the merchandise for Guardians of the Galaxy and Avengers.
According to an article on Uproxx this is a deliberate choice on the part of Disney/Marvel. “The desired demographics had no females in it whatsoever,” said a former Marvel employee. “I asked my supervisor why that was … he said, ‘That’s not why Disney bought us. They already have the girls’ market on lockdown.’”
They are making the assumption that a boy who will buy a shirt with Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, and Captain America, will not buy it if they add Black Widow to it. I think they’re wrong.
Worse, that decision tells boys that women don’t count. Sure, Black Widow is there, fighting alongside the rest of the team, but the real Avengers are the guys. That women can work along the guys, but can be left out when it comes time to give the credit.
Not to mention what it tells girls.
When I was twelve, I would have desperately wanted that t-shirt with Gamora on it. I would have desperately wanted that Black Widow action figure. And I would not have been happy with a princess dress instead. Nor would I have been happy so see the only role models the movies offered me ignored.
Marketing and merchandising has tremendous power. Put Black Widow on an Avenger’s t-shirt, Marvel! She’s earned it. Little girls seeking a role model have earned it. Little boys trying to learn what’s right and wrong have earned it too. Make it right.