Jeneé Osterheldt

Female superheroes get the hammer again

It’s about time the Avengers’ Black Widow gets more screentime and more space on toy shelves. #WheresNatasha
It’s about time the Avengers’ Black Widow gets more screentime and more space on toy shelves. #WheresNatasha Marvel

Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and Hawkeye are cool, but Black Widow and Scarlet Witch kick butt in “Avengers: Age of Ultron

You wouldn’t know it from toy aisles and T-shirts, though. As usual, the women are hard to find.

But fans are fighting back.

“I have two daughters,” says John Marcotte, the 43-year-old Sacramento, Calif., father behind HeroicGirls.com, championing female superheroes in media and merchandising. “When we go to the store, we can’t find anything for them. They don’t make action figures for girls; they don’t make T-shirts for little girls. They are not being given the same type of heroic role modeling as boys.

“And I realized it’s not just a problem for little girls. Little boys are subtly being told women can’t be looked up to as role models, women are not important and women aren’t strong. When there is no Black Widow in the superhero aisle it’s telling them she is not for you.”

Last summer, after his daughters Anya, 10, and Stella, 8, saw “Guardians of the Galaxy,” they were all about Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Though the audience was 44 percent female, finding her image proved to be a treasure hunt.

Unfortunately, the search is on again, this time for Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). Maybe we can give the industry a pass on Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) because we’re still getting to know her. But Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, such a prominent character in several Marvel movies, belongs on toy shelves.

Much like the popular #WhereIsGamora hashtag of last year, Marcotte started #WheresNatasha with pictures of his daughters posing with backpacks and action figure sets that feature only the male Avengers. Thousands of people have joined in.

Even Mark Ruffalo, who plays Bruce Banner/Hulk, took Marvel to task on Twitter in front of his 1.48 million followers, with a very Banner approach — kind but to the point:

@Marvel we need more #BlackWidow merchandise for my daughters and nieces. Pretty please.

Marcotte says it comes down to gender stereotypes. Toy aisles are divided along a very pink-or-blue mindset.

About half of comic book fans are women and girls, so it doesn’t add up. Hot Topic teamed with Ashley Eckstein’s Her Universe, a collection of fan gear for women and teens. The pre-orders for the May 12 launch have mostly sold out. But product is most scarce for little girls. Marcotte says the offerings are always limited and quick to sell out.

Which is odd, since comic books are more diverse than ever. Yes, there are still some woman-hating fanboys and hypersexualized illustrations, but overall, comics are moving in the right direction. Women are taking on the roles of Captain Marvel, Thor and more.

Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, and a few of the titles, including “The All-New, All-Different Avengers” and “Teen Titans Go!” feature female leads. But if the comic book world is open to change, why is the other merchandise so far behind?

“For so long, female superheroes have been mistreated, and I think women’s roles in general are often oversimplified and generic and saccharine,” Johansson tells the Los Angeles Times.

“I see it as a vestigial remnant of this kind of sexist sort of mindset. It’s certainly nice that people are noticing and talking about it, whereas before it would just kind of be like, ‘Well, you know, it’s long pajamas and they’re for boys, so of course it’s all the guys on them.’ It’s a conversation that people are having — ‘Where’s all the girls? We want more. We want to see females in this genre who are not the stick in the mud or the damsel in distress or the girlfriend waiting by the window. We want to see characters who reflect the environment that we’re a part of.’”

In the near future, we’re going to get a “Wonder Woman” movie as well as a woman starring as “Captain Marvel” in the film. But what about the product?

Female heroes are often segregated into niche offerings. DC Comics and Mattel recently teamed up to present a line “just for girls.” This fall, Bumblebee, Batgirl, Supergirl and other superheroines will grace action figures, Lego building sets and gear for the tween set. There will be TV specials, too. Is it great to see girl power? Yes. But keeping out boys only hurts the win.

“I don’t want to cast shade until I see what they develop,” Marcotte says. “But I would have liked to see girl superheroes be integrated rather than separated. What message are we sending to boys? They can’t look up to female superheroes, too? They can’t respect and admire strong women? Playing to gender stereotypes might sell toys because kids like it. But kids also like Twinkies and soda. But it’s bad for them and it has negative consequences.”

Separate but equal is not the superhero way.

To reach Jeneé Osterheldt, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. “Like” her page on Facebook and never miss a column. On Twitter @jeneeinkc.

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