‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and the Gender Marketed Merchandise
As we’ve already mentioned Funk Jr. is putting in a viewing of Wreck It Ralph daily, and we really don’t mind. With the little dudes birthday coming up I thought some toys based from the movie might be the way to go. So I moseyed (via car) to a major toy store chain to check out the goods and grab the new Lego TMNT sets. After searching high and low we found the meagre section dedicated to Wreck-It Ralph and what we saw was…idiotic.
There wasn’t much available…that isn’t the cause of our annoyance…but what was available was so needlessly and forcibly gender segregated that it’s clear the marketing company behind them went far out of their way to ignore parts of the movie in order to target specific demographics. Ralph was there, of course, with three different sizes of action figure. The medium one seemed suitable: he had an arm swinging action and a brick wall to wreck. Having nabbed him we wanted to find the rest of the cast to go with him. The last Fix It Felix Jr was unearthed, but other main characters like Vanellope and Calhoun were nowhere to be found. Time to check the back of the packaging to see what the deal is…
We have Ralph, Felix and…another Ralph. Ok, so they only went with the two most iconic characters in the film. Disappointing yes, but whatcha gonna do?
Then we saw Vanellope. She was in the designated ‘Girl’ side of the store, where all the pink bicycles are instead of the Spider-Man and Transformers branded bicycles. What we saw was not cool.
As we discussed in this previous article we love Vanellope for being a unique and layered female character in a family film, and it’s terrible seeing all that make her unique being ignored in favour of appealing to an assumed interest by a specific demographic. The first thing that stands out is that the usual color scheme has been done away with in favour of (you guessed it) pink. This is in contrast to the usual red used in all the other marketing for the film and the character. In fact, she makes a point of saying that a pink dress isn’t the real her in the film.
So they’ve made a talking Vanellope doll that doesn’t fit in with the rest of the line to appeal to girls. Does it go further than putting her in a pink box and making her talk? Let’s see…
Wait – what’s that it says in the bottom left? She comes with HAIR EXTENSIONS and a BRUSH?! Who the hell is this doll supposed to be? Did anyone who made this thing watch the movie, or make any attempt to capture the character? FUCKING HAIR EXTENSIONS?! Vanellope is homeless for goodness sake, she spends her time hiding out and sleeping under discarded candy wrappers (which takes on a whole new meaning when you consider that the population is living candy). Ralph even has a line in the film about her having dirty hair. This character, who is seen as being homeless and unkempt and in the closing scenes rejects the ‘princess’ image in favour of being herself, has been packaged as a typical girly toy with a hair brush. Some research has turned up a Vanellope action figure available overseas, but for whatever reason they elected not to distribute it internationally.
Why does this irk me so much? Well, it’s because Vanellope is one of the few good young female characters in entertainment aimed at young audiences. There’s nothing especially wrong with the Disney Princess archetype but quite often it feels like it’s become the rule rather than the exception. Wreck-It Ralph passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours (if that means something to you) and Vanellope represents something that few heroines do well – the victim of bullying. Regardless of what gets thrown at her she never stops having faith in herself. Not that she’s naive or oblivious – there are scenes where we see the weight of the world on the poor kid – but she knows what she wants and she fights for it.
As a fan of the character I was disappointed that she was being marketed this way to a demographic who could always use a few more positive role models. In this day and age toys and activities marketed towards children are more gender segregated than ever before, with everything from toddler sunglasses, crockery, skateboards, footballs and even Lego being pigeonholed specifically as being for boys or girls.
This is an age where everyone is changing their Facebook pictures to a red equals sign to support equality, but nobody is taking steps against children being forced into either the blue or the pink aisle of the toy department, at an age when they are beginning to form a sense of identity. A closer look through the shop revealed that the right side of the store was packed with action figures, super heroes, sporting goods and toy versions of power tools and lawn-mowers. The left side is all dress up packs, Barbie, toy jewellery, toy mobile phones and toy versions of household appliances (Funk Jr did ask for a toy broom, so clearly they aren’t pre-programmed to like one over the other). The girl section even features toy trolleys, which along with mobile phones and others, could just be stuck in the middle. There’s nothing to suggest that only girls should be playing with these items – except they’re all in pink.
Everything in the shop gets put in one of the two sections or it doesn’t exist. In the boys section get the Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man, Avengers and The Hobbit Lego, whilst the girl section only has a small section for horse farm and girl power Lego. The implication here is pretty clear, even if a glance at Tumblr indicates that those ‘boy’ franchises have plenty of fans in either camp.
Ralph and Felix are for the boys, and Vanellope and her hair brush is for girls. But wait…we’re forgetting someone:
Calhoun. She, like Vanellope, is a strong female character who shares an equal amount of screen time with the other three lead characters. But she doesn’t get a toy. Why not? The answer is simple: she doesn’t fit in the boy or girl toy camp. She has girl parts, so obviously the boys aren’t going to want her as an action figure. There’s no number of hair brushes or hair extensions that can make her fit the set standard toy for girls. Not that she isn’t a feminine character. Her entire backstory is centred around her wedding, and she’s one of the two characters in the movie to get a love interest. But she’s a tough, military type who commands men and uses violence to solve her problems. Most importantly, she doesn’t have any pink. She as far as the toy manufacturers are concerned, she doesn’t exist.
What I want is a complete set of characters, accurately represented. I want Calhoun and her plasma rifle, and I want Vanellope with her go-kart. I want them because when put together they make a fantastic set of characters for children to be exposed to. As it stands Funk Jr only has the two male characters in his toy box because girl characters can only be sold to girls who want to brush their hair. Funk Jr. wanted Vanellope driving her kart but it is not to be, because the people who market to children don’t know what the children want.
Children don’t want every toy they own to be the definitive male or the definitive female. If they buy a toy based on a movie then they want the toy to be as accurate to that character as possible. Whilst everyone is posting and reposting memes about equal rights for homosexuals and how girl gamers get unfairly stereotyped we need to step back and evaluate what options we’re giving our children.
Right, I’m done. I’m now going to spend twice as much money buying a Vanellope action figure with her kart on ebay. Because Funk Jr. likes her Vanellope the smart-mouthed kart racer, not Vanellope with hair brushing action.
Oh, and apologies to the store employee who had to listen to me ranting while Funk Jr reorganised the Pez display. You didn’t ask for that.