The NERF Rebelle: Why Gendered Toys are the Wrong Direction
Three things you need to know first:
- I got to see this before the Toy Fair because of press privileges. So I’m writing it “then” and not “now.” I’ll update this if new stuff comes out from the Toy Fair.
- I am a feminist.
- I grew up with both boy and girl toys.
So Hasbro is guilty of selling gendered toys like any other toy company. MLP, Monster High and Easy Bake is for girls; NERF, action figures and Star Wars is for boys. The lines have blurred as time goes on, of course. With the brony fandom, the lines have really blurred.
Now, Hasbro is going to release a subline of the NERF guns known as NERF Rebelle.
Pictured is the HeartBreaker bow. The EW piece reads:
Hasbro is hoping to hit a bullseye with its next high-profile launch — a new brand of Nerf toys aimed specifically at girls. The line, called Nerf Rebelle, will feature projectiles that have the same power as the top items in the brand’s Nerf Elite line — but come wrapped in a prettier package and designed to encourage the collaborative play Hasbro has found girls prefer. Aspiring Princess Meridas and Katniss Everdeens can own the first Rebelle product — called the Heartbreaker bow — this fall.
The article mentions that they did a lot of research to made this. But it also says
Trying to encourage girls to buy existing Nerf toys or easing up the gendered overtones of those products was never really on the table: “This is an entirely ground-up effort.”
The Heartbreaker bow comes with collectable darts bearing different colors and designs; there’s a Rebelle app that allows girls to play collaboratively and encourages teamwork; the bow’s size and ergonomics have been tweaked so that girls as young as 6 can activate it easily.
But what about that name, “Heartbreaker” — which seems to inject an element of romance that wouldn’t be there if the bow were designed for boys, or even made to be gender neutral? “I think sometimes maybe adults are more concerned with these things than girls are,” Frascotti said. “I think the girls we tested it with just thought it was a cool name.”
So what does this all mean?
To me, it feels that Hasbro found a way to capitalize on two female archer characters, Merida from Disney/Pixar’s Brave and Katniss from The Hunger Games. Hasbro said that they could have removed the heavy-handed gendered advertising with existing NERF products, but they didn’t. They never even considered that option. They wouldn’t allow it.
Look at some existing NERF guns.
They’re mostly yellow and orange, colors that don’t have a specific gender connotation to them. There’s one that’s blue. Sometimes they release glow-in-the-dark or clear ones. The reason why NERF guns are bright yellow and orange is to make it painfully obvious that these are toy guns. The orange cap on the tip of the barrel is a somewhat-universal sign of “toy gun.”
So, why does the HeartBreaker have to be pink, white and black? Because that’s what “girls want.” And girls want toys that scream “HEY IM A GIRL” and separate them from “boy toys,” Hasbro is saying.
If you’ve ever played with NERF guns, you know that “collectible darts” is complete bullshit. You’re not going to get darts back. They’re going to be trampled and ruined, they’re going to be lost in the woods. That’s why you can buy a bag of 100 for cheap, because they’re disposable, just like any other round of ammunition.
Yet Hasbro feels that for girls to play, they need to have everything be pretty, including the ammo. By making it collectible, you’re making it have more value. This can lead to a girl abstaining from the trigger to prevent loss of her “collectible” and therefore valuable ammo. Even the normal ammo is bright pink and teal, further segregating GI Jane from a play game of war with the GI Joes.
The name “Rebelle” is a feminized version of “rebel.” But why is that needed? Why does a female rebel have to be special or different? This goes into the direct comparison of Katniss and Merida.
Let’s take a look at these two role models.
Merida connects with her very masculine father because he doesn’t make her do things she doesn’t want to, like wear dresses or acting like a “proper lady.” She does archery because he encourages her to. Her father gives her a bow, which looks the same as any other bow. Her arrows are the same as any other archer’s. Her skill is impressive because that’s what she’s passionate about, not because she has a vagina. Her mother (in the beginning) is much like the patriarchy in that she’s trying to mold Merida in what she “should,” be, a proper lady who wears a pretty dress and keeps calm and reserved. Merida fights this and it causes shenanigans. At the end of the movie, Merida’s mother accepts who her daughter is and lets her do whatever the hell she wants.
Merida is a rebel against patriarchy and gender roles.
Katniss is a girl who lives in an oppressive country. She hunts with a normal bow and arrow in order to keep her family from starving, as that’s all she can do to help in her situation. She knowingly sacrifices herself so her little sister doesn’t have to die in the Hunger Games. While she prepares for the games, she wants to make sure that people recognize her and her actions as a big proverbial middle finger to the government. Peeta wants to help her out since he loves her, but she doesn’t give a shit about love. She needs to survive so she can protect her sister and her family. She does whatever she can to survive. She ONLY fosters the love interest with Peeta “for the ratings,” as doing so will keep her family alive.
Katniss is a rebel against oppression.
Hasbro, I feel, only sees girls who use bows and think “Yeah, girls want to do that, too.” Hasbro is missing all the subtext and complicated facets of each character. Wielding a bow doesn’t make these girls rebels, it’s their actions and world views that make them rebels. Neither Merida nor Katniss would use a bow that looks like the HeartBreaker because they know it’ll make them more visible in the woods, and therefore an easier target. They would scoff at the notion of collectible ammo.
Hasbro says that female NERF guns are to encourage collaborative play. The two movie rebel girls don’t collaborate, as it’s them vs the world. Merida has to keep her father and his court from killing her mom, she has to fight with her mom to communicate her own world view, she has to fight a literal monster. Katniss has to fight every other tribute, she has to fight society, she has to fight the expectation that anyone from District 12 is a piece of shit district. No one is on their side, no one is helping them. Yet Hasbro thinks that girls pretending to be Katniss are going to want to work with others?
And finally, the name of the HeartBreaker. It paints a picture of a girl turning down a guy because she’s a strong independent woman who don’t need no man, that this is something to be mourn, that this is a woman to go after despite her already saying “no?” Hasbro brushes it off, saying that only “adults” are worried about the sexist connotations of a name.
Unfortunately, indoctrination into patriarchy starts young. As soon as a parent knows the gender of the baby, they unconsciously make plans for it. They paint the room pink, buy dolls and flowery bed sheets. Or they’ll paint the room blue, buy race car sheets, buy a teddy bear. As children grow up, advertisements tell them that girls play with Barbie and My Little Pony, that boys play with Hot Wheels and Socker Boppers. Girls want to eat the salad at McDonald’s, men buy the Baconator at Wendy’s. Women are nurses and men are doctors.
It may seem like I’m over-analyzing this, but reinforcement of harmful gender norms, erasure of strong female role models and singling out and labeling of girls who “try to be one of the boys” is only further pushing women into the constrictive confines of the patriarchy. We can’t expect women to be effective soldiers if we hand them pink guns as children and give boys more realistic ones. We can’t expect women to be engineers if we give them pink ovens and make up sets to play with but give boys LEGOs and chemistry sets.
We can’t expect to move forwards as a society if we choose to tell over 50% of the world’s population that they’re not worth the same as men.
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