Written by Catie Wilkins


Let stories be stories… and bring back She-Ra

Gamora-less T-shirts offer the latest example of gender segregation for fun-size consumers. Children’s author Catie Wilkins ponders what could be behind the trend, and wonders where the power of Greyskull is when you need it.

A young Catie never had trouble indulging her admiration for the goddess that was She-Ra. 21st century fans of Gamora can’t say the same thing

Feminist documentary film Miss Representation (2011) makes the important point that when it comes to the ambitions of young girls: “you can’t be what you can’t see”.

So it’s extra galling when merchandisers start playing “now you see them, now you don’t” with the few stronger female role models our culture has managed to produce.

Disney and The Children’s Place recently caused controversy by removing Gamora, the female hero from their Guardians of the Galaxy (GOTG) T-shirts.

When challenged on why one of the main heroes had been omitted, kids clothing company The Children’s Place said (presumably with a straight face): “The GOTG shirt in particular is a boy’s shirt, which is why it does not include the female character Gamora.”

Gamora! Gamora! Are you hiding?

Apparently boys can’t have a female hero. But it’s fine for girls have male ones. In fact 44% of the audience for GOTG were female. And 50% of the film’s two screenwriters (Nicole Perlman wrote it with James Gunn).

Selling something “for boys” that is clearly enjoyed by both sexes has not been received well by either parents or children who wanted to buy GOTG merchandise with Gamora on it.

It has also given my previous theory relating to what underpins gender segregation in children’s toys and clothes an (GOTG terminology alert) Infinite Stones peppering.

I’d always assumed commercial concerns were at the heart of any attempt to justify producing stuff which went out of its way to appeal to girls or boys… but not both.

Let’s take colouring books, which could surely fall easily under the unisex banner without any hint of hoo-hah. If you make these activity books look stereotypically gender specific, then parents who have boys and girls have to buy everything twice. Cunning, you’ve doubled your money. Go capitalism.

Buster Books’ response to the Let Books Be Books campaign was that their segregated colouring books – there’s The Big Brilliant Colouring Book for Boys and The Big Beautiful Colouring Book for Girls (I know) – sell well. Mind you, they’ve just brought out The Clever Kids Colouring Book so maybe a rethink is afoot.

“It’s easy to see how women have been written out of history, when they are currently being written out fiction.”

When it comes to the controversy caused by the GOTG merchandise, the money argument falls apart. Sales have been lost because Gamora has been lifted out of the picture.

And it’s not the only example.

Disney missed another trick by not having enough Princess Leia toys to meet demand; and the much applauded female Lego Scientists are all but impossible to get hold of. Shops were selling one per customer on the day of their release, and still quickly sold out. They’re now available online at extortionate prices.

Another one which perplexes me is the book cover of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. In the eighties and nineties, it was yellow. I don’t understand why it is currently pink.

Matilda is not a Princess; she’s a very clever girl who loves books. She’s a fantastic unisex hero. Yet boys are now being encouraged not to read about her, even the ones that want to.

One more exhibit – although it’s of the grown up nature.

On the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, I wanted to buy a copy. I looked online and was always met with a red cover sporting a woman putting on makeup.

I knew the book was a fairly serious affair; a coming of age story dealing with depression, alienation and sexual assault; so I assumed this couldn’t be the book I was looking for.

Eventually I found a version with the old cover, so bought that. (I read later about the outcry over the patronising new and completely misrepresentative cover, which lost the publisher my sale.)

This kind of ‘feminization’ (is that really what we have to call it?) surely goes against commercial interests.

It seems backwards that when I was a child in the 1980’s there wasn’t such a deficit of strong female role models. I loved She-Ra. I loved the cartoon, I had the books, and eventually, over enough birthdays and Christmases, I pretty much had every toy going. She-Ra was a kickass female hero and a successful multi-million dollar industry.

So now my question is this: Why are they making it so hard to get merchandise of strong female role models in our culture?

If it’s not commercial interests, then it must either be driven by stupidity or an agenda.

Is it stupidity? Are the people in charge of children’s merchandise just archaic throwbacks; so myopic that they didn’t see the success of strong female characters coming (despite the success of The Hunger Games, Frozen, Bridesmaids, She-Ra etc etc) and got caught with their pants down?

Or is there a more sinister, nefarious agenda at play?

It’s easy to see how women have been written out of history, when they are currently being written out fiction.

The good news is that the Let Books Be Books and Let Toys Be Toys campaigns – which are respectively asking publishers, retailers and manufacturers to stop infringing on a child’s freedom to choose the books and toys they want to read and play with through gender labeling and segregation – are having some encouraging successes.

Lets hope change happens soon enough that a new generation of children can be what they can see.

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Written by Catie Wilkins

Catie Wilkins is a writer, comedian and children’s author who likes jokes and stories.