For as long as women have been interested and involved in nerd culture, an umbrella term that encompasses media like comic books, science-fiction and fantasy and the fans of these types of media, they have been excluded from it. This has been happening since at least the 1960s, when Majel Barrett’s position as First Office on the Enterprise in the television show Star Trek was given to Leonard Nimoy. It’s happening now, fifty years later, with Rey, the main character in the space opera Star Wars: The Force Awakens, who was left out of the majority of Force Awakens merchandise and is effectively treated as a minor character when she was, in fact, the star of the film. Gillian Anderson, the actress who plays Dana Scully in the science-fiction television show The X-Files was offered half of the wage that her co-star, David Duchovny, was offered to reprise her role in a reboot of the show. The women who publicly celebrate comic books, fantasy and science-fiction, whether it is at conventions, through the internet or even in their real lives, are often harassed, interrogated and generally treated as they don’t belong, despite making up a significant portion of the fan base for these types of media. Their motives behind their enjoyment of it are called into question, and the legitimacy of their fandom is tested. These tactics of exclusion and discouragement that are directed solely at female characters, the women who play them and the women who look up to them are nothing new and, though disappointing, hardly surprising.
Comic books and science-fiction and the accompanying television shows and movies do not often represent women in a manner that fairly and accurately portrays their experiences, and the female characters that are included are few and far between. The small number of female characters that do exist in these genres are held to much higher standards than comparable male characters, and they have each of their actions, lines of dialogue and outfits scrutinized, down to the most minute details. The characters are blamed for how they are written, with these critiques failing to recognize and understand that sexism and misogyny both factor into the writing of these characters, and without the acknowledgment that a female character can only go so far with writing that is riddled with sexism and misogyny. This treatment of the women involved in comics and science-fiction trickles all the way down to the production and sale of action figures. Toys have always been marketed to appeal to specific genders, and action figures, which are generally and wrongfully considered to be masculine, are marketed toward men and boys. This is representative of the sexism that runs rampant in nerd culture- it fails to recognize women and girls as a significant and valid part of the community. It fails to look beyond gender norms. It fails to include women and girls in even such a small part of nerd culture, the toys, despite their continued presence and integral contributions to the world of comics and science-fiction.
In the past two years, two popular franchises that had previously been predominantly focused on male characters released two movies that made obvious attempts to be more inclusive of women. The first was Avengers: Age of Ultron, which had both Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johannson, and Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olson. The difference between Age of Ultronand the previous Avengers movies was that this was the first time they gave the audience a glimpse into Black Widow’s life. There were movies with origin stories for the male Avengers, like The Hulk and Captain America, but they never showed how Black Widow became who she was. It also gave a backstory for Scarlet Witch, and her story was a big subplot in Age of Ultron. It seemed logical to assume that after the movie premiered, these two women would be featured alongside the male stars of the movies as action figures, and yet, they were both left out from the action figure collections and from almost all of the other merchandise that was sold. Black Widow had a scene in Avengers: Age of Ultron where she jumped out of the team’s Quinjet on a motorcycle, and the action figure that was sold as part of this scene was Captain America, though the scene was quite obviously a scene that belonged to Black Widow.
The second movie to do this was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and there was uproar about the casting selections from the Star Wars fanbase before the movie even came out. Some fans vowed to not see the movie because the three main stars were Daisy Ridley, a woman, Óscar Isaac, a Latino man and John Boyega, a Black man. These casting choices were drastically different from the previous six movies whose cast was almost entirely male and almost entirely White. It seemed like the franchise was making a conscious effort to be more inclusive in their casting and in their storytelling. The movie was about Rey and her discovering the Force within herself, and because she was the star of the movie, the fans expected her to be molded into an action figure and sold everywhere, the same way that Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were. Again, she was missing from toy collections. She was left out of packages that included Poe Dameron (Óscar Isaac’s character), who had a fraction of the screen time that Rey did. It is possible to find action figures based on Rey, but there are hardly any sets of the full cast that include her. There is hardly any merchandise at all that includes her, and if it does, she’s off to the side and not in the center, where, as the star of the movie, she should be placed.
This is a pattern with the Star Wars franchise, though. After Return of the Jedi, there were no action figures based on Leia in her iconic gold bikini, who killed Jabba the Hut and freed herself from his imprisonment. Leia was the only female character who was a part of the main cast, and her shining moment in Return of the Jedi, not as a beautiful woman in a gold bikini, but as a powerful warrior who freed herself from capture, was not recreated in toy form the way that the shining moments for her male cast members were. It wasn’t until 1997 that a figure of Leia in her gold bikini was created and it was protested almost immediately by individuals who didn’t consider her to be a good role model because of her outfit choice, neglecting the fact that it was neither Carrie Fisher’s nor Leia’s choice to be wearing the gold bikini; it was an outfit chosen by George Lucas for Carrie, and an outfit chosen by Jabba the Hut for Leia. It neglected the fact that the scene where Leia wore that outfit was groundbreaking, because of what Leia did in that outfit. Leia has quite frequently been excluded from action figure sets containing her male costars, even when she’s not dressed in the gold bikini. Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in 1977 paved the way for characters like Rey, Black Widow and Scarlet Witch, but despite that influence, these franchises never managed to learn from their mistakes.
The decisions by the companies producing the figures had everything to do with the gender of these characters. They are substantial characters who were excluded and they are all women. None of the male characters were left out of the action figure box sets, even those with smaller roles. It’s disheartening that after multiple movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe where Black Widow plays a significant role as an Avenger, she was not treated as an equally important Avenger and was left out of her own scene for the Age of Ultron action figure collection. It is heartbreaking that after six Star Wars movies with almost entirely male leads, they cast a woman as the star for the new movie and she was not awarded her right to be sold as an action figure in a pack with the rest of the cast. It is not surprising that Rey was excluded, considering the history of the Star Wars franchise, but it was disappointing, especially after seeing the efforts that were made with the inclusive casting. A conscious choice was made by the individuals in charge of marketing for these franchises to exclude the female characters from the toy collections.
The general acceptance by the patriarchal society of a gender binary affects which toys actually end up being produced, the way those toys are marketed and, ultimately, which toys are sold and to whom. In her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, feminist author bell hooks defines the patriarchy as “a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence”. Patriarchal society conditions people to think of gender in a binary- as being male or female, with no room for overlap or for anything in between. It encourages people to be one or the other, based on the gender that was irresponsibly assigned to them at birth by their doctors and parents based on the formation of their genitals. The conditioning of an individual to view gender in terms of this binary begins before birth, through practices like coding “blue” to mean “boy” and “pink” to mean “girl” so that parents only buy the color clothing that aligns with the “sex” of their child in utero, so that when their child is born, they are instantly shoved into one category or the other. These children grow older and the toys that they play with are gendered, the educations they receive both in school and out also teach them to view gender in terms of a binary and then they grow up and become adults with these beliefs engrained into them. This kind of societal conditioning is harmful for transgender individuals (those whose gender identities do not align with the gender they were assigned at birth and/or individuals who choose to not align themselves with either gender) and intersex individuals (those whose physical characteristics do not align with a specific gender) whose lives and experiences are erased when gender is only seen as a binary and it is harmful for cisgender individuals (those who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth) who are taught that they can only exist if they act in accordance with the behaviors that are considered to be normal for their gender. It is harmful for young girls who are conditioned to believe that they are weak and inferior. This simplistic view of and belief in a gender binary is so prevalent in society that it determines something so minute and yet so significant, like which toys small children play with.
When the choices were made to exclude these characters, it was because of society’s acceptance of the gender binary. Action figures have always been marketed to boys and men, so it seems logical to only create male action figures. An individual came forward claiming that the companies instructed the manufacturers to exclude Rey from the action figure collections because they didn’t think that boys and men would want to have a female action figure. This is another example of societal conditioning, teaching boys that they shouldn’t want to play with female action figures because women are considered to be weak, and then not creating female action figures so that children don’t even have the option to play with them. This is also a problem because it completely disregards the female fans of this media and the young girls who see these female characters representing them but are discouraged from participating in their fandom because they can’t even buy action figures of these characters.
This issue is present in television as well, as is apparent with shows like Young Justice and Arrow. Young Justice was an animated show that had a few different female characters, mainly Miss Martian and Artemis, and it was cancelled after the second season. Paul Dini is a writer who has been involved with a lot of the DC animated shows that were close to Young Justice, and in a podcast he was interviewed for by Kevin Smith called Shadow of the Shadow of the Bat, he discussed his experiences with the executives responsible for media like Young Justice. He said about the executives, “They’re all for boys, ‘we do not want the girls’, I mean, I’ve heard executives say this, you know, not where I am but at other places, saying like, ‘We do not want girls watching this show.’” He continued by talking about a different series he was working on in the same realm of shows and said, “And then we began writing stories that got into the two girls’ back stories, and they were really interesting. And suddenly we had families and girls watching, and girls really became a big part of our audience…but the Cartoon Network was saying, ‘F***, no, we want the boys’ action, it’s boys’ action…we’ve got too many girls. We need more boys.’” He and Kevin Smith discussed toys as well, how the executives believe that girls do not buy toys. Young Justice didn’t sell enough toys, and despite the fact that girls loved the show and probably did, in fact, buy toys, the show was cancelled, despite being hugely popular. The blame was placed onto girls for enjoying it, rather than on how toys are marketed to appeal to specific genders. Arrow is a television show that is also from the DC universe, and it is a show that has come so far over the course of its four seasons with its representation of female characters. One character in particular stands out- Dinah Laurel Lance who becomes the superhero Black Canary in season three. She was one of the first characters that was introduced and has been hugely important to the story and her character has evolved so far. However, DC had to release three lines of action figures before she was incorporated into the mix. They released figures based on male characters who were introduced after she was, and whose roles were insignificant compared to hers.
The omission of female characters from toy collections and the blame that is placed onto female fans who enjoy this type of media is a huge problem. Female characters are left out of the media entirely, and when they finally do include a significant female character, it’s often just one character, and it is never more than two. These franchises feel that having an entirely male cast is normal, but that adding one or two female characters is enough to appease female fans, when, in actuality, it is the bare minimum. Including one or two female characters in the cast of franchises that are almost entirely male is the bare minimum. It extends further when you consider the exclusion of these characters from merchandising. Leaving women out of franchises and not treating the few female characters that are there fairly tells female fans of this media that it was not made for them. So, when these fans go to buy toys of their characters, they can’t. When they go to conventions, they are harassed; 25% of female fans reported experiencing harassment in a study conducted of 3,600 people. When they speak out against this harassment and demand change, as the individuals who established Geeks for CONsent at San Diego Comic Con did, their pleas are largely ignored and their requests are not met. The Geeks for CONsent asked SDCC to create a specific anti-harassment policy and they were denied, on the claims that the already established Code of Conduct was enough, although that is clearly untrue given the statistics of respondents who have experienced harassment even with this Code of Conduct in place (Granshaw, 2014). It is surprising that these changes come so slowly, as female attendance at conventions is on the rise, for example, there was a 62% growth in female fans attending New York Comic Con between the years 2010 and 2013. It is obvious that there is a large female fanbase for these forms of media, and yet the female characters are hardly present in large franchises and the women who attend conventions for this media are treated as though they are insignificant.
Although it is clear that the gender disparity is a huge problem in nerd culture, there is one popular franchise that has committed to its inclusion of female characters: Star Trek. The premise of the Star Trek Universe is that it takes place in the future, long after capitalism and when racism, sexism and other oppressive societal norms have been worked past. The show did a good job of exemplifying this future and the individuals who worked on the show ensured that this futuristic view of equality was happening behind the scenes as well. In an interview Walter Koenig, who played Ensign Chekhov on Star Trek, did with the Las Vegas Sun, he said, “When it came to the attention of the cast that there was a disparity in pay in that George [Takei, a Japanese man who played Hikaru Sulu] and I were getting the same pay but Nichelle [Nichols, a Black woman who played Nyota Uhura] was not getting as much, I took it to Leonard and he took it to the front office and they corrected that”. Nichelle ended up being in almost every single episode, she was part of television’s first scripted interracial kiss and she influenced people like actress Whoopi Goldberg, the activist Martin Luther King Jr. and the astronaut Mae Jemison.
When the next series, Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, it had a few different women featured in positions of power. Behind the scenes the actresses who played these characters, such as Marina Sirtis and Denise Crosby, fought for their characters to be represented in ways that were equal to the male characters on the show. Marina Sirtis, at DragonCon in 2010, discussed how Hollywood treats female characters, and how she wasn’t allowed to be a smart character and attractive at the same time, and how happy she was to finally get a uniform and rank in season six. Eventually, Star Trek: Voyager came out, with Kate Mulgrew playing Captain Kathryn Janeway, the first female Starfleet captain to have her own series. Voyager was more progressive than other series in quite a few ways, but mainly with its complex and diverse representation of its female characters. There was B’Elanna Torres, a half-human, half-Klingon woman who ended up being Chief of Engineering, and there was Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix Zero-One, a Borg drone who was liberated from the Borg Collective and became a member of Voyager’s crew, eventually creating an astrometrics lab aboard the ship. Often in media, when there are female characters, they are either on their own, or their relationships with the other women in media are based on their relationships with men. The Bechdel Test is test that was made in response to this phenomenon, that people often use to determine how female characters are portrayed in media. To pass the test, a work of fiction must obey three guidelines: it must 1) have two female characters, 2) that talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man. It seems basic, but it is somewhat challenging to find works of fiction that pass it- for example, neither Avengers: Age of Ultron nor Star Wars: The Force Awakens pass the Bechdel Test, despite having multiple female characters in each movie. Thanks to Jarrah Hodge, a devout Star Trek fan who watched every episode of every series with this test in mind, it is now known that in Star Trek: Voyager, 87.5% of the episodes pass the Bechdel Test, and in season five, every single episode passes.
In addition to its on-screen portrayal of women and its obvious efforts to treat women fairly, Star Trek is a huge franchise with many characters, and all of the main female characters have their own action figures. There were figures made for almost every single female character in the series as well, not just the main cast. There are figures of recurring guest characters like Lwaxana Troi and Vash, and there are figures of female villains like the Klingons Lursa and B’Etor. The women who are a part of the main cast are available in varying outfits, from many different collections of figures. Some of the only female characters not available as action figures are some of the recurring characters on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager, like Kasidy Yates and Kai Winn. This is due in part to the time in which the shows came out, because Star Trek cancelled its lines with Playmates Toys in 1999, who had made most of the action figures for the various series.Deep Space Nine ended in 1999, and Voyager ended in 2001, so the toys that were made by Playmates were more limited, if they were made at all. Next Generation and the original series both had much more time to have different lines of figures and different versions of characters made, but because of Star Trek’s end to its relationship with Playmates, Voyager and Deep Space Nine did not have those same opportunities.
In this climate of increasingly unfair treatment of women in nerd culture, the progressive politics modeled by Star Trek in the past have largely been lost in the reboots, which is undoubtedly due to having an entirely new cast and crew working on the franchise. However, even with this in mind, Star Trek is one of the only popular franchises in nerd culture today that has cast a Black woman (Zoe Saldana) to be a part of the main cast. This is significant because, when popular franchises do include women, they are almost entirely White women, which is unfair to the women of color who should also be represented in these spaces. There have also been problems with white-washing, or the casting of White actresses as characters who have been established as being women with diverse backgrounds, such as the casting of Elizabeth Olsen to play Scarlet Witch, a Romani character, and the remodeling of White Canary, a Chinese character, to be played by Caity Loitz on Legends of Tomorrow.
It seems that popular franchises are starting to hear the pleas of women who want to see themselves accurately represented in media, because there has been a significant upswing in the number of female characters present in these types of nerd media. Obviously there have been the female characters in Avengers and Star Wars, but in television, new female characters have been popping up- characters like Jessica Jones, played by Krysten Ritter, who has a series based on her that was just renewed for a second season. The character Supergirl, played by Melissa Benoist, was given a solo series on CBS. Hawkgirl, played by Ciara Renée, was put on the cast ofLegends of Tomorrow alongside Caity Loitz, who played Black Canary on Arrow previously and is now playing White Canary. Arrow, who started out as a show with almost entirely male characters now has a cast where the female characters outnumber the male in the main cast, with Dinah Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) and Thea Queen (Willa Holland) is Speedy, a superhero who is a man in the comics. There have been numerous popular movements on social media to address the exclusion of female characters from merchandising, through Twitter hashtags along the lines of #WhereIsBlackWidow and #WhereIsRey, and the posting on Twitter of a letter written by an eight year old girl bringing up the valid point that, “without her [Rey], there is no force awakens! It awakens in her!” This letter and these social media movements forced Hasbro to address Rey’s exclusion from its Monopoly game, and to commit to putting her character in all future versions of the game that are produced, although Hasbro still excluded Rey from its action figure sets.
When franchises neglect to include female characters, that tells women and girls that they are not welcome. When television shows are cancelled for having too many female fans, that tells women and girls that they are not welcome. When action figure sets include every character but the female ones, that tells women and girls that they are not welcome. When comic conventions refuse to address the problems with harassment that women attendees experience, that tells women and girls that they are not welcome. The men who are largely in charge of making these decisions refuse to acknowledge that women and girls make up a large portion of the fanbase for these types of media, and they refuse to accept that having female fans is not something they should treat as though it is a problem. Women make up a large portion of the population of the world and it is irresponsible and unfair to treat them as anything but significant.
From the main Star Trek web database, Memory Alpha, the United Federation of Planets is described as “an interstellar federal republic, composed of planetary governments that agreed to exist semi-autonomously under a single central government based on the principles of universal liberty, rights and equality, and to share their knowledge and resources in peaceful cooperation, scientific development, space exploration and defensive purposes”. The creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry, envisioned a different kind of future through Star Trek, “Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms… If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.” The various series and movies exemplify these standards and politics in the best way they can as television shows and movies that are created in the patriarchal society in America. The casting choices for these series and movies reflect this, as does the evolution of the writing for the female characters that are present. These characters are available as action figures and on merchandise, and they are celebrated by not only the fans of Star Trek, but by the franchise itself as they’ve proven time and again with their treatment of women both on-screen and off. The United Federation of Planets and what it modeled in the world of nerd culture in which sexism runs rampant is undeniably important, and is something that more franchises should learn from and take to heart, especially considering the decades of success that Star Trek has had.
It’s difficult to find why it’s a problem to cast women and people of color in the most popular franchises in nerd culture, when the main cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens were a woman, a Latino man and a Black man, and the movie shattered nearly every box office record world-wide. It’s difficult not to wonder what the future could hold if young children grew up viewing women as equal to men, if young girls could see themselves included in franchises like Star Wars through characters like Rey, if children could have inclusive toy collections and were not discouraged from such a young age from even just playing with toys that are based on female characters. It’s difficult not to wonder what a community of action figure collectors would look like if the individuals in charge of the production and distribution of action figures took seriously the representation and diversity modeled by Star Trek, if this level of acceptance of women was championed at least by the individuals in charge of producing action figures. Maybe 2016 can be the year that this changes, the year that these franchises make a conscious effort to listen to the pleas of the female fans who are determined to be heard, and the year nerd culture begins to treat women as though they are a significant portion of the fanbase for these types of media. Maybe this is the year that the larger comic conventions in San Diego and New York learn from the less-popular convention, Emerald City, in Seattle, who posted fliers around the convention stating that “cosplay is not consent” and making their no-tolerance policy for harassment visible, and take seriously the problems with harassment that the women present at these conventions face. Maybe this is the year where more marginalized individuals are represented through casting choices in these franchises- like women of color, queer, non-binary and differently-abled individuals, rather than straight, cisgender White men. The detrimental effects that the exclusion of women and other marginalized individuals from these franchises have on an individual and societal level are long-lasting, and can only be countered by continued efforts made both by fans of this media and by the individuals in charge of these franchises. It’s impossible to know if characters that are not straight, cisgender, White men will end up being popular if no one but these individuals are ever cast in these types of roles. It’s impossible to know if men and boys don’t want to play with female action figures when they’re never given the opportunity to make that choice. It’s impossible to know if women and girls don’t buy action figures if female action figures based on the few female characters that exist in nerd culture aren’t even created. It’s impossible for women to feel as though they have a place anywhere in nerd culture when they aren’t even represented as action figures.