In between marketing winding up for its May release and Toy Fair around the corner, merchandise for Age of Ultron has been showing up everywhere. But one Avenger has been largely absent: Black Widow. It's not something new to Marvel — and that's starting to be a problem.
Let's just think about the array of female characters in the MCU: You've got Black Widow, an Avenger who's been in as many films as Captain America and Thor, and more than the Hulk. You've got Gamora, a primary hero in Guardians of the Galaxy. On TV you've got Agents May and Simmons, and Skye — half the primary cast on Agents of SHIELD — as well as now Peggy Carter, headlining her own successful show. So it's pretty safe to say that there is a prominent number of women in Marvel's movie-verse, something which is only going to increase with the arrival of movies like Captain Marvel in Phase 3.
But when you look at the merchandise for those properties, it feels like they barely exist. Despite being introduced in Iron Man 2, it would take until The Avengers for Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow to get an action figure: even then, she was shortpacked in the third wave of figures that came out months after the movie hit, with the prime first wave spots going to Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk. It took until The Winter Soldier last year for Widow to show up in both Hasbro's Marvel Legends Infinite 6-inch line and Funko's wildly popular range of Marvel Pop Vinyls for the first time, a whopping four years after the character first appeared. Fast forward to Age of Ultron today and she's once again seemingly missing — she doesn't show up at all in the new action figure playsets. She's not in the first set of Pop Vinyls, and neither is Scarlet Witch, another prominent female member of the cast. She appears in one of the six new Lego sets for the film (Cap's in three, Iron Man is in four). She doesn't appear in the team shots on the boxes of merchandise (to be fair, neither does Hawkeye. Poor Hawkeye.). Hell, the first action figure we've seen for her for AoU specifically is Diamond Select's, and even then, that was revealed in a way that still, almost hilariously, managed to avoid showing an actual figure of the character.
It's the same sort of situation for the rest of the MCU's prominent female leads. Arguably Gamora got off fairly lightly — she had decent enough representation, if not equal, to her male compatriots among GOTG's array of toys, but elsewhere she was absent to the point that fans rallied behind a "Where's Gamora" hashtag on Twitter as merchandise featuring the Guardians rolled out with her noticeably missing from group shots. Her sister Nebula got the short stick though, with a single Lego minifigure to her name at the movie's release, and a Funko Pop that's only arriving later this year, long after she graced the big screen. The women of SHIELD and Peggy are, admittedly, fringe cases, as there's not really a mass appeal for toys and merchandise for either of these shows. But even then, Agent Coulson is getting his own figure this year in a pack including Nick Fury and Maria Hill. The collector's market certainly would appreciate a Melinda May (and the rest of the team) to go with him. Peggy Carter is probably strictly something to be marketed at older fans rather than kids too, but we live in a world where Ant-Man can get an action figure shown off seven months before his movie comes out. How is there not something, anything, planned for Peggy, who's kicking ass and taking names on TV right now? It's even weirder when, in terms of merchandise for the comic books themselves, Marvel is completely different; there have been plenty of female characters well represented across their toy lines, notably including the first 6-inch figures for both Jessica Drew and Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel coming within the next month. If they can do so well with the comic book versions of these characters, why not their live-action incarnations?
But surely, action figures or t-shirts or whatever aren't that important when it comes to representation. These women are in the movies and the TV shows seen by millions of people the world over, that's the bit that matters, right? Well, yes, but it's only part of it. By largely keeping these female characters away from the bulk of the merchandise, these companies are essentially advocating that sure, there's cool female characters in these things, but they're really for boy,- and boys don't want girl figures or t-shirts with them on. That was the excuse given when Gamora was missing from group shots plastered over Guardians merchandise last year. That's the message being sent to women and young girls when the likes of Widow and Gamora are absent on toy shelves: You liked that movie? Well, it wasn't really for you. You're not going to be represented here.
And although to some that might be superficial in the face of actual representation in the media itself, fans, and especially young kids, latch on to this sort of thing. Kids especially look up to their fictional heroes; they want to be able to profess their love for these characters, to do things like have them on their school backpack or wear t-shirts with them on, to have toys of them to play with, posters on their walls. It's their way of being able to say "I like this character, and I want to be like them." Toys are an important part of incorporating role models into a child's life, and it's imaginably difficult to do that with Marvel's female heroes when it's a struggle to find them in the merchandise that's being aimed almost solely at the boys instead.
By leaving these female characters out, you're leaving out a whole chunk of the audience. That doesn't make any sense, not from a moral point of view, and not even from a financial point of view. There's very obviously a big market for geeky merchandise aimed at women and young girls. Look at Her Universe, Ashley Eckstein's clothing company that was created out of a lack of Star Wars merchandise for women but has expanded to feature the likes of Doctor Who and Marvel heroes — yes, including shirts with Gamora and Nebula on them. It's important that women and girls can champion their role models in the same way that men and boys can. It helps make them feel part of these big, awesome movies that they love, even if the merchandise sometimes tells them that it's meant to be a boy's thing.
Marvel's Cinematic Universe is home to some interesting, relatable, and ultimately really popular female characters. They should be represented everywhere, just like their male counterparts. They have huge fanbases — so why are they given short shrift? Comic book movies are for everyone. The merchandise should be too.