There was no doubt in my mind that official, Marvel-branded Black Panther toys and playsets would hit stores just in time for the film’s release this February. But actually seeing the commercial for what Hasbro is offering made me pause and feel something deeply emotional.
If you ask many comic book fans of color which characters they grew up loving, there’s a good chance they’ll name a white character like Spider-Man, Wolverine, or Batman. To be fair, these characters are great, but the fact of the matter is they’re exponentially more widely marketed across a variety of media than other characters and so people come to know and identify with them more readily.
A big part of how we come to love characters has to do with how much we’re exposed to them and how often we’re able to see ourselves in them in a meaningful way. Reading as the Black Panther and his genius sister Shuri save the world in the pages of comics is one thing, but seeing young black children actually embody those characters while having fun is something much more powerful. That’s what makes Hasbro’s line of Black Panther toys and the way the company’s marketing them so incredibly fantastic.
In the first ad the company released, a black boy dons T’Challa’s Black Panther mask and claws, while a black girl along with a non-black friend wield Shuri’s panther gauntlets as the trio are transported from their backyard directly to Wakanda. Obviously, the mask and claws are plastic with a bit of circuitry in them and the gauntlets are a new kind of Nerf gun but to be clear—you almost never see toy ads aimed at and starring black children, and starring as the leads no less.
Because characters of color have historically been relatively marginalized in movies, comics, and television, toys and commercials like this simply haven’t existed before which is a shame in and of itself but has deeper consequences. Oftentimes, the first step towards becoming a fan of something or part of a larger fandom is finding a character that you can relate to when you’re young and then seeing your relationship with them validated by the world around you.
That feedback loop of identification, and then affirmation, is what creates the ideas that “I can be a hero too” and “this fandom can be a place for me, as well.” Toys and commercials like these, perhaps even more than the movies they’re promoting, can have a way of creating lasting impressions and memories on kids for whom they’re a gateway into a larger world of fantasy and scifi. Suddenly, they—along with T’Challa and co.—are the ones defeating villains and protecting the planet. That kind of direct representation can have a profound impact on one’s self-esteem in the long term.
Yes, these are just toys, but at the same time, they’re so much more. They’re an invitation—an affirmation—and something I wish I’d had when I was growing up.