I’ve been spending a lot of time watching daytime television while I’ve been on maternity leave, which means I’ve seen some commercials I haven’t seen watching prime time. The first one I saw made me smile. “The Circle Is Complete” starts with a dad bringing home a Kenner action figure for his son in 1983. Fast forward to now, the little boy is now a dad and brings home a TIE fighter Lego set–for his little girl.
This thrilled me.
But it got better. “On the Nature of the Force” has a mom and daughter practicing yoga while the mom explains how the Force works–and demonstrating a ‘tauntaun’ asana.
This was awesome. A mom teaching her daughter the ways of the nerd? Perfect. I see this happening at my house.
And then Walmart stunned me with “On Keeping Up With the Times.” While playing with Star Wars action figures, a mother asks her daughter why Princess Leia didn’t just let Han and Luke rescue her from the Death Star. The daughter replies that Leia is “a modern, empowered woman unfettered by the antiquated gender roles of a bygone era.”
Shade successfully thrown.
This leads me to a statement I never thought I’d say: Walmart gets it.
Certainly, there’s an argument to be made here that Walmart has just realized that there’s an under-utilized market with little girls and Star Wars, and in the best tradition of consumerism, is working to cultivate a new group of toy-buyers.
But whatever Walmart’s motives are, this seems to be the best example of a paradigm shift that we’re beginning to see in retailers. Target, for example, eliminated gender divisions in their toys. Some companies no longer categorize their Halloween costumes by gender, and other companies are experiencing backlash on sexist costumes (I’m talking to you, Party City).
Why is this important? Let me tell you a story from my middle school years. My best friend and I were both Star Wars nuts. This made us very, very weird. It wasn’t too bad, because we had each other to talk to about Star Wars, read back issues of Star Wars Insider, and make plans to see The Phantom Menace at midnight–even having a girls only screening party for the movie when it came out on DVD.
I was not a popular kid. Middle school was hell, and part of it was because I was weird and into ‘boy things.’ It was a very lonely way to grow up. I should have been, given the messages I was getting via media, interested in boys, makeup and clothes. Is it any wonder that my favorite EU character growing up was Tenel Ka from the Young Jedi Knights series? She never let her emotions show, and it was a constant struggle for me to do the same when I was continually being made fun of by my peers for my interests.
Now, little girls are getting messages that it’s okay for girls to love Star Wars–and from the nation’s largest retailer, no less. Whether or not Walmart’s motives are pure (and let’s face it, they probably aren’t), this represents a huge paradigm shift in the way toys are marketed to children. Walmart’s power in the consumer market has the power to influence American society, partly because of their ubiquity. This isn’t a message that’s just being aired in one area–it’s nationwide, and Walmart is putting out an explicit message that Star Wars is for girls.
This gives me hope that my Little Jedi will never have to deal with the ostracism that I did. She will be growing up in a world where she’s being told that it’s okay for her to be nerdy and to like stereotypical ‘boy’ things. She can get the TIE fighter Legos instead of the pink house set–she can get both, if she wants. She can have Princess Leia as a role model to aspire to. She’s going to have a Star Wars movie with a female lead. And her Aunt Nanci and Uncle Brian have already bought Little Jedi her first Star Wars toy–a BB-8 plushie.
Are things perfect? No. We still have a long way to go. Boys need to understand that they can play with ‘girl’ toys as well, and given the backlash against Target’s cessation of labeling toys according to gender, there’s still plenty of work to do in the greater society. But it’s a step, and it’s a good one.