As we continue to fight for equal representation in the action figure aisle with campaigns like #WheresGamora, #WheresNatasha or the recent #WheresRey, sometimes it can be instructive to look back to where it all began — with Star Wars.
This classic toy commercial from 1977 is both a source of hope, and a bit depressing. The hope comes from the fact that is shows a way of marketing toys that is actually better than what we have now. But it’s depressing because we had it way back in 1977 and we’ve actually gone backwards since then.
Here are a few lessons that marketing executives today could learn from a commercial made almost 40 years ago.
Princess Leia is more important than a generic stormtrooper
Because of an erroneous belief that boys will instinctively avoid anything that has to do with girls, marketers putting together modern sets often replace important female characters with other male heroes, or generic male villains.
Back in 1977, they realized that the female lead of the film was actually pretty important, and young fans of the movie might want to play with her as well — both girls and boys.
“The assumption that boys are only interested in male characters has probably been a guiding assumption since the advent of action figures, although it seems to have gained strength in recent years,” said Dr. Elizabeth Sweet, a sociologist and lecturer at UC Davis who focuses on focuses on gender and children’s toys.
While female action figures have become increasingly rare, it wasn’t always that way. “In the 1975 Sears Wishbook, the action figure lines for both the Star Trek series and the Planet of the Apes series included female characters. And, of course, the original Kenner Star Wars action figures had several different versions of Princess Leia,” she said.
Boys and girls can play together
The commercial is actually striking in that it shows a boy and a girl playing together with the same toys. Toy companies don’t do that very often anymore. “There are now far fewer non-gendered items available for children than in any prior era,” said Dr. Sweet. The idea that all toys have a “gender,” that they must either be for a boy or for a girl — but never both — is a recent invention.
In the Sears catalog ads from 1975, less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls. Rather than telling boys that playing with girls makes them look weak, or selling girls on the idea that boys were gross and stupid, toy companies used to actually encourage them to play together.
This is both a winnings sales strategy, and sociologically better for our kids. We want boys and girls to play together so that they can become well-adjusted adults, but if every single toy you can buy is heavily gendered, it inhibits play between boys and girls, and it is sending the message to our kids that boys and girls playing together is somehow wrong.
“This kind of marketing has normalized the idea that boys and girls are fundamentally and markedly different from one another, and this very idea lies at the core of many of our social processes of inequality,” according to Dr. Sweet.
The past isn’t what it used to be
As easy as it would be to paint an idyllic portrait of a more gender-equal time, Dr. Sweet cautions that things were far from perfect.
“I don’t want to overstate the gender diversity of historic action figures – while female characters were arguably more prevalent than what we see now, female-character action figures were still vastly underrepresented in historic sets,” she said.
But still, for all its flaws, it is hard to look at that commercial from 1977 of a boy and girl playing Star Wars together with action figures of both genders and not think we have taken a giant step backwards when it comes to gender neutral marketing to kids.