Wonder Woman vs. Optimus Prime: 'Girl' Toys Take On the Patriarchy

Toys used to reinforce rigid gender roles for boys and girls—now they're tearing them down.

Joshua David Stein

Concurrent with the annual Toy Fair in New York City, the Toy Industry Association named the Toys of the Year earlier this month. The awards, voted upon by members of the industry, retailers, academics, and bloggers, are subdivided into 14 categories like action figures, doll, game, activity, construction, innovative, etc. However, there is also one overall winner. The awards are often called the “Oscars” of the industry, so this is the Moonlit La La Land by the Sea Toy of the year.

This year, the top prize was awarded to the wondrously involved LEGO Friends Amusement Park Rollercoaster, a bright turquoise funland—the construction of which teaches patience and the importance of not losing load-bearing pieces. The inhabitants of the Friends franchise are five young women, Andrea, Mia, Olivia, Stephanie and Emma, and their amusement park is, with the exception of one lucky carny, a gynaeceum.

But since my own children are well below the recommended ages of 8-12, my interest turned to the action figure genre, which by and large has a younger recommended age range. In that category, there was also a heavy feminine presence. Of the seven finalists, one was an archaeologist named Lottie, one was Joan of Arc from a series of female figurines called "I Am Elemental." The winner turned out to be a series of six-inch action heroes, the DC Super Hero Girls Action Figure Assortment. This assortment, MSRP $9.99, includes super heroes and villains like Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Bumblebee, Supergirl, Poison Ivy, Katana, and Harley Quinn. Like so many things that have trademarks attached, they are not just action figures or super heroes. On their slender plastic shoulders rest an entire 360-degree branded universe. The girls, students at DC Super Hero High, also star in their own YouTube web series, anchor a Lego spin-off, inhabit Random House books, and are available for constant manipulation as small Mattel totems with bendable joints.

As the father of two young boys, ages 3 to 5, our arsenal of toys is largely an andron. After a half-hearted attempt at high concept wooden toys, my wife and I have succumbed to the onslaught of beeps and boops, talking cars, transforming gentlemen, and squishy animals. No matter what Linnean classification into which the toys fall, however, they inevitably battle. Squishy frogs and dinosaurs wage war against Percy and Thomas; Lego Batman occupies the Octonaut HQ while Captain Barnacle, cast out, gazes impotently on. But whether the toys are human, mechanical or animal in nature, they are always gentlemen, never ladies.

Into this world, we introduced the DC Super Hero Girls. As I mentioned, there are six in the assortment. Each comes with a short backstory and a bulleted summation of her super powers. Beehive, for instance, who is African-American and sports a pair of yellow wings, is “a happy-go-lucky girl who is always up on the latest trends and music.” Katana, who is of Asian descent, is “on the cutting edge of fashion. She’s fearless and uber funky. When she’s not fighting crime, Katana is sharpening her skills as a designer and a stylist.” Her skills include advanced stealth-skills and superior martial-artist. Batgirl is a “tech genius and an amazing detective.” She doesn’t have super hero skills but is an amazing problem solver.

For some children, those above six for whom the toys are recommended, these finer points of characters might matter. But for us, just like Wonder Woman’s small plastic Lasso of Truth, Katana’s tiny sword, and Harley Quinn’s miniature sledgehammer, they were immediately lost. Instead, Auggie, our three year old, quickly incorporated the super heroes into his imagination games. Suddenly, it wasn’t just Batman battling Superman or Playskool teacher and the Yo-Kai Whisper engaged in mortal combat, but Wonder Woman and Poison Ivy serving in the armed forces of juvenile play.

Among the other winners, there are toys that are less easily drafted. The game of the year, the ingeniously simple Yeti In My Spaghetti, for instance, is a sort of reverse pick-up sticks game in which a lattice of plastic spaghetti strands supports a small Yeti figurine, promoting cooperation and strategy. Hatchimals, the involved and expensive winner of the innovative toy of the year, are cuddly robots who hatch out of eggs and, using the color of their eyes and vocalizations, demand affection. This teaches, I suppose, either how to care for other beings or that we are slaves to technological demands.

On one hand, the very idea of super heroism is problematic for it is, in essence, secular theism. Even worse, universes like DC Super Hero High are predicated on the presence of super villains on whom the super heroes rely for meaning. But on the other hand, I’m trying to raise woke boys. Yes, the patriarchy depends on violence and violence is often an extension of the patriarchy. But that Auggie, wielding Wonder Woman’s tiny body as a cudgel against an old battle-scarred Transformer, is gleefully exclaiming, “She’s winning! She’s beating him up!” seems an incremental step in the right direction. After all, boys will be boys and toys will be toys, too.