Nerf Rebelle does damage – and not the good kind

nerf-rebelleGirls of the World don’t worry any more. Your inability to play with Nerf guns is now over thanks to the Nerf Rebelle line of girly-coloured guns. It’s a sad day when something like this is not only contemplated, but created and successful. But this isn’t an isolated bit of exploitative marketing, it’s a place-marker for the sort of sexist stereotyping which is exactly why we’re seeing so few girls choosing maths, science or technical subjects.

I understand that Hasbro is a company focused on profits first. I understand how this must look from a marketing perspective – the whole other half of the human race sitting untapped. But what sort of message does this send? The first message is that normal Nerf guns are not for girls. Well you might say, that’s obvious – if they were selling to girls, Hasbro wouldn’t have come up with the Rebelle line. But that ignores the fact that the original Nerf line has been marketed solidly at boys since the beginning.  There’s nothing intrinsically boy-like in the toys themselves, just in the way they’ve been marketed.  Just as, the only real difference with the girls’ line is the ‘girly’ colour scheme and the addition of a function-less bow-accessory to tap into The Hunger Games.

This sort of intrinsically lazy product placement, which draws a fanciful and egregious line between boys and girls, seems to be becoming more prevalent and does everyone a great disservice. LEGO went down the same road; but we’ve seen everything from pens to keyboards being marketed with the same fundamentally sexist approach.

Hasbro says they didn’t go into this with any preconceptions and the Rebelle line is a result of researching what girls want. Their head of marketing said,“Just to be clear, we could have taken some of our Nerf blasters and just made them pink and put them in pink packages — but that’s not what we did.” Instead they took their underlying Nerf technology and put it in multicoloured, although largely pink, packaging and added in some option for cooperative play. I’m struggling to see this as a triumph for anything other than Hasbro’s pockets.

And I’m not kidding myself, these things will get bought. Girls will buy them, parents and grandparents will buy them. But that doesn’t make it a good thing for either the individual girls or for women generally. In a better world, we’d change the perception of the original product rather than introduce a new one that reinforces stereotypes with such overtly gendered marketing.

I can hear people saying ‘That’s just the way the World is’: But it isn’t. Until about 150 years ago boys wore dresses until they were about six years old when they also got their first haircut. Boys and girls both wore white dresses – entirely gender-neutral. Pastel pinks and blues were introduced before the first World War, but again they were entirely gender-neutral – in fact if there was a preference it was to put boys in pink as it was the stronger colour. Then about the time of WW2 things changed and suddenly we had to know immediately who was ‘boy’ and who was ‘girl’ and had to have a colour code to achieve recognition. And why did to go the way it went? Because retailers ‘asked their customers’ and then went out and created a market – much to the detriment of a couple of generations of women. Interestingly, it wasn’t until the 1980s that deeply gendered merchandise really took hold on younger children (you need to know what sex your child will be before birth, for gender-specific cots, prams and clothes to work).

So who cares? Well there’s a large body of study that says that we unconsciously react differently to girls and boys. If we see a baby boy trying to walk and falling over we tell him to be tough and try again; we see a baby girl in the same situation and she gets a hug. From their very first days, the choices and options open to boys and girls are defined by how people react to them – and you know how to react when they are in colour-coded uniforms. Extrapolating upwards: You see a boy waving his N-Strike Elite Rapid Strike CS18 Blaster, you are going to respond differently than when you see a girl brandishing her Rebelle Pink Crush. Just compare the marketing spiel:

Rebelle Pink Crush N-Strike Elite Rapid Strike CS18 Blaster
The set of Nerf Rebelle Pink crush is a fashionable dart gun that can fire darts at targets up to 75 feet away. The pink crush comes with a crossbow attachment and 4 retrievable darts that will empower your child to be both fashionable and an action hero. Dart games improves hand eye co-ordination, gross and fine motor skills, special resolution and teaches them to aim at long distance targets. A weapon that will leave girls feeling like fashion divas. Stay mobile with this streamlined, lightweight Rapidstrike CS-18 blaster! The Rapidstrike CS-18 gives you serious rapid-strike firepower. Spray a blanket of cover fire or go on the move with an all-out blitz! The blaster’s Acceleration Trigger powers up the motor for super-speed firing. The clip holds all 18 of the included Elite Darts and it’s see-through so you can do instant firepower checks! With a range of up to 20 metres, you’ve got long-range striking power and a lightning rate of fire. Get maximum mission mobility with the Rapidstrike CS-18 blaster!

Believe me I’ve checked, there’s no point at which the ‘boys’ weapons mention making them look like ‘fashion divas’. And lest there be any confusion, the Nerf website allows you to search for toys by gender. Could Hasbro have done anything which might ameliorate all this? Sure they could, when they were rethinking their Nerf guns for girls from the ground up they could have made them more powerful than the boys’ version. Think about it.

My point is that it just doesn’t have to be this way. There’s nothing intrinsic that requires girls to have pink Nerf guns. It’s purely a marketing decision and in my view it’s sad that it works. More importantly, though, every single time we go down this road it’s another brick in the wall that artificially separates girls and boys expectations. And then we wail and cry and rend our carefully gender-specific clothing about why girls don’t choose to do maths, science or computing. When we play to sexist stereotypes in clothes, toys and actions we reap predictable results. Go, figure.

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