Marvel Studios

Why Women Get Left Off Of Superhero Merch -- And How It's Changing For The Better

#WheresNatasha?

Now that “Avengers: Age Of Ultron” is drawing millions of dollars at theaters around the world, you’re probably going to be (or you definitely already have been) inundated with a lot of merchandise for the franchise everywhere you look.

But if you’re a fan of the only two female team members, Natasha “Black Widow” Romanoff and Wanda “Scarlet Witch” Maximoff, then it’s going to be difficult finding swag with your favorite female characters while absentmindedly browsing around your local toy store.

The comparative absence of female characters in superhero merchandise isn’t new, of course – stereotypically, comic books and science fiction have primarily been marketed towards men and boys, with women who enjoy both genres getting left out in the cold. But in recent years, these same women in geek culture have spoken out against the sexism they see in their community, not just from their fellow nerds but from the people who create and market these imaginary worlds to us.

Take, for example, the huge backlash against The Children’s Place last year when a woman buying “Guardians of the Galaxy” t-shirts for her daughter complained that Gamora was not included. A representative from the company dismissed her concerns saying it was a “boy’s shirt,” which caused all hell to break loose on the Internet.

Or just look at the current controversy surrounding Black Widow’s relative exclusion from the “Age Of Ultron” line-up, which has spawned several Twitter hashtags, #WheresNatasha and #WhereIsBlackWidow among them. Heck, even stars of the actual movie are getting involved in the fan-led campaign.

“Black Widow is a staple in the Marvel Universe with a robust consumer products program,” Disney told MTV News in a statement when the latest round of criticism first began a few weeks ago. “Tied to the release of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron,' Marvel has over 60 Black Widow SKUS across diverse categories such as Hot Wheels, action figures, video games, t-shirts, costumes and collectibles, with even more products available for back to school and Halloween.”

They do have one point -- while many online commentators noted that the amount of Black Widow merch on the official Marvel website is seriously dire, there are more opportunities than that to profess your love for Natasha Romanoff if you know where to look. But it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the sheer number of designs with Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk -- to say nothing of how difficult it can be to find clothing with any Avenger on it if you’re a girl who isn’t interested in wearing baggy t-shirts designed for dudes.

For Fans, By Fans

If you want to look at a part of Nerd World that is doing right by its female customers, then you could do a lot worse than the Internet -- websites like Etsy, Redbubble and Look Human all offer fan-made products that fill in the gaps between what fans want and what the copyright holders provide. If you're looking for officially licensed products, though, then there are also places to find that too.

One of the best places to find nerd merch? Hot Topic, believe it or not. "We always laugh that we’re called the goth store because we haven’t been goth since, like, 1992," Cindy Levitt, Hot Topic's senior vice president of merchandising and marketing, told us over the phone. "We are far more [about] fandom and kind of geek culture merchandise than we are our dark music oriented merchandise."

The fandom community is also well respected at WeLoveFine, a subsidiary of Mighty Fine. Inc whose motto is literally "For Fans, By Fans." They regularly host design challenges where artists are invited to submit their own t-shirt ideas to win prizes (their latest one is inspired by "Marvel's Agent Carter" and features the show's star, Hayley Atwell, as a guest judge), and their newly launched "Age of Fashion" line is poised to become a bestseller.

And then, of course, there's Her Universe, which was founded in 2010 by "Clone Wars" voice actress Ashley Eckstein in response to the frustration she felt at not being able to find "Star Wars" themed clothing that actually fit her. While all of the clothing at Her Universe is made for women and girls, they also feature both male and female characters.

"One thing that we’ve been very vocal about saying from the beginning is that we are not here to say that sci-fi and fantasy, this genre, is just for girls -- it’s not," Eckstein told us over the phone. "It’s not just for girls and it’s not just for boys. It transcends gender for everyone -- it is universal, and the stories should be enjoyed by the entire family despite gender. All characters should be celebrated and so we try to do that."

Although, Her Universe also makes sure to highlight the underrepresented female characters in fandom -- when they noticed that fans wanted more merchandise with Gamora and her sister Nebula, they made sure to deliver with a t-shirt depicting the two galactic assassins. Their latest Avengers fashion collaboration with Hot Topic hits stores on May 12th (and Hot Topic's plus sized outlet, Torrid, on the 16th), with two designs based on Natasha Romanoff's signature look.

Her Universe/Hot Topic

Doubling up on Black Widow designs was a conscious decision on the part of Her Universe and guest designer Andrew MacLaine, one of the winners of last year's San Diego Comic-Con fashion design contest.

"[MacLaine] said, 'I have to be honest, I would rather design a Black Widow jacket to go with the Black Widow dress than design a Hawkeye jacket... because [it seems] the symbolism there is saying that the male character needs to be put over the female character,'" Eckstein recounted to us. "'We shouldn’t be sending that message. In fact, Black Widow is such a strong character and she is so underserved and I think we need to make two Black Widow pieces.' I agreed, I said 'absolutely.' I said, 'Black Widow deserves her time in the spotlight and so we are going to give her two.'"

Where’s Natasha?

So how come it's still so much harder to find female-centric superhero apparel once you go out into the real world? Part of it is those stereotypical gender roles we were talking about earlier, which incorrectly assume that only boys only care about superheroes, and only male ones at that.

“As a society we like to put things into boxes,” Eckstein told us. "We like putting things in a pink box and in a blue box, and in the stores there is the pink aisle and the blue aisle. It is just so much easier to categorize [products] in boxes and to call it the boy aisle and the girl aisle, and it is definitely a much bigger problem."

She also noted that in her experience, what the piece of clothing looks like is much more important than who it depicts, which is where a lot of shirts geared towards women and girls tend to go wrong. "The myth that female characters don’t sell merchandise -- it is proven that that is a myth. I think it doesn’t have to do with the character; it has to do with the design. Specifically if you look at our line, there is very little pink in it -- and I love the color pink, I really do, but we don’t need another pink t-shirt with a female character on it.”

Her Universe

Ashley Eckstein modeling one of the bestselling shirts on Her Universe, which prominently features "Star Wars" prequel star Padmé Amidala -- who's not only a woman, but not that popular compared to her daughter Leia

Levitt also pointed out that the way an item of clothing fits is also an important factor into how well that item sells. “The girls want what guys want, and vice versa,” she said “The hard thing is just trying to find a cute t-shirt that fits a girl better. Whether it has a girl character or a guy character, [or] they want a Batman shirt or they want a Harley Quinn shirt, they just want it to fit.“

However, despite all the strides we’ve made in geek culture of late, women are unfortunately still outnumbered in the mainstream marketplace -- when it comes to superhero memorabilia, the demand for male characters and clothing is still larger compared to the demand for women, even at places that make a conscious effort to appear to female fans.

“Our clothing featuring superhero and sci-fi properties sells more heavily to male than female fans,” WeLoveFine PR representative Morgan Perry told us over e-mail. "Most of our fans are women, but we find that male characters sell better to both male and female customers.”

That doesn’t mean that the female-centric items they offer to their customers sell poorly, of course – in fact, sometimes they’re bestsellers specifically because the fans are so desperate for more. “One of our most popular items is the Captain Marvel Knit Sweater, featuring the Super Hero who will have her own film in 2018,” Perry added. “Honestly it’s been hard to keep in stock!”

But the biggest deterrent to putting female characters on merchandise isn't that marketers don't think there are girls who want their products -- it's that they aren't willing to spend time, effort, and money into creating merchandise for a demographic that they haven't been able to properly engage before now.

“We started our company honestly on a hunch, “ Eckstein said of Her Universe. “We did have statistics saying that there were female fans out there but we have no sales data to back it up. We just hoped that all of these female fans that we knew existed would buy merchandise if we made it for them.“

Now they’re a profitable $10 million dollar company that’s beloved by geek girls all over the country, but it’s tougher to get much bigger institutions to stick their necks out. However, Eckstein also told us that the licensors that she’s been working closely with are trying to get better at representation.

“They are all actively listening and trying to cater to the female fan-base, and they truly care. It just takes time. That is the only frustrating thing -- and it is frustrating for even me, too," she confessed. "If I can just say one thing, it's that powers that be are listening and they are making changes. The change is directly coming from the fans because they are speaking up."

How You Can Help

The best course of action is to vote with your dollars, all the companies we spoke to said. “The retailers will purchase more if the fans buy more. We’re going to buy what sells,” Levitt admitted. “At Hot Topic we can dig a lot deeper into tertiary characters like Deadpool [and] Poison Ivy, so we are able to represent that easier than a lot of other retailers, but we’re going to buy what sells and if something doesn’t sell we’re not going to buy more of it. My suggestion is buy more."

“[The fans] need to speak up because it is working, people are listening,” Eckstein agreed. She'll be playing a voice in DC's latest "Super Hero Girls" campaign, and regularly works with Disney to create "Star Wars" and Marvel themed products. “When stuff with female characters on it does come out and if you want more of it, the only way you can make change is to go and buy it, because you are single handedly changing people’s minds by spending money on it.”

But even if you can’t afford to buy every Black Widow t-shirt on the market, it’s important to make your voice heard on social media and other outlets. As much as it feels like you might be shouting into a void, our sources say that the people up top are definitely reacting -- and if you don't feel like Marvel or DC Entertainment is doing enough to fix things fast enough, go a step down and reach out to the companies that actually make the products, like Hasbro, Mattel, Mighty Fine Inc., or even Her Universe, Hot Topic and WeLoveFine.

"We get a ton of fan suggestions from social [media], and we do our best to make those a reality. So hey, if you love a character and don’t see a ton of merch, Tweet us! We listen!" WeLoveFine's Perry told us. "We seriously listen to all of the tweets and comments we get on social media so the more we get, the easier it is for us to move forward on a project if there is a clear community demand."

Heck, you could even do what Women’s PowerStrategy Conference founder Patricia V Davis did to boost the visibility of her Black Widow-themed Change.org petition and reach out to celebrities for help boosting the signal. It's hard to argue with Bruce Banner or Agent Phil Coulson, right?