Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Rebelle, Rebelle, You've Torn Your Dress": Nerf for Girls!

©2013 Hasbro, via Renegade Chicks

One of my awesome iSchool MI students/RAs reminded me about the highly gendered Hasbro "Rebelle" Nerf-for-girls line this week (depicted in the ad above), which motivated me to revisit the toy and some of the criticisms that have emerged around its aesthetics and design since the product was first announced back in February (2013). Clearly a response to the recent Brave and Hunger Games-inspired boom in the popularity of archery among tween and teen girls, the Rebelle brand includes girl-targeted bows, crossbows and guns or "blasters," adorned in pink and purple and sporting pseudo-"tough girl" names like Heartbreaker and Pink Crush. Admittedly, my initial reaction to the toy line was somewhat mixed. As I wrote on Twitter back in February:
"yet another example of gendered toy design, although admittedly Hasbro's Rebelle nerf-bow does LOOK pretty cool"
Above all, I liked how the Rebelle signified a departure from Hasbro's usual approach when it comes to NERF guns, in which the product designs, packaging and marketing all try to make it very clear to consumers that these toys are "meant for" boys. Finally, it seemed that the company might actually be starting to realize that (some) girls like to get their warrior on and engage in backyard battles just as much as (some) boys do.

But as a number of children's toy/media critics pointed out on Twitter (posted back in February, 12, 2013), the pinkification going on here was too blatant to ignore. For instance:
 ‏@LetToysBeToys  Entorien It challenges the stereotype .. but then panders to it.”  
 ‏@EntorienLetToysBeToys If they want girls to feel like Merida or Katniss, model on their bows, which were plain.
In reading through these comments, as well as the broader news coverage, corporate pr, and ensuring public reaction, it all started sounding eerily similar to last year's LEGO-for-girls launch. For instance, Hasbro representatives claimed that the gendered elements weren't actually stereotypes because they came out of research (3 years worth! just like LEGO) and represented the wants and preferences of girls themselves. As cited in Hillary Busis' article for Entertainment Weekly
"I think if anything, we went into this without any stereotypes and instead talked to young girls, found out what they wanted, and then designed a line of products that addressed that opportunity,” [John Frascotti, Global Chief Marketing Officer of Hasbro] told EW in an interview, saying that Hasbro did research for over three years while creating the line.
And, just like LEGO, Habro described an approach that clearly aimed to position the Rebelle girls' line in a way that kept it as separate as possible from their regular, i.e. boy-targeted, toys. As Busis writes,
"Trying to encourage girls to buy existing Nerf toys or easing up the gendered overtones of those products was never really on the table."
Wow. Well, at least this acknowledges, to some extent, that the company is aware that its other Nerf products are gendered in a way that works to exclude girls (although some girls will, of course, defy marketing discourses and play anyway...but they aren't a "market" problem for Hasbro, are they?). As Molly Freeman, at Renegade Chicks notes, this is the same company that only a couple of months earlier was garnerning accolades and praise for "coming out with a line of gender neutral Easy-Bake Ovens." 

Of course, in that case, the move toward gender-neutrality was driven by a pretty widely-publicized petition launched by 13-year-old McKenna Pope, expressing her frustration that marketing/gender-coding for the Easy-Bake Oven toy excluded boys, a cause she took up on behalf of her little brother who loved to bake and cook. As Pope wrote in the petition description:
I want my brother to know that it's not "wrong" for him to want to be a chef, that it's okay to go against what society believes to be appropriate. There are, as a matter of fact, a multitude of very talented and successful male culinary geniuses, i.e. Emeril, Gordon Ramsey, etc. Unfortunately, Hasbro has made going against the societal norm that girls are the ones in the kitchen even more difficult. Please join me to ask Hasbro to feature males on the packaging and in promotional materials for the Easy-Bake Ultimate Oven, as well as offering the product in different, non gender specific colors, i.e. primary colors. 
Pope's story inspired 45,000 others, including celebrity chefs, to sign her petition. Ultimately, Hasbro invited her to its office and unveiled plans for a black-and-silver Easy-Bake Oven, which is now available and looks like this:
The inclusion of both a boy and a girl in the image on the box is a nice nod toward gender-inclusivity. In relation to the Rebelle toy line, however, Hasbro's response to the Easy-Bake Oven petition strikes a noticeable contrast to the company's more recent assertion that making existing Nerf toys more gender-inclusive "was never really on the table."

While revisiting Rebelle this week, my student pointed me toward a short but compelling article by Ashley Perez on Buzzfeed. What I particularly appreciate about Perez' article (or, more accurately, image/photo essay) is that expands the critique beyond colour-coding and gendered marketing to examine the actual affordances of the toys themselves. I'm a huge proponent of this type of design-focused analysis, because it allows us to understand how "gendering" a toy often involves a lot more than merely slapping a coat of pink paint on it. As feminist scholars of technology like Ellen Van Oost, Pat Kirkham and Carol Colatrella argue, for many designers and companies, re-branding a particular object specifically to girls and women (whereas previously that object was advertised as "for boys/men" or was largely non-gendered), often means changing fundamental design features as well... such as simplifying the design, making it less customizable or more fragile, or otherwise gendering it at the functional level (i.e. how it can be used). I've been applying this type of analysis to my study of the Lego Friends (i.e. Lego for girls) line with some pretty fascinating results

Perez's analysis suggests that the Rebelle toys don't simply look different but also come with different features, which in turn impact on how they're used. Key among which is her comparison of the number of "darts" (soft, reusable ammo that Nerf toys shoot) included with one of the Rebelle toys (Power Pair) versus Nerf (for boys) toys: 2 (per gun blaster) versus 6, and in another case 2 versus 25! Of course, there's a clear motivation for Hasbro to try its best to get players to buy additional darts (sold separately), and for the Rebelle line, they've even gone so far as to try to brand the darts themselves as "collectibles." But 2 darts also means shorter intervals between shooting and retrieving darts (always a pain when playing Nerf), which could be significant. I'd be interested to see how this compares with the average, and how (or if) it affects gameplay, puts Rebelle owners at a disadvantage, etc. I'm also very curious to see if Rebelle toys can shoot regular, non-Rebelle, non-collectible darts. 

Perez's analysis of the Rebelle ads is indeed just a small, anecdotal comparison (and likely not representative), but it's definitely on the right track. It points to the need for some further comparative analysis in terms of what's included, what's assumed and what's made possible/impossible by the designs (and accessories) of the toys themselves. Do the Rebelle toys shoot as well as regular Nerf? As far? Are they as sturdy? Hasbro claims that Rebelle toys will have the "same performance" as their regular Nerf...what I'm looking forward to now is for these toys to finally hit stores so that we can start hearing feedback from players who have put this claim to the test.

******Update: please see first few comments (below) for a counter to Perez' claims re: number of darts, as well as correction on terminology ("blasters," not "guns"). Big thanks to Matt for sharing his expertise on all things Nerf-related.


Matt said...

The author seems to be seriously misinformed on the issue of the number of darts included with most Nerf blasters (which by the way is the correct term for then, not "guns"). Almost all Nerf blasters, no matter what line they are in, include the same number of darts that can be stored on the blaster itself, other than a couple of single shot blasters that include 2 or 3. There are models of Rebelle blasters that have up to 6 shots (and therefore 6 darts included). Please do proper research before you accuse Hasbro/Nerf of having a bias in the number of darts included with the blasters. They sell packages of darts separately not because they want to get more money out of the consumer, but because darts tend to get lost or damaged during play.

Matt said...

Also, the darts for Rebelle and other Nerf blasters are THE SAME other than the colors. Again, this shows a huge lack of research on the author's part. Do your research or don't post an article. Information about all of these blasters is READILY available from MANY different sources.

Anonymous said...

It would be great if they outperformed the standard nerfs. I seriously doubt that will be the case, tho.

Sara M. Grimes said...

Hey Matt -
Excellent info - I hadn't seen ads for the 6 shot Rebelle blasters. Do you have a link, by any chance?

But as I do already point out in my post, I wasn't claiming that the author/article was accurate or representative, but that this is a line of inquiry that I think is valuable to the discussion. Indeed, I would like to know what the average is across both lines....if you have the data available, we should definitely chat/email.

In terms of the business model at play here, let's just agree to disagree about the role money/profits play in decisions to market darts as collectibles, or in determining the number of darts included with purchase.

The point of this post is to review some of the discourse so far and think about next steps for comparative research. On that note, I'd be interested in how you were able to ascertain that the darts are the same. Was this based on first-hand play, or confirmation from Hasbro, or by looking at the images?

Matt said...

As I said, this info is readily available with a quick Google search. Here's a link though to one of the several highly respected Nerf blogs that has info on the Rebelle line: As you can see there, there are several different Rebelle blasters coming out, and not all of them only include 2 darts. As I also said, ALL Nerf blasters only include the number of darts that are normally stored on or in the blaster itself (other than a couple of single shot blasters that might include an extra dart or two). Nerf also sells dart refills for all of their lines as replacements for those damaged or lost during play. Yes, they added the "collectible" part for the Rebelle line, but they also have special design darts for the standard line as well (in various colors of digital camo, etc). You really should do a quick search for Nerf blaster blogs (there are at least half a dozen that I know of, as well as a wiki site that I contribute to - ).

Matt said...

I forgot to answer your last question, sorry. As I recall, Hasbro's reps stated during the introduction of the Rebelle line at the New York Toy Fair that they used the same darts and got the same ranges as the Elite line. You can find links to the videos of those interviews on Youtube. As I said before, a little bit of actual research would have gone a LONG way to increase your credibility on the subject. There is no shortage of info about Nerf blasters available on the internet that even the most basic of searches would have shown you.

Sara M. Grimes said...

Thanks for the links, Matt. As for your concerns about credibility and request to not post articles on emerging topics, well... this blog is a research blog, and is all about asking questions, exploring new issues and getting in touch with experts/stakeholders. when i wrote that "I'd be interested to see how this compares with the average, and how (or if) it affects gameplay" etc., it wasn't just rhetoric - i meant it!! So a wholehearted thank you for sharing your expertise and providing a firsthand counterargument to some of the emerging critiques.

Matt said...

I wasn't saying not to post articles on emerging topics, I was simply stating that you should at least do some BASIC Google searches before writing an article based on the limited information you had before writing this one. Isn't that the basis of a "research blog"? Just typing "Nerf Rebelle" into Google or any other search engine (and even Youtube) would have given you lots of results from the New York Toy Fair coverage, as well as more recent product images and listings from several blogs. It just seemed that your article was hastily written after only reading one or two articles from sources that themselves didn't do much research on the topic.

Sara M. Grimes said...

I see your point. I think the biggest oversight I made was neglecting to check out the Nerf-fan community sites (like the wiki you linked me to). I did read a bunch of the Toy Fair coverage and press release-driven articles, but they seemed largely dominated by PR discourse (i.e. the highly positive, but not all that descriptive, language found in marketing and press releases).

Matt said...

I totally understand. Here's a list of some of my favorite Nerf blogs (at least the ones I find most reliable), although there are plenty of others.

Basic Nerf -

Foam From Above -

Adult Fans of Nerf -

My Last Dart -

Urban Taggers -

Any or all of those should have lots of info for you to read up on.

And by the way, just so you know how much of a Nerf fan I am, my family (me, my sons, and my wife) have one of nearly every Nerf blaster made in the last 8 years or so, and intend to add the Rebelle and Zombie Strike lines to our collection when they hit the stores. We occasionally have Nerf battles in the courtyard of our apartments and both the boys and girls here join in (my wife has her own custom painted blaster - a pink and purple Dart Tag Quick 16 with Hello Kitty stickers). I'm sure the girls are going to get a thrill out of the Rebelle blasters once we get them.

Chassidy said...


french said...

But actually it's kinda ridiculous to me. I mean, they're trying to put off the stereotypes but they didn't! Because it's like they're saying that "this toy goes to girls and not to boys". To create a toy "supposed to be for boys" for girls is a bit stupid cause it's like they're telling that nerf guns who's made for boys is not made for girls, you see? It's a bit hard to explain that but I dont find it attractive at all.
To put pink on this nerf gun is a cliché, "pink is for girls" and today if a boy have this toy, kids be like "you have a girl nerf gun". They're still stereotypes on this toy, i'm sorry.
But that is my opinion, so...