Once upon a time, Grace Maher twirled around the house in Disney princess costumes, a vision of sequins, tiaras and pink.
She’s 8 now and done with all that. The only pink left is her new bow and arrow.
That would be her Nerf Rebelle Heartbreaker Exclusive Golden Edge Bow by Hasbro, a petunia-color weapon with gold-and-white trim that shoots colorful foam darts. Forget Ariel, the beautiful mermaid princess. Grace’s new role model is Katniss Everdeen, the (also beautiful) huntress/survivor in the “Hunger Games” trilogy of books and movies.
Heroines for young girls are rapidly changing, and the toy industry — long adept at capitalizing on gender stereotypes — is scrambling to catch up.
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Toymakers have begun marketing a more aggressive line of playthings and weaponry for girls — inspired by a succession of female warrior heroes such as Katniss, the Black Widow of “The Avengers,” Merida of “Brave” and now, Tris of the book and new movie “Divergent” — even as the industry still clings to every shade of pink.
The result is a selection of toys that, oddly, both challenges antiquated notions and plays to them deeply.
The Rebelle line, introduced last year, comes in a swirl of pink, purple, white and gold plastic, and the weapons have names — like the Heartbreaker and the Pink Crush — that are enough to make an enlightened 21st-century mother groan. But about a dozen new toys in the line are coming out this year.
Zing’s Air Huntress bows and slingshots (slogan: Ready. Aim. Girl power!) account for more than one-quarter of the company’s sales in a little over a year on the market. A pump-action “cheetah shooter” from the Marshmallow Fun Co. is bathed in pale pink with darker spots and fires minimarshmallows.
Barbie, ever pretty in pink, has naturally gotten into the act with a Katniss doll that slings a bow and arrow in authentic brown. The action-figure shelves at toy stores now display a Black Widow figure (modeled after Scarlett Johansson) alongside the new Captain America.
Activision’s latest Skylanders game, Swap Force, includes Stealth Elf, Roller Brawl and Smolderdash, all of whom are on an equal footing with their male counterparts. And Stella, a female Angry Bird, will soon get her own mobile app and accessories, so she can be dressed up and launched into the air to destroy pig fortresses.
The premiere of the movie “Divergent” this weekend added to the marketing frenzy surrounding weapon-wielding girls. A Tris Barbie doll, complete with her signature three-raven tattoo, is already for sale on Amazon.
All of this is enough to make parents’ — particularly mothers’ — heads spin, even as they reach for their wallets. While the segregation of girls’ and boys’ toys in aisles divided between pink and camouflage remains an irritant, some also now wonder whether their daughters should adopt the same war games that they tolerate rather uneasily among their sons.
“Basically, I’m a total hypocrite because it’s a weapon and it’s pink, but they really enjoy it, and it’s something they play (with) together,” said Robin Chwatko, whose 3-year-old daughter got a Nerf Rebelle a few months ago after coveting her 5-year-old brother’s Zing bow.
Sharon Lamb, a child psychologist and play therapist who teaches counseling psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, says toys that stimulate aggression are healthy for children.
“I don’t see this as making girls more aggressive, but instead as letting girls know that their aggressive impulses are acceptable and they should be able to play them out,” she said.
She added: “What I don’t like is the stereotyped girlifying of this. Do they have to be in pink? Why can’t they be rebels and have to be re-belles? Why do they need to look sexy when aggressing, defending the weak or fighting off bad guys?”
Carmen Wong Ulrich, whose 7-year-old daughter has two bows — a Merida one from Disney and a Rebelle — doesn’t mind the glamour. “That’s who she is — girlie and sparkles and loves to sneak my makeup, but loves the hero and being in charge,” she said.
Katniss a game changer
At Zing, which started out making toys marketed only to boys, the idea for its Air Huntress line bubbled up from customers on sites such as Facebook and Amazon and from employees who had read “The Hunger Games” novels.
John Frascotti, chief marketing officer at Hasbro, pointed out other reasons for these toys’ growing popularity.
“It’s the coming of age of the Title IX mom, who grew up as an athlete in her own right,” he said, referring to the gender-equity law. “And men, who have grown up in that environment, who have daughters, want their children, both boys and girls, to have equal opportunity to play.”
Previous efforts by toymakers to market traditional boys’ toys as new lines for girls proved successful in just a few categories, such as construction and ride-on cars, said Jim Silver, the editor of TimetoPlayMag.com, a website about toy trends.
Selling action figures to girls has been less successful, he said, pointing to Princess Tenko and the Guardians of Magic from Mattel and Kenner’s Princess Gwenevere and the Jewel Riders, both of which bombed.
For many girls, things changed with the arrival of Katniss. Zing, whose sales doubled during the two weeks that it advertised on 3,600 movie screens playing “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” last fall, plans to advertise on twice as many screens for the first installment of the series’ two-part finale, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” which is due in November.
Jill Calderon, 11, a sixth-grader in Atlanta, is so enamored of Katniss that she and her friends play “Hunger Games” at recess, authentically reconstructed with a make-believe cornucopia and a presiding “game maker.” Her grandparents were horrified by her interest in a story that revolves around children battling one another to death in a dystopian world, but her mother is fine with it.
“This is ‘Lord of the Flies’ with a female protagonist and better weapons,” said her mother, Amy Baxter, who was an archer in college.
At a Hasbro FunLab toy-testing session in Pawtucket, R.I., last week, about 10 girls whose ages ranged from “almost 7” to 12 tried out the latest Nerf Rebelle toys, including the Super Soaker Dolphina Bow and a Star Shot Targeting Set. “Bam! Bam! Bam!” yelled Kendall Fisher, 6, brandishing a pink-and-white blaster. Ryan Medeiros, 8, in pink shoes and a pink polka-dot dress, demonstrated sharp aim in mowing down little cardboard targets with the motorized Rapid Red Blaster and its clip filled with darts.
“I’m out,” Ryan announced, and got ready to reload.