How a six-year-old’s complaint led to the creation of female toy soldiers
Vivian Lord, from Little Rock, Arkansas, wrote to toy companies after realising that all toy soldiers were invariably male, writes Mihir Zaveri
Since their debut in the late 19th century, toy soldiers have, at their core, hardly changed. They stand two to three inches tall. They are made of metal or, more commonly these days, plastic. They carry lethal weapons. And they have been, almost without exception, male.
But that is set to change, thanks in part to an indignant 6-year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas, named Vivian Lord. Next year, one toy company will, for the first time, release toy soldiers depicting women in combat roles in the US military after Vivian’s complaints spurred widespread media coverage this summer and autumn. “There are girls in the army, but they didn’t make any girl army men,” Vivian said in a recent interview. “So I wondered why.”
Vivian made her discovery in July, when, after a particularly productive trip to an arcade while on holiday in Alabama, she redeemed her hard-earned tickets for a batch of toy soldiers. She was used to playing with her older brother’s soldiers, but these were now her own. And as she lined them up on a coffee table – the good guys versus the bad guys – she realised that all of them were, in fact, guys.
That bothered Vivian. So she questioned her parents. Her mother, Brittany Lord, suggested that her daughter write a letter and complain directly to the toy companies that make and sell the soldiers. So Vivian did. “Why do you not make girl army men, my friend’s mom is in the army too!!” Vivian wrote in her letter, which Brittany Lord sent to three toy companies. “So why don’t you make them too!!!!!”
Vivian wrote that she had previously found packs of male soldiers coloured pink, presumably to appeal to girls, but she could tell those were still men. She said she wanted “girls that look like women”. Brittany Lord did not expect a response to Vivian’s letter. But one copy reached Jeff Imel, owner of BMC Toys in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Imel trades in nostalgia, what he calls “pop culture perennials”. He sells about 80 toy soldier products, including bags and box sets, even though most other US manufacturers have gone out of business over the decades as operations moved overseas and fighting toys declined in popularity. And, as it turned out, Imel had heard complaints like Vivian’s before.
Last June, one of those complaints came from a retired US Navy fleet master chief who believes that female toy soldiers could help women in the military be seen as equal to men. “I grew up playing with my brother’s plastic green soldiers,” JoAnn Ortloff, the retired master chief, who spent 33 years in the navy, said in an email to Imel. “My three granddaughters are young. I want to expose them to playing with the toy soldiers as well, but there are no female soldiers in the toy form.”
Ortloff, 56, who still serves on the Department of Defences’ Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, says she often volunteers at events honouring women in service, sometimes displaying the pink toy soldiers. “Men who picked them up, as well as women, said they were cute girl versions of men,” Ortloff says. “I realised this was the absolute wrong message women in the military want sent.”
Imel was sympathetic to the idea. He had, in his research, found some examples – a novelty set of female figures from Japan, wearing high heels; and plastic army nurses from the 1950s. He promised Ortloff that he would explore the idea, but said that making new products was expensive. A year later, his response to Vivian’s letter was largely the same. “Maybe we’ll get it done someday,” he recalls telling Lord.
Then came the news media. It started with local outlets in Little Rock, after one reporter had seen a copy of Vivian’s letter that Brittany Lord had posted on Facebook. In one story, Lord mentioned her exchange with Imel. CNN and a veterans publication published stories online. Soon, Imel was getting calls to do interviews on national television networks like CBS.
Imel says he then realised he had made a “huge mistake” in putting off complaints like Vivian’s and Ortloff’s. “All hell broke loose with the media,” he says, “and I haven’t had a chance to catch my breath since.” He commissioned sketches and made a preliminary model – called a sculpt – out of resin, then displayed it at a toy show in Chicago in September. Three other sculpts are under development.
Imel says the first group of toys is likely to have 24 figures in five positions: a soldier standing and holding a handgun and binoculars; standing and shooting a rifle; kneeling and shooting a rifle; lying on the ground with a rifle; and kneeling and firing a bazooka. He plans to start a crowdfunding campaign next month, through which people will be able to pre-order the soldiers. Full packs will be available before next October, he says.
He got another note from Vivian. “Vivian sent me a really nice thank-you letter – on construction paper,” Imel says. “That’s how you know a kid cares, putting it on their coloured paper.” Vivian said that she jumped up and down when she heard Imel would make the female soldiers. “When I grow up, I might give some to my kids, too,” she says.
And for Ortloff, she says the project “is very important to me, and so many women, to provide an equal play option for our children”. She added, “We are not cute girl versions of male soldiers.”
© New York Times