If you’ve more than a passing interest in a certain transforming robot franchise, you may have heard the news – and very welcome news it is too. Hasbro are finally bringing more female Transformers into the spotlight. Specifically, an article on USA Today reported that Windblade will be appearing in future episodes of the new Robots In Disguise cartoon, and that there are also plans to introduce a female ‘bot to the cast of the Rescue Bots, the iteration of the franchise aimed at youngest viewers, which is just entering its fourth season. This on top of the results of the fan built combiner poll, which also voted to create a new team of 6 female Autobots who – the USA Today article also reveals – will form a new combiner “Victorion.”
Now female Transformers are a subject close to my heart, so this seems like a good time to discuss the topic in a bit more depth….
Any discussion of female Transformers raises that age old question of why robots have gender in the first place. IDW delve into this in the Spotlight Arcee comic, where it is revealed that Jhiaxus tampers with the Cybertronian genome, introducing gender just as an experiment. That’s certainly one way to explain gender differentiation in a non-sexual robot species, but I have to admit I’m not 100% comfortable with the implications here. That specific plotline aside, if we look more widely at the franchise, asking why some robots are female is a bit like asking why does a robot like Scourge have a beard? Why does a Cybertronian native like Jetfire have an Australian accent (in the High Moon games), or a Russian accent (in Transformers Animated) or even a Yorkshire one (in Bayformers, of which I shan’t speak again). Choices are made to differentiate characters. That’s fine, but once representative choices start getting made then a little diversity is a welcome thing. If most of the characters seem male “just because” then that sets alarm bells ringing just as much as when film and TV studios make everyone white in their fantasy worlds, as if that’s somehow always the default – and most representative – option. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be. But it is the lazy option.
So let’s be clear, all of the developments described above are extremely welcome. After Hasbro made fans wait 30 years for a proper toy of G1 Arcee it seems a huge step forward to be anticipating the arrival of an all female combiner. The message from fans is very clear: we want to see gender diversity in our transforming robots. Windblade is a fan built character, fans voted for a fembot combiner, and apparently feedback from little girls has been instrumental in the Rescue Bots development. But it does bother me slightly just how much noise fans of all ages had to make to achieve this.
We are getting there slowly, but as a female Transformers fan I am still aware of lingering perceptions that this is a franchise for boys. When I was playing a lot of Transformers Universe online I noticed that despite a reasonably feminine handle (Decepticon Pyretta) I was always assumed to be male and team mates made a bit of a fuss when I was revealed to be woman. It wasn’t always a negative fuss but still enough fuss that my gender was certainly noteworthy. Partly that’s (sadly) a wider gamer thing (and we won’t get into that here) but a few people I chatted to also admitted that they just expected their team mates to be male because they “didn’t think girls were much into Transformers.”
A lot of retailers apparently make the same assumption. Only last week I was looking in some High St clothes shops and I noticed that Primark, for example, now do quite an extensive line in geek franchise clothing. They had Star Wars, Marvel and DC T-shirts in both male and female sizes. Now this in itself is something that wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago and we probably have the rise of the MCU to thank for bringing comic culture to a more mainstream acceptance, so that’s good. But guess the franchise for which they had shirts in men’s sizes only? Yes, Transformers. Sure we’re only talking cheaply made T-shirts here but it is a symptom of something wider.
Hasbro have definitely been dragging their heels when it comes just letting toys be toys, rather than marketing them to one specific gender. I’m sure I remember the initial press release for the Robots in Disguise cartoon saying it was aimed at boys. I can’t find a copy of this anywhere to link to, so probably it’s been changed subsequently. The press release now says the show is aimed “at families.” I guess that’s progress but if we need proof that they are still not as accepting of female fans as they should be then look no further than Hasbro’s own website. Here, products are still divided into “boys” and “girls” brands. And you don’t need me to tell you where Transformers sit.
The Let Toys Be Toys campaign has made huge progress encouraging retailers and manufacturers to do away with such gendered labels. It’s a campaign I support wholeheartedly as I’ve never been attracted to stereotypical girls toys. I refused to play with baby dolls even when I was far too young to understand why I felt so strongly that I didn’t like them. It’s just part of who I am. It didn’t make me any less a girl, or now less of a woman. Hasbro need to get with the times and acknowledge that all of their toys are for whoever wants to enjoy them, male, female, child, adult. I would guess with the size of the Brony community there must be huge numbers of men buying My Little Pony too, yet those toys are still branded as “for girls.” Victorion et al represent real progress but there’s more work to be done yet.
Hopes for the new Fembots
I wonder what the new characters will be like? I hope Hasbro build on the good work they’ve done with Prime Arcee and RiD Strongarm and make sure that the Fembots are defined by strong, varied personalities of their own, not by the fact that they’re girls. They might have girly sides, that’s fine, and they might be physically different but that should be as much a product of their alt-modes as their gender. Prime Arcee is much smaller than any of her companions but I like to think this is because she’s a motorbike, not because she’s female. After all, there’s a small, slightly aloof bike-bot who fights ninja style in Transformers Animated too – he‘s called Prowl. And that’s the bottom line isn’t it? I do want to see more female Transformers but I don’t want to see them just because I’m female and so are they; I want to see them because they’re interesting characters who genuinely have something to add to the franchise. I have no problem enjoying, even relating to, plenty of the male characters too – because gender is just one aspect of the complicated amalgamation of tastes, tendencies and influences that makes me who I am.
I hope the new bots will come in a range of sizes too – just as the male bots do – because, guess what, not all women are sleek and skinny. I’ll confess I love the design of Prime Arcee (and skinny bots are much easier to cosplay). But I don’t want to see 5 recolours of her. I like Windblade’s design too and the strong Japanese influence in her look together with her alt mode and fighting style dictates that she needs to be a sleeker bot. But I also really want to see more chunky fembots who turn into big vehicles. What about some kind of Autobot analogue to Strika? As I’ve noted before, Strongarm is a huge step forward in this respect. I don’t feel the plotlines of RiD have really done her full justice yet but there’s lots to like about Strongarm and I’m looking forward to seeing her develop.
Where are the evil ladies?
Now happy as I am with the recent news I do have one more request, and as requests seem to be generating results at the moment then perhaps now is the time to voice it. Please, please, please Hasbro, can we have some more prominent female Decepticons? All of the recent news relates to lady Autobots but where’s the love for the bad girls? There are so few in the franchise as a whole, and many of those who do exist are bit part characters. I think this might be because pop culture franchises often seem to struggle to know how to characterise their bad girls. A lot of female villains are very heavily sexualised, a representation that probably dates right back to the bible and has its roots in patriarchal culture’s fear of female independence and sexual autonomy. This isn’t to say that kind of female representation can’t be fun when done in the right – knowing – kind of way, but taken back to its origins the idea that bad girls = sexual and by implication therefore sexual girls = bad is one that we really ought to be moving beyond.
Fortunately – being a kid’s show – Transformers doesn’t venture too far down this path of female representation (although Diabla in the now defunct Transformers Universe certainly had a few lines that came across as both sexual and sadistic.) But the franchise does engage heavily with another stereoptypical bad girl trope which can also have a sexual element: that of the black widow. The black widow spider has become a byword for dangerous femininity since it is well known that the female of the species is the more deadly, and that female black widows cannablise their smaller male partners after mating. Plus people generally find spiders quite creepy. So giving her spider associations can be a very easy way to characterise a female character as threatening.
Some of Transformers‘ most prominent female Decepticons invoke the black widow trope such as Blackarachnia in TFA and Airachnid in Prime. Of the two I find Blackarachnia the more interesting. Airachnid’s lust for power and her rivalry with Arcee works well enough in the context of the show but some of the most powerful moments in TFA involve Blackarachnia. She is quite complexly drawn and manages to be villanous but also to inspire sympathy. Part Cybertronian, part organic, Blackarachnia’s hatred of Autobots stems from a tragic history with them and from a degree of self-loathing towards her own organic elements. Yes she talks a bit like a Southern Belle and it’s true she does flirt with a weirdly besotted Grimlock to get him to do her bidding, but she is definitely a more nuanced character than the usual bad girl stereotypes that she draws on.
Transformers has a history of reusing character names and character tropes. This is usually an aspect of the franchise that I enjoy, but when it comes to Lady ‘Cons there’s definitely room for (a) more and (b) more originality. Your move Hasbro. Here’s hoping!
Gender: it’s complicated, let’s celebrate that!
In the meantime, I will be out and about very soon flying the female villain flag in my Slipstream costume. When I’ve cosplayed Prime Arcee a few people have congratulated me for sharing the love for female Autobots in such a public way, so I consider it even more of an important mission to do the same for the under-represented female Decepticons. After all, although Slipstream’s introduction in TFA is primarily a joke at Starscream’s expense, I really like the implication she brings that there is a genuine female side to Starscream’s personality (since all the clones represent different aspects of their creator). Slipstream is therefore a great reminder that gender is a complex thing and that within the male / female spectrum, there are all sorts of shades of grey (and teal and purple). Let’s hope the franchise will continue to explore and acknowledge this – not just through the introduction of new female characters, but new (or new iterations of) male characters too and most importantly of all through the arrangement of toy shop shelves. Come on Hasbro, you’ve acknowledged female fans like me exist, that we have pester power, that we have purchase power. Now get our ‘bots out of the “boys” section – in fact, get rid of the boys section altogether and stop alienating us please.