Game chang­ers

No fe­maale ac­tion fig­ures? we’ll make hem!

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE - By S. INDRAMALAR star2@ thes­tar. com. my

WHEN Tris­shala Sit­tam­palam couldn’t find the ac­tion fig­ure of Rey, the lead char­ac­ter in the Star Wars: The Force

Awak­ens film in toy stores last Septem­ber, she was frus­trated and dumb­founded.

“The store had all sorts of other ac­tion fig­ures ... male ac­tion fig­ures, that is. But there was no ac­tion fig­ure of Rey. They even had fig­ures of some of the back­ground char­ac­ters in the movie ... but not the fe­male lead! The store man­ager then told me that they don’t re­tail fe­male ac­tion fig­ures be­cause mer­chan­dis­ers typ­i­cally don’t make them,” Tris­shala re­lates, her voice go­ing up a notch as she re­calls the in­ci­dent.

But the 22- year- old wasn’t all sound and fury.

She teamed up with her sis­ter Roobini, 25, and ini­ti­ated a kick­starter cam­paign to cre­ate their own line of fe­male ac­tion he­roes for chil­dren.

“We had both just grad­u­ated and were about to come back to Malaysia. Dis­ney had just re­leased its ac­tion fig­ures for the Star Wars movie and I was re­ally ex­cited to get my hands on Rey who was my favourite char­ac­ter. I went to the Dis­ney store on Ox­ford Street ( Lon­don) and couldn’t be­lieve they didn’t have a ac­tion fig­ure for Rey,” she re­calls.

It was the first time she was con­fronted with gen­der stereo­types in toys, and Tris­shala was indig­nant. When she shared her ex­pe­ri­ence with her par­ents, they urged her to do some­thing about it.

“They were quite adamant. They said that if I felt re­ally strongly about it, I should do some­thing to fix it. I was taken aback by their sug­ges­tion. But then I talked to my sis­ter and we de­cided to give it a go,” shares Tris­shala who grad­u­ated with a Bach­e­lor of Science in phi­los­o­phy and eco­nomics from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics.

And just like that, the two sis­ters put their orig­i­nal ca­reer plans on hold. Roobini had a ca­reer in law all mapped out while Tris­shala was ready to go into bank­ing. In­stead, they em­barked on cre­at­ing their own line of fe­male ac­tion he­roes. Be­ing avid fans of comic books and fan­tasy fic­tion, the two had no prob­lems con­cep­tu­al­is­ing their fe­male war­riors as they had lots of sto­ries to draw from.

But first, they had to find out if their plan was vi­able.

“We started with do­ing our mar­ket re­search. We had to find out if there was a de­mand for fe­male he­roes in the first place. Maybe there was no de­mand and that would ex­plain why toy mak­ers didn’t make fe­male hero fig­ures.

“But no, we found a huge de­mand. Toys are gen­der stereo­typed now more than ever. Girls don’t get the wide va­ri­ety of toys that boys do. Girls are of­ten given dolls or kitchen sets and even clean­ing sets which lead them to think they only fit into one role the do­mes­tic role. And boys are only given male he­roes. Where are the women? Why can’t women be he­roes too?

“Boys and girls need a va­ri­ety of he­roes boys need to be­lieve that women can be he­roes too and girls need to know that they can be more than just princesses,” says Roobini, full of con­vic­tion.

Their re­search – which they con­ducted in Malaysia, the United Stated and Bri­tain among both par­ents and chil­dren — con­firmed that that they were not alone in want­ing to see a change in the types of toys avail­able in the mar­ket for boys and girls. They dis­cov­ered there was grow­ing un­hap­pi­ness among par­ents and chil­dren about the gen­der stereo­typ­ing of toys.

“There are many who are as up­set we are about this is­sue but there hasn’t been a so­lu­tion. Toy com­pa­nies are re­luc­tant to take the risk and would rather be com­fort­able with the way things are. We knew that for things to move, some­one new had to come in and change the game. And, we thought we’d try,” says Tris­shala.

Ve­lara war­riors

The sis­ters set up Ve­lara Toys ear­lier this year. Their first line of ac­tion he­roes are the Ve­lara War­riors – three fe­male war­riors from three king­doms, each rep­re­sent­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of hero­ism for chil­dren to re­late to. The toys are ac­com­pa­nied by a se­ries of il­lus­trated books that chart the ad­ven­tures of the war­riors.

“Laiera, Sa­hana and Ne­hili are war­riors that are based on the el­e­men­tal con­cepts of land, sea and sky. Laiera is the land war­rior who can con­trol the el­e­ments of the earth and brav­ery is her great­est as­s­est; Sa­hana is the sea war­rior whose strengths are com­pas­sions and kind­ness while Ne­hili is the sky war­rior whose in­tel­lect and cu­rios­ity are her big­gest strengths. The first book is about how the three war­riors come to­gether as friends,” ex­plains Roobini.

The de­ci­sion to cre­ate war­riors, Tris­shala ex­plains, was not theirs but based on feed­back from their mul­ti­ple mar­ket sur­veys with chil­dren. “We ac­tu­ally had sev­eral con­cepts the war­rior, pix­ies and a cou­ple of oth­ers but the one that was the most pop­u­lar with the chil­dren was the war­rior,” Tris­shala ex­plains.

Though novices in the toy in­dus­try, the girls were very sure about how they wanted their fig­ures to look and feel. The 20cm toys have fine de­tail­ing – from their cos­tumes right to their ex­pres­sions. The fig­ures are also ver­sa­tile – they are made up of 20 con­structible parts ( like their ar­mour and ac­ces­sories) that al­low chil­dren to use their imag­i­na­tion to de­con­struct and re­con­struct the toys as they wish.

They also made a con­scious ef­fort to not as­sign their war­riors any par­tic­u­lar eth­nic­ity or race.

“We wanted them to be di­verse and

we de­cided to build them around the con­cept of the el­e­ments be­cause this is a very pop­u­lar mytho­log­i­cal con­cept in many cul­tures.

“Ev­ery­one who has seen them have loved them. But we need to get to more peo­ple,” says Roobini.

But even though they had the zeal and spunk to sire their fe­male ac­tion war­riors and crush stereo­types, the sis­ters do not have the cap­i­tal to re­alise their vi­sion.

So, they have turned to the pub­lic to crowd­source the RM380,000 they need to start the pro­duc­tion of the Valera War­riors within the month. So far, they have amassed about RM108,000.

The past year has been ex­hil­a­rat­ing for the two sis­ters from Kuala Lumpur. It has been a steep learn­ing curve.

“It is amaz­ing how much we have learnt. I mean .. I now know how the tax sys­tem in Bri­tain works! Also, to find a man­u­fac­turer in China, we had to be aware of and com­ply with all the dif­fer­ent re­quire­ments of the coun­tries we hope to mar­ket our toys in. We had to do a lot of re­search. And our re­search had to be thor­ough be­cause any small mis­take would cost us money,” says Roobini.

They lever­aged on their in­di­vid­ual strengths when it came to work dis­tri­bu­tion.

Roobini put her law de­gree to use and took charge of all the le­gal mat­ters and reg­u­la­tions they had to com­ply with while Tris­shala han­dled the mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions as­pects of the busi­ness. They han­dled the rest to­gether with the sup­port of friends and fam­ily.

“We were lit­er­ally thrown into the deep end and we had no choice but to learn, quickly. Thank­fully, our par­ents have been very sup­port­ive and they even put us in touch with their friends and con­tacts in case we needed any help. We’ve never worked be­fore ex­cept for in­tern­ships, this is our first job and it’s hard when you don’t have a boss to help steer us along. We had to have re­ally tight sched­ules and dead­lines to make sure we were on track,” shares Tris­shala.

Through the rough roads and sleep­less nights, the sis­ters have no doubt they are on the right path. “We want girls to have more op­tions. We are so tired of the stereo­types – when you think of a hero, it’s al­ways a man. I re­mem­ber as a lit­tle girl, I was lucky to have a wide ar­ray of toys to play with be­cause I had my brother’s toys as well as my own Bar­bie dolls. As a child, I was al­ways in­de­pen­dent and wanted to be the one who saved the day. Be­cause of that, I was branded a tomboy.

Like­wise, when we spoke to chil­dren when we were do­ing our re­search, we found many girls who wanted to be in­de­pen­dent and heroic. But they were all un­sure if that meant they had to wear pants all the time and cut their hair short. This is be­cause he­roes have al­ways been male.

“We want to change that. The Ve­lara war­riors are strong and heroic but they are also fem­i­nine. We want to show chil­dren that women can be he­roes,” says Roobini.

And true to their quest to de­bunk gen­der stereo­types, Ve­lara Toys al­ready have a sopho­more range of toys con­cep­tu­alised – a range of male ac­tion fig­ures to en­cour­age the idea that girls and boys can be he­roes to­gether.

“I think this is a health­ier view to have. And the only way to en­cour­age this view is through chil­dren. When we did re­search, we found that lit­tle boys re­ally didn’t care if the ac­tion hero was a girl or a boy. They just wanted cool he­roes,” says Tris­shala.

To pre- or­der your own Ve­lara ac­tion fig­ure or make a pledge, go to https:// www. kick­starter. com/ projects/ 578303613/ ve­lara-war­riors- daugh­ters-of- light?

— Ve­lara Toys

Laiera, Sa­hana and Ne­hili are war­riors that are based on the el­e­men­tal con­cepts of land, sea and sky.

PHOTO: RAYMOND OOI/The Star

— RAYMOND OOI/ The Star

When Tris­shala Sit­tam­param found out there was no ac­tion fig­ure of Rey, the hero of the lat­est Star

Wars movie, she and her sis­ter Roobini de­cided to do some­thing about the dearth of fe­male heros in the toy mar­ket. They cre­ated the Ve­lara War­riors and ini­ti­ated a kick­starter cam­paign to fund their project.

La­vanya Lak­sh­mii with Laiera, the Land War­rior. — Pho­tos: Ve­lara Toys

Boys re­ally didn’t care if the ac­tion hero was a girl or a boy. They just wanted cool he­roes.

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