No femaale action figures? we’ll make hem!
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.
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?
Laiera, Sahana and Nehili are warriors that are based on the elemental concepts of land, sea and sky.
PHOTO: 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.