|Guys and Dolls
Shewire talks to feminist leaders about a World Wrestling Federation doll that holds a dismembered female head.
by Wynter Mitchell
| november 8, 1999
Heads up. If you were looking to purchase the new World Wrestling Federation (WWF) action doll Al Snow for the kids this Christmas, forget about finding it next to that copy of Leann Rimes' new album at Wal-Mart. The doll depicts wrestler Al Snow carrying a female head with the words "Help Me" written on her forehead. When the dismembered female head prompted complaints from consumers and a manager at a Georgia Wal-Mart, the chain store pulled the doll from their shelves nationwide.
The WWF fired back on Wednesday calling the controversy "lame-headed" and a "right wing reaction." "This is a classic case of shoot first, ask questions later," said Jim Byrne, the WWF's Senior Vice President of Marketing, in a press release, "Anybody who watches our show knows this is a prop and nothing more."
The WWF believes that all of the commotion is a big misunderstanding. In defense of the doll and the wrestler Al Snow, the company argues that the head is a prop and a part of his act. Snow takes directions from the head of a female mannequin he carries with him, and has beaten the mannequin head when he loses a fight. The action figure is merely a toy action figure version of this character, the WWF argues--and nobody should have the right to censor it.
The WWF emphasizes that the female head in the toy is meant to represent a mannequin head, not a dismembered head. But women who work to end violence against women say the difference in negligible. "It dehumanizes this woman," says Rita Smith, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Not only is her head separated from her body but he's carrying it around for display." And, Smith says, translating what may be a joke for wrestling fans to a child's toy is highly problematic. "Kids are very susceptible to images," she says. "The more you present a woman as not human, the more likely they are to take on those beliefs themselves."
According to the Department of Justice's Office of Violence Against Women, an estimated 3.3 million children are exposed to violence by family members against their mothers or female caretakers every year.
Kathy Bruin, Executive Director of About-Face, which works to change the way women are portrayed in pop culture, says that given these figures, images such as the Al Snow doll cannot be brushed off as mere jokes. "The threat of violence is still so real that to even be joking about it is wrong. The power of the visual lasts a long time," she says.
Bruin argues that women are the only group society still allows to be demeaned by images of violence, and the Al Snow doll proves it. "If this bruiser guy was carrying around the head of an animal or a Black man, Wal-Mart wouldn't even consider it," she says. "But for some reason, it's still cool to show women in a violent light, and then if we raise our voices, they say it's just girls taking things too seriously again.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence is working to make sure that the current federal Violence Against Women Act is reauthorized next year so that existing domestic violence shelters, hotline, and education programs continue to get enough funding to stay in business. In the meantime, Wal-Mart defends its choice to pull the doll from its shelves.
In an interview with Shewire.com, Wal-Mart spokesman John Bisio argued that the doll can send a disturbing message. Bisio said he could understand how consumers may feel. "What we need to point out–given the context of which our customers view or see this piece of merchandise–the doll can be interpreted in a different way from what the WWF interpreted it to be."
Are toy makers becoming more risky with their merchandise? Earlier this year, uproar followed the release of an Austin Powers talking doll that says, "Do I Make You Horny?" One mother filed a lawsuit against the store and the doll's manufacturer. But Wal-Mart has a history of going to lengths avoid controversy. In May of this year, Wal-Mart became faced a lawsuit filed by the makers of Teletubbies who accused the store of selling knock-off of the toys called Bubbly Chubbies. As part of the arrangement for the settlement, Wal-Mart agreed to clear the fakes off the shelves.
Wal-Mart also refused to have the controversial "morning after pill" on their shelves due to "business reasons" although critics argue it was a moral decision. Bisio says the company is simply responding to what customers want. "We try to listen to what [customers] have to say to us. We do that by listening to them one on one when words come back to our home office. We also monitor what they are buying in our stores." But when asked if these public-relations-driven choices affect Wal-Mart's business, Bisio says no. "I think that we work in good faith with our vendors and suppliers. Generally it's resulted in positive relationships. We continue to foster those relationships, but sometimes these things aren't best suited for our customers. Taking care of our customers is our core principal."
The negative publicity may end up spurring sales of the wrestler doll. The doll is now flying off the shelves, according to figures from the WWF, and the number of the dolls available has fallen to 10,000 in the entire country. It has even been classified as a collector's item.
Wynter Mitchell is a Shewire writing intern. Additional reporting provided by Elizabeth Hollander