Ever since the Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted a week before Christmas [mild spoilers ahead], parents and fans have been asking — nay begging — where’s the merchandise for Rey, one of the three most important characters in the entire movie. Fans desperate to find Rey toys, clothes, and other ephemera launched the now ubiquitous hashtag #WheresRey as they continue to inundate Disney, Lucasfilm, and retailers such as Target and Toys R Us with requests. Indeed, this must be one of capitalism’s biggest failures in recent years, even bigger than the outcry for Black Widow or Imperator Furiosa merch. Fans are begging — take my money! — to seemingly deaf ears.
Then came the bombshell last week that confirmed our worst misogyny fears: Lucasfilm execs intentionally removed Rey from merchandise, not because of spoiler concerns, but because they continue to cling to that most sexist of ideologies, that boys won’t play with girl character toys. As Women in Hollywood reported:
And while some manufacturers like Hasbro attributed Rey’s absence from store shelves to protecting fans from spoilers, an industry insider now claims that the decision to keep Rey action figures in short supply was actually the product of a sexist decision-making process at Lucasfilm. …
An inside source told Michael Boehm at Sweatpants and Coffee that toy pitches for executives took place back in January 2015. At those meetings, “Initial versions of many of the products presented to Lucasfilm featured Rey prominently.”
But the Lucasfilm execs reportedly wanted less of her — and not because they wanted to keep her significance a surprise to fans. Bohem relays, “One or more individuals raised concerns about the presence of female characters in the ‘Star Wars’ products,” and “[e]ventually, the product vendors were specifically directed to exclude the Rey character from all ‘Star Wars’-related merchandise.”
The source was allegedly told, “No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.” (Way to underestimate the open-mindedness of boys. And let’s not forget that sexism is learned through practices like this one.)
What the actual fuck, Lucasfilm?!
First, let’s address the ridiculously outdated idea behind this sexist thinking. Given a choice of toys — without any instruction or social cues defining a toy as being for a certain gender — children will pick anything. Case in point, my brothers routinely stole my Barbies to play with, because toys. Kids don’t care. Science agrees. In toddlers pretend play that includes household toys (cooking, vacuuming, mowing the lawn) and nurturing baby dolls (aka mimicking their parents) is a developmental milestone. This means that until society butts in and labels dolls as “girl toys,” it is actually a totally natural activity for boys to play with dolls. It’s society that assigns gender stereotypes to toys and play, not children.
This is why retailers such as Toys R Us and Amazon are doing away with gender-assigning toy aisles and online shopping categories. And this is demonstrably what the market wants. As the New York Times reported in October:
Retailers and manufacturers in the $22 billion toy industry, along with media companies, are starting to heed these concerns. Not only are toymakers more wary of marketing some items only to boys or only to girls, they and major store chains are creating gender-neutral or androgynous labels and store aisles.
In August, Target announced that it would no longer use signs to label toys for girls and boys in their stores. For the first time this year, the Disney Store is banishing girl and boy designations from its children’s Halloween costumes, labeling all outfits “for kids.” It also has switched to generic tags on lunchboxes, backpacks and other accessories.
Still, toys are more gendered now than they were 40 years ago, when Lego marketed it’s building bricks as a gender-neutral toy. According to The Atlantic, the rise of Disney princess culture and highly restricted gendering of toys is a a post 1990s phenomenon:
[G]ender-coded toy advertisements like these declined markedly in the early 1970s. By then, there were many more women in the labor force and, after the Baby Boom, marriage and fertility rates had dropped. In the wake of those demographic shifts and at the height of feminism’s second-wave, playing upon gender stereotypes to sell toys had become a risky strategy. In the Sears catalog ads from 1975, less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls. More importantly, there were many ads in the ‘70s that actively challenged gender stereotypes—boys were shown playing with domestic toys and girls were shown building and enacting stereotypically masculine roles such as doctor, carpenter, and scientist.
This makes the sexist merchandising decisions of Lucasfilm all the more frustrating. The erasure of one of the most important characters from Star Wars merchandise sends a very clear message: girls don’t matter.
This is particularly frustrating considering the franchise’s legacy of strong female characters. Princess Leia strangled Jabba the Hut with her bare hands (and in a bikini, no less) and is arguably one of the most iconic girl bosses in pop culture history. As a general in the new film, Leia continues to give zero fucks about what men might think of her being the boss. And, as the only Skywalker (thus far) to never be tempted by the dark side, she is clearly a powerful leader not to be trifled with.In this latest franchise installment, we meet Rey, a smart, tenacious, badass who is not in the least concerned with being feminine, sexy, or an object for anyone’s male gaze. As Entertainment Weekly‘s Nicole Sperling says:
Played by newcomer Daisy Ridley — a 23-year old British actress who vaguely resembles Keira Knightley circa Bend it Like Beckham — Rey is many things: a survivor, a scavenger, an isolated figure looking for community, a pilot, a mechanic, a warrior… and a girl. But her femininity isn’t a weakness. It isn’t a strength, either. In fact, it isn’t a thing. That is not only remarkable, it’s what makes Rey the most revolutionary thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens and hopefully the thing that translates best as this phenomenon travels the globe.
So feminists love Rey. The culture at large loves Rey. And perhaps most importantly to the capitalist machine, kids are seriously loving Rey. (Indeed, as I write this, my five-year-old daughter is at a Rey-themed birthday party.) The surest way to capitalize on this fandom would be to give the market what it wants! Again I say, please take my money!
And that may be the biggest crime Lucasfilm has committed here: a complete capitalism fail. Name me one other world-wide record-breaking blockbuster that left out a major character from its merchandising? I’m not talking about Black Widow-level. I’m talking about Iron Man-level main character. You can’t imagine it, because it never happens to male characters (unless we count Finn, which is a whole other layer of erasure).
In an age when even Mattel is finally heeding the call of capitalism by revamping its Barbie — letting her wear flats, have a variety of body types, and seven skin tones for the first time in the iconic toy’s history — it makes Lucasfilm’s marketing strategy look archaic. More importantly, Disney and Lucasfilm aren’t going to get my nostalgia bucks for New Hope-themed merchandise (Darth Vadar isn’t even in the new film and I can’t escape his visage everywhere, including a Valentine’s Day endcap with nary a non-New Hope character in sight) until I can also get Rey and Finn without first having to do an online petition or social media campaign.
With this latest Star Wars installment, the force may be awakened, but the capitalism is not.