Starwars: The Force Awakens is one of the most successful movies of all time, having broken the records for highest and fastest grossing films, and biggest opening weekend. And of course it is; it was one of the most highly anticipated sequels in one of the biggest franchises ever. It’s a work of pure genius that combines the nostalgia and snappy humour of the originals and improved script writing and modern filming technology, having learned from the mistakes of the prequels. It’s also the most diversely cast of the films, with a woman, a British-black man AND Guatemalan actor featured in the main cast. Main cast! Not just in the background or as forgettable side characters (face it, no one REALLY cares about Lando Calrissian). And speaking about women, they’re everywhere; from Rey, to Leia and Mas and Captain Phasma—a female stormtroop leader nonetheless!. Now that’s something special. And aside from those, women are just there, in the background, a part of the world. Finally 50% of the population is being represented in a galaxy far far away, and as more than just prostitutes. And after the excellence of Mad Max: Fury Road, another typically male dominated series that had a noticeably feminist upgrade in its sequel, I think it’s safe to say 2015 was definitely a big step in the right direction, for science fiction anyway. Hollywood has finally listened to what we’ve been saying for years. So why haven’t toymakers?
Starwars has always been a massive merchandise moneymaker. You can get Starwars-literally-anything; even BB8 apples (because everyone knows droids are all about getting their 3 and 5 a day). One of the biggest divisions of merchandise is in toys—naturally, considering that Starwars with it’s simple Good vs Evil premise and flashy space knights have always appealed to the younger market, and its new ownership by Disney, the creators of all our favourite childhood stories for the past 50 years. But noticeably, a number of their toy sets have been created without Rey. This ordinarily isn’t strange, since of course you can’t possibly include every single character in every toy set—except she is THE central protagonist. And when you’re creating a set that, say, contains a collection of 6 figurines, and have to resort to including a generic Stormtrooper commander and nameless First Order pilot before you include any female characters (such as the MAIN ONE), well, it looks like you’re excluding women on purpose.
This isn’t the first time women have been notably left out from official merchandising. Black Widow was famously excluded from nearly all Avengers promotional products (despite appearing in far more movies than Hawkeye ever has or will), and Gamora received similar treatment with Guardians of the Galaxy toys. And it’s not really defensible. I find it hard to believe that boys are watching these movies IN SPITE of its female characters. Unless you’ve grown up in some sad, isolated all-male commune, all boys are going to know what the women are, presumably even having grown up with some as relatives. Some boys may even like these female characters, and would love a chance to have Rey and Leia included in these sets. Other boys may get these gender-inclusive sets and completely ignore the female characters—but that’s irrelevant. Because by excluding female characters, you’re only narrowing your market potential.
Some have argued that figurines are made to be collectable, and that you can already get Rey as a stand-alone figure. Fair enough. It’s nice she actually has a doll. It’s still weird but separating popular characters to force parents to buy more individual items is a legitimate marketing scheme (I mean just look at the Skylander series). But the character choice becomes a little less logical with another popular merchandise offering; Star Wars: Monopoly. These sets let you play as Finn, Kylo Ren, Original-Trilogy-Luke and Darth Vader. Hasbro, the makers of Monopoly, have previously defended this decision by saying that as the game was released before the movie premiered, they didn’t want to ruin the surprise that the movie had a girl in it, or some bullshit. Which IS bullshit, and J.J. Abrams has shared in this sentiment, as Rey already featured heavily in promotional posters and trailers for the film. Her inclusion in the game would have made absolutely no difference to anyone’s movie experience, but her exclusion speaks volumes.
Fortunately, Hasbro has since back-flipped and announced they WILL be including her in a re-release version of the game, after the backlash they received over Twitter, most notably using the hashtag #WheresRey and #WhereisRey. That’s consumer feedback in motion, friends. At least we know they’ll do the right thing when publicly shamed and pressured.
But it’s not just a matter of toymakers believing that boys are incapable of accepting female figures in their toysets-although that’s definitely one aspect of the problem. The main issue here is that these companies have rigid definitions of boys and girls toys, and refuse to acknowledge that girls might be interested in particular franchises, or that they would want to buy those toys. Young Justice, which was quite possibly the greatest superhero tv show we’ve ever been blessed with, was prematurely cancelled after just 2 seasons, because the primary audience was female. And because girls NEVER buy toys, those in charge decided this show was therefore worthless because they didn’t believe it had merchandising potential. A brilliantly-written tv show, with almost equal male-female representation and complex characters and stories, was cancelled, because toymakers didn’t think there was any money in it. Clearly this was before the merchandising phenomenons that were the Hunger Games trilogy and Frozen. But even now, it seems these companies only think girls will buy into something distinctly feminine, such as princessess. Not superheroes. Not jedi. Definitely not.
Honestly, gendered marketing is just so last century. Toy companies need to move away from the idea that there are some series that aren’t meant for girls, or boy, for that matter. But creating gender-exclusive toys and merchandise, you’re cutting out a entire potential market demographic and reinforcing restrictive gender roles that stop parents from buying what their kids might actually want. It’s a vicious cycle; not catering to girls with toys that might interest them prevents more girls from engaging with these series’. And the less girls who engage with the series, the less of them will be interested in buying merchandise. If toy companies actually acknowledged and catered to its female audience (and I’m not talking about those god-awful shirts that imply Batgirl is in charge of all Batman’s domestic chores), then there would be more people to buy said merchandise.
And all this gendered marketing is just getting rather old. Even if it is for a movie-tie in, it doesn’t make sense. Star Wars isn’t just a “boys movie”. No, an entire gender can’t lay claim to a franchise or a genre. Star Wars is for everyone. All movies are for everyone. Especially when they have a kick-ass female protagonist. So stop putting the female toys on the sidelines and give the people what they want.
First Published in Empire Times 43.2