Star Wars Merch’s Sexism Problem: #WheresRey Highlights Dearth in Female Toys
Despite being the lead of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey is mysteriously absent from many toy sets—echoing past concerns regarding Disney characters Black Widow and Gamora.
UPDATE, 1/5/2016: Hasbro released a statement Tuesday addressing Rey's absence in the Star Wars: Monopoly game, writing that she was not included for fear of "spoilers" and revealing "a key plot line in that she takes on Kylo Ren and joins the Rebel Alliance." The company also said "fans will see more Rey product hitting store shelves this month, including 6-inch and 12-inch Rey action figures."
Now that fans have flocked to the new Star Wars flick to the tune of a record-breaking $247 million opening weekend, a disgruntled hashtag has been awoken, sending a disturbance into the Force’s franchising prospects right before the last-minute holiday buying frenzy.
The #WheresRey hashtag first trended over a month ago when Star Wars fans noticed a shocking lack of Daisy Ridley in Disney’s onslaught of The Force Awakens merchandising. The hashtag took aim at the glaring lack of Ridley’s Jakku scavenger heroine Rey from a Target exclusive toy six-pack that included her three new male co-stars John Boyega (as Finn), Oscar Isaac (as Poe Dameron), and Adam Driver (as the Sith junior lord Kylo Ren) alongside Chewbacca, an unnamed Storm Trooper, and an unnamed First Order pilot.
Last weekend audiences across the globe finally saw The Force Awakens in all its glory, following months of tight-lipped Disney secrecy surrounding its plot and characters. The mystery was so thick, the studio didn’t even screen The Force Awakens for press before taking cast and crew on an international media tour—secrecy Abrams & Co. said was in place to save the surprises for the fans. And one of the biggest surprises in store for fans was Rey, the most refreshing heroine to hit the franchise since Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia.
Rey is strong, intelligent, and kind, a skilled natural engineer so adept with machinery that she fixes every mechanical malfunction she sees, from BB-8’s bent antenna to the “garbage” ship she and Finn hijack when the First Order attacks on Jakku. Watch the film and you quickly learn that Finn, played charmingly by Boyega, is not the hero of The Force Awakens.
Sure, he gamely swings a lightsaber, thanks to his stormtrooper training. But it’s Rey, not Finn, who fixes the rickety Millennium Falcon. It’s Rey who skillfully pilots them to safety, outwitting a pair of First Order TIE-fighters with ingenuity and a natural talent for flight when Finn’s gun jams. And it’s Rey, not Finn or BB-8 or Poe Dameron or Kylo Ren, who earns respect and a job offer from the most famous smuggler in the galaxy.
As disappointing as it was to see Rey left out of the Target six-pack of The Force Awakens figures, it came as an even bigger shock when fans discovered Hasbro’s popular Star Wars: The Force Awakens Battle Action Millennium Falcon set (retail: $139.95) comes with a light-up Millennium Falcon, a BB-8, a Finn, a Chewbacca…and no Rey.
“Command the Millennium Falcon and strike against the formidable power of the First Order,” reads the Hasbro product description, accompanied by the image of a young boy playing with the set. “Imagine its amazing stealth as it dodges asteroids and blasts enemies. Its movie-accurate decoration helps capture the excitement of the latest saga.”
The omission of Rey from the Millennium Falcon—the ship that she flies in several key Force Awakens scenes—drew sharp criticism from fans. It reminded them too well of how Star Wars studio Disney similarly treated Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow this year in its male-centric rollout of Avengers toys. Despite playing a crucial role in the Avengers team of superheroes, Black Widow was included in only a fraction of Disney and Marvel’s official merchandising.
More problematically, like Rey, Black Widow was rewritten out of her out of her own scene in Age of Ultron products depicting her motorcycle-flying sequence, replaced by Captain America and Iron Man. Toy partner Hasbro did the same to Gamora, the lone female hero of Guardians of the Galaxy, who could only be found on a handful of officially licensed items despite the fact that 44 percent of the Marvel ensemble’s opening weekend audience were female.
Mark Ruffalo, who plays Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk in the Avengers film, publicly called out Marvel for the mishap, tweeting, “Marvel, we need more #BlackWidow merchandise for my daughters and nieces. Pretty please.”
“It’s frustrating and stuff, and it bums me out,” added Guardians director James Gunn of the Gamora toy snafu. “I had a big conversation about this yesterday with one of my producers at Marvel about trying to make sure, especially, that Gamora is represented more in [merchandise] and all the Guardians toys.”
But the difference between Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy, and The Force Awakens is that in the Star Wars sequel Rey isn’t just one member of an ensemble of heroes: She’s literally the lead character.
Played charmingly by newcomer Ridley, Rey isn’t just The Force Awakens’ new heroine; she’s the heir apparent to both Luke and Leia, the one whose destiny, Episode VII reveals, will lead Star Wars into the future. Even Boyega said he related most to Rey, the true Chosen One of The Force Awakens.
“To be in a circumstance where you have to find something bigger than who you are within yourself is something that is an inspiration to me,” he said this month, talking about Ridley’s character. “I think people take that away. The kids, all they’re going to be concentrating on is BB-8.”
Boyega was right. Kids (and adults) are nuts for BB-8, one of The Force Awakens’ most beloved new discoveries. They’re also crazy for Rey, even if it’s proven challenging to find figures, toys, and other merch in her image.
Sadly, Disney’s corporate partners didn’t seem get the memo that the rebooted Star Wars is supposed to represent a brave new progressive future for the franchise. The misconception that Star Wars is for boys still dominates the toy industry, Global Toy Experts’ Richard Gottlieb told The Wrap. “I can say that there is, in the toy and movie industry, a long-standing belief that a boy will not go to a ‘girl’ movie and that if you put a girl in a boy’s toy, boys will not buy it,” he said.
Abrams himself landed in a pickle when he echoed that dated way of thinking. “Star Wars was always about…it was always a boys thing and a movie that dads take their sons to,” he said. “And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well."
Well, it is. And Disney, Hasbro, and their retail partners have been caught slipping. According to one of Disney’s biggest retail partners, fans will soon get an answer to their #WheresRey demand—but not until after Christmas. “We expect fans to see more of her as new products roll out, now that the film has been released,” Target spokesperson Lee Henderson told The Daily Beast. “We don’t want to spoil any surprises, but fans will start to see more of her in 2016.”
Responding to the Daily Beast’s request for comment, Disney promised that new Rey merch will fly onto shelves next month.
"Rey and Phasma feature prominently across hundreds of products, and are selling exceptionally well," Disney's Senior Vice President and Head of Licensing for Lucasfilm Paul Southern told The Daily Beast Wednesday. "In many stores and e-commerce destinations, products featuring Rey are selling as quickly as retailers can restock shelves. Fans will also be seeing a lot more of Rey with a new wave of product coming in January."
According to a Disney rep, the company started making efforts to expand its licensed Star Wars offerings beyond traditionally boy-targeted toy lines when it acquired Lucasfilm. That means creating more female-skewing items like home and apparel products aimed at women and girls that feature The Force Awakens' Rey and Captain Phasma, two fierce characters who have already proven popular with fans.
A source tells me that one explanation for the relative absence of female characters in Force Awakens action figure merchandising is that, with a development process that can take up to 18 months to complete, some products were necessarily approved and planned before others. Rey's "look," according to said source, was not ready in time to be included in teh Millennium Falcon set that sparked outrage among some fans.
One might argue that Disney deliberately kept its Rey products shrouded in am Abrams-esque mystery box of secrecy, so as to avoid spoiling the movie for fans. But that doesn't explain why Finn would be piloting the Millennium Falcom in Hasbro's toy set, something that doesn't happen in the film. Or why all those shelves being restocked as fast as retailers can get their hands on new Rey products were better stocked with Rey figures to begin with.
More spoiler-y products are rolling out now that the film has opened, including a Disney Store item featuring a lightsaber-wielding Rey with BB-8. Disney Stores are also now carrying a toy version of the blue weapon she inherits in The Force Awakens--one that's actually labeled "Rey's Lightsaber." Still, it might be too late to stuff your stockings with the lightsaber that belongs to Star Wars' groundbreaking first-ever leading Jedi heroine. But #WheresRey could be a Force for consumerist change in 2016 and beyond.