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Where’s Rey?

Insider Says Lucasfilm Vendors Removed Star Wars Character to ‘Improve Sales’

by Michael Boehm

Would your son want to play with an action figure of Rey, the central figure in the latest Star Wars film? Would your daughter? It’s too bad they don’t have the choice; Hasbro, among other toymakers, left out the one key female figure in their The Force Awakens game sets. Hasbro says it was to preserve plot secrets, but an industry insider said the choice was deliberate. The insider, who spoke to Sweatpants & Coffee on condition of anonymity, said the decision to exclude Rey was based on marketing assumptions and not for plot reasons.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens photo by Brian Sterling, CC 2.0 license

Manufacturers of products that tie into popular movies have been in the news in recent months for appearing to favor male characters over female ones. Products featuring popular science fiction, fantasy, and superhero movies have marginalized or completely excluded the female characters. The controversy has peaked in the past few weeks with Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens film, released at Christmas.

Buyers found that Rey, the protagonist of the film, was missing from a significant number of Star Wars-related products. Hasbro received criticism for their Star Wars Monopoly set, where player could take the part of four different characters, all male. Also, Hasbro’s “Battle Action Millennium Falcon” playset features Finn, Chewbacca, and BB-8 characters, but not Rey, though, in the film, Rey was the pilot of the spaceship.

Hasbro issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly Jan. 5 assuring fans that future versions of the Monopoly set would include Rey. “The Star Wars: Monopoly game was released in September, months before the movie’s release, and Rey was not included to avoid revealing a key plot line that she takes on Kylo Ren and joins the Rebel Alliance,” according to the statement.

The Force Awakens monopoly set

“Absolute rubbish,” said John Marcotte, founder of Heroic Girls, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting positive strong role models for young women. “Hasbro is merely trying to save face. Monopoly is a game about buying and selling properties. There is no plot to be given away by including the Rey character.”

Jenna Busch, founder and editor-in-chief of Legion of Leia, a feminist sci-fi fansite, blogged, “That’s not how Monopoly works. The top hat and the thimble weren’t plot points, either.”

In January 2015, a number of toy and merchandise vendors descended on Lucasfilm’s Letterman Center in San Francisco. In a series of confidential meetings, the vendors presented their product ideas to tie in with the highly-anticipated new Star Wars film. Representatives presented, pitched, discussed, and agreed upon prototype products. The seeds of the controversies Lucasfilm is facing regarding the marketing and merchandising of The Force Awakens were sown in those meetings, according to the industry insider.

The insider, who was at those meetings, described how initial versions of many of the products presented to Lucasfilm featured Rey prominently. At first, discussions were positive, but as the meetings wore on, one or more individuals raised concerns about the presence of female characters in the Star Wars products. Eventually, the product vendors were specifically directed to exclude the Rey character from all Star Wars-related merchandise, said the insider.

“We know what sells,” the industry insider was told. “No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.”

Lucasfilm did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

The industry insider went on to describe how excluding female action characters has been a common yet frustrating trend over the past few years. “Diminishing of girl characters is common in the industry. Power Rangers asked us to do it. Paw Patrol, too.” (Update: we’ve learned that Paw Patrol is currently working on a new line of toys for girls.)

It is not uncommon for female action characters to be excluded from toy product tie-ins, Marcotte concurred. He highlighted the most recent Avengers movie as an example. “There was a scene in which Black Widow drops out of the belly of a jet while riding a motorcycle. It was an iconic moment for the character. And yet, when the toy product from that scene was released, it came with several different characters from that movie—Captain America, Iron Man, Ultron—that you could use with that toy. All male. And no Black Widow. She was removed from her own best scene.”

Avengers Black Widow poster photo by marvelousRoland, CC 2.0 license

The industry insider confirmed that the Black Widow character is widely considered “unusable” within the toy industry. “She has a tight black outfit. Our main customer is concerned with ‘family values,’” said the insider.

At the same time, however, it’s increasingly apparent that marketers’ perceptions are seriously out of touch with consumers’ tastes.

“Princess toy sales are in freefall. Disney can’t give away princess toys anymore,” according to the insider. And yet, the insider said, the directive is there: Maintain the sharp boy/girl product division. Marginalize girl characters in items not specifically marketed as girl-oriented.

The toy industry is more gender-divided now than at any time in the past 50 years, according to Elizabeth Sweet, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Davis. She’s a noted authority in the sociology of gender-based toy design and marketing. Analyses of historical toy catalogs show that in the 1970s more than half of toys were not designated as being specifically for one gender, whereas now, very few toys are marketed as gender-neutral, according to Sweet.

Marcotte points back to the deregulation of the advertising industry in the 1980s under Pres. Ronald Reagan as the origination point for the gender-division trend. “Once that happened, toy manufacturers realized they could increase sales by designing toys to be more narrowly targeted. Instead of having just a ball, you could make it pink and put a princess on it; or, paint it blue and put GI Joe on it. Now parents have to buy two sets of toys, one for their daughter and one for their son.”

But that long-term trend has had significant sociological impacts. “Girls and boys do not play together as much as they used to,” Marcotte said. “These gender divisions are hard-coded into their toys and it informs their behavior in ways that has lasting results on their presumptions.”

“I’ve spoken with Disney people, and they were completely blindsided by the reaction to the new Star Wars characters,” Marcotte went on to say. “They put a huge investment into marketing and merchandizing the Kylo Ren character. They presumed he would be the big breakout role from the film. They were completely surprised when it was Rey everyone identified with and wanted to see more of. Now they’re stuck with vast amounts of Kylo Ren product that is not moving, and a tidal wave of complaints about a lack of Rey items.”

Madison Nanea Hager and Riley Malulani Hager, celebrating their 6th birthday as Rey.

Madison Nanea Hager and Riley Malulani Hager, celebrating their 6th birthday as Rey.

Angelique Hager, mother of the twins, says: "Until Rey, my daughter Riley wanted to be Anakin. Not Padme, or even Leia. She wanted to be a Jedi. Then we discovered The Clone Wars and Ahsoka, but even then we couldn't find a costume for her. Rey is revolutionary."

Angelique Hager, mother of the twins, says: “Until Rey, my daughter Riley wanted to be Anakin. Not Padme, or even Leia. She wanted to be a Jedi. Then we discovered The Clone Wars and Ahsoka, but even then we couldn’t find a costume for her. Rey is revolutionary.”

Rey isn’t totally absent from all products: The warrior is featured in several Hasbro games, including Hands Down, Guess Who, and chess. “Fans will see more Rey product hitting store shelves this month, including 6-inch and 12-inch Rey action figures. We are thrilled with the popularity of this compelling character and will continue to look for ways to showcase Rey across all of our product lines,” the Hasbro statement concluded.

Marcotte believes the Star Wars film may represent the watershed moment when the toy industry finally realizes they are out of step with consumers’ desires. “It’s up to the public now, to make it happen,” he said. “It’s all about the carrot and stick of economics. If people buy products featuring strong, heroic female characters, it will happen.”

 

Michael Boehm is a Bay Area native who reports on issues at the intersection of culture, commerce, and technology. He worked in healthcare for 10 years before having kids, who promptly set his head straight; whereupon he ditched the corporate life to focus on writing.  Now he lives in Foster City and is the master of a burgeoning rodent family.

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8 Comments on Where’s Rey?

  1. After reading the article and comments, I have to say that it must be a gender thing, or Disney and Hasbro execs watched a different movie than the one shown in the theaters… The main character in the movie is Rey. She is shown as tough, friendly, caring poor girl that gets in the middle of an adventure and comes out more than victorious discovering she has jedi powers. What’s cooler than that?? After her character, I would go with BB8. Cute, funny and with all the potential of being a toy. Kylo Ren is definitely not a powerful character. He’s shown as the bad guy who can be identified mainly because he throws tantrums, which makes him into a capricious child, and not comparable to any of the truly evil characters in the saga.

  2. You know who else wears a tight, black outfit? Batman.

  3. i’d trust the toy industry on this. excluding rey and female characters from toys is a 100% smart decision, because when you make them, THEY DO NOT SELL. you might as well be burning all the money you spend trying to make them. boys don’t want to buy girl toys. there’s decades and decades of marketing data to support this conclusion. it’s only moronic, whiny PC SJWs who refuse to believe in the facts that complain and whine about this. if the industry is doing this, they need to keep doing it, and refuse to listen to the SJWs who know nothing about selling toys.

    • How old are you?

      I grew up in the ’80s and early ’90s. Toy lines included female action figures back then, because the shows and movies they tied into featured female characters. We played with them without any problem and didn’t think they were “girl toys.” We also played alongside little girls, because we were all just kids. We had big imaginations and we’d do whatever seemed fun.

      The problem isn’t with SJWs or political correctness, dude, it’s with people like you. For some reason, you’re offended by the presence of women and can’t figure out how to relate to them, and you try and project that onto everything.

      Also, that marketing research doesn’t show what you think it does. It shows that, when you tell kids and parents that they are “boy toys” and “girl toys,” they start to believe that there are “boy toys” and “girl toys.” The toys themselves aren’t inherently one way or the other.

      • As a boy growing up in the 70s and 80s, I had at least five Princess Leia action figures I clearly remember – the original white costume w/stormtrooper blaster, the one in Hoth snow gear, the cloud city one with a cape, the one where she was disguised as an alien bounty hunter that came with a cool helmet, and the Endor commando gear with the space gun that’s clearly a Walther PPK. Everybody played with Kenner Star Wars toys, I don’t recall anyone not wanting a Princess Leia because she was a girl. The article’s right, this is a change that’s due to marketing and advertising segmentation that’s fairly recent.

  4. @chapelbrill You people sure do find these posts early.

    I really, sincerely hope Disney is embarrassed enough over the backlash to change the way they market their properties. I bought an 11″ Finn for my son (who’s almost 3) and really wanted a Rey to go with him, and I was stunned when I found out that wasn’t an option. She’s probably the best new action hero of the decade. Disney—and I’m a fan of the company in general—dropped the ball and deserves every bit of bad press it gets.

    • You’re kidding right? My son alternates between buying the blue and pink kinder eggs specifically because he didn’t have any female figures to play with when doing make believe. Kids are kids, they really don’t care unless you make them by denigrating the toys you think they shouldn’t have.

  5. Best blog I found in last week =D keep posting

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