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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
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.