Ever since The Force Awakens’ release, many smart people of the intarweebs have been asking the same question: Where’s Rey? Why is this film’s protagonist not represented in more of its tie-in toys and other merch? She’s on a few things, especially items aimed at adult customers, but, she’s conspicuously absent from most of the things meant to be taken out of the box and played with, rather than gathering dust on a collector’s shelf. What gives?
Disney, which now owns the Star Wars brand, doesn’t produce this stuff themselves—they license other manufacturers to do it—and the most glaring fail on the Rey merch count has been in items produced by Hasbro. (Interestingly, this company is also Disney’s new partner for products based on their princess line, which does raise the question of whether their lack of Rey merch is in any way deliberate on that count: Could it be they’re not supposed to be marketing anything to girls, because that’s what the princess division is for, and they’re not supposed to poach those customers?) The uproar about this has been loud enough, however, that Hasbro’s been forced to issue some statements explaining themselves, and promising more merch to come. Their excuse—that including her would’ve been a spoiler—is pretty ridiculous. It could be argued that some of the pre-release marketing was designed as a red herring—leading us to believe that Finn would be the one in whom the Force awakens—and thus a reveal of Rey holding Luke’s lightsaber would’ve been too revealing, but let’s be honest: That’s ridiculous. There was no reason at all for them to make stuff with her that included the lightsaber. There’s a ton of promo images and even a fair amount of other merch that has her with the staff she uses on Jakku, so they could have done it that way instead of holding back. Indeed, they could have actually made more money by making Rey-with-staff stuff, and then issuing new Rey-with-lightsaber stuff, so people would buy both.
This absence definitely isn’t because of spoilers or sales, then, so what’s the real reason? Well, the short answer is sexism. So’s the long answer. Especially when one considers that Hasbro is also the company that seemed to forget that Black Widow is a member of the Avengers (in fact, she’s been in more MCU titles than any other team member except Iron Man) and that Gamora was one of the leads in Guardians of the Galaxy. So yeah. Sexism. But how? Exactly what kind of sexism is at play here?
For that answer, I’m going to jump off from some excellent stuff found in this recent article which has been making its way around the last couple of days. The anonymous industry insider quoted here let drop a rather juicy bit that goes to the heart of what’s going on:
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.
There’s our problem: Female characters in action stories are presumed to be there largely for decoration, not participation, and parents who don’t want their sons thinking about sex just yet thus keep them away from these characters, lest they start having dirty thoughts while making toy Black Widow beat up bad guys. Some may also get the vapors about the idea of their sons role-playing with these characters, because heaven forbid little Johnny place himself in the role of someone meant to be a sex object for men. Next stop: Sodomy! Quelle horreur!
Thing is, though? Those parents aren’t entirely wrong about the purpose of these characters, and it’s therefore not entirely unreasonable for toy companies to assume they have to cater to them, and therefore don’t make toys with female characters lest boys assume they have girl cooties.
Up until very recently, most women in action stories actually were there primarily for the sake of eye candy or at the very least to be a love interest/quest reward for a male protagonist—many still are there only for that reason. The rare woman who isn’t is usually a minor character, at best. When the 2003 Battlestar Galactica reboot not only made Starbuck a woman, but gave her some incredible character development, it was a big deal. Sure, we’d had other female action heroes before, but here was one who was downright macho, and though she had a healthy sexual appetite, she wasn’t framed as eye candy (Six being the one playing that role.) Only a handful of major female characters in SF movies and TV even came close to that before.
The superhero genre has been especially lacking on this count, because of its long history of putting female characters in revealing costumes. Trying to explain away their painted-on costumes by comparing them to similarly tight (or even shirtless) ones of their male counterparts misses the point: The body parts highlighted on men via costumes and posing are muscles, not erogenous zones. We don’t get male costumes with nipple windows or butt cleavage. We don’t get full-panel crotch shots the way we do with female characters. This is because the men in these stories act as power-fantasy avatars, much like sports stars and soldiers do, for boys and men who feel somehow inadequate. But though many girls and women have latched on to female heroes as role models for the same reason, the fact is that those characters weren’t made for that purpose. They are part of the fantasy for the male audience: One of the rewards that the hero gets for completing his quests. Of course they’re going to be conventionally attractive and framed in a romantic or sexual context. Virtually every woman in comics from the Silver Age through the ’80s was there in large part to play off the male heroes or entertain the male viewer, not to have stories of their own. Stan Lee is generally a nice guy, but let’s not pretend that he was any sort of pioneering feminist when he created Jean Grey, especially when she ditched her original yellow-and-blue team suit for that gawdawful green mini-dress and cat-eye mask. Bleh.
Since this has been going on for decades, it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that many people still assume that this is the role filled by every woman in every action story. It’s not just genre-unaware parents who think this, and thus assume that their pre-adolescent boys won’t or shouldn’t play with a love-interest character. It’s also many male audience members. They sincerely believe that the badass babes are there for their entertainment, because historically they were. (And of course they’re now cranky about the push for those characters to be more than wank fodder. A female character with agency is one who, like women in real life, has the power to reject the male viewer’s interest in her.)
Asking consumers to understand, then, that even a major woman character in an action story isn’t there just to be gawped at is asking them to disregard a very well-established cultural paradigm. That’s going to be especially true if the character is an existing one who has always been framed that way, and who happens to be played by a woman who is also often framed that way in other roles and in entertainment media. People are going to assume that Black Widow played by ScarJo = there largely to look hawt and play cheerleader for the rest of the team, no matter how many lines she has nor how much of a key role she plays in the plot. And let’s also not overstate the role she does have. As one of exactly two major-character women in the first Avengers movie (which also didn’t pass the Bechdel Test, as Natasha and Maria never interact), it’s not entirely unreasonable to assume on first glance that she’s intended to be just the team Token Chick, like hundreds of other female characters before her. She may as well be wearing pink, to make sure no one confuses her for one of the guys—the “real” members of the team. The last couple of decades have certainly given us an increasingly large pool of female heroes, some of whom are even protagonists, but there’s an awful lot of history that has to be made up for. It certainly doesn’t help that so many women in action movies still ARE there largely for decoration, a love interest, or as a wild woman for the hero to tame. Even Black Widow herself got hamstrung that way in Age of Ultron, with the ridiculous romance subplot and the scene where she laments her infertility (thanks, Joss.)
Star Wars itself of course has had a few prominent women, but even Leia ultimately was framed as eye candy, with that stupid metal bikini, and Padmé was just an angst vehicle for Anakin. That no-one really expected Rey not only to be the story’s protagonist, but also not to be presented as fantasy material or the “real” hero’s girlfriend shouldn’t be surprising. It’s kind of hilarious, actually, that the toy folks mentioned in that article were trying to flog Kylo Ren as the breakout star. When the main characters of the story are, in order, a woman, a black man, and a Latino, who are white boys supposed to identify with and therefore want to have toys of? (Although . . . a tantrum-throwing, self-obsessed ass who gets REALLY REALLY ANGRY that his black servant ran away—breaking out his Latino prisoner in the process—and an icky girl can do the Force better than he can? Yeah, that probably is a large part of the dipshit-white-bro fanbase.)
I think Disney and Hasbro (among others) are now starting to realize that they screwed up, and that conventional wisdom about what entertainment and toy consumers want just isn’t all that accurate anymore. Heck, Disney is already acknowledging this themselves, now, since they’ve started shifting their princess machine to make the characters less passive. The huge response they got to Brave and Frozen probably was a nice, big mackerel upside the head to anyone assuming that girls really do just want to be pretty and focus on finding their special prince. The Gen X and Millennial parents of today’s kids also aren’t putting up with that nonsense, either. Gen Xers drove third-wave feminism in the ’90s and helped wean Millennials off of the Backlash soup they got soaked in at birth, and both generations are media-savvy (and interactive) enough not to be marketed into submission. There are still pockets of assholes, but generationally speaking, we’re queer-friendly, Trans-friendly and have our own stashes of badass-woman merch. Of course we’re not going to be satisfied with our kids not being able to find toys for a female action hero.
It’s probably too much to hope that there will be a sea change coming in the wake of this outcry. Like I say, there are an awful lot of established cultural norms we have to make up for, and that’s going to take more time. I do, however, hope that there’s been enough of a boot to some posteriors to at least change things for the next few SFF and superhero franchises. Rey is a real character with a real story, not a pretty object, and I want more toy versions of her, dammit.