The feminist force is strong with the latest "Star Wars" movie, which introduced the 38-year-old franchise's first female protagonist in orphaned scavenger Rey, played by dynamo newcomer Daisy Ridley. But the merchandise for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" tells a different story -- a dramatically less progressive one. And while some manufacturers like Hasbro attributed Rey's absence from store shelves to protecting fans from spoilers, an industry insider now claims that the decision to keep Rey action figures in short supply was actually the product of a sexist decision-making process at Lucasfilm.
Fans were outraged by Ridley's exclusion from Hasbro's Star Wars: The Force Awakens Battle Action Millennium Falcon -- which includes Chewbacca, Finn (Jakku) and BB-8 (spoiler alert: it's Rey who steals, fixes and pilots the ship in some of the film's most important scenes). Rey's also MIA from Hasbro's Monopoly tie-in to the film, in which you can play as Finn, Luke Skywalker, Kylo Ren, or Darth Vader -- never mind that Skywalker Jr. is in the movie for barely a minute and Skywalker Sr. isn't in it at all. Rey's presence, never mind her centrality, is erased, too, from this action-figure six-pack sold by Target, featuring Chewbacca, Poe Dameron, Finn (Jakku), Kylo Ren, First Order Stormtrooper Officer and the First Order TIE Fighter Pilot. Public controversy and shaming has since convinced Hasbro to add a Rey figure to future iterations of "The Force Awakens" Monopoly game.
So, how did this happen?
An inside source told Michael Boehm at Sweatpants and Coffee that toy pitches for executives took place back in January 2015. At those meetings, "Initial versions of many of the products presented to Lucasfilm featured Rey prominently."
But the Lucasfilm execs reportedly wanted less of her -- and not because they wanted to keep her significance a surprise to fans. Bohem relays, "One or more individuals raised concerns about the presence of female characters in the 'Star Wars' products," and "[e]ventually, the product vendors were specifically directed to exclude the Rey character from all 'Star Wars'-related merchandise."
The source was allegedly told, "No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it." (Way to underestimate the open-mindedness of boys. And let's not forget that sexism is learned through practices like this one.)
Assumptions of this kind are unfortunately standard in the industry.
"Diminishing of girl characters is common in the industry,” explained the anonymous source. "'Power Rangers' asked us to do it. 'Paw Patrol,' too." At this point, the guiding principle in the toy industry is to "maintain the sharp boy/girl product division" and "marginalize girl characters in items not specifically marketed as girl-oriented."
Bear in mind that Kathleen Kennedy, the founder of Lucasfilm, has previously stated, "The business infrastructure of franchises are predominantly men. If I’m sitting in a meeting about toys, it’s predominantly men."
Hopefully, the #Where'sRey movement makes these men reconsider their retrograde stance about who wants -- and will pay -- for girl- and women-centric merchandise.
John Marcotte, founder of the nonprofit Heroic Girls, told Boehm, "I’ve spoken with Disney people, and they were completely blindsided by the reaction to the new 'Star Wars' characters."
He elaborated, "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."
As tempted as we are to simply laugh "Haha!" for being forced to pay the price for ignoring female consumers and assuming the worst in male ones, these ill-advised decisions have serious ramifications. As the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media emphasizes, "If she can see it, she can be it." So while we derive a certain amount of satisfaction from corporations losing out on greater profits on account of their sexist assumptions and decisions, we do hope #WheresRey is a learning experience -- not for their sake, but for the girls and boys they serve.