In the Blog
Early in January, a hashtag about The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, appeared on Twitter: #WheresRey. It referenced Hasbro’s latest Star Wars Monopoly game, where there are only four playable pieces. Two – a young Luke Skywalker and Finn – represent the Light Side of the Force; the others, Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, represent the Dark Side. The focal character of The Force Awakens, Rey, is nowhere to be found.
In response to questions about the game – including one impassioned and eloquent letter from an eight-year-old girl – Hasbro reportedly claimed that Rey was excluded from the game to avoid spoilers. Never mind that she had been featured in the trailer and other promotions. Never mind that the film’s merchandising prominently featured the other new major characters, Kylo Ren, BB-8 and Finn, without worrying about spoilers. And Rey hasn’t just been omitted from the Monopoly game; she isn’t well represented elsewhere, either. Neither are any of the other female characters from the film, such as Captain Phasma and Maz Kanata.
Among the women conspicuously missing from the merch: Leia, played by Carrie Fisher. If you want merch with Leia in all her cinnamon-bun hair, 19-year-old-glory, you will have no trouble finding it and, to be fair, some of it is fierce. Disneyland currently sells a children’s shirt that declares Leia to be a “self-rescuing princess” and Old Navy has released an adult tee with a Leia reference that declared the wearer to be “a force to be reckoned with.” Finding anything with middle-aged General Leia, though? Good luck.
To hammer the ageism home, in the weeks following TFA’s release, Fisher has been excoriated for having the audacity to look differently – gasp, older – than she did in 1976 when the original Star Wars movie was filmed. As Fisher herself and others have pointed out, her fellow returning co-stars, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, have not received the same sort of criticism, despite the fact that they too have aged nearly 40 years since the first film. Oh, and there are already official t-shirts depicting the older Han Solo on sale at Disney parks, as a contrast to the General Leia drought.
The Star Wars franchise has slowly been including more major female characters over the past two decades, so the lack of marketing given to Rey and other women in The Force Awakens is surprising and especially disappointing. In the original film Leia stood alone, but she was a badass. In A New Hope she seemed initially to be a damsel in distress, until she told off everyone from Darth Vader to Moff Tarkin and blew holes in a wall in her cell block to help her blundering “rescuers” escape. In Return of the Jedi Leia was costumed in a metal bikini and chained to Jabba the Hutt in a notorious scene. Not many people seem to recall that she used that chain to strangle him to death, and then operated a giant cannon to blow his ship up. She then spent the rest of the film hijacking Imperial speeder bikes and leading a raid on the Empire’s base on Endor.
In the original trilogy, Mon Mothma, a leader in the Rebel Alliance, was a middle-aged woman. One also occasionally saw other women working in the Rebel bases and control rooms. There were female hangers-on and dancers in Jabba the Hutt’s throne room and the Mos Eisley Cantina and female citizens in Cloud City. There was Luke’s Aunt Beru, who appeared in a handful of scenes in A New Hope before she was murdered. And that was about it. There weren’t any known women Snowspeeder or X-Wing pilots. On the Imperial side things were even more lopsided; there wasn’t a single female officer, TIE fighter pilot or Stormtrooper with a speaking part.
The Expanded Universe that emerged after Return of the Jedi in the form of books, video games and comics introduced more female characters, such as Mara Jade and Han and Leia’s daughter, Jaina Solo. When Star Wars returned to cinemas with the prequels, there was another, Padme Amidala. Padme was a brilliant young ruler and senator, who was also a formidable fighter and piloted her own starship. She also was the beloved wife of Anakin Skywalker, the once and future Darth Vader. In a reversal of the typical Hollywood dynamic that pairs younger women with much older men, Padme was even several years older than Anakin – when they married in Attack of the Clones, he was 19 and she was 24.
One of the most popular characters from the animated series Star Wars: Rebels and The Clone Wars has been Anakin’s former student, Ahsoka Tano. Other women, such as pilot Sabine Wren and the villains Asajj Ventress and the Seventh Sister, have also played pivotal roles in the two programs. In the current Darth Vader comic series, Vader’s chief cohort is a female archaeologist and droid specialist, Aphra. In the Star Wars Launch Bay attractions currently at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, props from Asajj, Ahsoka and Sabine are on display alongside of those of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and other male characters, while the Seventh Sister appears as a major character in the parks’ live Jedi Training Academy: Trials of the Temple interactive show. The Temple show also features both men and women as Jedi Knights and instructors, and gives children of all genders equal opportunity to participate.
On paper, The Force Awakens is another step forward. There are more major/supporting female characters in this one film than there were in the other six, combined. The trouble is that they’re not being showcased.
Old Navy released a few shirts featuring Rey this fall. Another bit of progress: even though Disney still sorts its toy lines by gender, Star Wars is listed for both girls and boys. However, a search of Disney’s online store yields only 24 pieces of merchandise in total for Rey, as opposed to 41 for Kylo Ren and 34 for BB-8. In addition, while there are unisex and “women’s cut” shirts which depict male characters, their Rey and Leia shirts appear to be directed only toward girls and women. Adage notes that a similar phenomenon exists at Toys R’ Us, where there are only eight Rey items, as opposed to 13 with Finn and 34 with Kylo Ren.
Where are Rey, Leia, Maz, and Phasma? Why have the numerous companies producing Star Wars merchandise chosen to largely ignore all of these characters? Hasbro and other companies have responded to the backlash by claiming that “Rey is on the way,” with more merchandise to come, but there’s no mention of General Leia or Maz. Other writers have noted that the lack of merchandising of female characters in comics, action and science fiction franchises is a disturbing trend. There has been similar backlash about the fact that Marvel’s Black Widow character has been excluded from most Avengers merchandise.
There are several points that are thrown into the mix in the merch wars discussions. Among them: many films and franchises are simply not marketed for all gender expressions. Despite the near universal appeal that Star Wars has held for almost forty years, conventional marketing wisdom is that boys and men will ignore female characters and franchises marketed to girls and women. Those making decisions about the Star Wars franchise can do better. Rey, Leia and other Star Wars franchise women should be given their due – and the same visibility as their male counterparts.