So I wanted to return from my hiatus to talk about my undying love for Carrie Fisher and everything she means to me now in modern cinema, but it seems that there is another, more pressing conversation taking place amongst the millions and millions of people who have seen The Force Awakens, and in true Star Wars fashion, it’s about the merchandise.
So let’s talk about toys.
It started as a low rumble before Christmas that has turned into a full-blown roar now that society is loaded up on eggnog and have had time to see The Force Awakens more than their own families: There is a lack of Star Wars toys featuring the newest film’s protagonist, Rey, who, in case you are reading this in some sort of internet vacuum that has prevented you from hearing about TFA until you stumbled across this blog, is a (brace yourself) girl. She’s basically the star of the movie, a totally badass pilot and force-user who is reminiscent of everyone’s favorite space farm boy, Luke Skywalker in almost every way.
After seeing the movie, when fans went to do what fans do and consume the hell out of branded merchandise, they discovered the shelves were shockingly lacking in Rey toys. Thus, following in the footsteps of #wheresNatasha and #wheresGamora, the hashtag #wheresRey took the internet by storm, calling attention to this problem.
However, given the advantages afforded me by my current job, I’ve had a chance to better investigate this issue, and determined that the #wheresRey movement, while noble, is missing a little background on the state of TFA toys. This isn’t to say #wheresRey crusaders are wrong in their unhappiness; I’m not going to take a several month hiatus from blogging and return just to bash other feminists. Instead, I’d like to give some information about Rey’s merchandising that will show how #wheresRey is ultimately demonstrating a positive trend for geeky heroines.
So if we’re going to investigate the lack of Rey toys, let’s rewind to Force Friday, a day which will live in infamy for Star Wars fans: it was the first day in which The Force Awakens merchandise was officially launched in major retail stores across the country. For those waiting with baited breath for December 18th, this was a huge occasion, because it gave fans more thorough glimpses at what was to come in the forthcoming movie.
That also meant that, because Star Wars is now licensed by Disney, there was stuff EVERYWHERE. Toy stores held special midnight openings to satiate hungry fans dying to get their hands on the first generation of Kylo Ren replica lightsabers. Barnes & Noble and Gamestop shops were selling exclusive variants on TFA vinyl figures. Heck, when my coworker and I went to the craft store to get some art supplies to prank our supervisor, we were inundated with First Order Stormtrooper coloring books and BB-8 print fabrics.
But see, Force Friday wasn’t some random Friday in early November leading up to the holiday season. November wasn’t nearly enough time for the hype train to pick up full speed before barreling into the station.
Force Friday was in early September.
Despite being a decades-long Star Wars geek, I refused to buy any TFA merchandise before the movie came out, but I know a lot of fans who nevertheless scooped up special edition Captain Phasma figures before day’s end on September 4th. I personally wanted to see if the movie was any good before I spent my hard-earned nerd money on it, but I don’t think that prevented Disney from making basically the entire film budget back before the movie was even released. I swear, at that point the movie could have been just Adam Driver and Harrison Ford running around in J.J.’s backyard and the folks at Disney would still be rolling around in so much cash they’d have to get a special bath made out of Gungan sweat to cleanse themselves in after just to make sure they didn’t contract anything from those dollars coated in nerd tears. But I digress.
The point is, TFA toys were out at the very end of summer. Fans purchased them en masse after release, and then the demand rose again as the Halloween costumes rolled out and the holidays got closer. By the way, the biggest trailer for the movie wasn’t released until October 19th.
At this early stage, however, fans weren’t asking “Where’s Rey?” They were trying to figure out “who’s Rey?”, but even before they knew, they didn’t really care. Collectors were buying stuff anyway.
So why is this September sales date significant to this conversation? Because while in college, important papers, documents, or blog posts could be turned around in a matter of a couple hours, I work in marketing now, and I have had to write press releases for items that aren’t even shipping for six months. Images will be posted on our site that aren’t even the finished version of the product, but it ships in two months, so we have to use what we’ve got.
These toys and fabrics came out more than a month and a half before the big trailer did. God knows when production began on them. But do you think the toy makers were given a private screening of the movie before production could begin on the merch? Hell no.
I guess that’s one of the interesting things about the growth of geek culture is the way in which hype can be so easily controlled now, and how that hype drives consumers in almost an insane way. You don’t have to show people a picture of an exclusive unmasked Captain America figure; you just have to say “It’ll be out in May!” and you know fans are chomping at the bit for it. Hell, I know I am.
I don’t know all of what Hasbro, the Master Licensor for The Force Awakens, was given to work with when Disney execs got them to start working on toys well before Force Friday, but with all the intentional secrecy and carefully-executed leaks of information, I can’t imagine they were told much. They were probably shown designs of various characters and decided to make what they thought was best.
In fact, I’m almost positive that’s what happened. There’s substantial evidence that the lack of Rey figures was not malicious or an intentional dismissal of Rey as a character.
For example, you can easily find Constable Zuvio figures at the Target by my house, even though he never made it into the movie. The decision to cut that character was apparently made last-minute, but if that is the biggest casualty that Hasbro must contend with, I’m sure that’s a small blow to their much larger profits. I also ponder whether we weren’t seeing all of Captain Phasma’s original scenes, given the sheer amount of merchandise that exists for her, but I’ll keep my conspiracy theories to another corner of the internet. Point is: if you were just shown photos of the characters and given a summary of their role, you might not be able to piece together the most complete, accurate picture for representing a movie or its characters. And sadly, you could even argue that means that manufacturers had to default to old stereotypes, meaning less Rey, but we’ll look at this idea again at the end.
One of the biggest protests at the moment is directed towards the absence of Rey in the latest Star Wars Monopoly game. It is the opinion of this writer that if no one on earth or in space ever plays Monopoly again it would still be too soon, but fans are taking umbrage that the game features tokens of Kylo Ren, Vader, Finn, and Luke, but not the main protagonist of the latest film. I understand how fans can find it mind-numbingly stupid to imagine that the manufacturers would make such a grave oversight, and yes, the spoiler defense is a little thin, but they couldn’t know what to expect in creating the game before the movie came out; even the filmmakers didn’t seem sure they knew what was happening before it came out. They probably just grabbed who they thought the main hero and villain would be and added them to the set.
Case in point, here’s an excerpt blog post by a writer who had special experiences working with limited information to produce a Force Awakens merchandise catalog. In responding to the Monopoly controversy, he writes:
I know who Disney/Lucasfilm were putting forward as the important characters in July — Lead Hero, Lead Villain, Alien. There were products that were officially called things like “Lead Hero Action Figure 1” and “Alien Foam Weapon Roleplay.”
Who was Lead Hero? Finn.
Who was Lead Villain? Kylo Ren.
Who was Alien? Chewbacca.
Those are the characters put forward by Disney/Lucasfilm as the film’s important characters.
Imagine writing about those and saying nothing at all. That’s why I get paid the little bucks.
It’s unfortunate that their Monopoly set doesn’t include Rey, but they were working this summer with the information they had, which I’ve no doubt wasn’t much more than the information I had when I had to write about Alien Foam Weapon Roleplay. (That’s the Chewbacca Wookie Bowcaster, by the way. I couldn’t even mention those three words.) As I said, merchandise has a lead time. These Monopoly sets weren’t made two days after the film came out.
While I’m pleased that the Monopoly situation is being remedied due to fan reaction, it’s important to remember that there was a lot of information the toy makers didn’t know when some of these products were rolled out, so direct ire is perhaps unnecessary. Looking at toys like the Millenium Falcon playset that comes with just Finn and Chewie, it’s entirely likely to imagine that Disney didn’t tell Hasbro’s designers that the Millenium Falcon scenes features “Veteran Character” and “Female Lead” as well.
The biggest complaint of the #wheresRey movement, however, is more centered around the lack of Rey in stores now. When my friend drew my attention to this problem in her local Target store, I decided to do some sleuthing.
I actually spoke to a purchasing manager who works with Hasbro and asked him about the number of Force Awakens toys Hasbro produced featuring Rey, and what I learned is that since Force Friday, every major TFA action figure line has featured Rey in some fashion. From the Black Series 6-inch figures to the Hero Series 12-inch figures, Rey appeared in every line and almost every wave of figures produced.
However, what some fans don’t realize is that Rey figures couldn’t be bought by the truckful; when a store purchases figures, they get them in assortments featuring several different characters in one box, and in all of the assortments featuring Rey, she appeared in equal proportion to the male figures. What that means is that if you owned a toy store and you decided to buy an assortment of TFA figures, you would get a box of Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, or whoever else was featured in that wave of toys, and in an equal number of each. Hasbro didn’t intentionally make “fewer” Rey toys.
So where’s Rey? It’s likely that she is actually sold out in every store where she is “missing.” Rey toys are unavailable because they are at home with fans and collectors, not out of production.
People have expressed to me that they are unsure where Rey figures would even be on the shelves, but from my observations, it is unlikely that the price cards will be labeled “Rey figure”; instead, they indicate the name of the assortment to which that row or rack of toys belongs, so the idea that there’s a Rey-shaped hole in the toy section at Walmart is untrue.
Given the sheer number of assortments a store would have to buy in order to keep up with the demand for Rey, you can see why there is a disproportionally high number of figures of who aren’t Rey left.
I went to Target and saw quite a few Constable Zuvio 6-inch figures left, with only one each of Poe and Finn. The Hasbro purchasing manager indicated to me that, because there are limited numbers of Rey figures per assortment, big superstores like Target and Walmart were likely to run out of the major characters before the holidays, and were less likely to be diligent in refilling the shelves as some specialty toy stores; they didn’t see the value in getting a whole new assortment just for one or two characters just to have a lot of extra stock to get rid of or inventory come the New Year.
Heck, I’m going on a small tangent here: I think it’s important to remind consumers that, in general, there are going to be a lot more male figures on the shelves. The original trilogy had Leia and Mon Mothma and that was it. Padmé had a little bit more estrogen in her company in the prequel trilogy (and like a billion outfits), but the current merchandise seems to focus on the popular classic characters, like Luke and Vader, and the new iconic figures, like BB-8, Kylo Ren, and the Stormtroopers. That means that, even if she weren’t sold out everywhere, Rey is essentially occupying an intergallatic sausage fest, just because the sheer number of male (or functionally genderless, in the case of the Stormtroopers) characters in the series dwarfs the number of Reys.
Finally, perhaps the most egregious neglect of Rey is in a 6-pack of figures found only at Target.
This set of figures features Finn, Kylo Ren, Chewie, and a bunch of generic characters, but no Rey! How could they?
Well, let me start by noting that a Rey of that toy line (the Hero Series) does exist, so it’s not like Rey couldn’t be included. However, refer back to the TFA catalog discussion earlier; if you want to get an exclusive product featuring multiple characters, you’re going to have to go off whatever very limited character description you’re given well in advance of the movie’s release. So they took the lead hero, two good guys, the lead villain, and two bad guys. They probably weren’t told how important Rey would be in the bigger scheme of things, so they kept the assortment simple.
I’d also like to note that I haven’t seen anyone point out how Finn is the only face character in that set; this set seems to have several generic toys, not for any real bias, but to simplify things for consumers. Don’t know what character your nephew/neighbor/cousin-twice-removed likes? Here’s a bunch of good guys and bad guys. They’re bound to have fun with generic Stormtrooper and Resistance pilot squaring off.
So is there evidence of gender bias in The Force Awakens merchandising? Undoubtedly, but from what I discovered researching the merchandising for the film, I don’t even want to begin to assign blame to any one party or shady mouse-shaped cabal.
Why? Because let’s be real; The Force Awakens flipped the script on a lot of preconceived notions a lot of people, even the fans themselves, had. I don’t want to accuse their marketing team of pulling a bait-and-switch, because that would imply Rey wasn’t in the marketing materials at all, but there definitely wasn’t any single major indicator from the promos that Rey would be the major hero in the end. Besides the idiot “fans” who boycotted the film because oh no, black men and women, I don’t know of any single person whose biggest complaint about the movie was “They made the girl the hero.” Fans loved Rey, even though it seemed like Finn was going to be the new Luke/Anakin for this trilogy, and I don’t think the merchandisers were aware of this surprise either.
I do not wish to bash the efforts of those crusading to get toy manufacturers to better represent female heroes in their merchandise; I support movements like #wheresRey and #wheresNatasha whole-heartedly, because for as progressive as Marvel is becoming, it’s hard to find wider recognition for their numerous ladies in their merch. I just was curious to see how on earth a company could utterly mess up their merchandising so thoroughly, and I was happy to discover that there wasn’t some sort of anti-Rey conspiracy.
I just think if anything, #wheresRey shows how we as a society are so thoroughly conditioned to anticipate male heroes in our entertainment that, at large, we are taken aback when a female hero appears, and everyone from the movie’s marketing team down to the toy manufacturers and the stores aren’t quite prepared to handle just what that sort of adoration means.
But, on the positive side, #wheresRey also demonstrates just how much fans of all ages and genders of a classic, formerly male-heavy sci-fi franchise have embraced a new heroine, and on that end, things are only going to get more exciting as the new trilogy continues to grow.