Episode VII: The Search for Toy Rey

NOTE: This article includes Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers.

Recently, anonymous comments have come to light revealing that the exclusion of Rey from most Star Wars: The Force Awakens toys is the result of instructions to toymakers by Lucasfilm, owned by Disney. Whether or not these comments are to be believed, the toys themselves bear the evidence. While Kylo Ren abounds, the female (and main) protagonist of the highest-grossing (domestic) film of all time is almost absent from the merchandise.

One set of six action figures by Hasbro goes so far as to include a generic Stormtrooper and a generic TIE Fighter Pilot, rather than Rey. The other characters in the set are all male: Finn, Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, and Chewbacca. Female Stormtrooper Captain Phasma is also AWOL from this Target-exclusive set.

Writer-director J.J. Abrams was baffled and angered by the exclusion of Rey from the new Star Wars Monopoly game, which has tokens of Luke Skywalker, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Darth Vader. Abrams said, “It seems preposterous and wrong that the main character of the movie is not well represented in what is clearly a huge piece of the Star Wars world in terms of merchandising.” Hasbro is not the only company to produce few, if any, Rey items. LEGO, Mattel, and many others are guilty of releasing hardly any Rey merchandise.

Imagine if Star Wars toy lines didn’t include Luke Skywalker. Absurd! Star Wars literally isn’t Star Wars without Luke Skywalker. He is the hero of Star Wars the character both boys and girls wanted to be, the focal point of the Original Trilogy. Luke is such a powerful figure that J.J. Abrams admitted he had to limit him to one scene with no dialogue in TFA to prevent Luke from hijacking the movie. J.J. said every time they would introduce Luke in the Force Awakens script early, he would steal the show because he IS Star Wars.

Rey is the new Luke. TFA is her story and the Sequel Trilogy is HER trilogy. Luke’s (Anakin’s) blue lightsaber is now Rey’s lightsaber. Kids and kids at heart see TFA and come out of the movie theatre admiring Rey, wanting to be her. In a male-driven genre, Rey has broken the mold and given us a heroine who is strong, smart, daring, and who, without training (that we know of) in the Force, can both control Stormtrooper James Bond’s mind and duel Kylo Ren as an equal. Han Solo didn’t offer to make Luke or Wedge a member of his Millennium Falcon crew, but he’s willing to take on Rey. In the Star Wars universe, being female isn’t an obstacle for Rey. It’s not even an issue. Why, then, is it such an issue in the merchandising?

The problem extends beyond just Rey. There are very few items featuring the female character Captain Phasma, who, in toy form, appears gender-neutral (as does the 3.75-inch shrouded Rey that comes with a speeder bike). Yes, one of the few Rey toys to be released doesn't show her face or any skin for that matter. Want an action figure of former princess and current general Leia? Good luck. I have only found her in two toys, a LEGO set and a Disney Store-exclusive collection of ten figurines. Star Wars is far from the first franchise to de-emphasize female characters in its toys. For instance, we have seen the same practice regarding The Avengers’ Black Widow, but Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanova isn’t arguably the protagonist of The Avengers (although in the first film she does have the most lines of all the Avengers). The Rey situation elevates the problem to new heights.

Toy companies are intentionally marketing “boyish” items to boys and “girlish” items to girls. For years, Disney has emphasized that its princesses are for girls and that girls should dress up in little princess gowns, get their picture taken with princess characters, and have all the princess toys. Meanwhile, Disney has steered boys toward toys, costumes, and experiences involving pirates and macho superheroes.They make Mickey Mouse dolls in baby blue and Minnie Mouse dolls in powder pink. The problem isn’t limited to Disney either.

Go into a Toys Я Us. The store is laid out so that “boy” and “girl” toys are separate, physically suggesting that Barbies are for little Jane and G.I. Joes are for little Dick, or, in today’s generation, little Emma and little Liam. What is this teaching kids? What does it do to their psyche to be told what is a “boy” thing and what is a “girl” thing? How do such gender differentiations even fit into the same world that applauds Caitlyn Jenner?

I am a girl who loves Star Wars. I grew up playing with the toys of He-Man and She-Ra, with a full set of Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, but also with My Little Ponies, Popples, and Cabbage Patch Kids. (Yes, you can tell exactly how old I am by all these references.) I played with My Pet Monster, Big Bird, and Care Bears, and I never felt there was anything wrong with liking both Spider-Man and Strawberry Shortcake.

I recall vehemently disliking toys that were predominantly marketed by gender. I had equal disdain for Barbie and G.I. Joe, and the dual commercials for My Buddy and Kid Sister, regardless of their maddeningly catchy jingle, outraged me. Why should girls play with “girl” toys and boys with “boy” toys?

Last Christmas, my four-year-old cousin’s presents were all toys tied to two franchises: Frozen and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As a lifelong fan of Disney and the Ninja Turtles, I was thrilled to give my cousin Anna, Elsa, Olaf, Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, and Michelangelo. We had epic battles where Elsa and Michelangelo fought Shredder to rescue Olaf. Can you guess my little cousin’s gender?

She’s a girl, and she wore both an Elsa dress and a Leonardo helmet while riding her new Ninja Turtles scooter.

Frozen didn’t become the highest-grossing animated film ever by attracting only girls, and Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens hasn’t shattered nearly every box office record by appealing only to boys. When left to make up their own minds, boys and girls often like the same things.

I do not mean to suggest that boys be forced to play with “girl” toys nor vice versa. One need only consider the psychological impact on Ernest Hemingway of being raised as a girl until age five to see how compelling a child to fit the opposite gender can be detrimental to mental health. However, if a boy likes traditionally “girl” things and a girl likes traditionally “boy” things, there is nothing wrong with that. After all, there’s no accounting for taste.

The dearth of Rey toys is most disturbing because it takes away from kids the choice of what they want to play with. How can children decide what they like if they don’t have alternatives? The toymakers and the companies dictating their products are deliberately limiting children’s options, thereby creating an idea of what’s “good” or “worthwhile.” If the girl characters aren’t in the toy set, they must not be as good as the boy characters, right? If our T-shirts have Finn and Kylo Ren but not Rey, that must be because the males are somehow better, right? Because if Rey were as great as she seemed in the movie, she’d be on our backpacks and in our playsets, wouldn’t she? This is the subtextual message Rey’s exclusion from merchandise sends to kids. Raising children with toys of only male characters teaches kids that women are less important, less relevant, and generally “less than” men. We cannot afford toys these further antiquated ideas.

George Lucas pioneered movie merchandising with Star Wars. Billions of dollars are spent each year on Star Wars toys, billions more in years when new Star Wars movies are released, releases which will occur yearly under Disney’s control of the franchise. Little boys and girls are growing up with the Star Wars characters and engage with the characters through the toys. Kids socialize and learn through play, and it’s imperative they have the right tools—the right toys—not just to grow up, but to grow as people. (That is as long as the child actually opens their toy and doesn't leave it in the box.)

After the fan backlash and #WheresRey social media campaign, Disney, Lucasfilm, and the toy manufacturers are beginning to create new Rey merchandise. Rey will be included in the re-release of the Monopoly game (can you imagine how much the non-Rey Monopoly will go for in ten years on eBay?), and a new 3.75-inch Rey action figure is slated for the next wave of toys. I proudly sport my new Rey tank top. These additions are a step in the right direction. We as consumers and fans must be vigilant to ensure the toy companies continue on the path toward the light.

Here's the list of Disney's upcoming films:

Disney:

The Finest Hours - January 29, 2016

The Jungle Book - April 15, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass - May 27, 2016

The BFG - July 1, 2016

Pete's Dragon - August 12, 2016

Beauty and the Beast - March 17, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales - May 26, 2017

Untitled Disney live-action fairy tale film - December 22, 2017

Untitled Disney live-action fairy tale film - November 2, 2018

Untitled Disney live-action fairy tale film - March 29, 2019

Untitled DisneyToon Studios film - April 12, 2019

Untitled Disney live-action fairy tale film - November 8, 2019

Disney Animation Studios / Pixar Animation Studios:

Zootopia - March 4, 2016

Finding Dory - June 17, 2016

Moana - November 23, 2016

Cars 3 - June 16, 2017

Coco November 22, 2017

Gigantic - March 9, 2018

Toy Story 4 - June 15, 2018

The Incredibles 2 - June 21, 2019

Untitled Pixar film - March 13, 2020

Untitled Pixar film - June 19, 2020

Untitled Disney Animation film - November 25, 2020

LucasFilm:

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story - December 16, 2016

Star Wars: Episode VIII - December 15, 2017

Untitled Han Solo Anthology Story - 2018

Star Wars: Episode IX - May 24, 2019

Untitled Boba Fett Anthology Story - 2020

Marvel Studios:

Captain America: Civil War - May 6, 2016

Doctor Strange - November 4, 2016

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 - May 5, 2017

Marvel’s Spider-Man Threeboot- July 28, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok - November 3, 2017

Black Panther - February 16, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 - May 4, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp - July 6, 2018

Captain Marvel - March 8, 2019

Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2 - May 3, 2019

Inhumans - July 12, 2019

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