Where is Rey? Why gender stereotypes dominate popular culture

Daisy Ridley as Rey, the lead female character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Toy company Hasbro has taken a lot of criticism in recent weeks regarding the conspicuous absence of Rey, the lead female character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, from its Star Wars-themed Monopoly game.

A lot of people have made thoughtful and well-articulated arguments about why this is sexist, but probably the most insightful (and concise) critique came in the form of a brief letter to the company written in rainbow colours by an eight-year-old girl:

“Dear Hasbro,

“How could you leave out Rey!? She belongs in Star Wars and all other Star Wars games! Without her, THERE IS NO FORCE AWAKENS! It awakens in her! And without her, the bad guys would have won! Besides, boys and girls need to see women can be strong as men! Girls matter! Boy or girl, who cares? We are equal, all of us!

Annie Rose (age 8).”

After getting their asses handed to them by a child, Hasbro representatives quickly issued a statement claiming that they left out Rey to avoid any plot spoilers, and that it was their plan all along to include Rey in future editions.

But according to reports from an industry insider, that's a lie.

Early prototypes of many of the product lines featured Rey prominently, but Lucasfilm executives explicitly instructed the product manufacturers to remove Rey from the product lines. According to the industry insider, product developers were told: “No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.”

In recent years, there has been increasing criticism about the marginalisation of female characters in comic book and science fiction movie merchandise.

John Marcotte, founder of the non-profit organisation Heroic Girls, spoke to SweatpantsAndCoffee.com about the absence of Black Widow in product lines tied to the most recent Avengers movie: “There was a scene in which Black Widow drops out of the belly of a jet while riding a motorcycle. It was an iconic moment for the character.

“And yet when the toy product from that scene was released, it came with several different characters from that movie — Captain America, Iron Man, Ultron — that you could use with that toy … And no Black Widow. She was removed from her own best scene.”

These are not isolated incidents. Gender-based toy development and marketing are ubiquitous throughout the industry.

Why do so many of these companies completely ignore their female demographic? It certainly is not due to a lack of demand. Studies have shown that these gender divisions are not driven by consumer demand.

As Laura Stoltzfus-Brown wrote at the Mary Sue website: “The reason for this lack of equal representation in products is that we don't live in a buyer's market; we live in a seller's market — the largest media conglomerations make the media and merchandise we consume, and we get used to taking whatever is offered, for that's better than nothing at all, right?

“In this type of system, a few corporations have an enormous amount of power and wealth and still want more, becoming risk-averse and formulaic in creative decisions.”

During the 1960s and '70s, progress was made toward creating space for gender-neutral product lines and marketing campaigns. This was largely due to the gains of the women's rights movement and the left more generally.

Cultural shifts and the breakdown of gender norms made it financially risky for companies to market their products based on stereotypes.

These shifts resulted in changes in how companies produced and marketed children's toys. In a 2012 New York Times article, Elizabeth Sweet wrote her research on gender-based advertising in the Sears catalogues, noting that “very few toys were explicitly marketed according to gender, and nearly 70 percent showed no markings of gender whatsoever”.

At the same time, public advocacy groups such as the Boston-based Action for Children's Television (ACT) successfully pushed for tighter regulations on advertising in children's programming.

Although inadequate and difficult to enforce, the regulations at least recognised that there should be a division between children's television programming and commercials designed to sell them things.

But with the collapse of left movements in the '80s and the associated rise of neoliberalism and family values ideology under Ronald Reagan, almost all of these gains were reversed.

In the guise of defending the First Amendment, the Reagan administration argued that federal regulations on children's TV were a violation of free speech. They set about dismantling the Federal Communications Commission's regulatory authority.

Toy companies were given a free hand to produce what were essentially half-hour toy commercials. In an Animation World Network article, Martin Goodman said that between 1984 and 1985, there was a 300% rise in the number of cartoons featuring licensed characters.

By the end of the '80s, almost all top-selling toys had their own television shows.

“These new, deregulated shows were partnerships between toy companies and select animation studios,” Goodman said, “and inevitably corporate guidelines dictated much of the show's content.”

The retreat of left-wing social movements also opened up space for the spread of ideas and images representing traditional gender roles — in the name of protecting “family values”. Toy manufacturers realised they could increase sales via gendered marketing campaigns that exploited and reinforced these stereotypes.

“Instead of just having a ball,” Marcotte from Heroic Girls said, “you could make it pink and put a princess on it; or, paint it blue and put GI Joe on it. Now parents have to buy two sets of toys, one for the daughter and one for their son.”

For boys, toy companies produced shows such as He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and Transformers. Meanwhile, shows such as Rainbow Brite and My Little Pony were developed for young girls. The strategy proved to be enormously successful, producing huge profits for both television networks and the toy companies licensing the characters.

Disney, probably more than any other company, has profited from this gender-based strategy. The Disney Princess product line is a multibillion-dollar industry.

This explains why Lucasfilm and Marvel, both owned by Disney, show such blatant disregard for their female fans. Disney acquired Lucasfilm and Marvel in order to expand their market to males, and they have no incentive to market these franchises to girls and women.

An article by a former Marvel employee published anonymously at the Mary Sue website explained: “My demographic was already giving them money anyway, with Disney Princess purchases. Even now, there's no incentive to make more Marvel merch for women, because we already buy Brave and Frozen products.”

But it is even worse than simply the absence of an incentive. If the Disney bosses expanded their target demographic for super-hero and sci-fi movies, they would be shooting themselves in the foot.

The more that young girls start to identify with strong female action heroes like Rey and Black Widow, the less likely they are to identify with the passive, hyper-feminine Disney Princesses.

So not only would Disney be undermining its own princess product lines, it would also be pushing girls toward a more competitive market that Disney only recently entered into.

In the end, this is why parents will find a huge selection of Disney Princess costumes on store shelves, but they'll be out of luck if their daughter — or son — wants to be Rey.

The backlash against Hasbro and other companies selling Star Wars merchandise may have pushed the issue past the tipping point — many toymakers have already promised to feature Rey more prominently in future product lines.

According to insider reports, Disney executives were blindsided by the criticism. They now have warehouses full of Kylo-Ren action figures — the character they assumed would be one of the breakout stars — while being unable to fulfil the huge demand for Rey merchandise.

At the same time, sales of Disney Princess dolls, though still huge, are shrinking. These shifts in consumer preferences will probably force Disney to respond accordingly.

Many critics of the toy industry have drawn the conclusion that change will only come when consumers vote with their dollar.

Stoltzfus-Brown concludes: “It's hard to say 'don't buy stuff,' but maybe we should get different stuff. Supporting smaller companies like Quirk Books, Drawn & Quarterly, and First Second can help get more feminist, creative material published [and] provide the impetus for corporations like Marvel to pay attention.”

Arguments such as these are not wrong so much as incomplete. It is certainly true that toy manufacturers in the '60s and '70s shifted towards gender-neutral marketing in response to changes in the buying patterns of consumers. However, these changes were themselves a by-product of an organised and radical feminist movement that undermined traditional ideas of gender in US society.

By ignoring the lessons from the struggles of the '60s, these arguments offer an economic solution for what is fundamentally a social and political problem. If we are going to mount a successful campaign for equal representation, we must pursue a strategy that puts women's liberation front and centre.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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