“Where’s Rey?” feminist Star Wars fans are asking on social media. Their urgent query is not about The Force Awakens film, which features the Force-sensitive scavenger as its primary protagonist and heroine, but rather about the toys that have accompanied the film, including action-figure sets and board games. J.J. Abrams proudly bucked sexist tradition by casting a female Jedi-to-be as his lead, facing only the most infantile backlash for doing so.
Alas, the same cannot be said for the secondary moneymakers in this Disney enterprise: the companies that mold plastic into shapes that entice kids and their parents to spend big. This happened before with the Avengers toy sets, which omitted Black Widow, and Guardians of the Galaxy toy sets, which omitted Gamora, but seems particularly egregious given the massive excitement around Rey’s character.
Fans are not pleased, and their outcry online has sent the companies scurrying to reply, explaining previous omissions as having been made for the sake of avoiding spoilers, and promising more Rey toys to come:
Such responses have left protesting fans somewhat mollified, although they note that having “scavenger Rey” as a toy would not have spoiled the “Force-sensitive Rey” plot point for moviegoers. And it seems a rather flimsy excuse anyway. As much as we can respect a certain desire to not totally spoil the film, we don’t have to leap too far to imagine that the much greater issue at stake here is profit, not plot points.
And I’m going to venture a guess at the deep-rooted societal source of that formula for profit: boy action figures are considered “toys.” But girl action figures look a lot like “dolls.” And dolls represent a third rail. Little boys, you see, are assumed to be disdainful of dolls because it makes them appear sissy, or gay, or you know, caring, compassionate, tender, and other terrifying qualities. And that dated, foolish, and problematic taboo around boys and dolls, conscious or not, might well be deemed by the toy makers more important than the yearning that little girls might feel to play with a toy that looks like them. I can practically guarantee that toxic masculinity, mixed with the profit motive, is the true heart of this entire mess, a mess which hurts kids of all gender expressions and identities, including queer and trans ones.
Growing up alongside a twin brother rendered me acutely aware of the importance of representation in kids’ toys and books before I knew what the word “representation” meant. My brother and I had gendered toys, but we shared them. Our stuffed animals and action figures commingled in a giant heap of fur or plastic, waging epic battles for the destiny of our room. I participated in the Lego adventures, while my She-Ra action figures joined up with his He-Man crew , and all was fairly well in our version of Etheria and Eternia (these are names my fellow ’80s babies will recall).
But I remember feeling a special longing, too: a sense of seeking followed by finding affinity for the inevitable lone female character in the midst of any male pack. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to play with the guys; I just wanted there to be girls, too. The Ninja Turtles’ lady-friend, April O’Neil, was one such avatar. And He-Man’s female sidekick, Teela, was the toy I always claimed to “be” or be in charge of during our games, along with Moss-Man and whoever else fell to my lot that day. (I also liked Skeletor’s evil sidekick, Evil-Lynn, for despite her evil-ness, she was another woman in a world of musclebound men.) Lego finally introduced lady Lego people when I was almost too old to play with the sets, but I was deliriously happy to learn that there were female outlaws and astronauts at last on the way, because it meant I didn’t just have to choose a random guy with a yellow face and pretend he was a woman.
I bring up this story because, although I hardly remember the details of the imaginary games we played, I remember the intense, focused hunger I felt for a single toy I could identify with, at least to a degree — at the very same time as I had little interest in walling myself off in my own pearly-pink section of the carpet. Unsurprisingly, my brother and our many, many friends who joined in our coed games and even played with girl dolls all ended up with healthy adult lives and gender expressions. Yet common sense and girls’ desires have both been determined by the capitalist mind-readers at the toy companies to be less important than the hypothetical disgust little boys will have at being forced to play with a girl doll, even if she represents the most powerful fighter in the galaxy.
Efforts to both integrate and diversify kids’ playthings remain worthy for everyone involved, including parents who may unintentionally cling to gender norms. Let’s hope the public outcry means that the trend of Star Wars toys and games being released without their main female character is over. Maybe the “Where’s Rey?” movement is a turning point in this discussion, just as Rey herself, along with Finn, represents a turning point in the question of whether a “diverse” cast can anchor a beloved mainstream franchise.