For many fans, Star Wars has always been as much about the toys as it was about a saga in a galaxy far, far away. So when the first wave of new toys for Star Wars: The Force Awakens landed in stores a couple of months before the movie’s December 2015 release, quite a few fans noticed something was missing: namely, action figures of Rey.
Propelled by the #WheresRey hashtag on social media, fans asked the toy makers (particularly Hasbro) to explain why the biggest female cast member, played by Daisy Ridley, was in such short supply. The toy shortage occurred at the collision of two trends: On one hand, you had the massive fan excitement for the first new Star Wars movie in a decade. At the same time, there was a growing awareness that gender representation in films — and the beloved toys that promote those films — often seemed a little out of balance.
“They missed an opportunity with these toys,” says Julie Kerwin, the founder of all-female superhero action figure line IAmElemental. “But the outcome for the lack of Rey figures is more important than the reason behind it, because it signifies this shift in how people are paying attention.”
With Rogue One just released last weekend, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) toys appear to be easily available. Of course, Jyn is clearly the star of Rogue One, but you could also make the case that Rey was also the real hero of The Force Awakens. This time around, it seems like toy makers and other merchandising partners have wanted to make sure they couldn’t be accused of under-representing an important female character.
Compare that to the first wave of Force Awakens toys. At the time, there were a couple of different Rey action figures and Rey’s speeder. Lego also released their version of Rey’s speeder, and she was even in their Millennium Falcon set. But collectors who tried to buy these toys, especially the action figures, found they were selling out quickly while plenty of Finns and Kylo Rens were left on the racks. And Rey also seemed to be missing from some multi-figure packs and was even absent from the Force Awakens Monopoly set.
Stores weren’t sold out of Rey just because of higher demand. In fact, fewer Rey figures were delivered to retailers. “They don’t send you one of each figure, you’ll get up to half the case as the lead character,” says Randy Garcia, owner of Man of Action Figures, a collectibles store in Miami and on eBay. “With Rey, I remember, there was as many of her in the box as a character who appeared for only five seconds.”
At various times, toy giant Hasbro, which holds the Star Wars action figure license, claimed that they kept Rey out of those sets to avoid spoilers. (After all, you still can’t buy an action figure of Luke Skywalker as he looked in the movie, unless you’re in the $200-plus price range.) While it’s hard to see how including Rey side-by-side with other major characters constitutes a “spoiler,” marketing for the movie did studiously avoid hinting that Rey would be the one dueling with a lightsaber and using the Force — even going so far as to have the trailers emphasize what turned out to be Finn’s brief moment with the lightsaber.
The toymakers themselves were kept just as much in the dark as the rest of us. “We had no idea Rey was going to be holding a lightsaber and fighting Kylo Ren at the end of the movie,” says Mark Robben, director of marketing for vinyl collectibles maker Funko. Even though Funko started designing their figures from Force Awakens concept art months before the movie was released (they're currently working on their Episode VIII designs), the staff there had to wait until they saw the movie in the theatre to get the full story. “The big studios are pretty protective of their content, and we completely understand why,” he says.
In 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy fans were similarly disappointed by the lack of Gamora merch (although she did have action figures and was in the Lego sets), leading to the social media hashtag #WheresGamora. The complaints reflected a long-running frustration with the lack of female characters in the most popular movie franchises.
It’s sometimes referred to as the “Smurfette Principle” — essentially, one token female character in a sea of male faces. It turns out to be broadly true: A Mount Saint Mary’s University study of the 200 top grossing films of 2014 and 2015 found that male characters took up 29 percent of the screen time compared to 16 percent for female characters. And even in movies with male and female co-leads, male characters spoke 26 percent of the time compared to 17 percent for women.
The toys produced for a blockbuster movie generally follow the same pattern. A spokesperson for Lego told us that most of the decisions about which characters are in a toy line are made by the studios. There are even Hollywood stories about studio execs shying away from female characters in their big-budget tentpole films out of fear their toys won’t sell. Most recently, Iron Man 3 writer/director Shane Black said Marvel’s corporate office told him he couldn’t make the villain a woman in his movie for that same reason.
This trend seems to be quickly coming to an end. Take the example of IAmElemental, which Kerwin founded in 2012 when there still seemed to be a giant hole in the market female action figures. But this year, IAmElemental was nominated for “Toy of the Year” by the Toy Industry Association in the action figures and rookie categories. “When IAmElemental came to exist, there was no Rey, there was no Wonder Woman movie,” says Kerwin. “Would we have been born in today’s environment? Probably not, because we wouldn’t be asking where the female action figures are.”
As early as January, Hasbro course corrected and included a variety of new Rey toys in their later releases. For Rogue One, Jyn Erso is in several multi-figure sets, plus she’s included with the big AT-ACT walker, and the Lego U-Wing set. Another change is that retailers can order more copies of Jyn to ensure they can meet demand. “Hasbro made Jyn available to order in solid cases, meaning you can order full boxes only containing her, which was not the case last year with Rey,” Garcia says.
Even in the world of collectibles — the kinds of toys meant to be displayed more than actually played with — the ground is shifting to a more female-friendly marketplace. After a change in ownership in 2005, bobblehead maker Funko started producing their line of “Pop” vinyl statuettes, with large rounded heads and almost anime-style eyes — a suggestion that came from DC Comics. “We saw a complete sea change in who was coming to our Comic-Con booth,” Robben says. “It used to be highly male, and once we started doing this different art style, we definitely started seeing more women in our line.” Robben says that Funko’s customer base is currently “about 50-50” women and men.
For the toys that kids do play with, a more equitable male-female ratio could have a positive effect on how children view the world. “It’s just as important that we put powerful female action figures in the hands of boys as well as girls,” Kerwin says. “Both men and women can save the day and be the protagonist of the story.”