I am a total geek and I’m proud of it. Yes, I love sports and competition, but if it’s science fiction, fantasy or comic book related, I’m completely obsessed. So you can guess how excited I was to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When the sequel was just a baby internet rumor, my friends and I were already making plans to go see it together when it came out, no matter where we were living in the world.
And let me tell you, I was delighted with the movie. It made me laugh, kept me guessing and left some huge mysteries that I continue to debate with my Star Wars friends. But the thing I loved most about the new Star Wars? The inclusion of women as a normal part of the Star Wars universe. There were female fighter pilots, General Leia, female analysts in the background, female Stormtroopers, Captain Phasma, and of course, the main character Rey. At Girls in the Game, we teach girls they can be whatever they want to be and it’s great to have evidence that the possibilities include Stormtroopers and Jedis.
Rey won my eternal fan loyalty at the moment when she and Finn are fleeing the First Order, and she yells at him, “I know how to run without you holding my hand!” But Rey was also caring, driven and had an intriguing backstory; she was so much more than a one-dimensional “tough girl” stereotype. Not only is this type of full-fledged female main character rare in movies, it is especially rare in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy genre which consists almost entirely of white male protagonists (just look at the older Star Wars movies). It was thrilling to see one of the biggest franchises in Sci-Fi/Fantasy cast a woman and a black man as the two main characters. And it wasn’t just Rey and Finn; it was all the other characters in the background of the movie, from the team of fighter pilots to the rebel soldiers. Women were present as a normal part of the universe, which is vital for girls to see in their media.
So when I cruised by the toy aisle at Meijer while doing my grocery shopping a bit after the movie came out, I was shocked to see that the only Rey toy in the entire Star Wars section (which had been expanded out into the main aisle as well) was a bobble-head. That’s right, a bobble-head. I found her in the background of one or two other items that had scenes from the movie, but there were no action figures, no Lego sets, nothing else that included THE MAIN CHARACTER!
I texted my other Star Wars friends in outrage from the aisles of Meijer and began to investigate. It turns out I wasn’t the only one who noticed the big hole in merchandising. All over Twitter, the hashtag #wheresrey began to pop up with pictures of toy aisles filled with every possible character, both from the new and old Star Wars movies, with the glaring exception of Rey. Hasbro’s new Star Wars Monopoly didn’t include Rey as a playable piece. The action figure set exclusive to Target had cut her out as well. Although Rey flies the Millennium Falcon in the movie, toy makers replaced her with Finn when it came time to create the toy set. Parents desperately searching for the elusive Rey action figure online discovered that it was selling at almost triple the price of all the other action figures because there simply weren’t enough of them. In the mugs and blankets where you did find Rey, she was generally in the background while the other male characters stood front and center.
What in the world made these toy companies think it was a good idea to cut out the main character in the biggest movie of the year in their merchandise? It came down to the mistaken belief that girls don’t sell. They don’t sell in movies and they don’t sell in merchandise, especially when it comes to the so-called “boy” genre movies like Star Wars or the Marvel movies. Let me just point out that Rey and The Force Awakens have been smashing box office records left and right. But the people behind the scenes at the toy companies still believe that girls are bad for business. And what kind of boy would want to play with a “girly” toy, anyway?
Plenty of them, it turns out. Take Girls in the Game Interim CEO Meghan Morgan’s 3-year-old son Patrick, for example, who always pretends to be Rey when they play Star Wars. Not to mention all the girls that saw the movie and fell in love with Rey’s character. Quite simply, Rey is a courageous, compelling character, no matter her gender. Who wouldn’t want a Rey action figure? And fans of the movie stood behind this idea. The backlash against the toy companies was so intense, they were forced to send out press releases announcing the re-release of the Monopoly game and a new line of Rey-themed toys to come out in January. But the fan response took these companies completely by surprise; it never crossed their minds that people might be upset that they had cut the main character from the story they were telling with their toys just because she was a girl. To them, this was simply business as normal.
And, I firmly believe that this is why Girls in the Game’s message to girls about strength, confidence, leadership and courage is so important. We don’t just send this message to the girls we work with, but we also tell the stories of the girls in our programs on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and our blog. We are re-writing the traditional, negative narratives that surround girls to tell a story of courage and bravery. Like Rey, our girls have stories of their own to tell. And at Girls in the Game, their stories will never be ignored.