This Star Wars Day (May the Fourth…) lifelong Star Wars fan and stay-at-home-Dad-blogger Simon Ragoonanan senses a disturbance in the force, and asks… where are all the women?
When I was a child in the seventies, the first fellow Star Wars fan I knew was a girl who lived round the corner. Together, we played with our Star Wars toys and her way into it was her beloved Princess Leia figure. There wasn’t anything odd about a boy and girl playing together, let alone a girl being into Star Wars.
Forty years later, and I sense a great disturbance in the force. Boys and girls aren’t supposed to play together with the same toys anymore. I’m considered a progressive father simply for letting my daughter have Star Wars toys. And female sci-fi & superhero characters routinely go missing on the journey from screen to merchandising and promotions.
New roles for women
The Star Wars movies haven’t had a great range of roles for women so far, with just one significant female character in each trilogy – Princess Leia and her mother Padmé Amidala. Disney acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, and appointed a female President (Kathleen Kennedy) to manage the Star Wars brand. She recently acknowledged that the galaxy far, far away has been severely lacking in female characters – and that was going to change.
This year sees the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and the film boasts a great pool of female acting talent, from the returning Carrie Fisher, to newcomer Daisy Ridley in a lead role, plus the likes of Gwendolyn Christie (Game of Thrones) and Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave). The new animated TV show Star Wars Rebels has two main female characters (Hera and Sabine), and has just reintroduced fan favourite Ahsoka Tano (from the animated Clone Wars series) for the forthcoming second series.
So it’s clearly game over to the notion that Star Wars is just a boys’ club…
Not so fast.
Where’s Leia? No seriously… where is she?
While the creatives behind the movies and TV shows have reacted to the growing clamour for more female characters in Star Wars, as well as the increasing visibility of female fans, there’s one group that appears far less interested – the licensees.
While countless businesses will be paying up for licenses to use the Star Wars name and characters on their products, the main toy company is Hasbro, and they pay Disney hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to make all sorts of official toys. Such vast sums have possibly made them a little risk-averse.
Companies hoping to sell to boys tend to operate on the assumption that boys hate anything to do with girls (I say assumption, because I have yet to see research that backs this up). On licensed properties, this means that female characters regularly do a disappearing act from Star Wars and other sci-fi & superhero merchandise. As I write, it’s happening right now with Black Widow missing from most Avengers: Age of Ultron tie-ins.
Speaking as a former little boy… I was just as keen to own the female figures from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica as the male ones. And I owned more Princess Leia figures than Han Solos.
The invisible women
When the first wave of Hasbro’s Star Wars Rebels toys first appeared last year, there were no figures of the female characters.
While figurines of the iconic male characters from the original trilogy are easy enough to come by at Disney Stores or local toy shops, currently the only Princess Leia figure you might be able to get hold of is for the adult collector market (in her revealing ‘slave’ outfit from Return of the Jedi).
This year Hasbro released a set of figures to tie in with the digital release of all the Star Wars films – the 12 figures for the original trilogy included all the major male characters, including two Luke Skywalkers, plus the likes of minor bounty hunters Bossk and IG-88 – but no Princess Leia.
As a former little boy, I don’t get this assumption. I was just as keen to own the female figures from Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica as the male ones.
And I owned more Princess Leia figures than Han Solos.
Toy merchandising – divide and sell, sell, sell
Disney makes a lot of money from selling their merchandising rights to licensees, and we have to understand why they paid $4 billion for Star Wars – it was to access the ‘boys’ market. As far as they’re concerned they already have the ‘girls’ market locked up with their Princesses (and now Frozen). Disney – and their licensees – have no interest in trying to make Star Wars (and Marvel who they also purchased for $4 billion) appeal to girls. To them, it’s more profitable to keep selling princesses to the girls and bring in the boys by selling them their Star Wars & Marvel product.
Hasbro has had great success selling to boys with the likes of Star Wars, Transformers, and Nerf. In fact their previous idea of making ones of these ‘boy’ brands appeal to girls was to make a pink & purple Nerf toy bow ‘for girls’, probably to get a bit of the Hunger Games action (I don’t recall Katniss having a pink bow). They’ve also recently nabbed the license to make Frozen and other Disney Princess Dolls from arch-rival Mattel. It’s also completely in Hasbro’s own interests to keep selling Star Wars to boys and Frozen/Princesses to girls.
Marketing by gender is bad for children
However, their highly successful mission to divide and sell to our children is also a grand social experiment. It is resulting in our boys and girls learning – before they even reach school – that they should play separately, as well as feeling that options are already closed off to them because of their gender. Frozen-loving boys and Star Wars-loving girls are constantly getting the message that ‘this isn’t for you’.
My pre-school age daughter has yet to confront anyone telling her she can’t like Star Wars, but I know it happens to other children, from people I know, or who have contacted me, to stories such as that of ‘Star Wars Katie’, bullied for having a Star Wars water bottle. Many boys are learning that it’s normal to exclude girls from their groups, because that’s what happens to the female characters on Star Wars and the other licensed merchandise they engage with. Many of these boys may carry this damaging way of thinking into adulthood.
These are not the toys you’re looking for…
But as long as the cash is rolling in, things are unlikely to change, no matter how many #WeWantLeia or #WheresNatasha hashtags we use. The licensees need to feel that as well as stopping the negative coverage, changing their gendered marketing approach makes good business sense too.
They need persuading that boys will still purchase a product with female characters, and that there is a significant market of girls who will not buy the princess stuff but would engage with Star Wars, Marvel, and similar brands if invited to do so. Toy companies need to understand that they’re not fragmenting their market by including girls, but adding to it.
Turning away custom
Here’s a case study for them – our family. We haven’t purchased a single Frozen or Disney Princess item, and while my daughter loves Star Wars, we have bought second-hand Leia toys as we couldn’t get any new ones, reused old homewares that didn’t omit Leia from the artwork, and even turned to unlicensed vendors to get Leia merchandise. The most amazing addition to my daughter’s Star Wars toy collection was when a lady called Emily read my blog and sent us her old – still boxed – Leia and Amidala toys all the way from America.
Because Hasbro and other Star Wars licensees are not engaging us, they have seen very little cashflow from our direction. (Although I did buy my daughter a lightsaber on her request).
It’s wonderful that the new onscreen Star Wars galaxy features so many great female characters. But until the licensees can get more creative with how they sell product to all children, stop assuming boys don’t like female characters, and embrace the growing Star Wars fangirl community, there will remain a great disturbance in the force.
“A New Hope?”
Star Wars licensees such as LEGO are beginning to include more female characters in some of their sets. Another licensee, Mattel’s Hot Wheels, have added a Leia car to their range. Hasbro have finally released Sabine & Hera Star Wars Rebels figures, and have a Leia on the way. Plus, in an indication they are realising there’s a non-Princess market for girls, Hasbro have also just announced an all-female Transformers set, an addition to their successful ‘boys’ brand they claim is the result of female demand.
Star Wars is more than just the brand or license, and my relationship with it predates that of any of the current owners. In the late seventies, my friendly neighbourhood fangirl friend chose a Leia doll over a Barbie, and we shared our love of Star Wars together. Thirty-five plus years later and I’m relying on decades old Star Wars merchandise so my daughter can hopefully do the same with her peers.
All I want is to share my enthusiasm for the galaxy far, far away with her, and for us to feel welcome by the current owners to do so. I’m not saying these companies shouldn’t sell their products to boys.
But please, don’t exclude our girls from the Star Wars party either.