This post is partly about what an impressive job Disney and Lucasfilm did of keeping details about The Force Awakens secret until its release. So please: if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t read it.
While I’m thinking about Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars (if they could bar wars, why don’t they?): one of the things the internet’s decided they just will not stand for is the way that the film is being marketed.
And by “the internet,” I of course mean maybe a couple hundred people who care enough to write blog posts and start a #WheresRey hashtag. Don’t mistake this post for a “I saw this thing on Twitter and am therefore now responding to the cultural zeitgeist,” but instead a comment on an a couple aspects of this movie and its promotional campaign that I thought were interesting.
The outrage I’m talking about [note: not actually outrage] is best summed up in this post by Mike Adamick (which I saw via my friend Chris Hockabout on Facebook): “Rey is not a role model for little girls.”
Adamick makes a great point and he does it well:
Do you think in their play time that girls don’t fly the Falcon?
That they don’t beat up jerks with their staffs?
Or tinker, engineer, fly, run, jump, call lightsabers, become the chosen one, and save the universe?
No, Rey is not the perfect role model for little girls.
She’s a role model for boys.
Indeed, she’s the perfect role model for little boys, and a whole bunch of supposedly grown ass men as well.
She’s the role model they need.
Frankly, she’s the role model our expanding universe of epic sexist bullshittery needs.
And yes, absolutely. The takeaway from The Force Awakens as a blockbuster movie and an enormous entertainment and merchandising franchise isn’t that little girls finally have their hero. It’s that we finally have our hero.
It’s a continued message to girls (who already get it) and boys and all the emasculated man-children complaining about SJWs and the rest of us relatively well-adjusted man-children who still tend to think in terms of white men being “the default hero.” It’s a rejection of the idea that women (and black people, and Latinos, and Asians, and Wookiees) need a hero for them.
Frankly, we should be kind of ashamed that in 2015 it’s still something we take notice of. Any doubts that non-white-male heroes could be universally appealing should’ve been long dispelled by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Blacula.
But my one complaint with Adamick’s post is that he goes on to make the point so forcefully (no pun intended) that he actually starts to undermine it.
Social Justice Purchasers
I started seeing the complaints within a couple days of the movie’s release: why isn’t there any Rey merchandise? She’s the hero of the movie, but you can buy every doll but Rey!
And I want to agree 100%. But it just makes me uncomfortable to be making a case that toys aren’t being marketed to children aggressively enough.
I absolutely agree about representation and identification, seeing the aggregate of what’s represented instead of special cases, and I get how subtle cultural reinforcement of gender roles and “normality” works. (I keep my “gay guy who didn’t come out until his 30s” card handy for just such an emergency). But when you show me a photo of a solid wall of Star Wars-branded plastic merchandise, my first reaction isn’t “I’m angry that there’s not more of it!”
To be clear: I’m definitely not making any kind of “quit your whining!” type argument. I’m totally on board with the basic idea, and I do believe that being vocal about it makes a difference: it reminds the executives making these decisions that these things are important to the audience, and it makes it harder for them to take the path of least resistance and just assume things work a certain way because they’ve always worked this way.
I used to think that the stereotype of the white male marketing exec insisting on a rigid division between things for girls and things for boys was just a myth, that the reality must be a lot more subtle and driven more by laziness than backwards thinking. But unfortunately, I’ve seen that they do in fact exist, and they live and work among us. (Even in places that you’d assume get it right, which is depressing). And they end up getting their way because no one calls them on their bullshit claim that boys don’t want stuff in which girls are prominent.
But I just don’t want the argument to get so strident that we lose sight of the irony of consumerism-as-civil-rights. As part of the push for The Force Awakens, we’ve been seeing a lot of the old ads from the 70s and 80s for Kenner Star Wars toys. Instead of the delight of nostalgia, though, I just get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I see it all laid out in front of me. Just how much plastic stuff I demanded my parents buy for me, believing with every molecule of my existence that the big AT-AT toy was the most important thing in the world.
But there’s another detail I think people might be missing, a possible reason why Rey isn’t more prominent in the merchandising.
I’ve already said that I’m amazed how many of the details of the story Disney managed to keep secret while simultaneously marketing the hell out of the movie for months. It was a ridiculously savvy campaign of secrecy and misdirection (Emperor Palpatine would be proud!) that hyped the movie based on iconic images, nostalgia, and the tiniest crumbs of character biographies.
Part of that is that Finn was always shown with the blue lightsaber. Rey’s got her staff and her droid BB-8, Poe’s got his X-Wing, and Finn’s got his jacket and lightsaber. I wasn’t even following the advertising past the teaser trailers, but they were still persistent enough images that seeing them remixed throughout the movie was a pleasant surprise. Oh, that’s where BB-8 comes from. Oh, that’s how Finn gets the jacket. Oh, that’s how Han and Chewie end up on the Millennium Falcon. Even when goofing off on talk shows, it’s John Boyega who plays with the light saber while Daisy Ridley sits on the couch and watches.
Adamick correctly identifies the best moment in The Force Awakens as the moment when Rey force-pulls the light saber to herself. And he describes a lot of the stuff that went into making that such a powerful moment. But then he goes on to say that with a scene as powerful as that, it’s all the more outrageous that there aren’t more Rey toys, or that she’s described as a “scavenger.” “..could you imagine Indiana Jones being marketed as just an ‘archaeologist’ on the toy package?”
No, I can’t imagine marketing Indiana Jones as “archeologist.” But I can’t imagine marketing a Darth Vader toy in 1979 as “Luke Skywalker’s Action Father, Darth Vader!” either. A huge part of why Rey’s scene with the lightsaber was so powerful is that they did such a good job of misdirection.
Not just in the movie, but in the marketing leading up to the movie. By that point in the story, it’s already 99% clear that Rey is going to be the next Jedi. But there’s still just enough room for doubt: maybe this is when Luke is going to appear? Maybe Rey and Finn are both Force-sensitive, and they’ll be the galaxy’s first Super Jedi Duo? Maybe Rey decides that light sabers are played out, and she decides to use her staff exclusively?
That scene makes brilliant use of “movie uncertainty,” where you pretty much know for sure what’s going to happen, but it’s still kept just out of reach enough by your suspension of disbelief and understanding of how stories are supposed to work, that the “surprise” plays out in the most perfect way. Oh boy, Luke Skywalker made the shot after all! The Rebel Alliance wasn’t completely annihilated like I totally thought they were going to be!
Showing Rey wielding the lightsaber would’ve completely eliminated that sliver of uncertainty. Sometimes it really is just that simple.
Now, the movie’s already made a bajillion dollars and the “secret” is mostly out. But, I’ll point out, now Christmas is over, too. So it’s time for the marketing to shift away from spoiler mode to celebrating the movie for people who’ve already seen it four or five times mode. But I think it’d be unrealistic to expect it to be as huge a push now that all the toys have been unwrapped.
It’s worth noting that the shift has already started. At the time I’m writing this, the Disney Store’s Star Wars page lists “Rey’s lightsaber” as the second item, only after the true merchandising star of the film, BB-8. She’s featured prominently (with staff) in both the “figure play set” and “deluxe figure play set,” if you’re fancy. (And for good measure, the Stormtrooper helmet you can buy is Captain Phasma’s).
Not to mention that the Disney Infinity playsets for Star Wars feature Rey and Finn, Luke and Leia, and Anakin and Ahsoka Tano. And Rey’s featured prominently on the Toys R Us page.
In short: I wouldn’t get too worried that Disney is going to miss out on a potential opportunity to sell toys. I don’t doubt that there are highly-paid execs within the corporation who are absolutely convinced that there’s only a market for “boys’ toys” and the numbers prove it and it’s not sexist it’s just reality. But I’m positive that you don’t stay a highly-paid exec within Disney for long if you turn down the chance to sell something that people want to buy.
The Jakku Home for Wayward Children
Finally, a tangent to something that was mentioned in that article: I really, really, really, really strongly hope that Rey doesn’t turn out to be related to Luke or Leia.
Yes, it’s very strongly suggested throughout The Force Awakens if not stated outright. Han shows a near-instant parental relationship with her. The few times the question “who is she?” comes up, with Maz Kanata and with Leia, the scene cuts abruptly. JJ Abrams has said in interviews that Luke used to meet Rey much earlier in the film, implying a whole subplot of their relationship and probably revealing where she came from. If Kylo Ren is about 10 years older than Rey (roughly the same as the actors), then the time she was left on the planet would reasonably the time that he turned against the other Jedi in training. And assuming they haven’t abandoned the prequels entirely, it’d pretty much have to be the case that she was related to some surviving Force-sensitive.
But while it’d be pretty much unforgivable to reveal that she’s Han and Leia’s daughter, it’d be a drag to make her Luke’s daughter as well. Because her memory of being abandoned on Jakku (which was triggered by “communicating” with Luke‘s lightsaber, ominously) is pretty horrific, as is the recurring character note of her life being hard, bleak, and lonely.
Whoever left her was even worse of an absentee parent than Darth Vader, since at least Luke grew up with surrogate parents, a pretty sweet car, and a renowned British actor who had nothing better to do than sit out in the desert waiting for him to get into trouble.
I know that all nine movies are supposed to be about “the Skywalker family,” but they’ve got that in spades with Kylo Ren. There’s plenty of room for familial drama with Luke blaming himself for failing his nephew, and Ben Solo struggling with his heritage and being able to find redemption. It’d be unnecessary to try to amp up the drama with Rey fighting her cousin (or much worse, her brother).
Just make her like the Dalai Lama, or if you prefer, The Last Airbender. Imply that Obi-Wan had a secret family he never told anybody about. Hell, make her related to Yoda if you have to. Just please don’t make it so that the legendary heroes of Star Wars abandoned a four-year-old child to a desert planet like a Space Dickens story.