Where's Rey? Ask the Marketing People

One of the toy sets that sparked the #WheresRey campaign
One of the toy sets that sparked the #WheresRey campaign

There has been a lot of talk online about the conspicuous absence of major female characters in toys and licensed merchandise. It’s been going on for a long time (Princess Leia toys were hard to come by in 1980), but people started to really take notice of it when Black Widow was replaced in the toy versions of her high-profile action scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the systematic elimination of female characters in merchandising has become too blatant for anyone to deny.

The question is, what’s going on here? The obvious answer is sexism and misogyny, but the fact is, that’s more an effect than cause. It’s really not about representation. It’s about spreadsheets and demographics and market segments.

Let’s take Disney as an example, since they own most of the major properties in question. Within the Disney corporate structure, there are many departments, and each of them is expected to generate revenue and contribute to the bottom line. The various production divisions (Feature Animation, Motion Pictures, TV, etc.) make the movies, cartoons, TV shows, and other content, and the Licensing department sells products based on them. The goal for each department is to maximize sales.

Come on, guys, we SAW the movie! We know who was on the bike.
Come on, guys, we SAW the movie! We know who was on the bike.

For the entertainment department, their approach is to include something for everyone; humor, action, romance, drama, to cast as wide a net as possible. The toy business takes the opposite approach; they go for specialization and segmentation, marketing different lines of products to carefully-defined audience groups, such as young children, boys age 8-12, girls age 8-12, teen girls, teen boys, and adult men and women, also broken down into age groups. They are very aware that men over 50 don’t buy the same things as men under 30, and neither of them buy the same things as women of any age. And vice-versa.

An ad from 1981, back before the pink aisle existed.
An ad from 1981, back before the pink aisle existed.

Until very recently, this specialization theory included some universally held beliefs about what boys and girls wanted and would accept. Most of these focused on what boys would reject. For most of the 20th century, social boundaries dictated that boys were expected to firmly reject anything that was seen as for younger children (“baby stuff”) or for girls; letting it be known that you like either of these things was an invitation to harassment, condemnation, and rejection, and boys understood it very well. Beginning in the 1980s, toy manufacturers grabbed this notion and made it a rigid rule, and exacerbated the problem by adding gender signifiers (pink and purple for girls, black and red for boys) to formerly gender-neutral toys.

Those rules are changing now, but the product manufacturers and retailers are slow to adapt.

For some time, there’s been a tug-of-war within Disney between the licensing and production departments. Some years ago, Disney licensing deliberately created the “Disney Princesses” line as a way to lean into the gendering of the toy aisles and sell a lot of stuff to little girls. They also cherry-picked Tinkerbell out of the Peter Pan story and created the “Disney Fairies” brand. These branding programs were hugely successful, but they were directly in conflict with the studio’s “our movies are for everyone” philosophy. In marketing the toys, they also accidentally re-branded most of Disney’s back catalog as “girl movies.”

Marketing: Threat or Menace?
Marketing: Threat or Menace?

As licensed merchandise became a bigger part of the revenue pie, the marketing segmentation policy was imposed, at least to a degree, on the production end. The unfortunate result is that audiences no longer look at movies like Beauty & the Beast as children’s movies or family films; The Little Mermaid is a “princess movie” and The Lion King isn’t. This means that if Disney wants to attract the whole family to a movie, it can’t look even slightly like a “princess” movie; if it does, it has to have a bland gender-neutral name and an ad campaign that hides the female characters. For examples, see Frozen’s ads that focused on the snowman and reindeer, and Tangled’s Flynn-centric campaign. Both of these films got their titles because of the paralyzing fear that “Snow Queen” and “Rapunzel” are too close to “princess.”

Disney Legend Floyd Norman's commentary on Tangled's marketing campaign. Credit: Floyd Norman
Disney Legend Floyd Norman’s commentary on Tangled’s marketing campaign. Credit: Floyd Norman

Disney bought Marvel and Lucas specifically to capture the “boy market”; so many of their properties were redefined as being suitable for only one gender that they had a hole in their merchandising spreadsheets. They needed to find a way to sell something to boys. After trying several different approaches, they finally decided to just buy the two properties that they knew boys liked, superheroes and Star Wars.

This is why Black Widow and Gamora were conspicuously missing from the Avengers and Guardians toy lines; those properties are for boys, and the prevailing belief was that boys would reject anything “girly.” Some girls might buy those products, but Disney sure as heck didn’t intend to drop several billion dollars to further expand their girl market. They are certain that if Princess Leia is added to the Disney Princess line, Star Wars will be seen as a “Girl Movie.”

This, by the way, is why WB canceled Young Justice; it was turning into a girls’ series. They created it to target boys and fill a niche in their marketing plan, and it did not meet the objective. Sure, they could have sold a lot of Artemis, Miss Martian, and Zatanna toys, but their girl product objectives had already been filled, and neither the licensees nor the retailers believe that a particular toy can sell to both genders.

De-gendering the toy aisle is going to take a massive shift on the part of several levels of decision-makers at multiple companies, but ultimately it will be good for everyone. Disney (and all the other studios) will be able to better promote their movies without having to hide major characters or misrepresent the story.

For decades, the toy companies found it to be in their best interest to support and encourage the rigid division of genders, but now it’s hurting the studio’s bottom line, not only in audience backlash, but in how they make and market their movies. Disney really doesn’t want to be “off limits” to boys, which is why they carefully place movies like Wreck-It Ralph and Big Hero 6 in between ones like Frozen and Tangled, making the best compromise they can in the conflict between production and licensing.

Maybe the “#WheresRey” backlash is the first step in eliminating that conflict.

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