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#WheresRey and the big Star Wars toy controversy, explained

Excluding female characters in merchandise is an ongoing pattern.

Where are you, Rey?
Where are you, Rey?
io9 / Hasbro

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a high-budget linchpin of Hollywood's biggest film franchise. It just became the biggest movie of all time. And two of its main characters, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), are a woman and a black man, respectively.

This is a huge deal, proving you don't need a white dude, or even a dude at all, to make a billion dollars and inspire generations of fans — but you wouldn't know it by looking at much of The Force Awakens' tie-in merchandise.

As Star Wars mania gained speed in the days leading up to The Force Awakens' December 17 release, people began to notice that some of Hasbro's official Star Wars merchandise didn't include Rey. (The toymaker owns the rights to produce licensed Star Wars merchandise through 2020.) And once the movie came out, the slight became even more egregious, because once you see The Force Awakens, you know that Rey is its most obvious main character.

The other contender is Finn, who also plays a key role in the film. But Rey is much more connected to preexisting Star Wars mythology, and of all the new characters she's the one whose Force Awakens story comes with a promising, and slightly ominous, "TO BE CONTINUED" qualifier that will propel Episode VIII. Even co-writer and director J.J. Abrams agrees, telling Entertainment Weekly at this year's Television Critics Association press tour that, "it seems preposterous and wrong that the main character of the movie is not well represented in what is clearly a huge piece of the Star Wars world in terms of merchandizing."

But even if you argue that Finn and Rey are equally important to The Force Awakens, it doesn't make sense for Hasbro to omit Rey from Force Awakens merchandise, given her prominence in the movie. And it especially doesn't make sense in instances where Finn is included but Rey is not. Doing so reeks suspiciously of sexism.

The social media campaign #WheresRey shines an unflattering light on Star Wars merchandise that mysteriously leaves Rey out

#WheresRey, Hasbro?

As befits any pop culture controversy, Rey's lack of representation in Force Awakens merchandise is the subject of an ever-growing hashtag campaign called #WheresRey. It first took hold in November, a month before The Force Awakens opened, when the Star Wars fan site Legion of Leia noticed a box set of action figures on sale at Target that included just about everyone but Rey.

The six-piece set featured Finn, Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, Oscar Isaac's Poe Dameron, Chewbacca, a random Stormtrooper, and a random TIE fighter.

At the time, Rey's importance to the plot of The Force Awakens wasn't fully known. However, assuming the set was meant to be specific to movie's new generation of characters, it seemed strange that Hasbro didn't include her. The same could be said for Gwendoline Christie's super-Stormtrooper character, Captain Phasma, who was also prominent in promotional tours but absent from the box set. Tellingly, this same kind of baffling exclusion also happened with Target's box set for Star Wars Rebels, an animated Lucasfilm show that stars two integral female characters; the box set omitted them in favor of a Stormtrooper and a clone trooper captain.

Why didn't these sets include any of the female characters? If it were simply a question of space, I'm sure the two nameless, faceless baddies would've understood.

Hasbro's explanations for the exclusion only became weirder — and weaker — when people challenged its Force Awakens Monopoly set

The omission of Rey in particular became even more glaring once the movie came out, and in the past week, the #WheresRey campaign has kicked up another notch, as people slowly realized that Hasbro's Force Awakens Monopoly set also failed to include the character. The special edition of the classic board game, which appears to play into the film's Rebellion versus First Order conflict, lets you play as one of four characters: Luke Skywalker, Finn, Kylo Ren, or Darth Vader.

On January 5, Hasbro addressed #WheresRey for the first time, issuing a statement to Entertainment Weekly:

"The Star Wars: Monopoly game was released in September, months before the movie's release. Rey was not included to avoid revealing a key plot line that she takes on Kylo Ren and joins the Rebel Alliance."

Hasbro also responded on Twitter to a popular missive from an 8-year-old girl who protested Rey's exclusion in indignant Magic Marker:

On January 6, Hasbro tweeted that it will officially be adding Rey "later this year":

Then, as Entertainment Weekly reported on January 12, a new wave of Rey-centric toys and games is imminent — though Lucasfilm is still leaning on spoilers as the reason why she wasn't included in the first place.

So okay, Rey is now a larger part of Force Awakens tie-in merchandise. That's good news. But Hasbro and Lucasfilm's claim that Rey didn't make the cut for Force Awakens Monopoly because of "spoilers" is a weak excuse.

Sure, Disney and Lucasfilm kept a tight lid on Force Awakens plot details, mostly due to co-writer and director J.J. Abrams's infamous aversion to spoilers. But if any one of the movie's character arcs were in danger of being spoiled by a "good" versus "evil" Monopoly set, surely it was Finn's, not Rey's. Finn appeared in the initial trailers as a stressed-out Stormtrooper, and as those who've seen the film are well aware, he ultimately becomes — spoiler alert — a Stormtrooper turncoat who stumbles into the heart of the Rebellion. Putting him on the "good" side of the Monopoly set with Luke Skywalker instantly ruins that "reveal."

So even if we want to believe that Hasbro was trying to be cognizant of spoilers, we have to ask: If potential spoilers are such a big issue and the game relies on key plot points from the film, why release it so early? And why is it okay to spoil Finn's arc but not Rey's?

Also, let's be real: It's not like the end of The Force Awakens features Rey passing Go and collecting mortgage from Kylo Ren.

Regardless of whom you believe, if the company was sincerely trying to be coy about Rey's prominence in the film, those efforts were quickly undermined by the film itself, as nothing about The Force Awakens' trailers or promotional tour ever threw the size of her role into question. Just take a look at the first official poster, released in October, which depicts Finn holding a lightsaber and a literally central Rey:

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Lucasfilm/Disney

No need to ask, "Where's Rey?" here.

In Star Wars speak: The logic is not strong with this one.

This isn't the first time merchandise has shafted a female character for seemingly no good reason

Hasbro has courted this kind of controversy before, with tie-in merchandise for the Avengers films as well as Guardians of the Galaxy. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow and Zoe Saldana's Gamora were also not part of the movies' respective action figure box sets for Target, causing fan outrage. Last year, Hasbro made a toy set to let kids mimic an Avengers: Age of Ultron scene in which Black Widow dropped out of an aircraft while riding a motorcycle, but it replaced her with Captain America.

Outside of Hasbro box sets, Marvel has often come under fire for excluding female characters. In 2014, Gamora was left off boys' T-shirts, as though she's not an integral Guardian of the Galaxy. A thorough and thoroughly depressing Tumblr called "But Not Black Widow" collects instances of merchandise that features Avengers heroes yet excludes its sole heroine.

It's a problem that only got worse with the 2015 release of Age of Ultron, when the outrage not only resurfaced but also expanded to include Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlett Witch, who was similarly absent. Clark Gregg, who played Agent Coulson in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and now portrays the character on the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), tweeted support for a "Where's Natasha?" (i.e., Black Widow) campaign. Even Mark Ruffalo, the Hulk himself, protested the absence of Black Widow on behalf of his daughters:

The memory of those slights undoubtedly fueled the fire once fans realized the same thing had happened to Rey:

Hasbro's routine omission of female characters from its movie action figure sets points to hopelessly outdated thinking

The evidence for why Hasbro has frequently opted not to include female characters in tie-in movie merchandise suggests the company is less concerned about protecting the sanctity of spoilers than it is about competing against itself for girls' attention.

As the Mary Sue pointed out last spring, Hasbro also sells Disney princess merchandise. (The company bought the rights to the Disney princesses from Mattel in 2014, for half a billion dollars.) And even though Monopoly and Star Wars are hugely profitable properties — in 2014, Hasbro made $401 and $377 million on them, respectively — the company doesn't care about whether they appeal to girls. The idea is that Hasbro wants to cater to a female audience, but it's concentrating those efforts on princesses rather than diversifying its existing "boy" brands to be more friendly to girls.

What this logic ignores, of course, is the notion that female fans of Star Wars or Marvel heroes, who finally got to see something of themselves in Rey or Black Widow or Gamora, might want to own an action figure that reflects as much.

It ignores the notion that both girls and boys can like superhero toys, as well as Disney princesses.

And it ignores the fact that reinforcing the myth that boys won't play with female action figures is harmful and outdated, not to mention a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yes, at the end of the day, we're talking about toys. But the toys in question are an important extension of a bigger problem. People are justifiably upset over the exclusion of female characters from Hasbro's action figure sets because — as Rey, Black Widow, and Gamora have proved in just the past few years — they're another example of female franchise characters not getting the same meaningful consideration as their male counterparts. If campaigns fighting for their inclusion can get some answers — and even force action like #WheresRey did with The Force Awakens monopoly — asking where the women are is always a worthwhile question.

Updated to reflect J.J. Abrams's response to the #WheresRey controversy.

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