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Unboxing The #WheresRey Phenomenon

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment

For plenty of “Star Wars” fans, there’s one question that’s been on their minds lately. And yes, I’m talking about a question besides “When can I see ‘The Force Awakens’ again?” The real popular question actually doubles as a hashtag — #WheresRey — and odds are you’ve seen it asked a lot in the past week.

Where is Rey? She’s the lead character in a movie that’s made $1.7 billion dollars worldwide so far, so you can definitely find her in theaters. But outside of theaters, where is she? Is she in toy aisles? That question should have an easy answer, right? But the #WheresRey movement is way more complex than that and, as someone that is obsessed with “Star Wars,” female heroes and representation in merchandise, this whole debate — which really punched it into hyperspace with that darn Rey-less “Star Wars” Monopoly game — is complicated.

I think #WheresRey (and the similar social media campaigns for Black Widow, Gamora and Princess Leia that preceded it) is an incredibly important thing. And I also believe that #WheresRey is a layered hash-question, and to assume that there is no Rey merchandise is false and actually distracts from what I think are the real problems with how Rey’s merchandising was handled.

To put #WheresRey in context, look at two other female heroes: Black Widow and Gamora. Both of them have Tumblrs — But Not Black Widow and Except For Gamora — that document all the merchandise these characters are excluded from (full disclosure: I started the Gamora one). Despite being prominent members of their ensembles, those two have been consistently left off of merchandise and excluded from figure box sets. The sad thing is, things aren’t getting better for the Marvel women — which is weird because they’re all Disney-owned. I wrote a big piece about Black Widow’s scant representation in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” toy lines last year. Just this past October I spotted a big, Target-exclusive “Age of Ultron” figure box set that included non-Avenger War Machine and two Ultrons over mainstay Avenger Black Widow.


And things are off to a rocky start in regards to “Captain America: Civil War.” Despite Scarlett Johansson being billed third, Black Widow’s been excluded from the first wave of “Civil War” Minimates.

So with that in mind, I was really worried about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” But that worry went away as soon as I saw the initial toy announcements. Right away, Rey got a classic 3.75″ figure, figures in both scales of Black Series figures, a Funko Pop! Vinyl, a LEGO set, a Disney Store Die Cast figure and plenty more — Jill Pantozzi of the Nerdy Bird actually whipped up a pretty comprehensive list that displays just how much better Rey is faring than her Marvel counterparts. I mean, you get over 3,700 results when you search Amazon for “Star Wars Rey,” so, that’s cool.

Cool, but not perfect.

Two “Star Wars” items felt reminiscent of the sidelining given to Gamora and Black Widow. One is the “Battle Action Millennium Falcon” vehicle/playset that includes Finn and Chewbacca… but not Rey. Rey flies the Millennium Falcon a lot in “The Force Awakens.” Super spoiler alert: she ends up becoming the permanent pilot of the ship. It’s absolutely ridiculous that the Falcon playset would include just the co-pilot and the guy that operated the gun turret that one time.

The other SMDH-inducing boxset is this one:


Come on, Target, what’s the deal with these all-dude box sets? This one justifiably got massive hate online. It includes Finn, Chewie, Poe and Kylo Ren — all perfectly fine choices. But it rounds out the set with a generic stormtrooper and TIE fighter pilot because… the silver paint to make the stormtrooper Captain Phasma was too costly?

Aside from those two glaring and rightly side-eyed omissions, Rey’s representation was actually pretty solid in that initial wave — but that’s not what people saw in stores. With the purchase-palooza of the holiday season, most people saw this when they went into stores after “The Force Awakens” hit theaters:


“Star Wars” toys went fast, and it became hard to find basic figures of any character — and I went to a lot of stores in many states over the holidays; you can chart my personal #WheresRey findings in one store here. I purchased the first two Rey figures in my collection months before “The Force Awakens” hit (one I randomly found in a Kohl’s, of all places) because I anticipated they’d be short-packed. A little background: historically, female figures have been shipped to stores in lower quantities. Like, a box would contain three-ish Wolverines for every Rogue figure, thus resulting in scarcity.

So I assumed that while there were a lot of different Rey figures, there wouldn’t actually be that many made; apparently that’s not the case with Rey and the “Force Awakens” lines. MTV’s Victoria McNally put a lot of legwork and phone-and-email work into this and found out that Rey was shipped to stores in comparable proportions as the male figures. It turns out she’s scarce because she’s popular. Wow! You know who’s not popular in my neighborhood? Kylo Ren. The Disney Store a few blocks down from me (a dangerous situation for my wallet) has stacks and stacks of his figures.

To praise some progress, the short-packing phenomenon actually seems to have ended. Yes, I’m an adult that goes to Target and Toys ‘R’ Us multiple times a week just to check out what’s going on in the toy aisles (see how all of those excursions are now paying off for me at work?!). As a kid that grew up always wanting female hero figures and almost never finding them, seeing gatherings like this one bring me joy:



Rey’s turned out to be way more popular than Lucasfilm intended, as mentioned by spokesman Paul Southern in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Rey is clearly the standout character in the film,” said Southern. “We always knew that was going to be the case, but the excitement around her is a lot more than we were expecting it to be.” That popularity has led to few Rey figures on shelves and if you want to get a Rey figure online, you’re going to have to pay well above retail; I snatched up the Rey’s Speeder LEGO set at Target after discovering that they were going for as much as twice the retail price on Amazon.

This is one problem that #WheresRey partly focuses on — the availability of existing Rey merch in stores. Rey stuff being available and shipped to stores in equal amounts as other characters is great, but it still doesn’t address the problem faced by kids whose parents understandably don’t want to shell out $50 for a $9 figure online.

And then… there’s Monopoly.

The “Star Wars” Monopoly game is a microcosm of the complexity of the #WheresRey issue. The thing is, this game is not “The Force Awakens” Monopoly. It’s generic “Star Wars” Monopoly, which is why it includes two characters not seen (or barely seen) in “The Force Awakens.” It was also released in September, well before the movie opened, which is why there are no “Force Awakens” references on the game board. The box itself features both Vader and Kylo Ren — and the Vader on the cover isn’t the melty-faced one we see in “TFA” either. When Hasbro said that they chose Finn and Ren over Rey to avoid the spoiler that she has the final battle with the young villain, you can kinda see their point.

Kinda.

First of all, there’s no reason why any “Star Wars” game should only have male pieces, period. But the real point, and the point that irks me and should really irk everyone asking #WheresRey is why so much of Rey’s role was considered a spoiler — especially since that excluded her from both the Monopoly game and, I’m assuming, the “Battle Action Millennium Falcon” set. Lucasfilm didn’t want anyone knowing that Rey pilots the Falcon or fights Kylo Ren because those are two of the best moments of the movie. But…hmmm…

Overall, I applaud “The Force Awakens'” restraint when it comes to marketing. So much of the film was a complete surprise, and that’s saying something considering that toy lines are blowing Marvel movie secrets all the time. I get them wanting to hold back on things, and the next wave of “Star Wars” merch is filled with awesome — and spoilery — figures. They’ve repackaged the classic blue lightsaber as Rey’s lightsaber! That’s such a massive deal (and also a massive spoiler)!


But here’s my gripe: the fact that a woman plays a pivotal role in “Star Wars” shouldn’t have been considered a spoiler to begin with. Yes, her getting Luke’s lightsaber and going toe-to-toe with Kylo Ren did not need to be spoiled, but it seems like Lucasfilm licensing was expecting a lot of people to make assumptions about Rey based on where they put her figures. I don’t think anyone would have assumed that Rey would become a Jedi just because she had a Monopoly piece, especially since so much of the marketing involved a misdirect pegging Finn as a Force user. And including Rey in the Falcon playset would really just imply that she hitches a ride on the ship — which is something we all saw in the trailers. The major weakness in the first line of “Star Wars” figures isn’t the lack of Rey figures, it’s that some sets in the comparatively Rey-full line don’t look at all true to the movie that people watched. If a little girl wants to recreate Rey’s super sick Falcon moves, her parents will have to pay retail for the Falcon — and then triple retail for a Rey figure that fits inside it.

That’s not good. The fact that Rey is a main character — and an important one — shouldn’t have been considered a spoiler. She could have been included in more toy sets without giving away the movie’s cheer-worthy moments.

And kids, especially little girls, are so into Rey. A seven-ish-year-old girl sat at the end of my aisle during an opening night screening of “The Force Awakens.” Her parents had already bought her a Rey t-shirt that the theater was selling in a kiosk, and she was doing backflips before the movie while screaming about Star Wars. This girl was so pumped at 11 PM. When the final duel took a turn for the worse and Luke’s blue lightsaber went whipping right out of Kylo Ren’s hold and into Rey’s hands, the little girl shouted “Yeah!” and then led the entire theater in a round of applause.

That’s what Star Wars is all about, that level of magical and fantastical excitement. That little girl needs to have Rey’s NERF blaster and Rey’s electronic lightsaber and a Rey action figure that’s as tall as she is — and I’m glad she’s getting them. Here’s hoping that Lucasfilm keeps improving representation in toy aisles by making sure there’s plenty of Rey toys to go around in 2016 — and that they aren’t going to sell out, leaving nothing but Constable Zuvios on store pegs. Give people a reason to tweet #HeresRey instead of #WheresRey.

Brett White is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He made videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).