Star Wars has often been criticized for its lack of gender and ethnic diversity, but the galaxy far, far away took a leap forward in October with the premiere of Star Wars Rebels. Set between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, as the fledgling rebellion begins to take form, the Disney XD animated series features a primary cast that includes three males, two females and a droid -- none of whom are white.
A brief introduction to the characters is in order: Kanan Jarrus, the cowboy Jedi survivor; Hera Syndulla, the pilot and owner of the ship the ragtag group calls home; Zeb Orrelios, the muscle; Sabine Wren, the explosives expert; Ezra Bridger, the Padawan; and Chopper, the grumpy astromech. Bat while I applaud Lucasfilm for creating a diverse bunch, I'm disappointed when it comes to Rebels' merchandising. From the first day tie-in toys, clothing, etc. hit the shelves, before the series even premiered, the entire cast has not been represented evenly.
Hasbro first showcased Star Wars Rebels toys at New York Toy Fair 2014 with a lineup of 3.75-inch action figures that featured Kanan, Ezra, Zeb and Chopper, but no Hera or Sabine. It was disappointing and frustrating to see the two female characters excluded from the first wave, but on the upside, toymaker did preview Hera and Sabine figures in July at Comic-Con International; those two toys are just starting to hit shelves.
But what about other areas of merchandise? Star Wars Rebels is more than halfway through its first season, and the usual push of product landed in time for Christmas. Thus, it was around the holidays when I noticed something peculiar: though Sabine is represented to some degree, Hera, the co-leader of the Rebels group, is being left out.
Sadly, this isn't a new problem. The release of Marvel's The Avengers in 2012 saw a similar dearth of Black Widow toys and wearables. Natasha Romanoff was a key part of the blockbuster, yet she was all but forgotten when it came to movie related products. She wasn't featured in group shots on point-of-sale displays in toy aisles, and she doesn't even appear on the front cover of the Blu-ray and DVD. (In fairness, Hawkeye isn't there, either, so perhaps the cover only showcases heroes with solo films. However, it's a disappointing omission, nonetheless.)
The But Not Black Widow Tumblr has several disheartening examples of the character being shoved to the side, but one post in particular grabbed my attention. An analysis of The Avengers showed Black Widow had 33 minutes of screen time, the third most of all the characters. Yet, in visits to five stores, the blogger found that the hero was represented by the least number of toys -- a small sampling, yes, but the results are nonetheless disheartening. Iron Man, who had a little more than 35 minutes of screen time, had 413 toys on shelves. Black Widow was represented in just 24 toys, and all of those were bundled in packages with other characters.
More recently, Gamora was excluded from Guardians of the Galaxy merchandise. It wasn't just that it was nearly impossible to find a licensed Gamora T-shirt (and still is), it was that the character was left out of group artwork on everything from school supplies to coffee mugs. I started a #wheresgamora hashtag and connected with dozens of people who expressed complaints to Disney and Marvel about the lack of Gamora merchandise. Twitter user Kristen Rapp asked children's apparel chain The Children's Place why Gamora wasn't on the Guardians T-shirt in its stores, and a representative replied, "The Guardians of the Galaxy shirt in particular is a boy's shirt, which is why it does not include the female character Gamora." That was in August.
I visited a brick-and-mortar Disney Store a few days before Christmas and noticed no change in the Gamora department. In fact, I couldn't find a single item with Gamora. I then turned my attention to Star Wars, particularly Star Wars Rebels, and was saddened but not surprised when I was unable to find any Hera or Sabine merchandise. The two Star Wars Rebels tees the store had in stock featured Ezra, Kanan, Zeb and the Inquisitor (the main villain).
Fast forward to a few days after Christmas. A kid I know received the Star Wars Command Epic Assault playset, which features ships and small figures of both heroes and villains. He opened the gift, freed the figures from packaging, and pointed out something strange as he set them up: Every member of the main Rebels cast was included -- except Hera. So, we got Sabine but no Hera, despite her ship, Ghost, being part of the set. Why? Before anyone argues that perhaps Hera's figure is absent because she's busy flying her ship, please note the set also comes with TIE fighters and TIE fighter pilots.
By the time Bria, a contributor to the fan site Tosche Station, shared a photo of Star Wars Rebels fabric prominently featuring everyone but Hera (her silhouette is relegated to the background, while Ezra gets two different spots on the foreground), I was already realizing the character's absence wasn't an isolated problem. Bria documented her own sightings of Hera-less merchandise at Tosche Station, and my searches through online retailers such as the Disney Store, Target, Party City and Toys"R"Us confirmed her findings. The merchandise is skewed toward including only the male characters, and if a female is featured, it's more likely to be only Sabine. There are products with the entire group but not as numerous as items with only the males, or the males and Sabine. I came across a single shirt showcasing Hera separate from the group, and it only exists through Disney's custom made-to-order Personalized Shop. Hera's absence even extends to Her Universe -- a company founded specifically to make sci-fi franchise clothing for women -- which has two Star Wars Rebels designs available; both are Sabine-centric. Once again, Hera is apparently being sidelined.
If you go to the trouble of developing an ensemble cast, why leave one of them out of the marketing? As Bria suggested in her post, the powers that be may think Sabine is more appealing because she's a Mandalorian. Her helmet and armor give her visual ties to Boba Fett, recognizable and perhaps more appealing to the boys being targeted. Yes, like it or not, Disney views Star Wars as a boys' brand. It's popular with boys, and Disney uses high ratings and toy purchases among that demographic to back its marketing decisions. But by following that belief and focusing its efforts on boys, the company is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's long been believed that action figures depicting female characters don't sell as well because boys don't want them, but if they're not on the market or only available in limited numbers, neither boys nor girls can find them to purchase.
The gendered toy divide is a rift that runs through the market, however, companies occasionally do step up. Disney's Big Hero 6 action figure lineup from Bandai included the entire group -- as in, I can walk into a store and purchase Hiro Hamada, Baymax, Fred, Wasabi, Honey Lemon and GoGo Tomago. Tears sprang to my eyes last fall at EPCOT when I first saw a Big Hero 6 display with equal representation of the female characters. (Yes, it's such a rare thing for the ladies to be included that I cried.) On the other hand, when Disney made 11-inch Princess-style dolls for Big Hero 6 characters, only Honey Lemon and GoGo Tomago were represented. Of course, the reverse holds true as well. Finding a boy's tee that has Disney Princesses isn't easy; sexism in toys and wearables affects both genders.
But back to Star Wars: It's apparent the female fan base exists, and it is willing to spend money. One only needs to look at the success of Her Universe, or at the number of female fans attending Star Wars Celebration. The idea that Star Wars is a franchise for boys feels like a relic from 1977.
The Star Wars prequels included a female lead in Padmé Amidala, and when Star Wars: The Clone Wars came along a few years later, it introduced Ahsoka Tano. However, neither Padmé nor Ahsoka merchandise was available in the way Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi items were. I turned to Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection, a book that documents every Star Wars action figure produced through 2012, to count the number of Padmé and Ahsoka figures available; the numbers aren't pretty. For the prequel trilogy, Anakin had 61 different figure styles available, Obi-Wan had 58, and Padmé had 26. Over four seasons of The Clone Wars, Anakin had 14 figures, Obi-Wan had 13, and Ahsoka had 7. The numbers break down similarly among Luke, Han and Leia for the original trilogy. The female characters get roughly half the representation of their male counterparts.
Lucasfilm and Disney have a chance to break from that history with Star Wars Rebels, but will they step up? Maybe 2015 will be the year licensors and licensees learn to include everyone.