Written by Claus Toft-Nielsen
Keywords: Star Wars, merchandise, #wheresrey, fandom protest
Star Wars has recently seen a surge of new female leads and heroes, most prominently Rey and Rose Tico in The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). These characters have been hailed as new and feminine icons, and the films have been championed as feminist, multicultural, and progressive, which has led commentators and critics to proclaim that “Star Wars is for everyone.”
While this may be true if we focus purely on the Star Wars films, such an approach is too narrow in terms of what Star Wars is. From its earliest days, the story of Star Wars existed well beyond the films, namely also in novels, comics, TV shows, digital games and of course toys, expanding into an international franchise with decades of cultural history and multi-billion-dollar merchandising. Due to this strategy of having a core narrative in the films and relying on a multitude of surrounding media paratexts to supplement this core narrative, the diversity and femininity of Star Wars are anchored in all of these texts. Merchandise is material culture, carrying both a social history and a deeply personal history – for instance for adult fan collectors for whom Star Wars merchandise functions as a form of cultural capital and an engrained part of their self-identity. Furthermore, according to Lincoln Geraghtly merchandise has the capacity to strengthen or weaken established meanings of a franchise, and in the case of Star Wars, the merchandise undermines the film’s pseudo-feminist focus on a female protagonist by insisting on the continued exclusion of girls from its imagined fan base, exposing how paratexts not only reflect but also shapes a franchise’s gendered valuation of their audience.
As Gerard Genette explained in Paratexts. Thresholds of interpretation (1997), paratexts set up expectations and shape meaning in anticipation of the main text itself. Adapting Genette’s work for media culture, Jonathan Gray argues that toys “have never merely been ‘secondary’ spinoffs or coincidental: they have played a vital role in, and thus have become a vital part of, the primary text and its unrivalled success.” Toys and merchandise are paratextual agents that serve gatekeeping functions, allowing certain types of fan engagement and deterring others and as such they become sites of struggle between the owners of a franchise and particular fans of that franchise.
While Star Wars films have always been blockbusters and heavily merchandised properties, this commercialisation reached new heights when Disney’s first Star Wars film was marketed. Thousands of licensed products were released and bought by eager fans, children and adults alike. But almost immediately fans felt a disturbance in the Force: Amidst all the Star Wars mania and the avalanche of products for The Force Awakens, the film’s central character, Rey, was conspicuously missing. The premium Hasbro Millennium Falcon play set – a spaceship Rey steers in several key scenes of the film – came with a light-up Millennium Falcon, a BB-8, a Finn, a Chewbacca, but no Rey. One month prior to the film’s release, Hasbro released the Star Wars Monopoly set, which also lacked Rey. While Disney on one hand seemed to adhere to a pro-feminist agenda in the Star Wars films, the omission of the female lead from the merchandise hinted at something different.
Fans quickly noticed what was happening and took to social media platforms demanding a response. Under #wheresrey fans started a social movement merging fan-based and feminist-informed demands with social activism on social media platforms that only grew in size.
The initial response by Disney and Hasbro to the protests was that they wanted to prevent paratextual spoilers before the film premiered. This excuse falls flat when considering the official film poster for the film, which was revealed three months prior to the film: Rey and Kylo Ren are clearly positioned as adversaries with Finn on Rey’s side holding a lightsabre.
Rey was eventually included in the Star Wars merchandise, the Monopoly set, the play sets and the action figure packages, more than likely as a reaction to the vocal critique and the fan activism on social media.
Let us now fast forward to late 2019, when anticipation
for the final film in the Star Wars saga, The Rise of Skywalker (2019), is building. The promotional paratexts revealed that the film would feature many characters from the previous films, including the fan favourite Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), the first woman of colour to portray a major character in a Star Wars film. Fans quickly noticed a clear difference between both leaked photos and promotional pre-release material of the Disney merchandise and the final merchandise available in the Disney Store. This time Rose Tico had been completely erased from all of the final merchandise.
From a franchise logics standpoint, Disney already has the girls’ demographics market well covered, primarily through The Disney Princesses, which quickly became the top licensed merchandise property in the world. And that demographic is already buying Brave and Frozen products, so why should Star Wars cater to them too? In fact, this paratextual policing done by Disney could possibly be read as yet another bolstering of the boys’ franchise. After all, Disney’s acquisition of both Marvel in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012 can be seen as a move to gain access to a demographic group that Disney did not yet cover adequately: boys. The Disney Princesses line owes much of its success to the fact that it reinforces traditional and conservative conceptions of feminine ideals rather than challenging them, and why should Star Wars change a formula that already works?
The paratextual erasure of both Rey and Rose highlights how “paratexts function to codify gendered franchising discourses”, Suzanne Scott argues. Paratextual material in all forms not only shapes our understanding of a text but is also imbued with intense financial and emotional investments by fans. As such, merchandise can serve as a way of paratextually policing a franchise as well as the type of fandom it allows, while at the same time serving as a paratextual erasure and devaluation of unwanted (female) fans. Although the films promise to foreground diversity in representations, they are surrounded and walled off by paratexts rooted in reactionary franchising logics. When female fans are offered a paratextual pathway into the franchise, this is often done through various forms of “pink media franchising,” relegated into gendered spaces and stereotypes (cute, pink and girly).
When fans took to social media platforms to ask the question #wheresrey, they were fighting back against the paratextual absence of female characters in toys and merchandise, protesting against the historically male-centric heroism of Star Wars as well as the implied postfeminist logics of Disney’s pink franchising offered to female fans. This kind of social media activism is just one amongst several types of paratextual fan resistance. Other forms include female fans creating their own DIY Rey merchandise, repurposing Monster High and Barbie dolls into Rey figures, and creating cosplay Rey costumes.
These examples indicate a paratextual struggle between Disney and feminist-informed fan activism, which at its core can be read as a form of fan-disciplining described by Matt Hills as fanagagement: industrial modes of “responding to […] fan criticisms, as well as catering for specific fractions of fandom who might have otherwise be at odds with the unfolding brand, and attempting to draw a line under fan resistance.” Fanagagement takes place in media tie-ins and paratexts, seemingly celebrating the fans’ growing power as important consumers of a media franchise, but ultimately shutting down particular types of fan debates and fan identities. The male-centric culture of the Star Wars franchise thus expresses an inclusive gender ideology, but steers female fans into appropriate gendered forms of their fandom. This type of gender-specific marketing and approved fan activity sends a strong signal that even though the Star Wars culture could be for everyone, the reality is that boys are the primary target group and female fans are relegated to certain compartmentalised paratextual spaces outside the blockbuster main text.
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Brown, Jeffery A. 2018 “#wheresRey: feminism, protest, and merchandising sexism in Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, Feminist Media Studies, 18(3), p. 335-348
Genette, Gerard. 1997. Paratexts: Thresholds of interpretation. Camebridge: Cambridge University Press.
Geraghty, Lincoln. 2014. Cult Collectors. Nostalgia, Fandom and Collecting Popular Culture, Routledge, New York
Gray, Jonathan. 2010. Show Sold Separately. Promos, Spoilers, and Other Paratexts. New York University Press.
Hills, Matt 2010. Torchwood’s Trans-transmedia: Media Tie-ins and Brand ‘Fanagagement’, Participations 9(2).
Johnson, Derek. 2014. ‘May the Force be with Katie’, Feminist Media Studies, 14(6), p. 895-911.
Roberts, Bobby. 2015. “Star Wars is for everyone’, Portland Mercury, 16.12.2015. https://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/star-wars-is-for-everyone/Content?oid=17176201
Scott, Suzanne. 2017. “#Wheresrey? Toys, spoilers, and the gender politics of franchise paratexts”. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 34:2, p. 138-147.