Star Wars Might Have a Disney Problem


While the initial marketing push for The Force Awakens will come this September with Journey to‘s oft-misunderstood slate of twenty “books“, those of us who remember the prequels know that that’s only the first drops of the thunderstorm that will descend a couple months later when the film actually comes out. And even then, print material will only comprise a small portion of the flood—the graphic in that link is cumulative, not movie-by-movie, but it’s a safe bet that a plurality, maybe even the majority, of Disney’s profits from the sequel trilogy will come from capital-M Merchandising. There will be action figures, of course, but there will also be t-shirts, bed sheets, Hot Wheels, umbrellas, Sprite bottles, sneakers, and whatever the hell these are.

But that’s Star Wars. Ubiquitous branded nonsense, for better or for worse, is synonymous with our franchise of choice, and we’re used to it by now. So what’s different about it now that Disney is holding the reins?

It’s widely understood by now (because they’re happy to admit it) that Disney views Marvel, its last big acquisition, as specifically a boys’ property, and it’s pretty clear that same sentiment led to their purchase of Star Wars. As the thinking goes, Disney’s big in-house merch machine is their string of “princess” movies like Frozen—which, of course, are only for girls, because it’s not like I still remember all the words to “Under the Sea” or anything—so now they want to conquer the boys’ market via these big acquisitions, because something something Global Supremacy.

Credit where it's due: at least Marvel never let this happen.
Credit where it’s due: at least
Disney never let this happen.

It’s important to note here that their viewing Avengers as a boys’ property is not the same as ignoring female fans entirely; it’s about two things—prioritization, in other words, resources will always be devoted more heavily to things they see as “boy-friendly” because they’re viewed as having the biggest potential return on investment, and tone, by which I mean that every effort will be made to maximize the boyness of the boys’ items and the girliness of the girls’ items, by which I mean shit like this. This is prejudicial thinking of a sort, but it’s not as simple as textbook misogyny—they’d rather sell 100 male-character t-shirts to 90 men and 10 women than 90 mixed-gender t-shirts to 60 men and 30 women. Because that’s what they think would happen: some men would specifically not buy it, some women would buy it either way, and overall, far more men would buy it no matter what, because, y’know, superheroes. As crazy as this seems to me, it’s such deeply-rooted common wisdom that it’s very hard to prove wrong with extensive data—and if your job is to sell as many goddamned t-shirts as possible, there’s very little motive to rock the boat no matter what you personally think about it.

So if we’re to assume that Disney has basically the same licensing situation (and degree of oversight) with Star Wars that they have with Marvel, what is next year going to look like? Well, based on the last couple Marvel film releases (and the earliest rounds of Star Wars Rebels toys), we can make a couple educated guesses. Little to none of the package art will feature Rey. Poe and Finn will be more prevalent in the toy lines—figures, vehicle sets, weapons, etc—even in cases where Rey’s inclusion might have made more sense. And if we’re really lucky, one of Rey’s signature action moments may become a toy in which Rey is replaced with a male character. Captain Phasma, on the other hand, is an interesting case in that as long as her helmet’s on she’s not obviously a woman; more on her in a minute.

Meanwhile, t-shirts, lunch boxes, and so on that feature multiple characters will exclude Rey something like half the time. She will almost never appear alone on any merchandise not specifically intended for women. If this all gets a bit of news attention, we may see Oscar Isaac or somebody specifically call it out. And even if not, someone here will probably be complaining about it, as will Tosche Station, Club Jade, The Mary Sue, et al. We’ve done this enough times with Marvel that we know exactly what it’ll look like.

Or…we could all just not.

Here’s the thing: even without knowing much about TFA yet, Star Wars is doing pretty awesomely on the diversity front right now. Moff Mors isn’t without her detractors, but the fact that the new canon gave us an LGBT character at all within the first year is an enormous improvement over the Expanded Universe era. And Star Wars Rebels‘ female phasma-vfcharacters—what can I say? Hera, Sabine, and even Maketh Tua are all great and distinct and burst out of all sorts of molds in a way that makes Kanan and Ezra’s Jedi nonsense almost boring. And across literally all fronts, the canon Empire is like night and day from the EU Empire. Zare Leonis. Mors. Tua. Rae Sloane. And of course, Captain Phasma. Star Wars’ Disney problem is emphatically not one of content—deliberate or otherwise, the reboot has unleashed a tidal wave of aggressive diversification that I scarcely could have imagined a couple years ago. So aggressive, in fact, that it’s easy to view them putting Gwendoline Christie in a badass chrome stormtrooper outfit and making her (I assume) one of the main antagonists of TFA as a challenge to the licensees—‘don’t put this character on t-shirts, we dare you’.

Which is why I felt compelled to hedge up top by saying they might have a problem—ultimately, licensing is a business issue and has nothing to do with creative decisions. Story Group and JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy could have all the good intentions in the world and I honestly don’t know whether it would make any difference where merchandising is concerned, because it’s really hard for a layman to figure out who’s making these shitty calls. Certainly lots of ground-level Marvel creatives are in favor of better Black Widow merch, but does the underwhelming status quo mean that it’s out of Marvel’s hands? Yell at a licensee about a bad t-shirt and you’ll get a boilerplate PR response that doesn’t really address the problem, but are they responsible, or following orders? Is Children’s Place deciding to leave Gamora off a t-shirt, is Hasbro deciding to put Cap and Iron Man on the motorcycle instead of Black Widow, or is Disney telling them to? Or worse, is it so universally considered the right thing to do that no one on either side is giving it a second thought? And if so, what happens if Lucasfilm actually does speak up?

It was extremely encouraging to see Kathleen Kennedy take the stage at the kickoff of Celebration Anaheim and use maybe the biggest audience she’ll ever get as head of Lucasfilm to address fan concerns about the number of women they’d cast. I believe whole-heartedly that she wants Star Wars content to be as welcoming to female fans as possible, and I’ve seen lots of real evidence that she’s working on that. But when it comes to t-shirts and umbrellas, is there a single damned thing she can do about it? I have absolutely no idea.

8 thoughts to “Star Wars Might Have a Disney Problem”

  1. I’m trying to be hopeful that we’ll get some different then the current status quo especially given KK’s comments but… I’m already prepared for Force Friday with my #WheresRey hashtag.

    Although actually, you’re bringing up a good point about Phasma. I fully expect to see her on t-shirts and merchandise for the exact same reason we see Sabine much more often then Hera (and often with her helmet on.) And to me? Yeah, it’s great that we’re (hypothetically) seeing at least one girl make it on to these shirts etc but it’s still a part of the underlying problem: don’t include the girls unless they appeal to the boys with their armor etc. :/

    1. I couldn’t really fit it in naturally, but I almost made the same point about Rey that I did about Phasma—being wrapped head-to-toe like that is not only way more plausible for a desert dweller, but also makes her far less blatantly a woman. It’s a big shift after three movies of Naboo finery, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s deliberate.

      1. Well, head to right below the knee at least. I agree that it’s a big shift from those gorgeous Naboo gowns but I disagree that it makes her less obviously female. To me, there’s a big difference between a helmet and… whatever that is on Rey’s head with the goggles.

  2. I think Star Wars has made a good move away from the 90s/00s-era main female character being clothed in fancy gowns and existing primarily as a love interest and the progress is great to see. I’m not sure I’m concerned about Rey appearing alone on men’s T-shirts just as long as she appears on women’s T-shirts that actually appear in stores. I’m disappointed that it’s almost impossible to find a Hera action figure. It seems that at some point, merchandising and the show itself will have to coalesce , and I hope it does so in the direction of diversity. It might be considered risky from a marketing standpoint but I also think there are stats out there indicating that characters like Hera and Sabine (and Ahsoka before them) are bringing in female fans–and girl money spends just as well as boy money does, (says the woman with over 100 action figures). I don’t know if it’s misplaced optimism to hope that someone at Disney will be willing to take that risk.

  3. “My main concern,” remarked the Grand Admiral, “is the loss of subtlety.”

    There was a slight flash in his red eyes as he spoke, but it was hard to say if there was a smirk behind his steepled fingers.

    “Oya,” Mirta Gev agreed, banging her ale tankard down in a way that was a little too aggressive for comfort. Even in the crowded cantina, it drew several hostile looks towards the incongruous group around the big table – the delegates from the Diversity and Retcons event being held on the fringe of the Mofference. “But it’s more than that. I mean, Beviin and Medrit don’t let it bother them, but it’s a little insulting that people are pretending they don’t exist….”

    “Technically, Moff Getelles and Admiral Larm got there first,” Daala pointed out, with a scowl that wasn’t entirely to do with how much she’d had to drink. “I should know. I bunked through the bulkhead from them at the Academy.”

    “They were never as bad as you like to make out,” Thrawn corrected.

    “Like you said,” Daala grumbled. “Subtlety.”

    “I think it’s important to remind people that I’m still here,” Getelles noted, stretching across to pour Daala another glass of wine. “And I’ve been a Moff for over forty years, even if I do keep a fairly low profile. But in the interest of full disclosure, I should really mention that there were always suspicions about Sarn Shild, too.”

    “But it’s not just about an honest portrayal of people’s sexuality,” Mirta butted back in. “I mean, not wanting to sound like a GAACP activist or anything, but you’d think more of the artists would have actually noticed that I’m black.”

    “Careful with that fourth wall,” someone murmured.

    “At least they know you got married in full armour,” Daala reminded her bodyguard, lips now grazed with a faint smile of approval. “They can’t take that away from you….”

    Mirta shook her head, and took another swig. “If that hadn’t been grandfathered in, they’d probably see it as too risque, or something.”

    “Tell me about it,” Jaina Solo answered, wandering back from the bar with a whiskey-and-mixer. “I mean, sure, I love Jag, and it was a nice wedding, but the way it was handled, you’d think he was the only career military officer in the family….”

    “There was that time on Duro when Mara wanted to disguise you as her telbun,” her brother teased, coming up beside her.

    Jaina shot him a glare, sensing where he was going with this. “Don’t.”

    “Hey,” Anakin said, holding up his hands. “I’m just saying. My brother’s sexuality has always been an open question….”

    “Dummy.” Tahiri cuffed him on the back of the head, and gave him a playful smile. “I apologize for this unreconstructed human being.”

    “It’s all part of the diversity,” Thrawn pointed out, which had everyone falling silent for a moment in thought.
    “I think we can all agree that the Galaxy is a big, diverse place,” Mara Jade Skywalker remarked, smiling as her husband turned back from the bar with another round of drinks… then shaking her head as he nearly collided with a passing quartet consisting of a petite Eiattuan, a dark-haired Dathomiri, a tall blonde TIE pilot, and an albino Shistavanen. “It’s just a shame that there’s never a right moment to point out that Jabba was transsexual….”

    1. I applaud the Star Wars universe becoming a more diverse place, and your points about the loss of subtlety are worth considering. I’m looking forward to seeing a more diverse cast in the movies.

      It’s interesting that this piece features a woman hitting a man for speaking out of turn. It’s ‘playful,’ of course, and not domestic violence, which I’m sure you’d consider it if ‘Luke cuffed Mara the back of the head, and gave her a playful smile’ or ‘Han cuffed Leia on the back of the head, and gave her a playful smile.’

      40% of victims of domestic violence are men. Please stop perpetuating the attitude that it’s funny and acceptable.

      1. With all due respect, I don’t think your analogy is valid.

        The image of man hitting a woman to impose his will is wrong. Yes.

        But why?

        It’s a naked statement of what feminists call “patriarchy”, but which can also be rather more emphatically de-gendered as “Nazism”. It’s the ideology that the self-proclaimed strong should use violence to coerce and control those they perceive as weaker.

        It’s also bullshit.

        In reality, when that happens, the “weak” generally fight back, and expose the “strong” as idiots.

        And as I’m sure you know, that’s what Star Wars is all about.

        Han hitting Leia would be wrong for the same reason that Tarkin bullying Leia is wrong.

        But what happens then?

        Leia talks back. She shoots stormtroopers. And she snaps back at Han to show she won’t be coerced. And that’s RIGHT.

        So, let’s look at what’s happening here.

        A male character, friendly and open but fairly unreconstructed in attitude, is behaving in a provocatively male way. Now he’s NOT trying to coerce people because he thinks they’re “weak”, but he’s butting heads and challenging them nonetheless.

        I remember someone on TF.N about ten years ago criticising Anakin Solo as a “college jock”, and I had that in mind when I was writing this.

        So, THERE, in what Anakin is doing, is the scene’s subtle echo of the strong-hitting-weak image that you rightly object to (there ARE differences, though, because he’s not looking down on the people he’s interacting with as “weak”, and there’s an element of playfulness and self-parody going on as well).

        So, what is his girlfriend doing, by acting out the coercive role? She’s RESPONDING to what we can gently call his dorkiness, by assuming a supposedly “male” role herself, by butting heads back with him, while doing it with a lightness of touch that is innately female, and which enables her actions to transcend their natural “patriarchal” context in every way.

        So, speaking personally, I’d argue that the scene I wrote subverts what you’re criticizing – the playfulness and lack of malice in the male attitude soften it down, and the responsive nature and the deftness of touch with which the girl performs her own imitation of the trope fundamentally subverts it, and makes her action an empowering and optimistic one.

        At least, that’s what I was intending. I hope you can understand why I thought it was acceptable?

  4. Nice article dude, likewise I like all the new characters being introduced in the new literature. Hera and Sabine are fantastic. A New Dawn gave us Rae Sloane, hopefully she’ll appear again. Jason Fry’s books are still on my to read pile, looking forward toreading Zare Leonis’ story. And with all the new movies in the next few years there is plenty of opportunities to improve further on the diversity representation.

    As far as merchandise goes, I have no idea if this will change much. I would hope so but, here in the US the advertising consumer culture is just so crazy.

    cheers, starfish

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