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.
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 characters—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.