As a professor who teaches college courses on “Star Wars” and transmedia storytelling, I have been a “Star Wars” fan for more than 30 years and a fan scholar for more than a decade. I’ve also cosplayed Luke Skywalker at Comic-Con (from a deleted scene, no less!), and my wedding cake depicted the battle of Hoth, complete with lightsaber cake cutter.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I opened up my computer to catch up on the latest “The Force Awakens” news to see writer and director J.J. Abrams matter-of-factly state on a morning news program that “’Star Wars’ was always a boy’s thing.”
Always a boy’s thing? That statement is a microcosm of the problem.
Admittedly, the context of this quote is important. Abrams was expressing excitement for female audiences to see themselves in Rey, the female scavenger at the center of the film, and the idea that this film might begin to bring representational balance to the franchise’s cultural force. It’s an enthusiasm that I share.
Abrams can celebrate that “The Force Awakens” features a woman and a black man in the leading roles. We should all celebrate that and treat the small faction of Internet trolls riling up racists and misogynists with their talk of boycotts and #blackstormtroopers like midi-chlorians.
What Abrams can’t claim is that this film will singlehandedly bring minority audiences to the franchise. We exist. But, much like the mythic Yoda exiled on Dagobah, when female fans, queer fans and fans of color are approached by the Luke Skywalkers of media culture, it’s frequently accompanied by a palpable sense of disbelief or disappointment.
The problem with Abrams’ comment is that it powerfully perpetuates the notion that geek culture was, and still is, “a boy’s thing.” And within this cultural formulation, geek culture is not just a masculine preserve; it is an oft unspoken but always implied white, straight, cisgendered male preserve.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Abrams has since apologized for the comment, but if Abrams, or the Disney empire for that matter, were really concerned about making the “mother and daughter” demographic feel welcome, or changing this perception, they should turn their attention to their local toy retailer. In the aisles, the cultural myth that “Star Wars” was and remains “a boy’s thing” is alive and well.
This has been an issue since the 1980s, when letters to the editor were written about the paucity of Princess Leia actions figures. During the past year, there has been a marked rise in hashtag activism around the systemic erasure of female characters from mass-marketed fan merchandise. For instance, shortly after the release of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” in August 2014, the hashtag #wheresgamora appeared on Twitter, alongside myriad images of fan merchandise lacking the lone female member of the superhero team.
When merchandise for “The Force Awakens” hit shelves this fall, the inevitable #wheresrey and #wewantleia hashtags protesting the representational lack of female characters on store shelves were as routine as they were representative of how little the franchise’s approach to representational diversity had actually changed.
As the old Jedi saying goes, size matters not — unless we’re talking about piles of licensed T-shirts or stacks of actions figures that fail to acknowledge both the franchise’s commitment to diverse representations of heroism and the diversity of the franchise’s fans. Then, it matters a great deal.
But it’s not just a question of creating more merchandise to clearly label “Star Wars” as a “girl’s thing.”
To have any real impact, Disney does not just need to change the cultural narrative of who counts as a fan; it needs to change the gender essentialist narratives that are reinforced through this merchandise. Don’t relegate Leia and Rey to beauty products and pink T-shirts with post-feminist “princess” platitudes. Don’t exclude female characters from action figure play sets depicting the film’s primary heroes and villains. Don’t demarcate — and by extension, devalue — which toys are designed for girls. Don’t presume boys wouldn’t want to play with, or identity with, a female character. Design merchandise for fans.
Do or do not, Disney. There is no try.
*Top image: Beth Ross cosplays as a Twi’lek Jedi on Star Wars Day, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.