The Force Awakens with Lorna Jowett

Lorna Jowett, Reader in Television Studies

WARNING: Possible spoilers.

As the opening of the latest Star Wars film approaches many fans are holding their breath, waiting to see if the film lives up to their expectations. As someone who remembers the first Star Wars coming out, and the impact it had on my generation, I’m invested in Star Wars as part of my childhood. As a science fiction scholar, I’m interested in its continuing popularity and how the various reboots have been managed. As a feminist, I’m finding the way it has become yet another franchise embroiled in debates about equality and diversity fascinating and frustrating.

Given the global situation, it might seem trivial to dissect whether Finn is simply a token black character, why Leia has been ‘allowed’ to look older, or try to determine if Captain Phasma was originally conceptualised as male despite eventually being played by a female actor. First world problems, perhaps. But of course equality and diversity are global problems, even if the leisure to debate their representation in popular entertainment franchises is limited to those inhabiting the first world. And science fiction has always been a political or allegorical genre — Star Wars narratives are full of archetypes and familiar stories which might illuminate ‘universal’ values or specific political and social contexts across the decades (as an allegory of the Vietnam conflict, or as espousing conservative ideologies, for example) even though it is regularly dismissed as spectacle or entertainment rather than ‘serious’ science fiction.

“Lego Stormtrooper” by Fugitron — Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Star Wars is also famous for its exploitation of merchandising and ancillary products, paving the way for other major franchises to do the same. As a female fan and scholar who has experienced the two previous waves of merchandise, my response has been different this time around. I have still been buying Star Wars stuff — and telling myself with each purchase that this will be the last. Yet my awareness of what ‘stuff’ is out there and what it features has been heightened by current debates about the gendering of such merchandise, about pink and blue toy aisles, about complaints from female fans on the absence of female action figures.

In terms of the usual action figures and play sets, pre-release products featuring Rey have apparently sold out (see a recent article from MTV) and several news reports have drawn attention to continuing complaints about the lack of toys aimed at girls, or perhaps more accurately, the way such toys are persistently aimed at boys. This follows previous campaigns for more Marvel products featuring Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. Audiences are demanding more and better female characters (and characters of colour, and non-heteronormative characters). But even when steps are taken towards this, these characters are omitted from product ranges. A BBC news article about the debates around toy and other product ranges demonstrates some of the flawed logic at work when it quotes one Star Wars collector.

“Sorry to say, the companies know it’s a business and little girls don’t buy Star Wars toys — or at least they didn’t,” Sanchez said.

“In the 1980s, you’d walk into the toy store and you’d see the Leias in her Bespin gown — rows and rows of them. They couldn’t get rid of them.”

This implies a direct causal relationship. Yet the fact that Leia figures did not sell in the 80s surely only demonstrates that those buying Star Warstoys did not buy Leia figures, not that girls did not buy Star Wars toys. As many fan-authored articles have noted, girls watching the original films did not necessarily identify with Leia, many chose to identify with Han.

Certainly, on the high street (rather than in specialist, fan-targeted outlets) much of theStar Wars stuff seems to feature male characters and be located in male areas. Branded clothing, for instance, makes this obvious. Boys’ and men’s departments tend to feature t-shirts, socks and underwear, bags and hats, while girls’ and women’s departments do not. Uniqlo’s website has included the latest range of Star Wars t-shirts in the women’s section, but they are still categorized as ‘Men’ and sized men, and other items only appear in the Men’s section. In contrast, shoe brand Irregular Choice’s licensed Star Warsrange was all but sold out within a couple of days and only featured women’s shoes. Primark is one of the few to target Star Wars specifically at women, offering t-shirts, sleepwear, socks, and underwear roughly comparable to the menswear range in quantity and variety. Some admittedly seem a riot of mixed messages: pink is a key colour in the women’s nightwear range, and a few items feature the slogan ‘I only date rebels’ while others use ‘the dark side.’ Leia is featured alongside Vader, Stormtroopers and R2D2. Whether the Stormtrooper is Phasma is unclear. To me, a pair of pink, fluffy socks featuring an armoured Stormtrooper seems to be so excessive that it parodies gender stereotypes. I wear them with irony, of course.

I am seriously considering that if my only leverage in this area is economic, then I should use it. My collection of Funko Pop vinyl figures is, deliberately, all female and Phasma may soon join it. For me, and many other female fans, the force has indeed awakened.