11th January 2016

Has #WheresRey put sci-fi on the path to the Light Side of gender diversity?

Late last week, toymaker Hasbro announced that it would release a new edition of its Star Wars Monopoly board game featuring a model of female lead character Rey, following an exceptionally popular social media campaign. The version of the game currently filling store shelves, launched last year ahead of the Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiere, boasts four tokens of Finn, Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader – all male and all supporting characters.

Many sci-fi fans were understandably confused about Rey’s exclusion from the game (she is, after all, the star of the show), and a not insignificant number accused Hasbro of sexism. The toymaker, on the other hand, insisted that its decision to leave her out was driven by a desire not to reveal spoilers about the plot of The Force Awakens – despite Rey’s prominence in movie trailers and promotional material.

What followed was the creation by irate fans of the #WheresRey hashtag on Twitter, demanding that Rey be given her rightful place on the Monopoly board. This soon began trending around the world, leading to Hasbro’s u-turn on Thursday. A victory for both sci-fi fans and social media!

Now, Star Wars Monopoly is not exactly the first piece of sci-fi film merchandise to draw ire from commentators for pandering to tired stereotypes. Brands cashing in on the success of the first film in the Hunger Games franchise came in for particular criticism in 2012. Spin-off products included – among other things – a pink nerf archery set for girls (not a toy I can ever see Katniss, a character fêted for rejecting gender stereotypes, ever playing with). There was also a limited edition Capitol make-up collection, which was accused of missing the point of the film and the Capitol’s grotesque obsession with finery.

A raft of commentators have praised Star Wars: The Force Awakens over the past few weeks for its strong, independent female lead, as well as its more racially diverse cast. The franchise has caused controversy in the past for the hyper-sexualised costumes worn by Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi, undermining the character’s subversion of fantasy and sci-fi’s traditional gender tropes (she’s certainly no damsel in distress).

In recent years, sci-fi in general has finally begun to shed its image as a ‘boys only’ genre, thanks to the popularity of the Hunger Games and Divergent franchises, both of which star tough women as their protagonists. The upcoming film, The 5th Wave – based on another book series with a strong-willed female at its heart – should do even more to address the gender imbalance in sci-fi fandom.

With all this in mind, it’s no wonder so many fans are unhappy that so much of the merchandise for Star Wars and similar films is still failing to reflect modern gender and racial diversity both among the consumers of science fiction and in wider society.

Hasbro’s volte face is a highly positive step for the brand, showing as it does a willingness to listen and respond to customers. More than this, it is an impressive demonstration of the power of Twitter and social media as a tool for brands to gain feedback from consumers about their products, as well as a way to build stronger more meaningful relationships with them.

At the same time though, a similar episode could easily be avoided in future if brands paid closer attention to the plot and characterisation of the films they are cashing in on, and also worked to challenge traditional tropes when developing products. There’s no need any more to fall back on the same old tired stereotypes – about gender, race or, indeed, sci-fi fans.

By Michael Wood, Senior B2B Copywriter