Where's Rey? Where's Natasha? Where's Gamora and GoGo, Honey Lemon and Skye?
At a time when film and television are populated with a greater number of interesting female heroes, that giant revenue engine – toy merchandising – is falling behind. And consumers, more than ever, are demanding that companies explain where they are.
The characters named above – from the new Star Wars movie, The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6, and Paw Patrol – have all been left out of some of the merchandise based on those entertainment franchises. And that has spawned a backlash on social media. People are asking why those characters are underrepresented on T-shirts, in action-figure sets and in games. The questions resurfaced this week when people noticed that Rey, the protagonist of The Force Awakens, was excluded as a figure in the new Star Wars Monopoly game.
Conversations sprung up on Twitter using the label #WheresRey, which mirrored similar labels when other female characters went missing in merchandising. For example, Natasha, aka Black Widow, who was absent in so many Avengers products last year that one star of the film, actor Mark Ruffalo, even took to Twitter to complain about it. "@Marvel we need more #BlackWidow merchandise for my daughters and nieces. Pretty please," he wrote.
Following the furor this week, Hasbro Inc., which makes Monopoly, announced that it "will be making a running change to include [Rey] in the Monopoly: Star Wars game available later this year."
In a statement, the company explained that the game was released in September, before the film was in theatres, and that the omission was designed "to avoid revealing a key plot line that she takes on Kylo Ren and joins the Rebel Alliance."
A Hasbro spokesperson did not respond to a question about why the presence of a known character in a game would spoil the film's plot, or why Finn – another major character whose "key plot line" also involves fighting with the Alliance – is not considered a spoiler when he appears in the Monopoly game.
The controversy illustrates the growing awareness of gender representation among consumers – and not just that, but their willingness to use digital communication tools to make a stink about it with companies.
"It's a way to bring people together, and you can demonstrate, with a hashtag, that there are a number of people who care about something," said Jo Jowers, a member of Let Toys Be Toys, a consumer group in Britain that has been petitioning companies not to use gender stereotypes in toys. She believes it's something that matters greatly for children all along the gender spectrum.
"It has bigger implications on how you see the world later on," she said. "It sounds like it's just toys, it's just a bit of fuss. But if women don't merit being in the games, if women are seen as lesser, that's part of a bigger social dialogue."
In a statement, Hasbro noted that the Rey character is featured in other games and figurine sets, and that "fans will see more Rey product hitting store shelves this month, including … Rey action figures."
While she is not excluded across the board, the notable instances where Rey is left out of merchandise fuel the wider conversation about similar omissions.
"It sends a message to girls and boys, that things like adventure – girls don't own the space in those sites of representation," said Elizabeth Sweet, sociology lecturer at the University of California, Davis, whose research has tracked the gendered marketing of toys.
Her research examined toy ads throughout the 20th century, and while baby dolls have long been marketed to girls, the explicitly segregated environment of today's toy marketing is something new, she says.
"Many toys are sold in gendered aisles, or separate catalogue pages. Some retail websites ask you to enter the gender of the child before you can even browse," she said. "The fact that children's toys seem to be relying more heavily than ever before on gender stereotypes has worrisome implications for possible progress toward gender equality."
That goes for representation of female characters, as well. "As there has been a greater diversity of gender expression and gender diversity, we see in children's culture an increasingly rigid binary," she said.
Consumer feedback can have an impact, however. Toy makers and retailers are increasingly being taken to task for what many see as a backward approach to gender representation.
Let Toys Be Toys, for example, started out as a Facebook group, and its pressure on companies is almost entirely social media-driven. It keeps track on its website of retailers who have recently agreed to change the way they market toys in a more gender-neutral way.
"You'd be amazed the response you can get when you point out that as a consumer – and as parents of children with a huge range of interests – that you feel it's weird to market to them based on their gender," Ms. Jowers said.
"If my daughter wants to play with Barbie, she can, as long as she doesn't feel she can only play with Barbie," she said. "My daughter will happily wear a tiara while fighting her brother with a lightsaber."