“Does it Come with a Spear?” Commodity Activism, Plastic Representation, and Transmedia Story Strategies in Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Destiny
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Since its acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, Disney has been praised for its active marketing of Star Wars to fans of all backgrounds, across a variety of platforms. Disney’s strategy places the Star Wars films front and center, but relies on a multitude of transmedia texts and paratexts to supplement this “core” narrative. These supplemental texts often attempt to diversify the core fanbase, potentially locating them within a practice Kristen J. Warner calls “plastic representation”. Plastic representation offers marginalized audiences “culturally specific contextual” versions of a franchise’s more homogenous mainstream pillars. As a case study, I take the girl-focused Forces of Destiny YouTube series and toy line (2017–2018). This article examines the tensions between how Forces of Destiny is presented by Disney and how it has been received by fans and consumers, considering how it fits into the broader context of Star Wars transmedia, commodity activism, and paratextual erasure.
Few films are more iconic and widely recognized than Star Wars (1977). Now an international franchise with a forty-year history and a multi-billion-dollar box office and merchandising legacy, Star Wars has become a global phenomenon. Amidst ever-intensifying waves of film and television content, transmedia tie-ins, and merchandising outreach, it has become common to speak of Star Wars as though it is a universal constant. Not only can it be found everywhere, the reasoning goes, it is also something that can be enjoyed together by people of diverse ages and backgrounds. As Rogue One (2016) reviewer Rohan Naahar writes for the Hindustan Times, “Star Wars is for everyone; every boy or girl who has ever looked up at the night sky and wondered if there are other worlds out there. It’s for every kid who has ever pretended to be a hero, saving the day, with his friends by his side. Star Wars belongs to us now.” But what parts of the franchise are we talking about when we speak of Star Wars? And is it the franchise’s omnipresence that allows it to appeal to the kid—or the boy, as Naahar’s use of personal pronouns suggests—in everyone?
This is more than just a rhetorical question, and it has become increasingly difficult to answer in the age of media industrial franchises—that is, franchises helmed by massive media complexes that represent a “fusion of industrial interests, media enterprises and governments”. As commercial properties sprawl across multiple decades and global marketplaces, storytelling and merchandising tactics necessarily change and grow more complex. The question of whether such a franchise can and should be ‘for everyone’ is also particularly relevant as major franchises continue to use themes like inclusivity, feminism, and racial diversity as marketing tools.
Elsewhere I have examined the franchise’s engagement with feminism on multiple fronts, arguing that, in the end, it is not the way the films represent women, or even their “feminist agenda that matters most, but rather how these representations and aims are continually negotiated and re-interpreted by fans, creators, licensees, and feminists around the world.” In this article, I want to expand on that statement, underlining how this negotiation and re-interpretation of feminism functions in the context of transmedia texts, paratexts, and merchandise, raising new and complex questions about the nature of canonicity and fan legitimization in the age of the transmedia franchise. To do so, I take the Star Wars: Forces of Destiny YouTube series and toy line as a case study. This series offers an excellent illustration of the franchise’s fraught and often-contradictory attempts to market a commodified version of feminism that is palatable to all audiences. Forces of Destiny tries to have it both ways: it acknowledges the desires and demands of some consumers for more merchandise featuring female protagonists, while also presenting those products in easily marketable ways that either reinforce gender divisions and stereotypes, or reduce the significance of gender politics to the point where they are erased from the discussion entirely. Decisions on how to manufacture and market the series ultimately undercut the “universality” of the Star Wars universe, making the franchise seem homogenous rather than diverse and inclusive, and marking its attempts at encouraging commodity activism as plastic or superficial.
The Trouble with Transmediation: Canonicity and Paratextual Erasure
Scholarly studies of political progressiveness in media industrial franchises, and particularly in Star Wars, tend to focus on issues of representation, and the power of “seeing a version of one’s self on screen” to form and influence fan communities. This is beginning to change, and Star Wars has been a popular case study in the process—particularly within the context of feminism. In her work on the #wheresrey Twitterstorm, in which fans protested the absence of merchandise featuring Rey, the female protagonist of 2015’s The Force Awakens, Suzanne Scott points out that although “historically paratexts have been theorized as being used by the audience to make sense of the text, franchise paratexts are equally used to make sense of the audience, and accordingly have the capacity to marginalize particular demographics in their address.” When Scott uses the term “paratext,” she is referring to Gérard Genette’s concept of the elements surrounding a text (in Genette’s case a novel), but not directly part of the narrative. These are the elements a reader must encounter in order to access the text: a cover, blurbs, title page, table of contents, and so forth. In this case, the absence of Rey from The Force Awakens’ merchandising was read as paratextual evidence that Star Wars was not really “for girls,” even though the film’s main character is a woman. Jeffrey A. Brown, also writing about #wheresrey, suggests that “social-media-based protests targeted at consumer culture may become one of the most productive strategies for promoting gender equality in modern culture.” As yet, however, the #wheresrey saga has only produced superficial gestures towards feminism from Disney, rather than radically changing the way the Star Wars universe is conceived and marketed. Even as the Star Wars franchise has made a more deliberate effort to target female audiences through its paratexts, it has done so in contradictory ways. Elizabeth Affuso uses the example of the Star Wars CoverGirl makeup line to argue that “as fan practices become more gender inclusive they often simultaneously reinforce gender divides.” In this case women were recognized as fans of Star Wars, but were offered merchandise that restricted their fandom to conservative, hyperfeminine modes of expression.
Into this postfeminist landscape, in April 2017 Disney announced the Forces of Destiny animated micro-series as part of a new initiative in transmedia storytelling. The Forces of Destiny initiative represents the Star Wars franchise’s most engaged response to the #wheresrey saga to date, actively framing itself within a discourse of commodity activism. The series aired on Disney YouTube, and featured the franchise’s most famous female characters: “Rey, Ahsoka Tano, Jyn Erso, Princess Leia, Sabine Wren, and other icons of a galaxy far, far away.” The new story initiative was also supplemented by books, apparel, and, most importantly, a line of “toys from Hasbro.” Mock-ups of the toys and books are included in the initial press release on StarWars.com (see Figure 1). The micro-series and merchandise lines both launched in July 2017, but in the three-month wait between the series announcement and release, it was Hasbro’s Forces of Destiny toys that generated the most discussion. Because of the way Forces of Destiny’s merchandising paratexts interacted with the ‘text’ or canonical narrative of the series, this had negative implications for the initiative as a whole.
Much of fans’ engagement with the Star Wars franchise is sustained through niche, inter-film merchandise, and at the same time consumer markets are becoming increasingly stratified and segregated. Being for everyone, or offering a story that resonates with different groups, is more often equated with being marketable to everyone, or producing cultural capital that others will want to acquire. This is very understandable in a neoliberal market, where consumers are increasingly expected to base their own identities on their relationship to commercial objects, and in which social activism is regularly displayed through various purchasing practices. As Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser argue, writing about commodity activism, “within contemporary culture it is utterly unsurprising to participate in social activism by buying something”. They cite Product RED items as an example. Purchasing these bright red editions of regular products supports the Global Fund in eliminating AIDS in Africa, but it also serves as a public indicator of the consumer’s charitability.
In recent years, Lucasfilm and Disney have made similar attempts to link Star Wars to various social causes (feminism, racial diversity, equality across the class divide), boosting the company’s image as a moral authority and family friendly entertainer. They have done so in part through a range of transmedia and merchandising endeavors. Of course, as Scott has suggested, how the franchise appeals to audiences is just as important as whether it does at all. Many of the Star Wars franchise’s recent attempts to engage with female fans addresses them as (straight, hyperfeminine) women first, and Star Wars fans second. Forces of Destiny merchandise frames the Star Wars story as inclusive of young girls, inviting them to become active participants in the franchise, but only if they are prepared to engage with the Star Wars universe in a particular way.
When franchise paratexts like merchandising are discussed in scholarship, it is often in the context of how these objects function as peripheral aids in reading a more central, influential, or mainstream text, rather than how they create meanings of their own. Of course, as Jonathan Gray argues, and as Star Wars: Forces of Destiny demonstrates, in contemporary media paratexts regularly take on a more central role, and are often texts in their own right. In addition to acting as transmedia texts, expanding the Star Wars story across multiple platforms, both the toys and the micro-series served as paratextual extensions of the Star Wars film franchise. For some, they even form the first point of contact with the franchise. Where the Forces of Destiny micro-series worked to send a message of inclusivity to fans old and new, however, the merchandise was clearly targeted at a niche market: young girls. The niche marketing of the merchandise conflicted with the more universalizing stance of the micro-series.
Transmedia and its paratexts play a powerful role in expanding the reach of a franchise, but also send a clear message about what kinds of communities are central or canonical to the brand, and which are merely peripheral. The question of what constitutes Star Wars has been hotly debated throughout the franchise’s history. For many, the ‘essence’ of Star Wars is the original trilogy of films from the 1970s and 80s. For later generations of Star Wars fans, this definition is already likely to be much broader, including the more recent films and television productions. For some, Star Wars includes the pseudo-canonical Expanded Universe series of books, comics, and video games licensed by Lucasfilm between 1978 and 2014. For others, it extends to the wide range of fan-created works, stories, and theories that have circulated from the very first days of the franchise. Just as fans have debated which parts of Star Wars are most central, arriving at different conclusions depending on their own interests and identities, Lucasfilm has also presented many different standpoints on this question over the decades.
Since its 2012 takeover of Lucasfilm, Disney’s transmedial Star Wars empire aims at canon and continuity across all platforms. This vision is realized in a rebooted storyworld, managed by Lucasfilm’s new Story Group. Our understanding of what Star Wars is and who it is for is increasingly shaped by this sprawling and tightly controlled transmedia empire, which takes other successful media industrial franchises, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as its cue. Disney’s transmedia strategy intentionally fragments the filmic Star Wars universe. The films are still canon, but we have new canonical television and online productions as well. There are also new novels, games, and merchandising tie-ins, and hardcore fans are increasingly encouraged to seek out these peripheral narratives in order to experience the full story, since key plot points and character developments are parceled out across different media. This strategy tugs previously marginal media towards the mainstream, giving them renewed authority through canonicity.
In addition to being much larger in scope, in the Disney era Star Wars has become much harder to pin down. If everything is canon, and “all Star Wars stories tell the same story,” as Lucasfilm’s Story Group would like to suggest, this potentially allows for a much more controlled, immersive experience for fans. As Lincoln Geraghty has argued, “the integrated strategies of Disney working with merchandising partners on Star Wars diversifies potential markets and increases the dissemination and circulation of Star Wars as media franchise.” Niche marketing ensures that everyone can feel entitled to a piece of Star Wars, and—in theory—that they are also part of the larger universe. Important audience outreach is achieved through this extensive paratextual and transmedial strategy, with different parcels of Star Wars targeted at different potential audiences. Where the live-action films are rated for older children and adults, the animated cartoons can market themselves to younger audiences, and the comics and novels target a range of age groups. Different kinds of niche marketing can also take place within one Star Wars ‘text’ or story satellite. In the case of Forces of Destiny, micro-series webisodes are marketed to young but general audiences, while books retell these stories for children at various reading levels, and comics expand on them in new ways for older children and adults.
Of course, this new, all-encompassing definition of canon explicitly excludes fan productions, only including those stories owned and produced by Disney. Disney’s simultaneous emphasis on universal appeal and universal canonicity also places much more pressure on storytellers to deliver a consistent, and consistently marketable storyworld. A major issue with delivering such an ambitiously extensive storyworld, marketable to ‘everyone,' is that mainstream markets tend towards conservatism. There is little incentive to radically change the status quo in terms of representation, storytelling, or engagement with political issues. As Kristen Warner has argued, for instance, “colorblind” writing and casting is often normative—that is, “hegemonically white.” Likewise, when we talk about feminism and feminist representation in the mainstream, we are often talking about white women, or about characters that don’t necessarily encourage serious discussions of feminism. As Carolyn Cocca points out, writing about the women of the Star Wars franchise before the Disney takeover, these characters are ultimately “privileged in terms of race, ethnicity, class, ability, and sexuality, and face no discrimination in their seemingly postfeminist and colorblind universes”.
This remains true across much of the Disney-era Star Wars franchise, and in cases where more intersectional identities are brought to bear, they are rarely showcased across the entire storyworld. Instead, they are often relegated to a single, more marginal or specialized text. For example, in the young adult novel Leia Princess of Alderaan (2017), a prequel to the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), the character of Amilyn Holdo is pansexual—an aspect entirely absent from representations of the character when she appears in The Last Jedi or in other media. A similar situation occurred in the film Solo (2018), around the character of Lando Calrissian. Megan Condis has written about negative fan responses, on grounds of canonicity, to the portrayal of homosexual relationships in BioWare’s online game Star Wars: The Old Republic (2011), suggesting that even before the Disney takeover Star Wars was largely seen as a storyworld in which characters could only be ‘canonical’ if they fit comfortably within conservative, hegemonic conceptions of gender and sexuality.
Even as media franchises attempt to create more room for diversity, their deployment and marketing can make fans feel peripheral to the media universe. In the case of #wheresrey Scott has used the term “paratextual erasure” to describe how merchandise can indirectly invalidate segments of an existing fandom—in this case women—by granting them representation in the diegetic world of the film but not outside of it. Matt Hills describes a different phenomenon in the British TV series Torchwood (2006–2011), in which “exercises in niche storytelling remain a form of brand management... seeking to manage the active fan audience, and attempting to paratextually deactivate fan complaints”. As an example, Hills cites Torchwood’s attempt to silence vocal fan objections to the death of a queer character by releasing an audio story rather than addressing these objections in the central television series. This form of paratextual erasure acknowledges marginalized audiences, but actively seeks to contain their demands on the text by acknowledging them paratextually or through transmedia add-ons, instead of in the ‘core’ narrative. Forces of Destiny falls somewhere between these two examples, marketed as a valuable core text in some ways even as it is delegitimized in others.
Marketing Forces of Destiny
Forces of Destiny joins Star Wars: Rebels (2014–2018) and LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures (2016–2018) as part of the Disney-era Star Wars animated lineup. As one might surmise from the example of LEGO Star Wars, these animated shows often involve toy and merchandising tie-ins. Forces of Destiny is no exception. In addition to books, comics, a Blade Builders lightsaber, and a later bedding and clothing line from the US department store Target, at the core of the Forces of Destiny marketing lineup were Hasbro’s series of “Adventure Figures”—a set of toys marketed as “a fusion of traditional dolls and action figures.” Images of the figures accompanied the original press announcement on StarWars.com, and effectively formed audiences’ first point of contact with the series. They were also talked about on news sites and social media well before the series itself launched in July 2017.
The choice to market the line under the “Adventure Figure” label is an interesting one, in that it links Forces of Destiny toys to a larger debate about the distinction between the feminine ‘doll’ and masculine ‘action figure’. Derek Johnson writes at length about the Goldie action figure from the feminist toy line Goldieblox, for instance, which resembles a traditional doll in many respects, but “seizes on the distinction of ‘action’ to claim greater value for its product compared to the feminized doll, all the while trying to newly apply that typically masculinized term to the play of girls.” Forces of Destiny Adventure Figures present a similar case, looking in many ways like traditional dolls, but also trying to demonstrate how they fit into an otherwise highly masculinized toy franchise.
Reading Hasbro president John Frascotti’s statement in the initial press release, this narrative already begins to emerge:
As the Star Wars fan base has broadened over the last 40 years, we have continued to add new and exciting play experiences to the Star Wars brand, to engage fans across generations. We’ve worked closely with Disney to bring the storytelling from Star Wars Forces of Destiny to life through this innovative toy line to help connect with new audiences as well as appeal to existing fans.
Though Frascotti avoids gendered nouns and pronouns in his statement, his words take on a gendered significance when considered in combination with the line’s niche marketing to girls. The idea that the line is mainly aimed at “new audiences” already hints that where the “existing fans” are male, the Star Wars franchise’s “new audiences” will be female. By suggesting that the Adventure Figure’s fusion of dolls and action figures is “innovative,” Frascotti also gestures towards the toys’ alleged social progressiveness, which allows girls to participate in the experience of action figures, as well as Star Wars. This frames the toys as objects of commodity activism: buy an Adventure Figure, support girl power and gender equality in toys.
The Forces of Destiny Adventure Figures are 11 inches in scale, meaning they are slightly smaller than the average Barbie, though much larger than a typical action figure. All demonstrate “dynamic action” movement, swinging a lightsaber or aiming a blaster when the toy’s legs are squeezed together (though in practice these motions are very minimal). Many also have large amounts of sculpted-on clothing and detail, though some opt for a traditional doll’s removable clothing and accessories. One, a Princess Leia figure, comes with a cloth dress and a pair of sandals, as well as a spear, a blaster, and the more functional uniform she is packaged in (see Figure 2). Aesthetically the toy reads as extremely doll-like—each Adventure Figure has long, slender limbs, brushable hair, large eyes, a calm expression, and painted-on make-up. As with the Goldie action figure, then, Forces of Destiny’s use of the “Adventure Figure” label seems first and foremost a branding strategy aimed at feminist audiences.
The toys’ packaging and presentation also aligns them with girls’ markets rather than boys’, though here Hasbro once again aims at a cross between ‘gender-neutral’ branding and niche marketing. As Ross Garner argues, writing about the similar color palette used for the Rebels and Forces of Destiny character Sabine Wren, “whilst Sabine’s aesthetic rejects postfeminist reclamations of ‘softer’ shades such as pink, the palettes used for her body armour connote culturally-feminized ‘floral’ shades... albeit in darker hues to represent the character’s confidence.” The box and Star Wars logo on the Forces of Destiny line are likewise rendered in soft shades of orange, purple, and pink, distinguishing them from the red and black that dominate Hasbro’s other Star Wars packaging. When the figures are shelved with other Star Wars merchandise—in the Disney Store, for example—it is clear they are part of the line, but they stand out as more floral and feminine than the other toys. In many ways, Forces of Destiny’s floral color scheme works like the red-and-white packaging for The Last Jedi merchandise, marking it as a ‘special’ line within the franchise (see Figure 3). In terms of both packaging and design Forces of Destiny figures are more easily able to blend in with toys in the girls’ aisle, where they were often placed by other retailers (Figure 4). Of course, none of this suggests that the Forces of Destiny line does not deliver opportunities for commodity activism. In many ways attempting to increase the reach of Star Wars to the girls’ toy aisle does send the message that the franchise is also for girls, and the stereotypical branding and packaging of these toys only echoes what has already been done with the toys in the boys’ aisles. From this perspective Hasbro is only working within the restrictions of markets beyond the franchise’s direct control. In combination with the micro-series and the other stories in the Star Wars universe, however, a more complex narrative emerges.
Forces of Destiny builds on a long line of online micro-series designed to support girls’ merchandise, going back to the hugely successful Monster High webisodes (2010–2016), the spinoff series Ever After High (2013–2016) and Enchantimals (2017–2018), and the separate DC Super Hero Girls (2015–2018). All doll lines for these webisodes are created by Mattel, one of Hasbro’s key competitors. The Forces of Destiny Adventure Figure is also clearly based on these predecessors in terms of styling and scale. They also sell at a similar price point between twenty and thirty US dollars, “more expensive than Barbie dolls which are marketed to a younger consumer”. Forces of Destiny figures even adopt a similar packaging strategy—DC Super Hero Girls merchandise opts for a palette of pastel blues and yellows with red accents that distinguishes it from the darker hues of Mattel’s regular DC merchandise, while still recognizably marking them as part of the same brand.
Of course, the creation of short video narratives designed exclusively to sell toys to girls dates back further still, to the early 1980s, with franchises like Strawberry Shortcake (1980-1985) and My Little Pony (1982-1995). Ellen Seiter suggests that the My Little Pony franchise offered girls something new: “a ghettoized culture” where “for once girls were not required to cross over, to take on an ambiguous identification with a group of male characters”. Criticisms of the My Little Pony franchise have often devaluated it as “kitschy” and “insipid”, preferring that girls turn their interest to something less aggressively feminine. The key difference between these kinds of franchises and Forces of Destiny is that Forces of Destiny did not begin as a girl-targeted merchandising universe. It is a transmedia extension of a much larger franchise, which was previously marketed almost exclusively to boys. As such, despite their basic similarity in terms of commercial strategy, Star Wars and its merchandise has been hailed for its “integrity and creative vision," whereas girl-focused toys and series like My Little Pony are dismissed as “junk”. Forces of Destiny has a pre-existing narrative, tone, and set of audience expectations to satisfy, all of which have been legitimized and masculinized by previous Star Wars toy lines and paratexts. This is precisely where some of the complications with its brand of commodity feminism arise.
The Forces of Destiny micro-series consists of 2D-animated shorts, each 1–3 minutes in length, which were first aired on Disney’s YouTube channel in July of 2017. The premise of the series is straightforward, exploring how the choices made by various characters shape their destinies, and transform them into “forces of destiny” for those around them. The Forces of Destiny micro-series focused initially on women from the Star Wars canon, including Leia, Rey, and Padmé, though it quickly added Anakin, Yoda, Luke, and other male-gendered characters to its cast (and its toy line) as well. The series also features many of the original film actors as voice actors, and includes creative talent from Lucasfilm’s already-established animation team. Forces of Destiny is produced by Carrie Beck, a Lucasfilm Story Group member, and by Dave Filoni, director of Lucasfilm Animation and creator of the popular Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Rebels. Jennifer Muro is the show’s writer and lead creator, while Brad Rau directs most episodes.
Historically YouTube web content has served as an excellent early initiator for young audiences in particular, helping to “keep movie franchises alive and instill brand loyalty in a generation of new customers”. Although they tell short, semi-independent stories of their own, Forces of Destiny micro-episodes also function as paratexts to the Star Wars films, offering children a scaled-down taste of what this universe has to offer. Though episodes may be aimed at young audiences, however, the show’s creators have gone out of their way to include references for older fans as well. Since they are so brief, most episodes do not add dramatically to the storyworld, but they do offer a glimpse of important off-screen moments in film canon, showing Padmé preparing for a diplomatic mission or explaining how Leia obtained the bounty hunter gear and thermal detonator she uses in Return of the Jedi (1983). Many Forces of Destiny episodes also include references to the film universe too specific or detailed for new viewers, which are clearly aimed at established adult fans and parents. This secondary target audience is also supported by the venue at which Forces of Destiny was announced, just before the initial press release online: a panel at the Star Wars Celebration fan convention in Orlando, April 2017.
Despite the talent behind the show, and its efforts to court adult fans, Forces of Destiny’s medium and production status relative to other, contemporary Star Wars productions ultimately served to delegitimize it. Forces of Destiny was animated cheaply, in Flash. The show often reuses sets and character models as well, further reducing production costs. The relatively low costs of a YouTube production meant Forces of Destiny was a lower-risk investment for the franchise, and its free distribution on YouTube, rather than a more prestigious outlet like Disney XD (where Star Wars: Rebels and LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures both aired) also impacted perceptions of the series’ quality. This was problematic given its legacy, indicated by Forces of Destiny’s associated paratexts and by the contexts of its production, as the franchise’s first female-targeted series.
Ironically, this feminist framing served to make the core, ‘canonical’ Star Wars universe seem less inclusive, not more so. Namely, through many of the issues raised by the Forces of Destiny initiative, it became clear that the Star Wars was largely unreceptive to new and different perspectives. Where My Little Pony confused “educated middle-class parents” who misunderstood the franchise as “incompatible with liberal feminist ideals,” the girl-targeted Forces of Destiny dolls confused long-standing Star Wars fans, who were used to the franchise’s previous history of boy-targeted or ‘gender-neutral’ marketing, and had a clear vision about what Star Wars stories should and should not be about. Unlike My Little Pony, however, Forces of Destiny webisodes are torn between their need to fit into a masculinized canonical universe, and their need to sell toys to little girls.
Forces of Destiny episodes generally offer clear moral lessons, and the focus is on small-scale situations and struggles. The fact that the series revolves around “small moments and everyday decisions” does potentially shift Star Wars from the epic, traditionally masculine domain into a traditionally feminine, domestic domain. In theory, this should allow for new and different kinds of stories to be told within the Star Wars universe. Some characters in Forces of Destiny are fighters, while others are diplomats or creative problem solvers. In practice, Forces of Destiny’s heroes still tend to solve their problems through violence and “direct conflicts employing weapons or evil machines,” rather than the “rehabilitation, reform, and reintegration” narrative that girl-focused cartoons like My Little Pony often present. The Star Wars films are traditionally about epic, imperialistic power struggles between a binarily defined dark and light, where a single hero rises to take a stand for good. Forces of Destiny does little to disrupt or renovate this idea—its themes are the same, though they take place on a smaller scale.
The idea of a Star Wars initiative ‘for girls’ is not problematic in itself, but limits imposed on all Star Wars stories by both the fans and the Lucasfilm Story Group meant that only the toys could explicitly address girlish needs and interests. As with the example of Star Wars CoverGirl makeup, then, Forces of Destiny ultimately encourages girls and women to ‘buy into’ a very specific and peripheral kind of fandom. While girls were invited into the franchise, rather than allowing more traditionally girlish elements to become part of the Star Wars story, ‘girliness’ was largely restricted to the toy line. Furthermore, while the toys theoretically allowed girls to play on their own terms, the accompanying micro-series fit more traditionally into the Star Wars universe, potentially restricting the doll line and play possibilities in return. Girls’ entertainment—and, traditionally, girlish play—centers around friendship, collaboration, and emotional intelligence. In the Forces of Destiny micro-series, in contrast, the focus is often on lone women, with a handful of episodes (like “The Impostor Inside” and “Crash Course”) bringing two female characters together. This focus on individual women once again has less to do with branding strategy, and more with adherence to Star Wars canon. Most of the characters in Forces of Destiny come from entirely different timelines in the franchise, and in most cases they are the only prominent female hero present in that particular filmic moment. Characters from recent transmedial additions to the Star Wars universe, like Sabine Wren and Ahsoka Tano, make appearances alongside film characters like Leia Organa and Padmé Naberrie, but multiple women from the same canonical time period are not always readily available. Though the initial press mockup of the toys displayed characters from multiple eras standing next to each other, the television commercials for the toy lines emphasized a similarly isolating mode of play, with girls helping individual dolls to act out separate scenes from the micro-series or the films, rather than bringing them all together in an original adventure (see Figure 5).
Figure 5: Forces of Destiny toy commercial from Hasbro.
Just as the framing, packaging, and marketing of the Forces of Destiny Adventure Figures served as paratexts for the toys, so the toys and other merchandise have served as paratexts for the YouTube micro-series. Many fans likely came into contact with the Forces of Destiny merchandise and surrounding discourse before they saw the series, meaning that the story of the toys influenced how audiences interpreted the story of the webseries, and of the franchise as a whole around. The season-one episode “Ewok Escape” is a good example of how Forces of Destiny’s merchandising paratexts can impact audience interpretations of the text (Figure 6). In this episode, set during the events of Return of the Jedi (1983), Leia Organa is traveling with Wicket the Ewok to his village. On the way they encounter two stormtroopers harassing a group of Wicket’s friends. Wicket attempts to trap the stormtroopers using a rope snare, but is too small and light to act as a counterweight. Leia comes to his aid, knocking the stormtroopers unconscious and saving the day. Later, at the Ewok Village, the rescued Ewoks bring Leia a present to thank her. It is the dress she is seen wearing at the end of Return of the Jedi. Leia tries it on, to much oohing and ahhing from the assembled villagers. “Thank You—it’s a beautiful dress. Does it come with a spear?”, she asks. On one level this is a nod to Leia’s warrior nature, and to the fact that she is a prototypical ‘strong female character,' but the answer, of course, is that the dress does actually come with a spear—in the paratextual merchandise (see Figure 2). Other features, like the fact that the webisodes often included cute and cuddly companions, also seemed tailor-made to sell toys to girls. Unsurprisingly, the deluxe Forces of Destiny sets did indeed come with smaller companion figures: R2-D2, Wicket the Ewok, and so on. These were sold at twice the price of the regular play sets ($40 USD).
Figure 6: ‘Ewok Escape’
Such case studies potentially set up Forces of Destiny as an example of something Warner calls “plastic representation," creating visible but superficial diversity at the expense of a deeper engagement with the lived experiences of fans and audiences. Plastic representation offers marginalized audiences “culturally specific contextual” versions of the franchise’s more exclusionary, mainstream pillars. Warner’s focus is on race, and she uses the example of Barbie, one of contemporary culture’s key “child-oriented identity text[s]”. Mattel produces visibly diverse versions of the Barbie character, but the canonical version remains a slim, white, straight, blue-eyed blonde. Adapting Barbie’s skin tone or face sculpt can give marginalized audiences representation on a superficial, plastic level, but still sends a clear message about hegemonic beauty standards, and about who the franchise sees as its core audience. As Warner writes, plastic representations in film use “the wonder that comes from seeing characters on screen who serve as visual identifiers for specific demographics in order to flatten the expectation to desire anything more”. This allows franchises to sidestep the work of researching audience-specific needs to create a more nuanced and empowering representation, while still claiming to be diverse or progressive.
As Mark J.P. Wolf writes of Star Wars LEGO and other merchandise, rather than “adapting a narrative, a playset will be designed to provide its user all the elements needed to reenact a particular narrative, without requiring that the narrative be reenacted.” The micro-series was meant to be compelling jumping off point for children to imagine their own stories with the toys, but Star Wars canon did not always allow Forces of Destiny to equip girls with a vision for exciting or limitless play. As YouTube reviewer Jenny Nicholson points out, echoing Cocca, the Forces of Destiny toy line also inadvertently emphasizes the general lack of diversity across the Star Wars franchise. “By trying to showcase all of the female Star Wars characters,” she argues, “Forces of Destiny just kind of unintentionally highlighted that there are not a lot of those”. The initial series features four virtually identical versions of the “tough no-nonsense female character who can fight and cares about justice... And three of those four girls are white girls with brown hair”. Nicholson makes the point that young children may fully differentiate between these very similar figures, further limiting opportunities for creative storytelling and play. Her point that Star Wars is “trying to showcase” its female characters also highlights the line’s clear attempts at commodity activism. A webseries and doll line using original characters might have been more successful from the perspective of bringing in new audiences, but would likely have been less successful at convincing adult fans to buy Star Wars toys for their daughters—or themselves—as a token of their feminism. Forces of Destiny’s call to commodity activism was certainly successful in generating discussion about its motivations, and about its intended audience.
Forces of Destiny’s niche marketing certainly made some audiences read the micro-series as a case of plastic representation to be avoided. The YouTube comments on “Ewok Escape” were indicative of this reading: “What is the point of this show besides selling star wars [sic] to little girls?” asked one viewer. Another suggested they were only “cheap cartoons to sell more merchandise”. Yet another commenter argued that “This whole show is just made to sell toys. But then again... that’s why they always make new troopers so... you get the idea right”. In referencing the films’ practice of introducing subtly different versions of vehicles and characters with each new iteration, this last viewer seems to suggest that empty commercialism is the point of the Star Wars franchise as a whole, not just of the girl-focused Forces of Destiny. Some of these comments are no doubt part of the larger discourse around gatekeeping and toxic fandom that has dominated Star Wars in recent years, but these commentators also draw attention to an important issue.
As in the case of #wheresrey, Forces of Destiny’s merchandise became integral to how audiences interpreted the inclusivity (or lack thereof) of the Star Wars universe. Initial impressions and later reviews were explicit about how audiences viewed Disney’s motivations in creating the series. Some applauded Disney for making a show “for girls,” some complained that this was simply another attempt to force a liberal “SJW” (Social Justice Warrior) agenda onto viewers, but in both cases fans and reviewers seemed secure in the knowledge that Disney’s agenda was explicitly feminist. In both positive and negative responses, Forces of Destiny has also been received by fans and consumers as an attempt to sell Star Wars to girls, despite being an allegedly universal part of the Star Wars core narrative, intended for “for anyone who has been inspired by Leia’s heroism, Rey’s courage, or Ahsoka’s tenacity.”
As Wohlwend argues, dolls and other toy figures “carry anticipated identities, the ideal users and target demographics projected by marketers... sedimented into the dolls’ designs and advertising messages through manufacturers’ production practices and distribution processes”. The Forces of Destiny toys are more than simple playthings—they contribute their own meanings to the Star Wars narrative. The Forces of Destiny line seemed to be telling girls that they were welcome in the Star Wars universe, but only if they interacted with it in a strictly defined space, where their girlish modes of play would not cross over into the larger franchise. In trying to brand Star Wars as a story for everyone, niche marketing initiatives like Forces of Destiny instead reveal how the franchise’s ‘universal’ narratives are still overwhelmingly white, Western, and masculine. Despite continued engagement with social issues, and attempts at commodity activism, popular media industrial franchises like Star Wars still serve “as crucial sites for the domestication and containment of cultural imaginaries of political protest.” It is still only outside of this system, in fans’ protest and unsanctioned play, that Star Wars’ capacity for diversity and inclusivity can be fully realized.
Megen de Bruin-Molé (@MegenJM) is a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton. Her research interests include popular feminism, adaptation, and contemporary remix culture, with work published in Brill’s Neo-Victorian series and numerous journals. Her chapter “Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism” appeared in the 2017 collection Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, edited by Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest.
Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest, “Introduction: ‘What Is This Strange World We’ve Come to?,’” in Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, ed. Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), 11.
Rohan Naahar, “Rogue One Review: This Is Our Generation’s Star Wars Story,” Hindustan Times, December 16, 2016, para. 3, https://www.hindustantimes.com/movie-reviews/rogue-one-review-a-thrilling-spectacular-star-wars-story-for-a-new-generation/story-jfgbX1VEbojtSuUl687sDI.html.
Gareth Locksley, “Direct Broadcast Satellites: The Media-Industrial Complex in the UK and Europe,” Telecommunications Policy 11, no. 2 (June 1, 1987): 193, https://doi.org/10.1016/0308-5961(87)90026-7.
Megen de Bruin-Molé, “Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism,” in Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, ed. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), 240.
This phrasing is borrowed from an article by Suzanne Scott, on the ways transmedia often dismisses or invalidates fan practices Suzanne Scott, “The Trouble with Transmediation: Fandom’s Negotiation of Transmedia Storytelling Systems,” Spectator 30, no. 1 (2010): 30–34.
Kristen J. Warner, “In the Time of Plastic Representation,” Film Quarterly 71, no. 2 (2017), https://filmquarterly.org/2017/12/04/in-the-time-of-plastic-representation/.
Suzanne Scott, “#Wheresrey?: Toys, Spoilers, and the Gender Politics of Franchise Paratexts,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, February 8, 2017, 139.
Gérard Genette, Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree, trans. Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 4.
Jeffrey A. Brown, “#wheresRey: Feminism, Protest, and Merchandising Sexism in Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Feminist Media Studies 18, no. 3 (May 4, 2018): 337.
Elizabeth Affuso, “Everyday Costume: Feminized Fandom, Retail, and Beauty Culture,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, ed. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (London: Routledge, 2018), 184.
Transmedia storytelling is an increasingly common practice, in which a story “unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole.” Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 95–96.
StarWars.com, “Rey, Ahsoka Tano, and More Iconic Heroes to Star in New Star Wars Forces of Destiny Animated Micro-Series,” StarWars.com, April 12, 2017, http://www.starwars.com/news/rey-ahsoka-tano-and-more-iconic-heroes-to-star-in-new-star-wars-forces-of-destiny-animated-micro-series.
Elizabeth V. Sweet, “Boy Builders and Pink Princesses: Gender, Toys, and Inequality over the Twentieth Century” (Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Davis, 2013), 1, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1517101640.
Roopali Mukherjee and Sarah Banet-Weiser, “Introduction: Commodity Activism in Neoliberal Times,” in Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 1.
Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: New York University Press, 2010), 46.
StarWars.com, “The Legendary Star Wars Expanded Universe Turns a New Page,” StarWars.com, April 25, 2014, http://www.starwars.com/news/the-legendary-star-wars-expanded-universe-turns-a-new-page.
Germain Lussier, “How The Lucasfilm Story Group Does Star Wars Canon,” Slashfilm, April 20, 2015, http://www.slashfilm.com/lucasfilm-story-group-star-wars-canon/.
Lincoln Geraghty, “Star Wars Merchandising and Toys as Paratexts,” Deletion 12 (November 24, 2016), http://www.deletionscifi.org/episodes/episode-12/star-wars-merchandising-and-toys-as-paratexts/.
Dan Brooks, “NYCC 2017: Star Wars Forces of Destiny Comic Coming from IDW,” StarWars.com, October 9, 2017, https://www.starwars.com/news/nycc-2017-star-wars-forces-of-destiny-comic-coming-from-idw.
Carolyn Cocca, Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 87.
Bill Bradley, “‘Star Wars’ Writer Confirms Lando’s Sexual Fluidity In ‘Solo,’” Huffington Post, May 17, 2018, https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/lando-calrissian-sexual-fluidity-solo-star-wars_us_5af77d59e4b00d7e4c1b37a9.
Megan Condis, “No Homosexuals in Star Wars? BioWare, ‘Gamer’ Identity, and the Politics of Privilege in a Convergence Culture,” Convergence 21, no. 2 (May 1, 2015): 198–212, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354856514527205.
Scott, “#Wheresrey?: Toys, Spoilers, and the Gender Politics of Franchise Paratexts,” 139.
Matt Hills, “Torchwood’s Trans-Transmedia: Media Tie-Ins and Brand ‘Fanagement,’” Participations Journal of Audience Studies 9, no. 2 (2012): 425.
Derek Johnson, “Calling ‘Action’ in the GoldieBlox Franchise,” Flow Journal, November 26, 2014, para. 9, https://www.flowjournal.org/2014/11/calling-action-goldieblox-franchis/.
Ross Garner, “The Mandalorian Variation: Gender, Institutionality and Character Construction in Star Wars Rebels,” in Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception, ed. William Proctor and Richard McCulloch (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, forthcoming).
Though I have chosen not to include a discussion of the Forces of Destiny clothing and bedding line because it was exclusively marketed to US consumers rather than the global market, these items share a similar, floral palette with the toy line, suggesting a cohesive branding strategy for both sets of merchandise.
In 2016, Hasbro also acquired the license for Disney’s princess line, which was formerly held by Mattel. The acquisition has included a redesign of these dolls, and aesthetically they are very similar to the Forces of Destiny Adventure Figures.
Karen E. Wohlwend, “Girls, Ghouls and Girlhoods: Horror and Fashion at Monster High,” in Generation Z: Zombies, Popular Culture and Educating Youth, ed. Victoria Carrington et al. (London: Springer, 2016), 116.
Ellen Seiter, Sold Separately: Children and Parents in Consumer Culture, Reprint edition (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 170.
This precise comparison was drawn in a 2010 article by Amid Amidi, the Editor-in Chief of Cartoon Brew. See Sherilyn Connelly, Ponyville Confidential: The History and Culture of My Little Pony, 1981-2016, 01 edition (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co Inc, 2017), 71–72.
Disney, “Sands of Jakku,” Star Wars: Forces of Destiny (YouTube, July 3, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVVa2g4X4MU.
Ruth Zanker, “Child Audiences Becoming Interactive ‘Viewsers’: New Zealand Children’s Responses to Websites Attached to Local Children’s Television Programmes,” Participations Journal of Audience Studies 8, no. 2 (2011): 670–71.
Disney, “The Imposter Inside,” Star Wars: Forces of Destiny (YouTube, July 8, 2017), https://youtu.be/xPS6Od-oxcc; Disney, “Bounty Hunted,” Star Wars: Forces of Destiny (YouTube, March 19, 2018), https://youtu.be/thOQwKCm-IY.
It is too soon to draw final conclusions about the target audience for Forces of Destiny, or children’s play patterns in response to the toys. So far, however, most online fan buzz about the line has come from adult fans keen to buy a Forces of Destiny figure for themselves or a child in their lives. When a child’s opinion on the toys has been presented it has typically been in placed within an adult or ‘professional’ fan context, as in these unboxing videos on YouTube.
Notably, Disney XD is an explicitly gender-targeted platform, aimed at “boys ages 6 to 14”. Brooks Barnes, “Disney to Start a Cable Channel for Boys,” The New York Times, February 12, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/13/business/media/13disney.html. It’s worth noting that Forces of Destiny was subsequently aired in four half-hour specials on the Disney Channel, on October 1st and 9th, 2017, and March 25th and May 25th, 2018.
Seiter, 161. There are several exceptions to this trend in Forces of Destiny. In ‘Sands of Jakku’, for instance, Rey befriends a giant sand monster that tries to fight her, after discovering that it is only hungry. Disney, “Sands of Jakku.”
Interestingly, Hasbro’s reveal trailer for the Forces of Destiny toys takes a much more gender-integrated line, intercut with scenes from the films and featuring girls playing with existing, boy-marketed products from Hasbro’s Blade Builder and Nerf blaster lines.
Disney, “Ewok Escape,” Star Wars: Forces of Destiny (YouTube, July 5, 2017), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RL6OPMp4IUY.
Karen E. Wohlwend and Kylie Peppler, “Designing with Pink Technologies and Barbie Transmedia,” in Young Children, Pedagogy, and the Arts: Ways of Seeing, ed. Felicity McArdle and Gail Boldt (New York: Routledge, 2013), 32.
Mark J.P. Wolf, “Adapting the Death Star into LEGO: The Case of LEGO Set #10188,” in LEGO Studies: Examining the Building Blocks of a Transmedial Phenomenon, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf (New York: Routledge, 2014), 20.
Jenny Nicholson, “Is Forces of Destiny Good?” (YouTube, May 23, 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H3PKipRZKv0.
Jackie, “Fierce Fangirl Friday: Star Wars Forces Of Destiny!,” The Whimsical Words of An Agreeable Bookworm (blog), July 14, 2017, https://thewhimsicalwordsofanagreeablebookworm.wordpress.com/2017/07/14/fierce-fangirl-friday-star-wars-forces-of-destiny/; Jen McGuire, “Disney Gives Female ‘Star Wars’ Characters Their Own Animated Shorts & It’s Great News For Fangirls Everywhere,” Romper, April 14, 2017, https://www.romper.com/p/disney-gives-female-star-wars-characters-their-own-animated-shorts-its-great-news-for-fangirls-everywhere-51176; Disney, “Star Wars Forces of Destiny Sneak Peek,” Forces of Destiny (YouTube, June 27, 2017), https://youtu.be/UkEgVzE4U54.