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Rey Dolls within a Critique of Capitalism

January 24, 2016


I’m instinctively sympathetic to the “Dear God what a First World Problem” attitude to the Rey doll controversy.  My first emotional response involves figuring a gigantic pair of scales hovering over my head with a small selection of tacky figurines in one pan, and environmental catastrophe, economic inequality and global terrorism weighing the other pan down to earth.   How and why have we time to worry about Rey dolls what with the world still in the shape it’s in?

But that’s a first response, and it’s a response that precedes my doing any real joined up thinking.

Dr Emilie Pine of TCD managed to prompt some of my clauses into finally finding some conjuctions and punctuation required for consecutive thought on this issue when she gave a talk at Maynooth this week, and I was reminded (by her) of the extent to which “everyday sexism” and market segmentation are inextricably lined.

I then I was directed to this story…


Whether or not the story about Rey dolls is true or fair, it was a reminder of how these people think.  The sentence

“Boys don’t want to play with stuff with female characters involved.”

is both descriptive and imperative – hovering between the two tenses.  It can equally be read as a negative imperative injunction.

“Boys –  Don’t want to play with stuff with female characters involved.”

Wander down the aisles of any large toyshop and you will forget that feminism has ever happened.  The ruthlessly gendered marketing will remind you of just how ruthlessly the retail trade is committed to sexual stereotyping as an economic strategy.

It’s not a very brilliant strategy.  It doesn’t take a lifetime to master or understand.  It goes like this – people are easier to sell to when they are predictable.  When you can predict what people are likely to want, you can make a lot more money.  Sexism makes people a lot more predictable.  If you can persuade people to raise their children to be dull, sexist, predictable people, if you can build a duller world, then a small number of people who are already very very wealthy can become even wealthier.  And that, at the end of the day, is all that matters.

Now you can read the complete work of Adorno and Horkheimer.   Or you can read Pauline Kael’s splendid 1980 article entitled “Why Are Movies So Bad?”  or you can go right back to the eighteenth-century to read Oliver Goldsmith on Sentimental Comedy.  It’s all the same argument about how to habituate people to cultural product in predictable ways.  Once people are wedded to a formula, then the formula will never fail.

Now the shock troops of consumer capitalism, the people responsible for selling us stuff – are certainly powerful, but that doesn’t meant they’re that bright.  These are the sort of people who assumed that we were all going to fall in love with Jar Jar Binks.  Because it was in the script that we would.

Now The Force Awakens is a good film.  Rey is a great character.  She disrupts the predictive categories of the marketing men (and yes, women as well).   Not only is she the main character, but she’s a female character who is defined in neither romantic nor reproductive terms.  There’s a bit of hand-holding with Finn – but we don’t know whether that’s going to go anywhere, and in all honesty the momentum of the film does not invite us to stop and think about it much.  The Force is strong with Rey – and that’s what we’re interested in.

Now the people at Hasbro are delighted that we all like the film.  But it would be a lot more convenient for them if we could like duller films.  Every so often, good films are made and good films are popular, which sort of messes with the formula.  And then those good films are laid out on slab and ruthlessly vivisected to determine how many dull and predictable films can be cloned from them.


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