By Jennifer P. Sims, Ph.D., Contributing Writer
While shopping at Target this holiday season, I was indulging my inner 80s child by happily looking at all the new Star Wars toys which were not available when I was a kid. One boxed set of dolls I saw was from Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens. For those who have not seen the movie, Rey (an orphaned scavenger) and Finn (an ex-stormtrooper) are the two main characters. Poe Dameron (a Resistance fighter pilot) rounds out the good side trio and Kylo Ren is the movie’s villain. The toy set in Target featured dolls of Rey, Poe, two anonymous stormtroopers, Kylo Ren, and an android. There was no Finn. Finn’s absence spoke volumes because he is played by John Boyega, the only black main character.
While I was in the Star Wars section, my daughter was browsing the toys of Disney Jr.’s new cartoon Vampirina. In this show, the titular character is a young vampire whose family has just moved to Pennsylvania from Transylvania. She quickly makes two new best friends, a brown-skinned girl named Poppy and a white girl named Bridget. The toy set contained Vampirina, her parents, her ghost and gargoyle sidekicks, and Bridget. There was no Poppy. Like the Star Wars toy set, the brown-skinned main character was excluded.
Given the severity of racism in society, it can feel trivial to complain about toys. Nonetheless, I tweeted a complaint to both Target and the toy manufacturer because omitting the black and brown characters from toys actually contributes to the development of larger racist issues. First, excluding the black and brown characters gives the appearance that characters of color are not really an important part of these stories. Making the toys of characters of color “sold separately” also reflects and normalizes the segregation and exclusion of black and brown people in real life.
Secondly, sociologists note that a feature of white supremacy is the symbolic linking of lightness with positivity and darkness with negativity. This imagery is present throughout society from children’s media (e.g., Disney movies’ light heroes versus dark villains) to Christian iconography (e.g., whitewashed mainstream images of Jesus and Mary). Therefore, when regular, main, and good characters of color such as Finn and Poppy are excluded from toy sets, their exclusion constitutes the erasure of positive representation of black and brown people. This allows dark-skinned villains to continue to be the dominant image of people of color that children receive and internalize.
The exclusion of characters of color in toy sets is thus important because it is part of a systemic misrepresentation of people of color that has dangerous real-world consequences. For example, Officer Darren Wilson claimed that Mike Brown looked “like a demon” coming toward him. Racistly perceiving an unarmed black teenager as a demon to be killed is partly a result of a biased mental heuristic that was itself likely largely developed due to having been disproportionately (if not solely) exposed to images of black- and brown-skinned characters as evil villains. Similarly, the internalized colorism that plagues blacks and other communities of color is also partly due to the over-representation of black- and brown-skinned characters as negative and the comparatively smaller representation as regular, main, and good characters.
In this new year, let one of our resolutions be to pay even closer attention to the type of representation that the items, particularly those for children, contain. When we spot instances of exclusion, let us communicate this to the retailers and manufacturers. Target’s official Twitter account responded to my complaint about Finn’s exclusion within the hour. Although I cannot be sure if they really did forward my comment to their merchandise team as their response claimed, I hope they did. I hope companies listen to consumer complaints. I also hope that by the time I am shopping for my grandchildren, the existence of toy sets which exclude characters of color will seem like something which occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Jennifer P. Sims, Ph.D. is a sociologist specializing in the ways persons of mixed-race navigate societies. She has published several academic articles and edited volumes. Dr. Sims is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville.