8-Year-Old ‘Star Wars’ Fan Gets Disney to Ditch Gender Labels

The Force was with a Darth Vader lover from the U.K. who complained to the House of Mouse about the villain being categorized as only for boys.

(Photo: Flickr)

Jul 9, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

His black helmet, face mask, and uniform, complete with flowing cape, are iconic—as is the bone-chilling sound he makes while breathing. So it’s no surprise that plenty of kids and adults want to dress up as Darth Vader. But in June, when Izzy Cornthwaite, an eight-year-old girl living in the U.K., set out buy herself a costume of the infamous villain with her birthday money, she discovered that the Disney Store’s U.K. website, which sells the getup, only had Star Wars–related costumes in the boys’ clothing section.

“She said she wanted a Darth Vader suit but couldn’t have it because it was for boys,” Izzy’s mother, Becky Hayes, told the Lancashire Evening Post. “I said she could have it if she wanted it. She ordered it and a lightsaber to go with it.”

Most kids probably would have left it at that. But after receiving the costume, the determined little girl fired off an email to the website, asking that the language be changed so that it would be welcoming to everyone. A few weeks later a company spokesperson replied, writing that Disney had agreed to ditch the word “boys” in favor of the more inclusive option “kids.” The change was made site-wide.

“We looked online and realized they had changed the entire website. It had gone not just from this particular item, but the whole thing had become gender neutral,” said Hayes.

The shift seems to be trickling across the pond. On Thursday, the U.S. Disney Store began shifting some of the language on its site. The Darth Vader suit was reclassified as for kids instead of for boys. But the company still has separate “boys” and “girls” sections.

(Photo: Courtesy Disney.com)

Although the site no longer lists Darth Vader costumes as solely for boys, Darth Vader pajamas are still labeled in this manner, and the descriptions are gendered.

(Photo: Courtesy Disney.com)

“After inspecting the Stormtroopers and tucking away his Tie Fighter, he can take off his cape and drift to sleep in this Darth Vader Deluxe PJ PALS, as visions of Death Stars dance in his head,” reads the pajama set description. Perhaps the marketers over at Disney don’t realize that girls might also want to dream about the Death Star.

So, Why Should You Care? The magnitude of this language shift on Disney’s part can’t be underestimated. One 2012 study found that every toy on the U.S. Disney Store website was segregated as being for either boys or girls, even if they were items that kids of both genders could play with. This sort of gendered marketing—pink Legos and My Little Pony backpacks are supposed to be for girls, while science kits, action figures, and Darth Vader costumes are supposed to be for boys—is the norm nowadays.

Disney, which bought Lucasfilm, creator of the Star Wars franchise, for $4 billion in 2012, isn’t alone in gender-stereotyping items for kids. In 2012, UC-Davis sociologist Elizabeth Sweet wrote in The New York Times that in her research, “finding a toy that is not marketed either explicitly or subtly (through use of color, for example) by gender has become incredibly difficult.” According to Sweet, the problem is worse than it was in the 1970s, when nearly 70 percent of toys had “no markings of gender whatsoever.”

Indeed, wrote Sweet, back in the 1970s, “toy ads often defied gender stereotypes by showing girls building and playing airplane captain, and boys cooking in the kitchen.”

Other researchers have found that being forced into rigid gender roles, such as being forced to play with a Barbie when you’re not into dolls, can be detrimental to children’s health. It can have economic consequences too. Women are now the majority of college graduates, but of people graduating with in-demand engineering degrees, only about 20 percent are women.

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In the past few years, however, the fight against gender stereotyping seems to have picked up steam. Last year a U.K. father, fed up with pink, fruity soap being marketed to his daughters and phallic-shaped body-wash bottles being marketed to his sons, launched a unisex personal-care product line. A U.S. high school student got McDonald’s to agree to stop asking customers if they wanted a “boy” or “girl” toy with their Happy Meals.

As for Izzy, the little girl is hoping Disney will keep listening to her requests.

“She asked if it would be too much to ask for them to make a Princess Leia suit. There are no female Star Wars characters yet in the Disney merchandise. They haven’t replied, but probably thought we were pushing our luck!” said her mom.