With marketing like this, was there any doubt Rey would be a major character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Yet she didn't appear in many toy sets from Hasbro, supposedly so that it didn't give away the plot line. Image credit: StarWars.com.

Whatever the real reason for the kerfuffle over the absence of the lead female character Rey from the various product lines Hasbro (HAS -0.07%) released in conjunction with the debut of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the toymaker is not going to make the same mistake again with the upcoming release of Captain America: Civil War. A Black Widow action figure is going to be front and center.

When the latest installment of the Star Wars franchise hit the big screen in December, the plot twist seemed to be that rather than a male character serving as the lead, it was actually a heroine, Rey, who was the star, and a social media storm quickly erupted when it was discovered that many of the most popular toys from Hasbro excluded her.

The controversy metastasized around the toymaker's Monopoly game that featured four game pieces of male characters from the movie, but no Rey. The hashtag #wheresrey gained traction, and Hasbro, and to a lesser extent Disney (DIS 0.34%), came in for some heavy criticism, particularly after an 8-year-old girl's letter to the company served up a dose of logic for why of all the characters in the movie, Rey was the most important.

Hasbro defended its actions, saying neither it nor Disney had control over the matter, that Lucasfilm wanted to surprise everyone with the plot line and so kept the development -- and the ability of the toymaker from releasing a Rey character -- under wraps. Hasbro maintained that toys featuring Rey were always planned and would be coming to market forthwith.

That was some weak sauce for a lot of critics, for a number of reasons:

  • The advertising for the movie heavily featured Rey's image; everyone knew she was going to play a prominent role, if not what exactly.
  • Darth Vader had a Monopoly game piece, and he wasn't even in the movie.
  • Captain Phasma, the chrome Stormtrooper -- another female character -- was also omitted from the toy lineup.
  • Rey was featured in other games Hasbro released, such as Guess Who? and Hands Down.
  • It's not the first time female lead characters have been left out of toy sets from Hasbro of Disney films.

Hasbro has been criticized for this before. In Disney's Age of Ultron, the Marvel superhero ensemble movie, Black Widow's iconic flying motorcycle scene was reimagined to have Iron Man and Captain America riding the bike instead of her. The only female heroine of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora, was also eliminated from toys.

Whether or not it's ultimately Hasbro that's responsible for those decisions, they may very well be driven by a belief that girls just don't play with action figures, and an industry insider has reportedly said a female on the packaging would be death to sales of action figures. Hasbro's Millennium Falcon action figure set featured all male characters, even though Rey piloted the ship in several key movie sequences.

But maybe this dust-up comes at just the right time for the toymaker, which is in dire need of attracting more girls to its toys. Hasbro's girls segment suffered a 28% drop in third-quarter revenues, and they're down 24% over the first nine months of the fiscal year, as sales have negative for four straight quarters and falling for the past seven. Girls just don't seem to be responding to its My Little Pony and Furreal Friends like they used to, though a steep drop in Furby sales is mostly driving the decline.

A Black Widow action figure will be available across all action figure sizes, a first for the character and Hasbro. Image source: Hasbro.

If girls are buying action figures now, that could help spur the toymaker's sales. And with its new Captain America line hitting the shelves, Black Widow is now prominently featured. Not only is the character featured in the Miniverse two-and-a-half-inch size, but also for the first time her character will be available in the 12-inch Titan scale.

It seems hard to believe Hasbro would willingly exclude girls from a product line simply because it previously made a conscious effort to blur such gender distinctions in its toys. A few years ago, the toymaker made its Easy-Bake Oven in more colors than just pink to attract boys and then began marketing its Rebelle line of Nerf guns to girls.

After the fallout from the Star Wars: The Force Awakens spat, it's likely the toymaker will take a harder line in the future if someone wants to limit the market's size. But that may only be if Hasbro gets the boost it needs and is from selling lots of Rey, Black Widow, and other female lead action figures.