On Kylo Ren and Star Wars Branding

Was Kylo himself head of marketing for TFA?

March 1, 2016 at 10:15 am

Kylo Ren is a lot of things. He is temperamental. He is unpredictable. He is conflicted. Immature. Self-righteous. Unstable. He is a fascinating, nuanced character.

What he is not is cool.

In the midst of all the discussion about the lack of Rey merch/toys for Star Wars fans, this observation (which references a quote from John Marcotte, founder of Heroic Girls, in this article) caught my eye:

 

 

Because it rings so true. Any Star Wars display I’ve seen in the wild focused much of its attention on Kylo: He’s all over TFA shirts! It’s his mask next to the Star Wars logo on many tags and boxes! There was even a life-size Kylo in the boys’ clothes section at Macy’s!

 

 

On the surface, I can sort of grasp this marketing decision. It feels Star Wars-y to highlight the masked Sith dude with the weird lightsaber, sure. I get that. But with the benefit of . . . you know, context, I’m really confused by this treatment—especially where children’s toys/products are concerned. It’s one shitty thing to assume Rey won’t be marketable; it’s an entirely other shitty thing to apparently disregard the actual story when deciding which character will resonate with most people. Also, if you really want the character who will resonate with everyone—the character that really captures the heart and charm of Star Wars—that’s clearly BB-8. Putting the new droid on tags and box labels would make so much sense that it’s sort of baffling to consider that they didn’t go that direction. Don’t get me wrong: Lots of advertising/merch does put BB-8 front and center, but not quite to the same extent that it tries to sell us on Kylo. (Also? Even if BB-8 were firmly in the limelight, it would still be weird to treat Kylo like the go-to second best!)

 

via Disney Store

 

Now, let me make it clear that I’m not calling people out for buying Kylo Ren merch—not at all! One of my own TFA shirts features his mask looming over the other characters, and I even gave my brother the Pop! Vinyl figure for Christmas. So I’m never going to argue that Star Wars fans should be sticking up our noses at him as a character; I’m actually in the opposite camp. I just find it super strange and off base that TFA’s movie swag is treating him like the new Star Wars icon. At the least, it’s overkill. At the most, it’s a gross misrepresentation of the story.

Even the Disney Store I visited was overflowing with merch celebrating Kylo and the First Order, which I found slightly unsettling. What part of that specific story arc is supposed to get kids excited? Did many kids come out of the movie wanting to be JUST LIKE Kylo Ren? Or see him as some kind of badass they wanted to emulate? (Again, this isn’t meant as a critique of kids who do like Kylo—this is a critique of the marketing premtively assigning him as the fan favorite. ) Why assume kids would want to be the guy who killed Han Solo, instead of—here’s a quick brainstorm—the star of the fucking movie, the reformed Stormtrooper, or the best pilot ever?! I understand that many young boys want to be “the tough guy,” but KYLO ISN’T EVEN THAT GUY. In fact, he is a smart subversion of that character type: he wants to be that guy, but he’s latched onto a toxic understanding of power and masculinity.

 

via Walmart

via Kohl’s

via Target

via Kohl’s

Somewhat humorously, it’s almost as if the marketing team is duplicating Kylo’s desperate ploy to establish him as the NEW DARTH VADER when he is so, completely NOT that. Let’s also not overlook the strong possibility that they latched onto the one new white man in the main cast and decided he’d be the most universally appealing, never mind his personality, story arc, climactic moment, or WHATEVER. The writers created a compelling, original, fresh take on the Sith role, and then the marketers ignored all that and treated him like just another cookie-cutter “menacing” villain and plastered his mask everywhere. Wait a minute . . . I think I figured out who was behind this marketing, you guys! “Matt” the Radar Technician! How did I miss this before?

 

 

Of course, there is not necessarily a shortage of merchandise showcasing the main cast; it’s just that the vast amounts of Kylo swag is bizarre to me. In my shopping adventures, it wasn’t at all hard to believe that the forces that be were convinced of his marketability. Fortunately, shopping online makes it much easier to find a wide array of TFA merch that celebrates the main cast.

 

via Fifth Sun

via Target

via Fifth Sun

Interestingly, Kylo Ren isn’t nearly as prevalent in TFA merch marketed to girls. Because of this, many of these clothing designs are much truer representations of the film than boys’ clothes. It might seem simple to chalk this up to the film having a female protagonist, which certainly has an impact on this merchandise. But isn’t it also pretty alarming to assume young boys will gravitate toward the villains in a film?

 

via Target

via Amazon

via Amazon

via Fifth Sun

(I’m not at all bitter about that purple pajama set not being available in adult sizes, Target. Nope. Not at all.)

Of course, this isn’t to say that Kylo, the First Order, and the Dark Side are absent from products marketed to women and girls—nor would I expect them to be. This isn’t a zero-sum game, and again, I’m not suggesting Kylo should be removed or excluded from Star Wars products. I also hope it goes without saying that none of this is a criticism of Adam Driver’s brilliant performance. I’m not in the camp that considers him a “wimp” or a failure as an antagonist. He’s just not the cool badass Disney apparently wants to sell him as—and nothing in the story sets him up that way.

 

via Amazon

via Macy’s

I know I’m not alone in saying I would love to see a better range of merch featuring all the great new Star Wars faces the next time around. The great news is that even when they don’t get it right, the sheer volume of swag out there means you can probably find something you love if you shop around! Hopefully, if that quote from John Marcotte is accurate and the deluge of Kylo is backfiring, Disney is taking notes.

 

Alicia Kania

Alicia is a feminist mermaid on a never-ending quest to find the ultimate grilled cheese. She enjoys flower crowns, air conditioning, and singing to her cat. Please send her any and all funny animal gifs set to music. You can follow her on Twitter and visit her magical blog Alicia of Earth.