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Missing 'Star Wars' heroine emphasizes toy industry's gender gap

Rey Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Source: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Editor's Note: "Star Wars" spoilers follow.

Fans of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" looking to score Rey merchandise are in luck: it's coming soon.

After taking criticism for the shortage of products featuring the female protagonist — she was left out of a Monopoly game, a six-figure action figure set and one of the Millennium Falcon sets — Hasbro revealed that the character's absence was deliberate.

"The Star Wars: Monopoly set was released in September, months before the movie's release, and Rey was not originally included to avoid revealing a key plot line that she takes on Kylo Ren and joins the Rebel Alliance," Hasbro said in a statement.

Even "Star Wars" director J.J. Abrams was surprised by the lack of Daisy Ridley's Rey in the company's line.

"I wish I had more details about merchandising and the schedule," Abram's told Entertainment Weekly. "I will say that it seems preposterous and wrong that the main character of the movie is not well represented in what is clearly a huge piece of the 'Star Wars' world in terms of merchandising ... it doesn't quite make sense why she wouldn't be there. She's somewhat important in the story."

Hasbro has begun releasing phase two of its "Star Wars" line, which includes 6-inch and 12-inch Rey figures (lightsaber included) and a full-sized Rey lightsaber toy.

Rey isn't the only addition to this wave of new toys. Hasbro also withheld unmasked Kylo Ren figures to avoid spoiling the film, the company said. Those figures are slated to hit shelves soon.

Disney, which acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion in 2012, created a "Star Wars" apparel line in addition to its toy merchandise, which includes dresses, athleticwear, purses and other accessories designed specifically for women.

"We were all looking at this situation and saying, 'no, with 'Star Wars' we have to change this,'" said Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. "We have to make sure that we create products that are ... appealing to both boys and girls."

A history of departmentalization

While Hasbro's new merchandise may quell some fans, others contend that the lack of Rey toys is endemic of a sexist model of target group optimization, which says that boys will not buy products featuring women.

"The toy industry is still, to a degree, shackled to 19th century notions of departmentalization," Richard Gottlieb, CEO of Global Toy Experts, told CNBC, explaining that department stores have a binary way of designating toy products, with boys and girls falling into two separate categories.

While some retailers — Toys R Us, Target and Hamleys — have ditched "boys" and "girls" sections in their toy departments in favor of gender neutral signage, the designation is so deeply ingrained in the industry that it is difficult for companies to adapt to 21st century expectations.

In fact, Gottlieb notes that the industry's most prestigious awards, the Toy of the Year Awards, has separate categories for "boy" toys and "girl" toys — and there is no overlap in the nominees.

The Toy Association did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

There are three "Star Wars" toys nominated in the Boy Toy of the Year category and none in the Girl Toy of the Year category.

"The industry tends to think of girls as more nurturing and boys as more aggressive and violent," Gottlieb said, explaining that "Star Wars" has been deemed a "boy" toy because of its action-oriented plot and action figure-heavy merchandise. "If you are a girl and you like dolls that doesn't mean that they don't also want to play with action figures."