Rebecca Hains is an associate professor of advertising and media studies at Salem State University, where she serves as assistant director of the Center for Childhood and Youth Studies. She’s the author of “The Princess Problem: Guiding Our Girls Through the Princess-Obsessed Years.”
Here's the trailer for the highly-anticipated "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams. (The Walt Disney Company, Lucasfilm)

Princess Leia is a cultural icon. When “Star Wars” debuted in 1977, Leia’s leadership, bravery and heroism were traits rarely found in women on the silver screen. By defying stereotypes, she became an instant role model for girls.

But Leia is a princess no longer. Last week, director J.J. Abrams revealed that the newest film in the saga, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” drops her “princess” honorific. She’s General Leia now, crystallizing what fans have long known: She’s a strong leader, not the damsel in distress princesses often represent in pop culture.

To many 21st-century viewers, Leia’s evolution from “princess” to “general” marks progress. As I explain in my book “The Princess Problem,” modern princess culture implies that physical beauty is a girl’s greatest asset — not intelligence, strength or courage. This wasn’t always what the title signified, however, including when Leia first appeared.

“In the 1970s, ‘princess’ was just one among many fantasy feminine roles,” explains University of California at Davis sociologist and lecturer Elizabeth Sweet, “and it was far more loosely defined than it is today. Leia’s role as princess didn’t preclude her from being a strong, capable leader. The ‘princess’ role that dominates today is far more narrow.”

Given this context, Leia’s reemergence after nearly 40 years with an earned military title is garnering praise from princess-culture critics.

“Leia’s status as a general shows girls that there is life beyond princess,” says Michele Yulo, president of Princess Free Zone. Women are now graduating from Army Ranger School, after all. “Boys need to continue to see girls and women as much more than princesses.”

Margot Magowan, a movie critic and the founder of the Reel Girl blog, agrees. “Princesses don’t threaten the sexist power structure. Not yet a queen, a princess is usually a young person who hasn’t claimed her power,” Magowan says. “I’m much more excited about Leia’s role in the narrative because of the potential the label ‘general’ implies. ‘General’ denotes agency, power and command, and it’s a label we traditionally associate with male characters.”

Many parents share Magowan’s excitement. “Any erasing of princess is a win in my eyes,” says Elisabeth Nash Wrenn, the mother of a 4-year-old girl in Salem, Mass. “Girls don’t need strong princesses. They need non-princesses, in my opinion.”

Even with the title change, though, “Star Wars” licensees aren’t featuring Leia very prominently in their new merchandise. Unfortunately, children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia, especially when such characters stem from brands whose merchandise typically targets boys. In franchises such as “Star Wars” and the films and comic books by Marvel and DC Comics, toy licensees typically exclude important female characters from the toys and T-shirts that play pivotal roles in children’s play and identities.

For example, as the blog Heroic Girls described last week, Target’s new six-character action figure play sets deliberately exclude women. In their “Marvel Avengers Titan Heroes” set, the only team member missing is its lone woman, the Black Widow. In her place: Ultron, a villain — not an Avenger. Likewise, in Target’s new “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” set, neither Leia nor Rey, the series’s new major female protagonist, appears. In their place are a generic Stormtrooper and Fighter Pilot. There is nothing accidental about the decision to substitute minor or generic male characters for significant female ones. That kind of marketing decision, made time and time again, contributes to boys seeing girls as insignificant.

When toy aisles ignore women and girls, it influences children’s views of the world and their places within it. Play is the work of the child, as Maria Montessori famously argued. When we exclude girls from certain types of play and on-screen roles, children of both sexes internalize the idea that boys and their interests are more important than girls — that it’s still a man’s world.

“I’m disgusted that in 2015, such blatant sexism exists,” Magowan says. “We’re teaching a new generation of children that stories about girls don’t matter, and that narratives about boys are for everyone, while those about girls — half of the kid population — are just ‘special interest.’ Until we stop promoting the sexist idea that stories about girls only matter to girls, nothing will change.”

Excluding Leia from “Star Wars” products undercuts the character’s progressive possibilities. Children learn the lesson that because she is a woman, she’s less important than her male counterparts, so she’s not even available as a choice in the toy and clothing sections.

This is a particularly disappointing fact for those parents who were enthusiastic when Target announced they would be desegregating their toy aisles and removing gender-based labeling from their stores. With new Target-exclusive action figure sets continuing to feature male characters only, many parents feel they were duped by a PR ploy.

“Barely any Target stores reconfigured their aisles. They still look exactly the same,” says Tom Burns, father of an 8-year-old girl who loves “Star Wars” so much, he dressed as Princess Leia to her Han Solo last Halloween. “And crap like this is still happening. They completely suckered the Internet with their ‘we support gender-free labeling’ declaration.”

Magowan, whose three daughters are between the ages of 6 and 12, calls the underestimation of girls’ interest in “Star Wars” a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” When her youngest daughter was teased for wearing “Star Wars” sneakers to preschool by peers who considered them “boy shoes,” she succumbed to peer pressure and stopped wearing them by kindergarten.

Marketing norms of the 1970s differed from today’s, so Princess Leia was generally included in the original “Star Wars” merchandise and promotional materials. In fact, Sweet’s research reveals that in the 1975 Sears catalog ads, fewer than 2 percent of toys were marketed to boys or girls alone. The strategy of the day was to promote toys to boys and girls together, encouraging play that did not involve gender segregation. With the expansion of gender-based marketing to children in the 1980s and 1990s, however, the proportion of toys marketed as “for boys” and “for girls” dramatically increased, and female characters began disappearing from “boy” products like Lego. In the process, although Star Wars remained popular, it was reimagined by marketers as a “boy” franchise. Leia became sidelined — more likely to appear, if she appeared at all, in her sexy metallic bikini from the slave scene in “Return of the Jedi” than as a heroic figure.

Of course, it’s also worth recognizing that at 59 years old, the odds of Carrie Fisher being portrayed as sexually appealing have decreased dramatically, thanks to widespread ageism against women in the movie industry. Perhaps Leia is neither a princess (a title that implies youthful beauty when used in pop culture) nor a character included in boys’ play sets because, as a woman over 40, the industry assumes she’s unappealing to the male gaze.

One thing is certain: By being a woman of any age in a boy-oriented brand, Leia is less likely to be found in today’s toy aisles. “The toy industry is guided by an increasingly entrenched assumption that boys will not buy or play with toys if they include female characters,” Sweet says. “It’s a false, not to mention odd and limiting assumption — after all, women and girls make up 50 percent of the population and play central roles in the lives of boys. Nevertheless, it is an assumption that the toy industry seems reluctant to abandon.”

After the Walt Disney Co. bought Lucasfilm, the creators of “Star Wars,” in 2012, parents tried to raise Disney’s awareness of this disparity. Shortly after that, the Disney Store offered not a single Leia product for sale. Outraged fans launched a “#WeWantLeia” hashtag in protest, but it has made no real difference. Of the 94 “Star Wars” toys currently available from the Disney Store online, only three feature Rey, and only one features Leia: a $104.95 Lego set, well beyond the price range of most families.

It’s sad that Leia’s promotion from princess to general hasn’t improved her representation in children’s toys. But with ever-increasing critical attention to how products are marketed to kids (and their parents’ wallets), it’s a fight worth continuing. After all, when Entertainment Weekly asked Fisher what she hoped fans would take away from the latest incarnation of Leia, her reply was simple: “Never give up.” Her words apply to the fight to improve gender equality in children’s toys, too.