The majority of my teen years sucked. I was one of those kids who was a permanent outcast—I was geeky and nerdy, and for a teenage girl, that can be the kiss of death. I had two friends in middle school, both of whom shared an enthusiasm for Star Wars.
But I wanted to be part of the cliques. I wanted boys to notice me, not because I was weird, but because they noticed me. Every time I was skipped over for an invitation to a party, left out of a social activity, or out and out ignored, I felt like I was being stabbed in the heart. We take these things more seriously when we’re 13.
TPM had just come out. My best friend and I soaked up every piece of information The Star Wars Insider had to offer. And most importantly, for Christmas in 1999, my aunt bought me Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta’s Young Jedi Knights: Shards of Alderaan.
I immediately fell in love with the character of Tenel Ka. She was strong, she chose who she wanted to be, and she got past being different to find acceptance. I wanted to be Tenel Ka.
As I got older, I moved on to the adult novels, and I wanted to be Mara Jade. She was even better than Tenel Ka, because Mara had emotions and wasn’t afraid to show them. She was who she wanted to be, with no apologies.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that there were other people like me, but by the time I got there, I’d finally come to grips with the idea that I could be whoever I wanted to be, thanks primarily to the characters of Tenel Ka and Mara Jade.
Some of you may know that there’s been an uproar lately regarding the call for more strong female characters in the Star Wars universe. No, this isn’t just a shoutout to the Cracked After Hours episode that discusses why the Star Wars movies are terrifying to women (it’s NSFW, btw). It’s been a serious discussion that’s taken place on several Star Wars blogs (including one entry written by our own Nanci about why the GFFA needs more women), Twitter feeds, and podcasts, until a response from one of the larger blogs that focuses on the expanded universe decided to brand this discussion as one that was sexist, stupid and detrimental to the EU.
When I originally started thinking about this response, I was furious. I thought about quoting the entry in its entirety and marking it up the way I would one of my English 101 papers for logical fallacies. Over the weekend, though, my anger has turned to pity for someone who simply does not understand feminism, sexism, or women.
Some of these logical fallacies do need to be addressed one by one. Let’s start with the assumptions this particular blogger makes:
1. Star Wars is directed towards young boys.
2. Focusing on strong female characters is sexist. Guys don’t ask for strong male characters.
3. Adding female characters would cause storytelling to suffer.
4. Other minority groups aren’t represented or complaining.
5. Many male characters have also had a crappy time.
6. There are tons of female characters in Fate of the Jedi.
7. Calls for more female characters are linked with calls for female authors, and the female authors always get bashed.
8. Books about Leia and Padme would be boring.
Let’s start with these.
1. Yes, Star Wars was predominantly directed toward males. That’s generally been the way it is for science fiction, a problem due to the way we think about traditional gender roles. However, that is changing and quickly; otherwise, Her Universe wouldn’t be taking off the way it is and The Big Bang Theory wouldn’t have beaten out American Idol in the 18-49 ratings.
2. Guys don’t ask for strong male characters in the Star Wars universe because they don’t have to. Strong male characters are everywhere. We have Luke, Han, Lando, Wedge, Corran, Jacen, Anakin, Admiral Ackbar, etc.
Second, I think part of the discussion also needs to focus more on definition. First, fans aren’t asking for more female characters; the blogger in question is correct when he says that there are plenty of female characters. There are. What we are asking for are plenty of strong, female leads.
This is not sexist. Sexism is when there is an unequal treatment of gender taking place, and this is true in the Star Wars universe. Yes, there are lots of strong female Star Wars characters, but with the exception of Allegiance and Choices of One, a female Star Wars character has yet to anchor a novel (and I’m reluctant to say that Mara anchors those two novels, as Luke and the entirely male Hand of Judgment plays such a large role in both as well).
I think there’s also a confusion about what feminism means. Feminism does not mean that women are seeking to be recognized as better than men. Feminism, in its true definition, seeks for women to be recognized as equal with men. This is particularly important in other places, such as the workplace. In the United States, which is supposed to be the land of equality, women, on average, earn 82 cents for every dollar their male co-workers earn for the same jobs. Things are not equal for men and women in this country.
3. To assume that storytelling would suffer in order to have a strong female lead is simply wrong. The Hunger Games, in particular, stands out as an example where this is not true. So does Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels and James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club novels. What about Alias? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Dollhouse? Good storytelling does not take a backseat to characters because good storytellers can deal with any character thrown at them.
4. Other minority groups aren’t represented well. I won’t argue with this statement. I will say that this is one place where Star Trek outperforms Star Wars. Star Wars does need to show more diversity in its human population.
5. Sure, there are plenty of male characters who haven’t been developed. But I would like to point out that there are a lot more developed male characters than female characters. And the male characters who have been developed have still been able to carry novels. The characters this blogger lists still get plenty of page time.
6. Sure, there are tons of female characters in Fate of the Jedi. But are any of them carrying the novels? And are they characters you would want your daughters to emulate?
7. There are several other female authors in the Star Wars canon. A.C. Crispin, a well-respected science fiction author, Barbara Hambly, Elaine Cunningham, Elizabeth Hand, Karen Miller, Jude Watson, Patricia Wrede, Maya Bohnhoff, Voronica Whitney-Robinson, Kathy Tyers, Rebecca Moesta, Vonda McIntyre, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and Nancy Richardson. I’ve not even gotten into all those who write and work on comic books, have written short stories, or contribute to reference books. Linking female authors and female characters is a faulty cause and effect, and tarring all the female authors with the same brush is over-generalization.
8. I admit, I’m not the biggest Leia or Padme fan, and the idea of a book about their lives in the Senate could definitely have the potential to be boring…depending on how it was written. See, I’m thinking more along the lines of The West Wing-type novel, sort of what Keith R.A.DeCandido did for Star Trek in Articles of the Federation.
So now that’s over with, I’d like to turn to why we need strong, female leads.
1. We need characters our daughters can take as role models.
At some point, Shane and I hope that we will have a little girl of our own. We’ve already figured out that our children are going to be doomed to be geeks, but we want any daughter of ours to be able to be whoever she wants to be.
That is what feminism is about. It’s about making sure that women, like men, have the ability to choose whatever profession or life they want to have. If our daughter wants to be a stay-at-home-mom, then we will support her. If she wants to be president of the United States, then we will support her. We want her to be whoever she wants to be. What we don’t want her to be is incapable of making that choice.
I’ve been thinking about my cousin, who is thirteen, and the two series she’s been reading. The first she has is Twilight. The second is The Hunger Games. It doesn’t take much to figure out who I’d rather she took as a role model. Katniss is far more preferable as a role model than Bella Swan.
This is part of the reason that I disliked The Dark Nest Trilogy, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi as much as I did—the characterization of Jaina Solo. Jaina moves from a character in The New Jedi Order who is strong, who knows what she wants, and who takes steps to get there, to a manipulative person who can’t make a decision half the time about what she wants to do. The same thing was true about Tahiri Veila, who goes from a young woman who resists torture and survives the death of someone she loves dearly to continue to fight those responsible to a woman on the dark side who allows herself to be manipulated by Jacen Solo and therefore to commit atrocious acts like the assassination of Gilad Pellaeon.
Here’s who Shane and I want our daughter to have as role models: Mara Jade, Jaina Solo, Tenel Ka, Shada D’ukal, Hermione Granger, Kathryn Janeway, Jadzia Dax, Kira Nerys, Wonder Woman, Huntress, Batgirl, Oracle, Black Canary, Jean Gray, Storm, Rogue, Emma Frost, Karrin Murphy, Cimorene, Kate Beckett, Ziva David, Kensi Blye, Temperance Brennan, Sydney Bristow, Katniss Everdeen, Buffy Summers, Willow Rosenberg, Amy Farrah Fowler. These are women we would put before our daughters as role models.
2. We need these strong female characters to be leads.
I am glad that the Star Wars universe has strong female characters. Tenel Ka, Jaina Solo, Mara Jade, Leia Organa Solo, Winter Celchu, Iella Wessiri Antilles, Inyri Forge. I love all of these characters.
But these women are always supporting or part of an ensemble cast. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. But they’re almost always supporting a predominantly male cast. Why?
Because we need to teach our daughters that they are the heroines of their own stories. That they have the starring role, they can make the difference, that yes, they can change the world themselves. It teaches our daughters to take action.
3. We need strong female characters in science fiction in particular.
STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) courses and careers are the fastest growing fields in the world, and we need more women to enter these professions, for no other reason than that we need people to work in these professions! But when a stigma is attached to being nerdy, when girls are told that’s not okay, and when they don’t have any serious role models in science fiction, the stereotype that science and math is for boys is underscored.
4. We need these strong female characters to teach male readers to respect and honor the abilities of women.
Sexism isn’t always overt. Sometimes, it’s as simple as not taking your daughter when you take your sons out to teach them how to handle a gun. Sometimes it’s hidden behind the idea that women are being silly or stupid for asking for equality (much as in the blog post I’m responding to).
Hidden sexism can take many forms. It can be inherent in the assumption that a woman will stay home with her children, rather than continue her career, or the assumption that a stay-at-home dad is lazy. It can be in the assumption that a stay-at-home mom has nothing to do all day and that being a stay-at-home parent is an easy job! Sometimes it’s hidden in wage disparity between a man and a woman doing the same job. And unfortunately, it can contribute to much worse.
I came across a startling statistic several months ago; One hundred percent of rapists believe that other men would be rapists and think that rape is okay. Throwing around the word rape (such as when playing a video game) only reinforces that notion when a would-be rapist hears a regular guy say “Oh, I totally raped them on that map” when playing Halo. The regular guy is, unknowingly, and without thinking about it, contributing to a hidden sexism. So is someone who shakes their head when a woman gets raped walking across campus at three in the morning—they say, “Oh, she shouldn’t have been out at that time/she shouldn’t have been dressed like that,” rather than saying “He shouldn’t have raped her.”
I’m not accusing these people of being rapists or even of being accessories after the fact. But by unwittingly trivializing women’s concerns, they are contributing to an attitude in society that is deeply problematic, and those who would do women harm then take that attitude as justification for their actions.
We need strong female characters to reinforce the image of women as people who have their own agency and choices, not as second-class citizens. We need strong female characters to counteract the too-often used viewpoint of women as stupid or slutty (or both). More than this, we need strong women in real life. For every Condolezza Rice and Hilary Clinton out there, we have ten Snookis who are undermining that image. And we need to realize that this hidden sexism is there, bring it out into the light, and combat it at every turn, including in our entertainment.
We do so by continuing to use strong female characters. The audience then has women that they can and do respect. We also combat this attitude by having the strong male characters act with that respect toward women, not because they are women, but because they are people, and that is one thing that the Star Wars universe has done very well. When we give an audience a character they can respect, that respect follows from both genders.
I wanted to be Tenel Ka and Mara Jade when I grew up. They were strong women who could do anything they put their mind to. They worked hard, they forged their own destinies, they were women who could stand on their own without anyone else if they needed to, and they refused to let anything get in their way. That was who I wanted to be.
I hope that I’ve become that person. And more than that, I hope that I’ve learned to embody that strong female role—and that my own daughter will want not only to be Tenel Ka and Mara Jade, but to be her mother as well.