I’m a little late on this but March had me thinking about Women’s History Month and what it means to Star Wars fans. Just consider the huge shift in sci-fi fan (I hesitate to use the term “geek” but that’s what I’m really thinking) demographics that’s taken place since Star Wars came out. In middle school it was unthinkable to imagine a girl liking Star Wars and the only girl you could identify with the saga was Princess Leia, and she was pretty lonely in that cast of all men. Nowadays you can’t throw a dead mynock in the Star Wars universe without hitting a strong female character on either the light or dark side. And women not only embrace Star Wars and other fandom genres today but they’re dictating a lot of the way such entertainment is written and consumed.
The first example that leaps to mind is something close to my heart. The 501st Legion started out in 1998 with only 12 or so people in costume but three of them were women. That’s a 25 percent slice right out of the gate and it’s easy to argue the fandom shift began around that time with the re-release of the original trilogy. One year into the club’s formation the first unofficial unit of the Legion was formed: Daala’s Death Squad and yep, you guessed it, it was formed by women for women in costume. Fast forward to present day and the Legion is holding steady at just under 20 percent membership being female, and last month the 501st Legon elected its first ever female Legion Commander in Aimee Jorgensen. Not too shabby.
Back to the Star Wars universe. Wookieepedia has 4,442 separate entries for female characters alone. And no, they’re not just “wife” and “girlfriend” kinds of characters. You have powerful Jedi, leaders of the Rebellion, deadly Sith, sly bounty hunters, and tyrannical Imperial officers in high positions. Too many for me to even start talking about in this context. Aunt Beru might have been content staying on the farm serving blue milk, but the women of the Star Wars universe today are taking charge.
One way the effects of this change can be measured is in good old-fashioned commerce. In the early ’80s you couldn’t find any Star Wars merchandise that actually appealed to girls. I mean, five action figures out of 92 at one point and all of them the same woman? Not a strong argument there. Today licensees have answered the call and there’s no denying women are setting the tone. Her Universe is one of the most prominent companies, catering directly to women’s tastes with a huge array of products designed for them and modeled by Ahsoka Tano voice actress Ashley Eckstein. Want a Jappor Snippet charm? Leia hoodie? Her Universe has you covered. And here’s the kicker: women like collecting stuff, too! They’re just smarter than men and will take their toys out of the package!
But every revolution has its watershed moments and the heroes who overcome adversity to make way for that change. If the changes we’ve seen are in fact a revolution, then who better to represent it than Katie Goldman, the little girl who came to media attention in 2010 because she was bullied at school for carrying a Star Wars water bottle. Katie’s situation brought to light a troubling preconception that starts at a young age: the notion that girls should like gender-appropriate things and that deviating from that unwritten list of things is frowned upon. It was the Star Wars fan community that rallied to Katie’s side (including a set of Stormtrooper armor the 501st made for her for Halloween) and it was made crystal clear that women have much more of a say in what they like than ever before.
I think one of my favorite anecdotes about women and fandom came from a conversation with Seth Green at Celebration V. When introducing his wife it was clear he adored her and introduced her as his “unicorn.” When my wife asked him why he called her that in particular, he explained simply that any woman who appreciates stuff like Star Wars is a rare and magical beauty that must be treasured. Hence the name of the multi-media entertainment group they are a part of: Team Unicorn, a high-voltage manifesto of women embracing fandom in a way that makes it clear they don’t need permission.
So maybe women feeling liberated enough to cross culture lines isn’t as big as the suffrage movement if we’re talking about during Women’s History Month, but I think sometimes the subtle things can be the most telling. It’s easy to pin down the moment when people march in protests carrying signs. It’s a harder thing to realize when peoples’ attitudes shift under the radar.
The future looks bright for the trend to continue. My friend Dakster Sullivan blogs about fan trends and one article in particular talks about a little girl’s nursery being decorated Star Wars-style (http://www.wired.com/geekmom/2013/03/star-wars-nursery/).
It might seem quaint and a one-off at first, but more and more families are introducing their daughters to the whole spectrum of sci-fi and fantasy entertainment at a young age. Katie Goldmans of the future will see their moms boasting T-shirts of Nathan Fillion (like in my house) and see healthy behavior modeled without thinking it odd. And they won’t feel as strange toting their own Star Wars lunch boxes to school when they know there’s an army of like-minded girls out there doing exactly the same thing.
The issue is so much bigger than marketing pink lightsabers or goading your kids to like the same things the parents like (which can be just as bad sometimes). What’s really at stake is building strong women for the future, a future where little girls learn from an early age their choices are valid and their opinions matter. As a father to five beautiful young ladies, I’ve made fandom available to them and let them pick and choose from the ever-widening platter of fun. They don’t always dig what I dig and that’s cool. What’s important is they learn how cool it is that they CAN choose their own thing, that they develop their own sense of style without worrying about society’s expectations, and that their choices make them strong human beings.
Rock on, women of fandom. I for one am proud you aren’t waiting for a place at the fandom table: you’re carving one out for yourself (with a lightsaber).