Diversity in the EU

This post wasn’t planned, but after I got home from Star Wars Weekends I realized that I was getting a lot of hits (not having to do with Luke Skywalker Must Die) from somewhere. After a little investigative work, I found multiple links to the blog in the Beating a Dead Eopie: the Diversity Thread over at TFN Lit. While TFN is generally a pretty diverse site, and I’ve made lifelong friends in the Fan Fiction forums, TFN Lit’s participating demographic is not representative of the makeup of the Star Wars literature reading fanbase.  I have to commend JediSmurf for her whole-hearted attempt to make a difference in a community that has resisted diverse opinions, especially when they come from women.

The irony is that one of TFN’s biggest advertisers is Her Universe, yet some distinct parts of their boards (but not all) have been guilty of pushing female fans away because of the ways that women are talked to and about in discussion threads.  Some day it may change, but the truth is the internet has allowed fan feedback to expand beyond the early vanguards like TFN.  It’s still a great place for news, fanfiction, and informal feedback, just not  as a place for polite discussion about the books, especially if you’re a woman or have a differing opinion.  That doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for change, or that when talk of discouraging outside opinions comes up it should be ignored.  When a gentleman reader politely responded that he didn’t want the opinions that diversity was lacking in the EU brought up in TFN Lit because VIPs might read it, I felt it warranted a response from someone who has been asking for more diversity for some time now.

Here’s what I had to say:

JediSmurf:

I’m glad my blog helped give your points some emphasis. I did want to clarify one thing, though.  Although I’m struggling with many parts of what the EU novels have brought forth over the past couple of years, I don’t consider myself a “lapsed” EU fan. “Disenchanted on many fronts” fan might be more accurate. Where I used to purchase any Star Wars book because I had faith in the quality of work and storytelling, that is no longer so. I still read most of the EU books; I only buy select books now. I’m actually a huge fan of the Legacy comic series which just wrapped up its Legacy: War run this past week.  In fact, under the creative direction of John Ostrander and Jan Duurseema, the storytelling has proven some of the most diverse in the EU.  Just for example, Cade’s best friend is black, his girlfriend is pink, the head of the Galactic Alliance and most of Rogue Squadron are aliens, and the Imperial Knights are always shown with a fairly even distribution of men and women.  And those are just a few examples of what they have done within the story.

CaptainJackBauer24 posted: I don’t want to try and match wits with you guys, I just think what your doing is wrong. I know we only represent a fraction of Star Wars fans but I think it’s a safe bet this board sees the most traffic since the official site board is down and we do have VIP’s come through and if they read this thread they might think this lack of diversity mindset is a common opinion and it’s not.

This sentiment is one of the most troubling for me. Just to be clear, I don’t mean to be singling you out personally, but this part of your post just does a good job of expressing a sentiment I’ve seen a lot lately. I appreciate that you expressed it politely and unobtrusively, but that doesn’t take away the fact that you just don’t want that “lack of diversity mindset” to be expressed too loudly here in TFN Lit so that there’s a better chance the VIPs won’t see it.  Any time fans start saying that other fans shouldn’t be heard, I think that’s a problem. Every fan has a right to their opinions, positive or negative, of what the VIPs are creating for us and selling to us as customers, and every fan has the right to express those opinions to the VIPs.

And to be honest, I’m not sure how you came to the conclusion that concern about a lack of diversity in the EU isn’t a “common opinion.” There is plenty of evidence that a wide variety of opinions exist out there that suggest it is “common” enough.  I can’t personally speak to race, sexual orientation, and the many other diverse variables we see in the fandom other than to say, they too are relevant when discussing diversity. I’m just going to speak to gender diversity in Star Wars, and the EU, in particular because it’s the one I know, and have experienced the most. It’s also the easiest to show numerically how there are plenty of fans – and yes even lapsed fans – who feel some parts of Star Wars, specifically the books, have become less diverse while catering more and more to one subset of the fandom.

The truly sad part about so many female fans feeling this way is that George Lucas was (and still is) a pioneer in giving women more options, and even to accepting other kinds of diversity.  Princess Leia is one of the first empowered heroines to grace the big screen.  If you look at his businesses, he was employing a significant number of women at the top levels back before gender parity in the workplace was something people talked about. George Lucas inserted a new female Jedi character into his cartoon series for the specific purpose of giving female fans in the target age demographic a heroine they could root for, and he’s managed to balance gender ratio in both the heroes and villains quite well.  His daughter, Katie Lucas, writes for the Clone Wars and her beliefs are out there for all to see; she’s about as diverse as it gets.

CaptainJackBauer24, you may be right that the general opinion in TFN Lit may not be that we need more diversity (although I’m not even sure that’s actually true), and that would be fine if TFN Lit were just one fansite in the mix. But you also specifically mentioned that you think TFN Lit is one of the highest traffic fansites, and that means the VIPs are listening to what’s said here. Now, I certainly don’t think the VIPs should ignore the consensus opinions of TFN Lit users (to the extent there even are that many consensus opinions, with as much debate and differing perspectives as we can see within the threads here), but I think it’s a mistake to draw the inference that TFN Lit’s users are a representative sample of the actual customer base. Along those lines, let’s consider a couple things – who buys books, and who has time to hang out discussing them ad nauseum on fansites.

Women are a solid majority share of the overall novel buying market.  Watching business model shifts at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and elsewhere indicates that women are the predominant customer base the publishing industry is catering to right now. Take a look at the scifi/fantasy shelves in stores or the top 100 seller list for scifi/fantasy at Amazon, and you begin to see that women are increasingly dominating the market share in that genre, too.

The recent rally led by Lucas’s own employee Bonnie Burton to support Katie – the fangirl who had been made fun of by boys for liking Star Wars – and Ashley Eckstein’s unchallenged assertions that female fans have been slighted not just in merchandise but also as participants in message boards, plus the swelling rise in female-run fansites for Star Wars and other franchises, affirms that women and girls haven’t had a fair shake.

Just take a look at the TFN Lit forum.  Considering the fact that women turned out in equal numbers to men at the last couple of Star Wars conventions, there were equivalent numbers of women standing in line for autographs at VIP author tables and at the EU panels, and women are at least an equal market as book buyers, doesn’t it seem odd that no woman has been a moderator in this forum in recent memory?  Or that no woman is represented on the TFN Books review staff?  How can it be that there are so many female book readers, so many female fans willing to travel across the country to Star Wars conventions, yet the overriding demographic in a forum meant to discuss literature and books is young men? (As a comparison, the Fan Fiction forums here once faced consistent complaints about the lack of gender diversity in its staff.  It was addressed by including a male mod on the staff and since then there has been a better representative pool of moderators that reflects the community.)

TFN Lit is not representative of the broad range of Star Wars fans, especially those reading the novels, at least not anymore.  When Ashley Eckstein talks about female fans not feeling welcomed, this is one of the places everyone knows she’s referring to.  (If you want to make the assertion that this is the biggest Star Wars site, I don’t think you can then deny that a generalization about message boards is going to include this site; otherwise that’s called having your cake and eating it too.)  There is a growing list of smaller fansites across the internet where women (and even some men) do feel better able to speak as fans. Those sites may have come after the Prequel Trilogy boom that made the TFN forums huge, and therefore will never get to this size, but add them all together and only then would we have a truly representative pool.

In addition to the existing entrenched attitudes within TFN Lit, there is also the simple fact that most of the people who have spare time to participate as heavily invested fans, especially in intricate discussions that require significant investment in all the facts and minutiae of the EU, are young people in their late teens to twenties.  The older people get the more real life responsibilities – like bills and family – begin to impede.  Simply because fans who read books aren’t delving into lengthy discussions doesn’t mean their opinions are less valid or that their customer dollars don’t exist. They’re just not here in large numbers posting frequently.

Lately a week can’t go by without an article written by a woman popping up on the internet, which addresses the lack of equality in gaming characters, storytelling, scifi writers, characterization, or something else along those lines.  Inside the Star Wars fandom, men and women have expressed disappointment in the characterization of women in recent books.  The rise of threads in TFN Lit such as the apathy thread and Anyone else had enough of the Sith? suggest that even fans here think Star Wars storytelling has been getting weaker.  In part, I believe that is because the stories and the cast are less diverse now than it was even eight or nine years ago.

Shelly Shapiro posted [on Facebook]: Diversity: I feel we’ve had quite a bit of diversity, especially when you take into consideration the growing number of prominent characters that aren’t human. Saba Sebatyne, for example: An awesome female Jedi who is barely even humanoid. (I like her a lot!)

While Tahiri and Tenel Ka grace the covers of the latest FOTJ book, the stories of that series have been woefully bare of empowered female characters that women can identify with.  Shapiro obviously feels Saba is an example of diversity, and perhaps she is in some ways.  But considering women have been complaining for a few years now that they aren’t seeing a lot of strong relatable female characters and many long time female fans of the EU are walking away from the books, it’s interesting how the editor in charge answers a question about diversity – using for her example a creature that is scaly, a bit scary looking, and strong enough to take most any human male.  While Saba is likeable she’s far from relatable, and this is the crux of creating diverse characters – they have to possess some mix of qualities and experience that allows readers to connect to their diversity.  Using Saba in her answer leads me to believe she’s a bit uninformed in what fans are asking for in regards to diversity.

The tone of the books coming out in the EU recently back up my opinion.  Outside of the flagship series, the last couple year’s worth of releases, and what’s upcoming, are definitely not diverse in the target audience they are catering to – men more so than women by far.  Allston’s Wraith Squadron is the first bright spot in what many female fans consider a bleak offering, and while FOTJ promises an exciting mini-series they haven’t proven yet that we should trust them to deliver. Allston, who is known for his strong female characters, has produced a nice book with Conviction but he’s only been setting up the storylines in the last two series, never completing them.

In the past year Star Wars Books put out some subpar offerings, riddled with characterization misses, disconnected plotlines, poor editing, and terrible production values.  At Celebration V, one of the best times to interact with a wide variety of fans, the EU panels were announced at the last minute, and the authors and editors were obviously withdrawn from the fans.  Sue Rostoni didn’t go and Shelly Shapiro rarely manned her booth.  We got assembly-line book signings – move along, move along, nothing to see here – and the bare minimum of books panels.  As a businessperson, I can tell you that creates a terribly insufficient feedback loop, especially in light of the fact that Shapiro admitted in a recent podcast interview that she doesn’t do market research, she just puts out books she likes.  As a fan and a businessperson, I can tell you that creating products in a vacuum is doomed to fail in meeting customer expectations.  We get ten-plus books a year, and I’m quite all right with not all of them being my type of book.  That’s actually the brilliance of Star Wars – that it unites different types of people. But if they’re not in touch with the breadth and depth – the diversity – of their customer base, how are they going to hit the right marks in what will sell successfully? Part of the problem, as I see it, is that those in charge of creating the Star Wars EU have believed TFN Lit is and was representative of all Star Wars fans.  It’s not.

In addition to the creative team’s insularity in their relations to fans, the pool of authors they have selected seems to be quite limited in their types of life experiences.  That’s not to say someone can’t write about things they’ve never experienced, but it requires at lot more work: research and careful thinking, beta reads and editorial insights from other perspectives, initiating feedback in the form of one-on-one discussions with fans who have those life experiences. Only then can the writers and editors tell what is and isn’t working. Again, not everyone has the time to post on message boards; they have families and jobs that come before entertainment. As a female fan, I haven’t seen women authors brought into the talent pool that have proven they can appeal to broad female audiences outside of Star Wars, so it’s not surprising they missed within the Star Wars universe as well.  The diversity of the female characters has suffered for it.

I think the very reason CaptainJackBauer24 stated above – this is the biggest Star Wars fan site and that VIPs come here – is why fans should be encouraged to provide their differing opinions, not shoved politely off to the side. It will take more than words on message boards, though. VIPs need to have discussions and interact with fans regularly to really get a sense of where topics like this diversity thread come from.  Facebook chats are a good start, but they are very two dimensional. Just recently, instead of making an assumption about one of my blog posts, Jason and Jimmy Mac on the TFN ForceCast brought me on the show and we talked for over half an hour.  At Star Wars Weekends I watched fans engage in conversations with VIPs, and even negative feedback was accepted gracefully. These types of ongoing conversations foster understanding, and are what I hope to see amongst fans and VIPs in the future.  The Star Wars EU will be better for it.

5 comments to Diversity in the EU

  • Joanne

    Shelly bringing up Saba is an excellent example of how out of touch she is. Everyone loves Saba, make no mistake about that. But Shelly had to talk about her because every other female (and there are many well established ones) have been tossed on the trash heap by bad writing or bad characterization. Maybe Saba is easier to handle since she isn’t human, I don’t know.

    signed, a true Lapsed Fan

  • Hey, this is Jedismurf here. Apologies for calling you a “lapsed” fan as it even contradicted the posts I linked to!

    Would you consider posting this on the TFN Eopie thread? It would be a helpful read and an interesting perspective to share on that forum.

    • No worries, Marissa, about “lapsed” thing. Sometimes it might seem so, but I am still reading and rooting for the EU to broaden its storytelling to include things that more fans can enjoy.

      I actually did post this at TFN. I don’t post there as much but I thought your insights in that thread needed some backing up. Kudos to you for putting your thoughts out there. It’s not always easy.

      • I suppose part of it comes from the fact that I refer to myself as a “lapsed” fan even though I am still excited about Star Tours 2, voraciously devoured the Legacy (Dark Horse) series, etc. It’s just surprised me how I went from eagerly awaiting Star Wars books and buying on the release date, to barely noticing when they come out at all. Projects that might have interested me like Holostar became repackaged “for the dudes” products again.

  • Cy

    Hey Fangirl,

    As a newcomer to your blog (like many people I’m sure, I was linked here because of “Luke Skywalker Must Die”), I must say that this post made me think more than any other EU commentary I’ve read recently. I love the distinction you make between “likeable” and “relatable” female characters. While characters like Jaina and Ahsoka are certainly strong, and Saba is great, my favourite female EU character is still Deena Shan from the “Rebellion” comic books. She didn’t start out as heroic; the reader got to see how she got that way. She became likable, but was flawed and relatable first.

    Thanks for putting into words one of the reasons for the niggling disinterest in the EU that I’ve been feeling lately.

Leave a Reply

  

  

  

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>