Seeking SFH is a new series at FANgirl Blog meant to highlight stories with strong female heroines. Like any other broad grouping – such as Single White Female – Strong Female Heroine can mean a lot of different things to people. And there has been a lot of debate on exactly what strong female heroines should be. Some think they’re independent women who stand on their own and who don’t need men; others believe this means physically unrealistic representations of women warriors. So I’ll just tell you what a Strong Female Heroine is to me.
- Heroes should be independent but not alone. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Captain Kirk still needed their friends and romances, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic to expect heroines to operate similarly.
- Strength, to me, comes from within. As a woman I understand and respect my physical limitations, but being the weaker sex hasn’t stopped me from accomplishing tasks more suited to muscle-bound men. I just figure out a different way to get that kind of stuff done. So too should a heroine. (I once got a 200-pound tack trunk in the back of my pickup truck on my own; so to me strength is a matter of application.)
- Emotional strength, or fortitude, is something women exhibit in our daily lives. In A New Hope, Princess Leia watches her planet destroyed, yet she escapes the Death Star and comforts Luke for his loss of a mentor. My heroines can cry, but when the time calls for it in the story I expect them to be like the emotionally strong women I know in real life.
- We are all sexual beings, but this seems to trip up stories meant to tell a heroic arc for a female character. Some heroines get stripped of their femininity. On the other extreme, other heroines get sexually objectified. The middle ground seems very difficult for writers to find.
- Heroines, like heroes, need to be relatable. Most girls can relate to Buffy Summers in some way, whether we’ve been the new girl in school, the member of the geek gang stuck in the library, the pretty girl, or a person torn between duty (to homework or a job) and something fun (like hanging out with friends).
- Finally, heroines need to be portrayed as equal to their male counterparts.
You may have noticed the pleonasm in the term female heroine – but with as most things I do, it’s there for a reason. Too often I’ve seen writers have difficulty in producing strong heroines without stripping the “female” (or femininity) right out of the character. For that reason, I’ve doubled up my criteria. (And my reference to my fourth point above.) Strength and heroism are not mutually exclusive from being a woman, and I expect good storytelling to give us all of that.
FOUND STRONG FEMALE HEROINE: JAINA SOLO IN THE NEW JEDI ORDER
Anyone who has read my blog previously will know that my biggest beef with Jaina Solo’s characterization over the past few years is the refusal to allow her to act heroically while at the same time balancing her life with a healthy and realistic romance. The position has been repeatedly been put forth by the Powers That Be that moving her through this dramatic arc or that warrior’s arc while having her finally commit to a relationship would weaken her characterization and her heroic journey. Short response: Baloney. Longer response: It’s a good thing George Lucas, Irvin Kershner, Lawrence Kasdan, and everyone else involved in creating the Original Trilogy didn’t feel that way about Princess Leia, or Star Wars might just have flopped at the box office – and then where would we all be?
In recognition of the Star Wars dropping its entire backlist as ebooks starting today, I’m suggesting a wonderful strong female heroine arc, which I hope to see much more of in the future. I give you the New Jedi Order: Dark Journey to Destiny’s Way.
NJO: Dark Journey by Elaine Cunningham
It’s best to just ignore many of the fan reviews on this story, because back in the day when Dark Journey came out, fans in places like the TFN Literature forum discussion threads panned it. Why ignore them? You have to remember these boards were comprised of mostly young men, and a relatively small group of women who felt safer going with the flow. The charge back then was that Jaina in Dark Journey, start to finish, was a PMSing bitch. (In order to not drag down the fun here, I’ve created a special blog post today with this fangirl’s opinion on accusing anyone – real or fictional – of PMSing.) The hate rolled downhill from there, but if you clicked over to the Fanfic forums at the same time, quite another phenomenon had occurred.
Women, and a few men, really liked Jaina, and told lots of stories about her. (If you love this arc, shoot me an email and I’ll point you to tons of great fanfic about strong heroic Jaina.) There’s one predominant dynamic that hooked female fans early on. Long before Harry/Hermione versus Hermione/Ron, or Team Jacob versus Team Edward, or Gale versus Peeta, Cunningham crafted a clever love-triangle within Dark Journey itself. In Dark Tide: Ruin, Michael Stackpole had introduced a new character to the EU: Jagged Fel, son of Soontir Fel, the famed former Imperial ace who ran off into Chiss space with his wife and academy rival to none other than Han Solo. Sparks flew, because Jag is well-crafted as a foil to Jaina. During the course of Edge of Victory: Rebirth, Kyp Durron, friend of Han Solo, former student of Luke Skywalker turned Jedi Knight, and a character well-known to fans for his youthful fall to the dark side, had used his roguish appeal to trick Jaina into helping him attack a worldship of enemy civilians. Although she struggles with Kyp’s methods, his aggressive approach intrigues her. When Jaina stumbles back to the Hapan system with the survivors of the Jedi suicide mission to Myrkr, she’s having trouble determining up from down even as she’s dropped into the treacherous Hapan royal court and fighting a war, not just for the galaxy but for her own soul. It’s the perfect recipe for messing with her head in a more hopeful way – in contrast to, say, the brutality of her brother’s equivalent book, Traitor – by throwing not just one but two tall, dark, handsome men in her way.
Cunningham does a lot of things well within the course of this book, a lot of things women will like. What many fans have confused as PMSing – or as was said about this book, dark side PMSing – is simply expected behavior for a teenager who has lost both her brothers and then is left to fend for herself by her parents and mentors because the rest of the galaxy needs them more. Jaina struggles with friendships just like any other coming-of-age tale, except she’s got to determine a way to ward off the enemy and save a planetary system from plunging into chaos at the same time.
With that said, Dark Journey no doubt also suffered in some fans’ eyes simply for coming between Star by Star and Traitor, both of which are fantastic books written by extremely talented writers. Cunningham isn’t quite up to their level, but she certainly does have her own strengths, especially when telling a story trying to tread the line between crafting a strong female character’s journey through a dark time while playing around in a male-dominated fandom. Dark Journey isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but the strong negative reaction back in the day to Dark Journey was fueled in large part by fanboys pissing on their fandom fire hydrant; plenty of women loved the book, but they feared saying so in the old boys’ club of literature discussion that to this day still allows misogynistic undertones to flourish. If you’re looking for the good start of a story arc for a strong female heroine, I’m saying, “Try it; you might like it.”
NJO: Enemy Lines Duology: Rebel Dream & Rebel Stand by Aaron Allston
Allston is literally one of the most beloved writers in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. Until Fate of the Jedi, many fans believed he could do no wrong. As I’ve said repeatedly, I think he’s wanted to tell a different story than his counterparts for certain elements of both Legacy of the Force and Fate of the Jedi, and the Enemy Lines duology shows just how strongly he feels about Jaina and Jag. Granted, the love triangle dynamic follows Jaina from Hapes. But by Borleias, it’s sort of reached that inevitable stage: the one where you know Ron gets Hermione or Katniss will choose Peeta. When Allston finally pays off the romantic tension arcing through the books since Jaina’s first meeting with Jag, boy does he make it worthwhile! Ladies, I can tell you that once you read Rebel Dream you will never view a conference room the same way.
These books are witty, funny, and engaging. Admittedly the Lord Nyax plot roams a little past campy into corny at times – but then again, we get naked Luke covered in goo, so who’s complaining? No matter, Jaina blossoms as a heroine, leading her uncle’s Twin Suns Squadron in a dramatic battle to resist the Yuuzhan Vong as they spread out through the galaxy after seizing Coruscant. Most importantly, her new love affair enhances Jaina’s journey and makes her a better Jedi, rather than the typical man-saves-the-day trope women have come to expect from fiction.
NJO: Destiny’s Way by Walter Jon Williams
In this meaty hardcover, Jaina’s twin brother Jacen returns from captivity, but not all is right in the galaxy. The war must still be fought, and allies made. During her knighting ceremony, Jaina is dubbed by her uncle as “the Sword of the Jedi,” a curse destiny that will follow plague her into the Legacy of the Force series. But it’s what Jaina does in this book that shows her worthy of Jedi Knight status. Leading the recruits she has trained, Jaina is a key player in the assault of Ebaq 9. Too late, the leadership realizes Ebaq 9 is a trap. Using perseverance, grit, and the hardened skills of a Jedi who has fought most of her life, Jaina manages to kill the Yuuzhan Vong warmaster and save herself and her squadmates in a battle that will leave you breathless.
The only drawback to this book is that Jag was mostly an afterthought, inserted into one short scene where he meets Han and Leia Solo onboard the Falcon. So romance is lacking. Williams makes it up to Jaina’s fans, though, with the short story Ylesia, where Jaina and Jag reunite in colorfully dramatic fashion. It’s a nice cherry on top of a great strong female heroine arc.
The true tragedy is that Jaina Solo had a magnificent character arc in the NJO. You know, back when they had a story bible. Lucy Autrey Wilson stated in the NJO Round Robin Interview that the intention had been to bring forth a new generation of heroes. Anakin Solo obviously reaches heroic status early and completes his arc (and life) in the hardcover Star by Star. While Jaina Solo had been playing her part as a Jedi and doing her duty as a pilot in Rogue Squadron up to that point in the NJO, her twin Jacen Solo had been portrayed as a young man distracted from a hero’s journey by the conundrum of seeking to understand what his role should be as a Jedi. Star by Star launches both characters into their distinct character arcs: Jaina’s wrapping up in the hardcover Destiny’s Way and Jacen’s lasting all the way through to the hardcover series finale The Unifying Force. Unfortunately, from The Unifying Force onward, Jaina’s story has become unrelatable for most female fans. While she’s often shown as strong, the Powers That Be deny Jaina romance and love, and portray a female character who is either meant to come across as fickle (or possibly promiscuous) in her hopping back and forth between a supposed dilemma between Jag and Zekk, or who is just plain cold-hearted and frigid. So this recommendation for a Strong Female Heroine arc has to come with a warning: if you’re jumping into the Star Wars EU and like what they do with Jaina in this arc, tread beyond it at your own risk.
What’s important is that for a time, Star Wars got it right. From the beginning of the NJO up through Destiny’s Way, Jaina kicks butt. She is beautiful, intelligent, witty, hard-working, and powerful. With all that going for him, any man would rightfully be cocky; so too is Jaina, but the authors also reveal that she can be insecure, lonely, and afraid. Back in the day, when the NJO struck out on a brave new course for creating strong female heroines, male fans held all the sway on message boards. The Powers That Be flinched when they listened exclusively to the echochambers that berated Jaina’s character and the books that centered on her heroic growth. Without a doubt, the books that were conceived after Wilson left the Star Wars publishing director position slowly withdrew from telling stories about strong women like Jaina and began to narrow their focus to the heroic rises and falls of white male characters. Instead of leading the charge for a touchdown for equality and diversity in storytelling, the Star Wars EU, sadly, dropped the ball.
There are a few books beyond Destiny’s Way which include Jaina written in parts as a strong female heroine, and they will make some of my future recommended reading lists. But having read so much over my life that I have developed a pretty good sense of how I’d like a series to leave me feeling, and listened to what other women say on the same matter, I think Dark Journey through Destiny’s Way works as a package that will leave you feeling good about the heroine and about yourself at the end of the read.
Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.