An Open Letter to Star Wars, Lucasfilm, and Del Rey
NOTE: Spoilers for the recently released Fate of the Jedi: Ascension are discussed.
I’ve written many times on this blog about what Star Wars has been to me. Princess Leia in the Original Trilogy movies was a heroine in a world of men, and she empowered me as a young woman to venture into whatever role I wanted for my life. Star Wars started as a fantastical adventure into a world of visuals that were almost beyond imagination. In over three decades since, the franchise has continued pushing the envelope of creativity in the tools it creates and the stories it tells.
Underneath all the wow-factors for special effects and sound, at the core Star Wars used a story that was one part fable, another part fairy tale, to express a profound morality. Evil is bad, and good people must fight it. At times Star Wars has had its share of controversy – such as concerns raised about clichéd racial stereotyping in characters like Jar Jar or the Neimoidians, or whether The Clone Wars is too violent or too dark for kids – but its message has always tracked to the right place. Sometimes, with stories this grand and epic, something won’t be good enough or might offend someone. That’s part of the game. And I think the enormous fanbase of Star Wars exists in part because of all the good messages it has imparted to its fans.
Today, I feel compelled to speak up to defend that vision of Star Wars against a great harm that has been done to those core values. It’s a shame that we’ve come to the point where I need to openly address the decision-makers in the franchise I love so much and ask them why they’ve published a story that validates domestic violence in a teenage relationship. But they have, and I am. This violation of the fans’ trust in the franchise marks a disturbing low point in a string of problems, all related to the fair treatment of female characters and female fans with the Expanded Universe novels. I can only hope that Lucasfilm acts quickly to repair the damage that has been done to the fans’ faith and commits to restoring an upward trajectory for its product as quickly as it possibly can.
Words Are Weapons
For me, Star Wars isn’t just about movies, it’s about literature. In this blog, I’ve repeatedly expressed concerns about the message for women coming from the books over the past few years and going forward. For that reason I wasn’t overly surprised when I read through Fate of the Jedi: Ascension by Christie Golden, which went on sale August 9th, and found that the female characters were again subservient to the plots of the male characters. Nor was I surprised that the Young Adult style angst-ridden plot for sixteen-year-old Ben Skywalker had advanced to the next level – spooning and kissing. What I was shocked to see, though, was how his relationship advanced to the next level. Let me summarize:
Mourning Sith love interest Vestara Khai, fresh off cleaving her father Gavar in two a few pages earlier, sits down to write a letter to her “Papa.” The letter-writing ties back to the previous book in the series, where she’d used the same exercise to express her innermost emotions to a fictional father, the one she wished she’d had. Over the course of five novels, Ben has waffled between trusting and not trusting Vestara. Having just been in trust mode a scene earlier, Ben abruptly overrides the lock on Vestara’s bedroom and bursts in on the grieving girl and demands to know what she’s doing. She, naturally, would prefer not to tell him. Ben tries to muscle his way into her chair to read her computer, and grips her wrists when she tries to stop him. Protecting herself, Vestara Force-shoves him away. Enraged, Ben retaliates with a Force-slap across her cheek. Struggling ensues, Ben gets the jump on Vestara, and she ends up swathed in bedsheets and defenseless. Now the dominant person in the room, Ben maintains her bondage while he reads her private letters. When he does and realizes what they really are, he feels horrible about reading them. Not more than a page after striking his love interest across the face, Ben spoons with Vestara, at which point she asks if she can become a Jedi. Ben then kisses her. In subsequent scenes, Ben and Vestara make basically no effort to hide their feelings for each other from Luke Skywalker or the other Jedi. This scene, in other words, creates their “official” relationship as boyfriend and girlfriend and her first steps on the apparent path toward redemption. No mention of Ben’s violent act is made, and no negative consequences of his abuse of Vestara are shown for either character. Everything internal to the book suggests that what Ben did to Vestara is perfectly okay.
Of course, Star Wars has dealt with the subject of domestic violence before. In Revenge of the Sith, the newly minted Darth Vader reaches out to Force-choke Padmé, his wife and the woman he had supposedly sold his soul to the devil to save. It’s a traumatic, vivid act that ultimately defines just how far beyond reason Anakin Skywalker has fallen. This moment of abuse progresses Obi-Wan, Anakin, and even Padmé to new levels in their own arcs. But ultimately the moral message conveyed by that scene is that Anakin loses his wife, his best friend, his limbs, and starts his twenty-year stint in his own personal hell before winding his way slowly back to the light side. The contrast how domestic violence is portrayed in Ascension could not be starker.
Golden was obviously inspired by the movies, as numerous references and homages can be found throughout the book. But what she failed to recognize was the way that Revenge of the Sith deals with the act of domestic violence – it tells the viewer without a doubt that it’s a bad thing. Remarkably, after so many years of Star Wars books painstakingly trying to place themselves above cheap trashy pulp, Golden delivers nothing more than a Young Adult version of a bodice-ripper. In a Harlequin-style story, perhaps this kind of violent act of sexual domination can result in the lovers finally connecting with each other. Not in real life – and not in Star Wars.
If this scene had been an isolated poor judgment call – and yes, people I like and respect make bad decisions sometimes – I just would have blogged about it as an isolated poor storytelling choice. But in fact this isn’t an isolated case. That’s why I feel it’s imperative for me to speak up now, not just about this specific scene but about the entire pattern of harmful choices recently within the books division of the franchise.
Gender Equivalence in the Books – It’s the Stuff of Fiction
I’ve blogged extensively about the subpar portrayal of female characters in scifi and comics, particularly the Star Wars books, and also the increasing evidence that young men and women learn more than we ever imagined from the media that they are exposed to. Many of the other Star Wars books of the last five or six years, and the recent three books by Golden especially, have systematically undermined the female characters while glorifying the male characters. So this scene in Ascension is just the fire on the candle on top of the cake called WomenInStarWarsBooks that’s iced with SecondTierCharacterization.
Even as the debate erupted at Comic-Con this year over the role of female characters and women creators in the upcoming reboot of the DC Comics universe, I had already read Ascension and begun to write up my review. The general consensus is that bringing more women into the scifi genre as creators will make for better stories and diversify the franchise universes. But if you look at Star Wars books – run by two female editors, who brought in two new female writers for the last two flagship series – the truth of that theory doesn’t bear out, and led me to blog about the perils of just assuming that women writers will fix the problems of female portrayal.
At the Her Universe panel at Comic-Con on female characters in scifi, Gail Simone pointed out that a well-crafted female character needs to have story arcs that progress her character, not just makes her a love interest or a participant in storylines that only serve to advance the male characters’ arcs. Sure, the argument can be made that in the Star Wars movies, Leia and Padmé only serve to move along Luke’s and Anakin’s stories – but that’s true of every other character, because the movies are focused on the tales of those two protagonists. In the novels, by contrast, multiple character arcs are always in motion in every series, so the comparison doesn’t hold up. More recently, The Clone Wars as serial storytelling has proven that, removed from the constraints of movie time-limits, the stories of male and female characters can be fleshed out more equitably over the span of a longer, broader set of tales. The books, also serial storytelling, have yet to find a way to do this, and in fact has regressed the parts of established female characters such as Leia Solo.
Golden’s body of work in Star Wars proves that not all women are capable of writing female characters as strong characters with their own arcs that are independent of the male characters’ storylines. Her first book, Omen, was pitifully short for a hardcover and unremarkable in its storytelling. It wasn’t good, nor was it bad, although she did craft some nice emotional scenes. Readers weren’t necessarily familiar with her style, and at the time I simply assumed that some of the random plot wanderings in the book would serve the story going forward. As it turned out, they didn’t; they really were just random scenes. It’s also worth noting that coming on the heels of Allston’s stellar opening book, Outcast, the mostly-female Darkmeld squad formed to hunt down the rogue Jedi Seff Hellin was abandoned by Golden and the female Jedi participants were berated and punished for taking initiative.
When Golden’s second book, Allies, came out, its storyline and portrayal of female characters began to really raise some eyebrows. While not all fans notice the stuffing of female characters to the margins, male and female reviewers alike spoke up about the characterization and storytelling choices. To make matters worse, the book was so riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, not to mention weak prose and poor writing craft, that the commitment to quality of the writer and editorial staff had to be called into question. There are those who still say that they don’t see the errors, but a group of fans with a combination of professional and amateur editing experience sat down over a few days and redlined the book, and the missed edits tally into the hundreds. Even Golden herself acknowledged in an interview that she had to do a better job proofreading her next book.
From my review of Allies:
What is tragically lost in this series, and especially this book, is the true essence of the Star Wars contemporary myth. Instead of focusing on the epic struggle of characters in a battle between light and dark, Allies weaves a story about victimization. We are left with gullible heroes, children peddling sexual favors at the urging of parental figures, women victimized by evil men and vice versa, rape, sex as a means to an end, and self-inflicted relationship woes spelled over the course of a poorly edited book. Our heroes have been duped by plot devices and our heroines… well, none seem to be left.
In a podcast interview after Allies’ release, a young male fan posed a question to Golden about the concerns raised over her portrayal of women. In her answers, Golden deflected any troubling patterns within her book back onto fans, while at the same time revealing an inability to provide examples where she did indeed portray women effectively in her book.
Christie Golden in her SoloSound Interview:
“I have to say I’m a little surprised regarding the nature of women. […] And a lot of times it’s very interesting to see that people have buttons, people have issues that are very important to them, and they kind of react from that space, and see what they think is there, rather than what is actually there. Because I assure you, there was never any attempt to demean women, or make them look weak. Every one of those people is an individual with their own histories and their own challenges, and they’re going to act in different ways. So that […] kind of came out of the left field. I was like, really? Really? Is that there? And I kind of would go back and I’m like, I don’t think that’s there. So that was very interesting to see that.”
With her third entry into the series, Ascension, not much about Golden’s portrayal of the female characters has changed. My review summarizes where each female character stands. Without a doubt, even though in the previous book Allston wrestled many of the female characters out of their cubbies of servitude to a male-dominated series, Golden slaps the chains back on. And while this book shows some effort to portray female characters in a better way, it’s not across the board and it’s internally inconsistent. In fact, the entire meta of Ascension as a novel is subservient to the next book in the series, written by the male author, Troy Denning, whom Golden thanked for “Yodaeseque” guidance in the acknowledgements to Allies. As a long time reader of Star Wars books, it’s obvious that Golden’s book is simply setup for many of Denning’s pet plots and characters. In other words, she doesn’t really have her own tale to tell.
I don’t know why Golden doesn’t believe in her female characters or the roles they can play. In an interview she stated that she was more comfortable with the younger male characters, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with a woman wanting to write more male characters or vice versa (unless the editorial intention all along was to diversify the storytelling by bringing in a female writer). The trouble lies in the message of her books – that female characters have to serve the lives of male characters. Not only that, but by not dealing with the incident she creates in her book – young Ben Skywalker’s Force slap in a fit of rage, that is rewarded with a kiss – she sends the wrong message to the young men and women who are meant to identify with these two characters.
Christie Golden to World of Warcraft Insider:
I have no idea why I can write teenage boys so well. I have always been able to do that. For a long time, I was a little frustrated because I would try to write my original fiction and it never took off the way my media work did. Then I realized that my media work is read mostly by teenage boys. I write very deeply emotional stuff. I don’t pull any punches — I’ve put action and stuff in there, but it’s stuff from the heart. And who better to feel things, to deal with their emotions, than teenage boys? So I feel kind of blessed to be able to bring that to my readership.
Finally, the business side of Golden’s role needs to be considered. She has been tasked with writing three hardcover books. In other words, she is the creative designer for three novels set to print somewhere just under 100,000 copies each. Setting aside the revenue from ebook sales, the tangible product is valued at a minimum of $7 million. In this light, books riddled with poor line-editing, weak prose, and subpar characterization and story design simply do not meet the basic standards of professionalism expected of a major series in a major franchise from a major publisher. While some have argued that the customers clamoring about quality are being overly critical, many other fans – especially those who work and have careers, and thus disposable income – feel that Golden has failed to uphold the core value of quality that Star Wars has promised over the years from its products.
Of course, I can’t lay all this on Golden’s shoulders. She had two editors: Shelly Shapiro at Del Rey and Sue Rostoni at Lucas Licensing. The editorial supervision of Golden’s books fell far short of what it needed to be on both sides. Let’s start with Del Rey.
First, Del Rey is in charge of the publishing-industry aspects of the Expanded Universe novels. They find the authors and bring them into the stable; as a legal matter, the author’s contracts are with Del Rey, not Lucasfilm. I think if Del Rey had done their job and vetted Golden before they hired her, they would have uncovered a propensity by her to glamorize the victimization of women. In her original, non-franchise work, which she admits didn’t take off in the marketplace, this glamorization even included an overly sympathetic portrayal of a young man who seduces his half-sister into sexual intercourse.
From a review of On Fire’s Wings by Christie Golden:
But, there’s that niggling issue of the sex scene. Sex in fiction, even graphic sex in fiction, does not bother me. That’s not my problem. My problem is that it wasn’t just a sex scene, it was incest. And, more to the point, it was incest written in such a way that the scene was supposed to feel tender and romantic, not taboo-violating and icky, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. If you’re going to have an incest storyline in your book, I feel like it needs to have a purpose, needs to say something about your characters that can’t be said in any other way.
Second, Del Rey is an imprint of Random House, one of the largest publishing houses in the world. I have no doubt there is a system in place to check manuscripts, not just at the copyeditor level but above that. Yet someone signed off on the veritable quality control nightmare that was Allies before it went to publication. Even worse, despite fans pointing out the literally hundreds of typos in the book’s hardcover printing, those errors – even the nearly instantaneous Find-Replace fixes like misspelled character names – were not corrected for the paperback reprinting.
In an offhand remark at the Celebration V books panel last year, Shapiro mentioned that she often lets junior editors handle some books. That was, apparently, her implicit explanation of Allies’ poor quality, but she offered no apology – nor did she overtly acknowledge the problem, accept responsibility for it, or assure fans that it wouldn’t happen again.
I want to be very clear about this, however: flaws in quality control and evidence of truly weak prose are only evident in Golden’s books in this series. I can’t fault either Allston or Denning for their technical writing abilities. For that reason I think that the employee whose level of commitment to turning in a quality product needed to be addressed has always been easily identifiable. Del Rey is very much accountable, though, for the fact that the situation hasn’t been addressed.
Third, Del Rey is responsible for keeping tabs on the customer side of the industry, as well. Yet in a recent podcast interview, Shapiro explained that she bases her decisions of what books to produce on the stories she’d like to see. On the topic of “actual research,” she’s “just feeling the pulse.” In fact, the entire FotJ series has been publicly described on multiple occasions as having been developed from a story concept pitched by Shapiro herself. At Comic-Con, Shapiro noted at the Star Wars Books panel that she was excited by the developments in the father-son relationship following Mara’s death. I’m not sure what’s so exciting, though, about Ben having anger-management issues and Luke being entirely clueless about his son’s troubling behavior. (And didn’t we just do this exact same storyline with Luke and Jacen Solo in the last series?) Looking at the past few years of novels and the upcoming roster, it’s clear that Shapiro sees little to no place in the Expanded Universe for female characters to take starring roles.
From my recent wrap-up of the SDCC Star Wars Books panel:
After [the Heir to the Empire 20th Anniversary Edition] comes the following with known release dates: a novel about a male Sith, a non-fiction book about a male Sith, a sequel about an obscure male Jedi, a book about a male scoundrel who saves a pop-princess, a book about two male Sith, a reprinted novel about a male Sith, the Phantom Menace reprint, a non-fiction car owner’s manual for the Millennium Falcon (fanboy service), a non-fiction book about warfare (fanboy service to the max), and then the conclusion of a nine-book series focused on male heroes and several female villains.
I’ve yet to wrap my head around the absurdity of writing almost exclusively male-centric and male-targeted books in an industry that serves significantly more female consumers than male consumers. There appears to be no confidence that women are viable consumers of Star Wars books, even though the enthusiasm of female fans for the EU books was readily apparently in the online fandom for the entire first half of this decade. At the same time, enthusiastic female fans were getting railroaded by a small yet vocal set of misogynistic fans in Star Wars forums who didn’t like the storylines or characters that were drawing the women into Star Wars books. (I’d like to remind everyone this is the same community where many fans pitched a fit, and in some parts are still pitching fits, about the insertion of Ahsoka Tano into The Clone Wars.) Each year it seems more and more apparent that this small, unrepresentative echochamber is the “pulse” Shapiro listened to, which has created a vicious feedback loop that has increasingly driven away female fans.
Fate of the Jedi – A Cascade of Errors
If you’re not familiar with the books, it’s easy enough to explain the cascade of errors that created this disastrous series.
First, though, a quick bit of context. The New Jedi Order series, which featured major character arcs for all three children of Han and Leia Solo, is the last time in the flagship series a woman can be found headlining an arc. The next series in the flagship lineup was the Dark Nest trilogy, which proved generally unpopular with most fans and marked a shift away from the next generation of Jedi and back to the original generation’s Big Three (Luke, Han, and Leia), but to its credit showed Leia achieving Jedi Knight status. The trilogy’s writer, Troy Denning, collaborated with Aaron Allston and Karen Traviss on Legacy of the Force, a nine-book series that centered on Jacen Solo’s fall to the dark side. While Jaina Solo, his twin, is depicted on the cover of the last book, in which she defeats him in a duel to the death, it is undeniable that Jacen’s arc alone defined the series, rather than a rise of one hero (Jaina) juxtaposed against the fall of another (Jacen). For the first eight books of the series, his parents and his uncle took the lead in all major confrontations with Jacen, although Allston’s books included attempts at moving Jaina’s character forward; when the realization struck the other two authors that Jaina hadn’t been established as enough of a Jedi powerhouse to make her defeat of her twin believable, the last two books quickly flushed out an arc for her, then concluded the series with no emotional fallout and no real emotional denouement for the victor or the readers.
From the beginning of the New Jedi Order to the end of Legacy of the Force, Star Wars books killed both Anakin Solo and Jacen Solo, dragged Jaina Solo through a series of unflattering, unsympathetic, and unrelatable storylines, and killed the greatest female heroine of the Expanded Universe Mara Jade Skywalker.
The Fate of the Jedi series, also nine books long, picks up the story of the characters from there, with an increased role for Luke’s teenaged son, Ben. Since 2002, no female character has led a major arc or even shared the lead arc in the flagship series, and marketing and promotional material indicated that Fate of the Jedi would focus on teenaged Ben and eight-year-old Allana as its next generation of Expanded Universe characters.
The Fate of the Jedi series was undoubtedly rushed to the table. We know this because, subsequent to their initial story conference, the authors and editors have had to conduct three significant redesigns of major elements of the series. The first they openly admitted and discussed publicly. After fan reaction to the first three books of the series included a large number of complaints that the books were short in length, the creative team added new, previously unplanned subplots into the series to add some more heft to the story. The previously announced publishing schedule for the books was also changed, extending the time between books to give the authors more time to write. Later, in the aftermath of a highly unpopular plot point in the middle book, the breaking off of an engagement between two characters, the subplot was rapidly reversed and the characters were immediately re-engaged in their next scene together in the next book. Although this unplanned reversal has not been publicly admitted, it was executed in a manner that created obviously hastily altered scenes in subsequent books, and the timetable for the publication of the last book in the series was again extended. Finally, the initial plan to have the characters focus on learning more about the reasons behind Jacen’s fall, which was touted as inspiration to drive the series forward in a Fictional Frontiers interview done at Celebration V, was abandoned in the fourth book, hardly mentioned in three books after that, and neatly tied up with a half-page resolution in Ascension. Needless to say, if the authors and editors had not rushed their story planning in the first place, these major revisions to the story design would not have been necessary.
Further evidence of the poor planning for Fate of the Jedi is the overall structure of the nine-book series itself. Although it opens with a strong first book from Allston, with an epigraph that suggests the series will delve into a woman holding back the darkness, the tale quickly proved to be simply the Luke/Ben odyssey pitched by Shapiro, and nothing else meaningful for any of the other previously prominent characters (including even Han and Leia). Spanning three years, the books are designed to have almost no major, series-level denouements within them, but rather to work as one singular tale. Imagine this pitch to a television or movie producer:
ExecutiveProducer: We need something to fill the openings in our upcoming schedule. What do you two have in mind?
CreativePartner1: I’ve got the best story idea for a nine-part SpaceOpera miniseries/movie series.
ExecutiveProducer: We’ve got demographics showing women are really flocking to SpaceOpera. Do you think this will keep their attention too? You know we had some complaints about diversity and character relatability from fans.
CreativePartner2: Haven’t heard that, no. But we’ve got a great idea for a story we’d like to see about SpaceOpera HeroMan!
ExecutiveProducer: Hasn’t he already been through a hero’s journey, though?
CreativePartner2: Sure, but that’s why we’re going to use his son, too.
ExecutiveProducer: Isn’t the kid still kind of young to really appeal to adult fans? Don’t you have some established adult characters that are more the age of our readership who could carry a hero’s journey? And what about something the women can relate to?
CreativePartner1: You see, we really have this great idea for an odyssey for the father and son. For the ladies we’re going to include a Twilight-style teen romance; they’re all in love with that, right? The son’s going to fall in love with IWasRaisedEvilGirl.
ExecutiveProducer: No female heroines?
CreativePartner1: There will be the eight-year-old niece. She’s adorable. And we think the ladies will relate to IWasRaisedEvilGirl. But listen, about that odyssey – this is the really innovative part. Instead of giving the viewers any denouement, we’re going to leave them hanging until we come back with the next installment. And we’re figuring those will be about six months apart, so that should really keep the excitement up and keep the discussions going during the wait.
ExecutiveProducer: That sounds more frustrating than exciting to me, actually.
CreativePartner2: Oh, but that’s only half of it. Even then, we’ll only be progressing the story a bit at a time. And we’ll be retelling a bunch of the plot points because people won’t really see the similarities with the wait between installments.
ExecutiveProducer: You really think that’s a good idea?
CreativePartner2: Well, we’ll know what’s happening. The audience will just have to trust us. I mean, we are the people behind SpaceOpera. Isn’t it brilliant?
ExecutiveProducer: You’re joking, right? No story resolution, stretched over several years at six-month intervals? Ignoring some of our existing fanbase? We’d be laughed out of the business, no matter who we are! Remember guys, we’re in this to make money, not tell our own personal fanfiction.
And that about sums up the utter ridiculousness of the Fate of the Jedi series. In a media age when the general consensus is that many patrons have the attention spans of a dog in a field of squirrels, the creative braintrust set out to create a series that would frustrate customers by its very design, no matter how good the storyline might have been (and, to be fair, the first three books showed a lot of promise). But even if they wanted to be daring and give it a try, there should have been some attempt at getting the books lined up so they came out relatively quickly. Yes, there was the unfortunate state of Allston’s health in the middle, but the utter flop of the crucial middle book by Golden was completely avoidable. This was a commercial venture with a market value over $20 million – there should have been some contingency plans in place and editorial oversight.
Considering this series from a consumer’s standpoint, we have been given a story devoid by design of any denouement and rife with repetitive plotlines, and that requires a considerable financial outlay. It’s obvious the Star Wars books team is missing perspective. The Clone Wars, which produces a 22-episode season of 22-minute episodes, is free to anyone who pays for basic cable or internet access, which makes its marginal cost infinitesimal to most consumers. Not only that, but each episode has a denouement, even within the three-arc stories, and the fans are rarely if ever left hanging. How about the movies? Let’s pretend they all came out in the past three years, around the time FotJ has been released. Six movies at $8 matinee each puts the value of that entertainment at roughly $50, or the retail price of two Fate of the Jedi books. Whether or not you like The Clone Wars or the Prequel Trilogy, Lucasfilm certainly put their best foot forward on production values for the films and television series. The same can’t be said for a book series that will in the end cost the consumers $150 if they pay the Amazon 40% off deal, retail price closer to $250.
As of today, consumers could have gone to see each of the Star Wars movie twice, even gotten some popcorn and soda, for the cost of the eight books published in Fate of the Jedi so far. And Del Rey had announced a push in the schedule for the final book back to April 2012, eight months after Ascension. In a concession to the series’ total reliance on the final book to deliver payoff, Shapiro let it slip at Comic-Con that its author, Denning, is “terrified” (her word – really) about this book. He literally has to wrap up eight books worth of plots, some of which have doubled back on themselves and contain contradictory characterizations. But despite the editors’ consistent faith in him, throughout the fandom Denning has very few Star Wars fans left who express faith in his ability to tell Star Wars stories that live up to their expectations for the feel of the franchise – in other words, to give them happy endings.
One of the reasons Star Wars has reached a state of greatness within our culture is the commitment of Lucas and his staff to live, sweat, and bleed to create the best product possible. Nowhere was this more evident than in the Bioware and TCW panels at this year’s Comic-Con. No doubt, each of those developers and animators understand that there is a never-ending line of fanatics who would sell a kidney for a shot at participating in the greatest modern storytelling franchise. When this book series expects fans to shell out triple the money it would take to see the movies theatrically, to say nothing of the basic cost of TCW being free, it’s not unreasonable for fans who live, sweat, and bleed for their disposable income to expect that the books reflect the same level of attention that Lucasfilm and the other licensees turn out.
Not all fans expect this quality, but mediocrity has never resulted in pop-culture phenomena that endure for over three decades. Yet Del Rey has done a mediocre job for a while now in making sure that all their team members understand what a privilege it is to play in the sandbox of a company built on quality production values. At the same time, unlike their enthusiastic Bioware or animation counterparts, the Del Rey team, in an apparent lack of understanding of the basic principles of customer service, has garnered a reputation for allowing their writers and staff to taunt (not tease) and insult fans.
For the most part the antagonism seems to have been addressed recently. But where the EU is concerned, changes in approach for the $20 million Fate of the Jedi project or the broader EU have not happened. Instead, Del Rey only offered promises of an “exciting mini-trilogy” to end Fate of the Jedi to make up for the disastrous middle third – and now we can see clearly that hasn’t panned out. By way of example, they are so desperate to market the most recent book that Boba Fett, who appears in exactly one scene, poses on the back cover of Ascension. And Del Rey expects their customers to trust them?
The Line in the Sand
Although I’ve focused on Del Rey’s culpability, I can’t ignore Lucasfilm’s complicity in allowing this violation of the fans’ trust to happen. It is well known that licensees do not have free rein with their products, and that Lucas Licensing plays a significant role not just in the big picture but in the small details of the licensees’ work.
We know from many past discussions by various VIPs that Star Wars does have lines in the sand it won’t cross in terms of content. George Lucas himself, for example, has discussed the difficult decision to proceed with a PG-13 rating for Revenge of the Sith, in contrast to the other five movies in the saga. At Comic-Con, Dave Filoni was asked by a mother about the level of violence and other intense content in The Clone Wars, and he took the question with all seriousness and explained that he’s let the movies be his guide. He also stated that the lesson of Star Wars is that “evil is evil” and he hoped children took that lesson away from Star Wars.
There are a number of well-known instances of lines being drawn in the sand specifically about content in the books. Matt Stover has publicly commented that he was asked to rewrite scenes to reduce the graphic nature of violence. So has Paul Kemp. In the first book of the Dark Nest trilogy, Denning was told to tone down certain aspects of a drug-fueled sentient-bug orgy to make the sexual references more subtle. (Yes, I said drug-fueled orgy – that part stayed in.) Denning was also originally questioned on the out-of-wedlock conception of Jacen Solo’s daughter in a warships-for-paternity trade in the same book, but apparently convinced the editors it had sufficient story potential going forward.
At some point, though, it seems Lucas Licensing stopped drawing those kinds of lines for the Star Wars books. In the second book of the Fate of the Jedi, Jaina Solo finally became engaged to her longtime lover Jagged Fel – but then, three books later, she hands back her engagement ring essentially because her fiancé won’t provide a fleet of warships to assist her on a mission she won’t tell him about. I, for one, certainly never expected Star Wars to treat the issue of marriage like something out of a trashy romance novel. Tahiri Veila, lured to the dark side to briefly become Jacen Solo’s Sith apprentice in LotF, was revealed to have had a sexual relationship with her Sith Master. This occurred in a gratuitous courtroom revelation as part of a criminal defense premised on her having followed his orders under duress due to the inherent coercive threat of a Sith Master’s violent, if not fatal, retaliation upon disappointment – creating the clear implication that she had been coercively raped by Jacen through the same power dynamic. It was Golden, by the way, who let both those bombs drop on female characters. There are other examples of the moral slip in the flagship series, described in detail in my reviews. There are no two-parent traditional families among the younger generation of characters. There are not even any marriages yet, even though the lead characters of that generation are now in their thirties. Nor has there been any attempt to develop normal childhood friendships for either of the up-and-coming heirs, Ben Skywalker or Allana Solo. It’s a far cry from the Original Trilogy’s tone of unflagging friendships, or the Han-Leia and Luke-Mara strong partnership marriages of the early EU and the extended cast of childhood friends highlighted in the Young Jedi Knights series.
Unfortunately, the gatekeeper for maintaining the Star Wars brand in the novels, Sue Rostoni, retired one month before Ascension’s release. In her absence, I have to wonder who at Lucas Licensing will step up to accept accountability and enforce a vision of Star Wars that respects what drew fans to it in the first place.
The Star Wars Brand
A company of Lucasfilm’s size that has remained successful over three decades surely has a corporate vision for its brand. Of course those proprietary plans aren’t generally public knowledge, but anyone who is familiar with the processes that build great companies would recognize Lucasfilm for its commitment to being an innovator, a risk-taker, a quality service-provider, and for the morality of its storytelling message. The black-and-white standards of the Original Trilogy have been fuzzed a bit to show some shades of gray by the Prequel Trilogy, but I think it’s fair to say that the Star Wars brand never intended to become an artistic devolution that loses sight of its original morality.
The most troubling part of Ben’s rage-induced slap is that it wasn’t necessary to the story or for the characters, and that its fallout doesn’t match what we expect as consumers who have been sold a brand that promises to remind us that “evil is evil.” The sad part is that Ben’s actions will be remembered by fans as he inevitably moves through adulthood and faces the challenges of a Jedi tempted by the darkside. Any fan who had been awaiting Ben’s first kiss won’t be able to remember it fondly as an uplifting moment within the EU. Their affinity for the moment will be called into question, and in the end they too may resent the event.
One of the beautiful themes of Star Wars is that love has the power to conquer all, and it can make us better people. We see it from Luke as he fights for his father’s soul, and also in the romantic arc laid out for Han and Leia. Even Padmé’s last desperate plea to Obi-Wan is an expression of hope in the man she loved. And while the Prequel Trilogy shows how love can twist people into making the wrong decisions, it doesn’t ignore the ramifications of compassion, friendship, or romance gone awry.
Obi-Wan… There is good in him. I know …I know there’s still…
~ Padmé’s dying words in Revenge of the Sith
I’m sure that somewhere in Ben’s and Vestara’s story, Golden is trying to tell us that love can redeem a Sith girl – but along the way does she deserved to be slapped and dominated, all for the kiss of a Jedi?
Violence is part and parcel of Star Wars, but it’s always served the purpose either of defeating evil or portraying evil within the story. I won’t deny that I think Vestara should have been run through by a Jedi’s lightsaber blade several times over at this point, in the moments when she’s actually proven to be a deliberately treacherous, two-faced Sith. But the authors have told a story where Vestara, who was raised a Sith, is working toward a path of redemption while simultaneously falling in love with Ben. There are numerous perils in telling a story like that, and I think Fate of the Jedi has fallen into just about every one of them. Unfortunately Luke and Ben Skywalker’s struggle to redeem Sith Vestara Khai essentially flips a middle-finger at those fans who had liked Jacen Solo and wished an attempt at his redemption had been made. Throughout this unfolding love story, the readers have been repeatedly reminded by Luke Skywalker that his son will never fall to the dark side; no small irony considering that Luke believed this same thing about his nephew Jacen for most of the previous series. Ben strikes Vestara not because she’s an evil Sith, but simply because he’s angry because he thinks that a vulnerable young woman has betrayed his trust as an intimate friend. Again, if this scene had been part of a thematic portrayal of the harms and consequences of domestic violence, and to progress the development of both characters, that would be one thing. But it’s nothing of the sort.
As Dave Filoni suggested, if we look at the movies it’s clear the violence of Star Wars isn’t gratuitous. Similarly at Comic-Con, author Timothy Zahn, who is revered as one of the best Star Wars authors and for writing credible strong male and female characters, discussed the difference between character deaths that serve the story and gratuitous deaths that are only meant to gut-punch the readers. Of course, not everyone’s line is going to be in the same place about what serves the story and what’s gratuitous. But for many – especially women, who are the gender more frequently victimized by domestic violence and therefore identify with its impacts more strongly – it feels like we’ve fallen over the precipice to a point where the actions of a man hitting a woman isn’t represented as an evil act.
A female fan commenting on the Ben/Vestara scene:
[A]s somebody who grew up in an abusive household I can’t describe just how disturbing that scene is. It’s damn near a copy of some of my childhood memories
What hurts the most about Ben’s Force-slap in Ascension, as it punctuates the plight of female characters within Star Wars, is that it was avoidable. Fans have been speaking out about their disappointment with the books. They’ve used fansite message boards, the Official Site forums (when they existed), blogs, traditional mail, face-to-face feedback, and direct correspondence with the creative parties. Not only that, they have voted with their wallets. In a time when having a foot in the door means everything in the bookstores – when Star Wars is a hot commodity, science fiction/fantasy book sales are increasing, and serial storytelling tops almost every science fiction/fantasy bestseller list – the Star Wars books simply aren’t competitive. While we’ve seen the occasional concession to fan feedback, it still is apparent from the outside looking in that in the aggregate the editorial directors at Lucas Licensing and Del Rey have stuck their fingers in their ears and shouted “Lalalalala!” to the detriment of the corporate bottom line and the fans.
I don’t know what’s been told to the superiors when discussing poor sales. Perhaps, “it’s some loud fans’ fault,” or “book sales are just down across the board,” or “there’s just not the audience.” Some of those excuses may have an element of truth, but when you don’t bother to target half of the book buying market by omission in storytelling, or drive them away by outright offending them, or craft a series that refuses to offer denouement over three years, or offer-up inferior quality products – well, then it’s inevitable you’ll lose customers.
It may well be the case that there is a mindset at Del Rey or Lucas Licensing that Star Wars has published two books recently with female heroines that seem to have underperformed in sales: Knight Errant and Choices of One. A tie-in novel to a Dark Horse comic series, Knight Errant is centered on a female heroine, but Kerra Holt is essentially what Gail Simone dubbed a “man with boobs” character. There is nothing in her story arc, in the novel or the first six issues of the comic, that is relatable or accessible to female fans, and her story has appealed essentially to a solely male audience for that very reason. Choices of One, on the other hand, is a victim of the EU’s own momentum. First, Star Wars has to understand that they shoved a slice of fans to the side with Mara’s death; they’re not all going to come rushing back just because there’s a book with a living Mara in it. Other fans who wanted heroic female characters have been leaving too, and they won’t just reflexively hurry back to a Mara book, either. Second, Choices of One is an Original Trilogy flavor story when that style has been abandoned in the EU for a few years; it’s like offering bubblegum ice cream in a fat-free yogurt shop. The cultivated customer base is all wrong.
But think about this: Comic-Con sold out this year in a matter of hours. There were something in the neighborhood of 50,000 women there. Pretty much every single one of them knows about Star Wars. And the Star Wars brand had, by far, the biggest and boldest display on the exhibit hall floor. For every woman at that convention, there exists five, or ten, or twenty more who would have liked to have gone. And almost all of those women read books. Harry Potter and The Hunger Games have proven that there is a viable book-buying market looking for fantastical epic storytelling with strong female characters, even beyond the typical scifi/fantasy fanbase.
Honestly, it’s almost tragic how little faith two female editors put in the female audience – and that they didn’t exercise some judgment and red-pen out the poorly conceived plot points that have gotten Star Wars books to a point where some now perceive a passive-aggressive assault on women. Del Rey and Lucas Licensing need to take a step back and really look at what they’ve brought to the table, because I can’t imagine that’s the message they really want to send.
It’s possible that someone from Del Rey or Lucas Licensing will step forward to offer the explanation that the last book in the series, Apocalypse, was always planned to address the Ben-Vestara domestic violence, on top of the eighteen other plot lines that need denouement. But nothing in what Golden wrote in Ascension beyond that scene suggests that will happen. The characters simply ignore that anything wrong even happened. So even if that were the creative response, I’d say that’s making a pretty heavy sociological issue just a tree in the forest of the series finale.
And there would be a couple of other big problems with that solution, too. First, we’ve got eight months until that resolution. In the meantime, what’s the message left open-ended? Secondly, Denning has given fans a lot of lip service the last six years about his characterization of females. He’s been accused at various times of enjoying disfiguring female characters, a weak portrayal of Jaina, Tenel Ka, and Tahiri, and limiting the roles of female characters in the aggregate. He has publicly sought to defend his books against these fan perceptions, yet despite this he has failed to put his writing where his mouth is in subsequent books. While I’d like to think he’d want to make this right for the female fans of Star Wars, it’s simply foolhardy to hope that will happen in light of what we’ve been given so far.
I also want to make one other thing clear. This whole failure when it comes to women and their characterizations is not, in my opinion, a malicious or deliberate action by the authors or editors. Rather, I believe it is a negligence of consideration for how the overall storytelling decisions are perceived. They just don’t see how women have been affected as readers and consumers. Because this is Star Wars, which has set itself apart as a storytelling icon imbued in our collective consciousness, Lucasfilm and Del Rey should look carefully at their past and future lineup and consider if they’ve truly tried to create a balance in their books and short stories.
It is quite possible that Del Rey or Lucas Licensing believes the domestic violence has been or will be handled appropriately. But there is no credible way those parties can tell female fans that they’ve represented women equally as heroes in the books when recently even Princess Leia is marginalized in her portrayal and the most prominent Expanded Universe heroine, Mara Jade, was stuffed in the refrigerator with no attempt to bring forward a replacement.
What I hope to see from Star Wars books is the following:
1. A renewed public commitment to quality. Most importantly for the prose between the pages and the storytelling, but also the cover art supplied to hardcovers, which, considering the art capabilities of other Lucasfilm endeavors, leaves fans wanting.
2. A renewed public commitment to be honest with your customers. Don’t put epigraphs about a woman at the front of a nine-book arc, then run the entire series about male protagonists. Don’t put characters on the book covers who barely have a role in the series, let alone the book they are in. This is fraudulent and erodes faith in the books.
3. Sit down and review what’s upcoming, and what we’ve been given over the past few years, and decide how you can balance out the storytelling to include stories women would like. Short stories and one-offs should be considered – either direct to e-book or as fiction in the Insider magazine – to address the balance sooner rather than later. Create a vision for the Star Wars books that is balanced and well-rounded, and work the books into that as opposed to a series of unconnected pitches.
4. Champion some female heroines and allow them to flourish. Don’t write heroes with boobs; write heroines. Fill the gaping hole left by Mara Jade – with more than one heroine. You’ve got plenty of established characters who just need a book that will define the franchise’s faith in their role as heroines – Jaina, Tenel Ka, Tahiri, to name a few. Return Leia to a role that isn’t grandmother to Allana or assistant to Wynn Dorvan or blind-follower of Luke Skywalker. We fell in love with her independent, fierce nature. And after you’ve done that, start crafting a generation of heroines to come up behind them. In other words, don’t expect women just to pop back in, on the occasion that Star Wars writes a random heroine’s journey.
5. If you’re going to write about the horrific crimes against women like rape or abuse then deal with them. Don’t make them gratuitous bombs.
6. Continue to find ways to interact with a wide variety of fans, not just the few running websites. Go out and find the true pulse of the fandom; don’t assume it’s going to come to you, especially the disillusioned or disheartened fans who more than likely have just walked away. Investigate and participate in discussions like the TFN Literature diversity thread; women aren’t the only subset of fans that feel marginalized by the current EU.
7. Commit to hiring a more diverse group of writers, be it women that like to write men or men that like to write women or a minority that likes to write about minority characters. Star Wars is overrun with white male characters that aren’t reflective of your consumer base.
8. Finally, if the corporate decision actually is to write your books lineup aimed at men, then be honest and forthright about that. Don’t continue to drag along your female fans with broken promises and exasperating storylines for the female characters.
May the Force be with you,