This morning Liz Bourke of Tor.com posted a lengthy interview with author Karen Miller, who wrote three Star Wars novels published in 2008 and 2010 tying into the first two seasons of The Clone Wars animated series. Miller discusses her writing, feminism, and the state of genre publishing in Australia and the U.K. compared to the United States. The interview is insightful and is definitely worth a read in its entirety, but I found some of her comments about Star Wars and its fandom particularly compelling.
Miller expresses her perception of the fandom and its reaction to her novels this way:
The Star Wars fan audience, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly male. At least as far as I can tell. The vast majority of writers who do the tie-in novels are also male. There is a definite predominance of male voices and male POVs in Star Wars novels. And that makes a huge difference in the reception of the material.
For a lot of Star Wars fans—the guys in particular—the story is about fighting and space battles and stuff like that. For them, that’s the whole point. For them, the intricacies of psychological investigation are boring and unwelcome. And I completely accept that. But it’s not what floats my starship—and I felt strongly that I can’t be the only one who is in love with the story because of the characters, not despite them. …
Turns out I’m not. The readers—male and female—who see and love that aspect of Star Wars completely connected with what I’m trying to do, and they’ve told me so. It’s been fabulous. But it is niche. I knew it was niche going in, and so did the folk who oversee the Star Wars novels project—and they let me do it anyway. I so admire them for that, and will be forever grateful that I was allowed to take some time out and be more introspective in the way a Star Wars story was told.
Absolutely, there is a segment of the male fanbase that resents any incursion by a woman. But since that’s true on a wider societal scale, really, all that proves is that fandom is a microcosm of society.
Where it gets tricky is in separating personal taste from bigotry. I don’t think it’s fair to say that any male Star Wars fan who doesn’t like what I write—or what any female author writes—is automatically a sexist bastard. Perhaps there is an element of misogyny in the response. Perhaps we are looking at a knee-jerk “girl cooties” response. I don’t know. I can’t read the heart and mind of a male Star Wars fan who doesn’t like my stuff, for example. Star Wars is a fairly “boy’s own adventure” kind of story, and perhaps that means it’s more naturally skewed towards an audience that loves and wants “boy’s own adventure” storytelling, and nothing else.
Unfortunately, I think her perspective is inaccurate – but it is also completely understandable for the timeframe in which her books were written and published. As I’ve discussed in detail previously, the reality is that there were large numbers of female fans of the Expanded Universe at that time – but their voices were not seen or heard in the venues that dominated fan interaction with the Powers That Be in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Numerous female fanficcers wrote character-driven, introspection-heavy stories set in the Prequel era. Often these stories showcased many of the same characters featured in Miller’s books: Anakin, Padmé, Obi-Wan, Bail Organa, and more. For those who knew where to look, they would have seen a large, engaged fan base primed to latch onto exactly the style and era of story Miller was writing.
The contrary perception existed at the time, I believe, primarily because many of these female fans congregated in the fanfiction community, rather than the StarWars.com and TFN Literature message boards. For many female fans, those forums were unwelcoming places to interact; when they did participate, some even kept their genders a secret. Sexist and offensive posts by male users often were left unaddressed by moderators, while female users were edited and banned for much less when they spoke out against it. Similarly, Karen Traviss undeniably bears her own share of responsibility for the manner in which she engaged in conflict with segments of the fandom and how she treated the franchise, its themes, and its characters in her novels – but for many fans, there is equally no doubt that her fan antagonists were allowed to attack her far more savagely than the fansite leaderships or the fandom at large ever would have tolerated toward a male author. It came as no surprise to female fans, then, that when Ashley Eckstein founded Her Universe and specifically talked about female fans not feeling welcome at the prominent fansites, no one stepped up to refute her.
Fortunately, the online fandom has changed greatly in the last several years. The diversity and number of fansites has grown and with that the discourse and the communication channels to LucasBooks and Del Rey are more representative of the entire fanbase. Facebook and Twitter, among other alternatives, have facilitated direct interaction with the editorial and authorial staffs, bypassing the filter of fan forums and their moderators. Fansites are quickly discovering that actively hosting sexism on their sites will be recognized and called out, and that passively failing to speak up against sexism will be noticed, too. Female fans now have choices about how to engage in the fandom – and they can and will take their participation elsewhere.
Still, some of the reaction to today’s interview is revealing. The first reaction of some male fans to seeing a woman express her perception of sexism in the fandom still is to reject her perception, defaulting to defensiveness by insisting that the fandom isn’t really so bad and minimizing the problem to a small number of jerks. Instead, the path to actually treating all fans equally and fairly is to accept the perception as honestly and truly felt – which Miller’s indubitably is – and asking what we as fellow fans can do to change her perception. Much as some male fans may wish female fans don’t feel this way, the reality is that many still do. The solution is not denial, but cooperation in making all fans feel welcome to participate fully.
Karen Miller penned the new short story appearing in the next Star Wars Insider, Issue #135, and featuring Myri Antilles. Hopefully she is aware of the genuine excitement from male and female fans alike to see Wedge’s daughter take the spotlight.