I could probably fill a blog post with all the events that conspired against me in the twenty-four hours before GeekGirlCon, starting off with logging on in the morning to see that the plane taking me to Seattle was running seven hours behind schedule. When the panicked realization struck me that I might not make it to Seattle at all, I thought to myself, “What would Princess Leia do?” With an unresponsive United Airlines customer service agent – actually, the second one; the first had been disconnected – telling me there were no seats on any airlines out of Hawaii and me seeing plenty of seats on my internet browser, I took charge like Princess Leia would and booked myself on another airline. That left me just a couple hours to pack and get to the airport for an earlier flight. I arrived in Seattle an hour before I was originally scheduled, happier for the karma – until I realized the hard drive on my year-old laptop had died with all my panel notes on it. Luckily I knew I had some mostly-complete backups, enough to work from, in my emails.
So after that madcap adventure, my Saturday at GeekGirlCon started at 2:00 a.m. making Thank You bags for my panelists, snacking on gummy bears, and transcribing notes off the backup copy on my phone onto handwritten notecards.
Breakfast with some of the panelists at 7:30 a.m. came earlier than my sleepy brain would have liked, but excitement washed away the mind fog. By 10:00 the gang was heading toward the convention center a few blocks away.
To try to relax a bit before my own, I went to the panel “Capes and Canes: Abilities and Disability in Superhero Comics,” discussing comic book characters with disabilities – or the lack thereof. It was a fantastic panel, and many of the sentiments expressed regarding disabilities are very similar to the problems I’ve noted in regard to female characters. Greg Rucka, a comics writer and novelist, was quite firm in his statement that fans need to stop buying stories we don’t like. He asserted the completist mindset from comics fans is one of the biggest hindrances to getting better storytelling. Rucka’s bottom line: the only language publishers speak is dollar signs, so learn how to speak it. I was also very interested in the perspectives of Jill Pantozzi and Teal Sherer, two comics fans with disabilities, who were affected by the loss of Oracle in DC’s New 52. While Pantozzi acknowledged that Barbara Gordon as Batgirl is a good story, that hasn’t changed her emotions or her position about the loss of a character she could relate to and felt passionate about. Both Pantozzi and Sherer pointed out that in creating relatable characters with disabilities it’s not good enough to put a wheelchair on the page; it has to be drawn right, too, because the fans who relate to that wheelchair know the difference.
Afterward I snuck off to review my notecards during the next round of panels. While hiding in my corner I met the lovely Darth Makenna, her pink lightsaber and all. Her youthful enthusiasm for Star Wars seemed like a sign from the Force. Makenna spied my box and wanted to peek inside. She rummaged through my swag of Scoundrels bookmarks and Mercy Kill iron-ons and decided Chewbacca was it. Star Wars Books, you’ve been put on notice – Makenna wants a Chewbacca book.
Down to ten minutes before the panelists met, I picked another corner and rechecked the flow and timeline I had laid out. I wanted the panel to proceed naturally, but the worst thing for a moderated discussion is if it gets stuck on a topic, wanders off track, or misses giving the audience a chance to participate. Each discussion topic on my notecards had an approximate time we needed to “move along.” (Remarkably, we stayed right on schedule.)
Finally I decided I’d better move over to the room and round up my panelists. I saw a crowd in the hall and wondered why all these people were milling about. (I didn’t realize at first it was the line for the Star Wars panel!) I gave Ashley Eckstein and GeekGirlCon Programming Manager Jennifer Stuller big hugs for all their assistance, got Ashley up to speed on “the plan,” and suddenly the doors opened. Time for the panel!
Once everyone was seated I glanced up and realized every chair was taken and there were people all along the back wall. That was my oh poodoo! moment. (Later, I saw that people had tweeted they were turned away at the door.) The clock ticked 12:30, everyone was ready, so… this is where the fun begins!
Everyone’s bios were previously posted at the blog, so here’s a quick recap of who was on the panel: Linda Raj-Hansen, Mary Sheridan, Ashley Eckstein, and Joao Stinson. Joanne Perrault was taking photos, and Mary took her place on the panel. It was a fairly last-minute change and we forgot to change the name card in front of Mary, so many of the quotes attributed to Joanne in the tweets are actually Mary’s remarks.
Anyone who reads FANgirl Blog knows I have opinions on the female characters of Star Wars, but that’s because I love them. I’ve always believed that improvement won’t come just from critiquing the stories we’re given, but also by fans of strong female characters proving they are a customer base worthy of products targeted toward them. For instance, why weren’t there shirts aimed at female fans until the founding of Her Universe? The answer is simple – because no one with the ability to create those products recognized the money-making potential. So my goal for the panel from the start was to talk about the female characters of Star Wars that fans love – because there are a lot of them – and help point to the huge untapped potential. Without a doubt, fans want more great portrayals of women like those that captivated our imaginations previously.
From my observations in the fandom, and now with even more people speaking up about it, Star Wars had cultivated a female fanbase from the beginning. Two decades ago, Heir to the Empire proved that stories in the book format were not only viable but well-regarded. Many loyal book consumers related to Princess Leia shown as an expectant mother who still kept her politically prominent day job and to the incomparable Mara Jade. Jaina Solo in the New Jedi Order inspired yet another passionate fanbase. Mara’s death cut to the quick for some fans, and Jaina’s personal life stagnation didn’t keep pace with her generation of fans as they grew up. With characters like Ahsoka Tano and Asajj Ventress in The Clone Wars appealing to a wide variety of fans and many exciting announcements for the comics and books, though, the tide may be changing. Ultimately, it’s important for fans to express what made their favorite characters relatable so the future storytellers know what does and doesn’t appeal to them.
Women haven’t always felt like they can speak their mind within the fandom. GeekGirlCon’s mission has been to give women a venue to be heard. The room was packed, so I think we proved the continuing enthusiasm. On to the discussion…
[Note: Discussion points for the panel are noted in blue.]
The panelists share their favorite female characters.
Linda: It’s a hard question. Princess Leia is a favorite, but she did admit she really wanted to be Han Solo. She added Mara Jade and Aryn Leneer from Deceived. Linda also mentioned that she plays a female Jedi Knight in The Old Republic.
Mary: Jaina Solo is her #1, but she also noted Mara Jade and Myri Antilles from Mercy Kill.
Ashley: Like many Star Wars fans she likes Princess Leia, but admitted to secretly wanting to be R2-D2. She has a soft spot for her own character, Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars. While she couldn’t give any spoilers away, she noted that by the end of Season Five fans will adore Asajj Ventress.
Joao: Following on the heels of Ashley’s aspirations to be R2-D2, he mentioned that he and Racheal had recently discussed the astromech. “How do we know R2 is not a girl?” Joao had an affinity with Padmé Amidala, and his wife Racheal loved Jaina Solo in her X-wing days of the New Jedi Order.
Tricia: Princess Leia and Mara Jade influenced my early fandom, but Jaina Solo created a Han Solo-like character who was a powerful Jedi. For me, I loved seeing a Solo swinging a lightsaber.
What does “strong” mean to you?
Linda: It means being your own superhero and having a willingness to be a hero. Aspiring to be strong and to inspire people to be strong, while also being open to being vulnerable. Strengths and weaknesses are different sides of the coin; if a character knows where their weakness is, they can turn that into a strength.
Mary: Strong means thinking outside of yourself, thinking of other people. It also means morals and ethics, the character of a person. Strong doesn’t require perfection.
Ashley: Characters have to have weaknesses to learn from. In the first season of The Clone Wars there were complaints about how green Ahsoka was, but she needed room to grow. For Ahsoka, her weakness was a desire to please that turned into a lack of patience. A strong character is a risk-taker, driven and persevering. She noted that it is scary to put yourself out there, but strength takes confidence, passion, and hard work, and also being willing to fail and learn from those mistakes.
Joao: Strength is the conviction to do the right thing and the willingness to learn how to be the hero. He doesn’t see it as a gender difference. “Do what you believe is the right thing to do.”
Tricia: In the GeekGirlCon pre-convention Q&A I noted this goal:
There is a common misperception that when fans say “I’d like more strong female characters” they mean they don’t want their female characters to be flawed or to have weaknesses. So I think it’s important to discuss that first.
By the time we finished on this topic, I thought the panel had done a good job of proving that strong does not equal perfect in the eyes on fans.
While A New Hope had a comic book style story to it, when Irvin Kershner came on board to direct The Empire Strikes Back he relied heavily on the storytelling elements of the classic fairy tale. The Original Trilogy built the backbone of Star Wars and definitely helped introduce a new type of female character to the world. Female characters of Star Wars is a broad topic, so in framing the panel I used the fairy tale elements like the Jedi princess and Sith witch to focus the discussion. These types of characters exist in the movies, videogames, The Clone Wars television show, and the books and comics.
Examples of the Jedi Princess archetype include Princess Leia Organa Solo, Jaina Solo (a figurative Jedi Princess), Tenel Ka (first a Jedi Princess, now Queen Mother of the Hapes Consortium), Allana Solo (a melting pot of cultures including Hapan royalty, Dathomiri witch, Alderaanian royalty, and Corellian and Jedi royalty).
What obstacles or challenges present themselves to a Princess archetype, in creating them or in how their story plays out?
Ashley: Growing up with Disney, she views “princess” as an empowering term. Disney characters used their imaginations. She admitted to being obsessed with Kate Middleton and how impressed she is with the real life princess’ efforts at goodwill, doing the most she can with her title.
Tricia: Princesses never get to take a moment to just be a normal person. There is a price to pay for the title. Padmé’s dual identity of former Queen or Senator and wife to Anakin created the conflict for her character.
Heir to the Empire opened the EU with Princess Leia as a political leader in the New Republic and an expectant mother. There is a saying “there’s never a good time to become a mother” (or a parent for that matter). What do think about the portrayal of female characters as mothers?
Linda: The stories reflect how times have changed. Women expect to have a career, their own interests, to be a wife and a mother. Satele Shan from The Old Republic is a Jedi Master and a mother. Linda reminded the audience that princesses don’t have to get married, though.
Mary: Female characters might have given too much to the career and not enough to the family. Jaina waits thirty-six books to get married. Speaking to the post-Return of the Jedi timeline, she noted there are few characters in next generation other than Ben and Allana.
Joao: Racheal wanted to see Jaina take the reins. She had wanted to see Jaina and Jag get married for a long time. That was her reality TV.
In 1994, The Courtship of Princess Leia introduced the Nightsisters. Prequel Trilogy concept art featured a Sith Witch, which was deemed too scary so we ended up with Darth Maul. [Lots of laughter from audience!] Later this concept was utilized to create Mother Talzin in The Clone Wars. The discussion turned to defining what exactly is evil.
Tricia: Although Mother Talzin is presented as a Sith, she is motivated to protect her family. Is she evil or just nurturing?
Joao: Citing Obi-Wan Kenobi’s famous rationalization “what I told you was true, from a certain point of view,” he noted that evil characters don’t see themselves as wrong. The best villains are not sociopaths, but the characters who think they are doing the right thing from their point of view.
Ashley: Ventress believes she’s doing the right thing. It’s important to understand why characters are making their decisions.
Tricia: Although she is not a heroic character, Ventress is one of my favorites. After she is taken in by Mother Talzin, she loses that family of Nightsisters. She’s been stripped bare, and is now rising from the ashes.
X-wing pilots like Wedge Antilles from the Original Trilogy characterized the true everyman. In X-Wing: Mercy Kill we see not only the everyman but the everywoman – in this case the daughter of Wedge Antilles – doing his or her best in an attempt to make a difference in the galaxy. What are your favorite everyman characters?
Linda: She likes to play the everyman in The Old Republic. With non-Force users it’s easier to imagine yourself in that position
Mary: The X-Wing Series books are her favorites. There are a lot of female pilots in Rogue Squadron and Wraith Squadron. She also likes to imagine her own characters.
Tricia: At conventions, fans dress up as X-wing pilots, characters who aren’t necessarily Wedge, Luke, or Jaina in an X-wing uniform.
Ashley: She is starting to read the books. On the topic of Mandalorian Bo-Katan, she said, “Holy cow she has got a story. It’s awesome. Don’t judge someone until you see what it’s like in their shoes.”
Joao: He used the example of a slicer character who isn’t a superhero. Anyone can learn these things, how to work with computers or be a leader in the military. That’s a good perspective to have these characters that aren’t just Jedi.
Tricia: In doing my fan read of the upcoming Essential Readers Companion, I was reminded of all the great female non-Force using characters peppered all around the EU. Characters like Winter, who will appear in the upcoming novel by Timothy Zahn, Scoundrels. There is such a variety of tastes that often it helps to go out to the fansites and discover whose taste aligns with your own sensibilities.
Tomorrow, I’ll post my list of recommended sites to discover and stay informed about Star Wars Expanded Universe, as well as cover the Q&A portion of the panel.
Photos courtesy of Joanne Perrault.