A few weeks ago I sat in a monorail car on my way to the Magic Kingdom, pondering how I would introduce myself for Her Universe’s Year of the Fangirl. The opportunity to work alongside the women Ashley Eckstein has assembled is an honor I never imagined in my wildest fangirl dreams. But just a few short years ago I couldn’t have imagined that a young girl, about eight years old, would walk into the same car on a Disney monorail wearing a Jedi robe, notice my Padmé Nouveau shirt, and that we’d instantly recognize we were part of a community of fans. I was the same age as that Jedi cosplayer when my grandparents took me to see Star Wars. I consider myself lucky for having experienced the fandom from the beginning. Just a few months later for Halloween, my mother wrapped my long brown piggy tails into cinnamon rolls, put me in a simple white dress, and took the requisite picture of her daughter preparing to parade around the neighborhood as the character she idolized. In 1977 it was impossible to understand Princess Leia’s significance. She was a princess unlike any other: bold, self-rescuing, a leader and a warrior – but very much without equal on-screen and elsewhere in genre storytelling. Leia’s uniqueness represented what it was like to be an independent woman in the late 1970s, and I was still very much a child. Women were making a stand for equal treatment, but often they did it in isolation. As the generation raised on the Original Trilogy has matured, the spirit of Princess Leia and the heroines who’ve followed her have helped change the very nature of our culture.
As I entered engineering school in college, I didn’t really understand that what I was doing might be outside the norm for women. Nothing in how I had been raised suggested that I needed to make life choices based on my gender. My favorite female characters – Princess Leia, Colonel Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers, Marion Ravenwood from Raiders of the Lost Ark – were intelligent and brave, right alongside the men. My best friend in high school had shared with me a passion for horses, dance team, and all things scifi and fantasy. Yet being listed as part of the engineering class in the dance team photo in the sports program drew surprised comments from fellow students. I slowly realized I was crossing preconceived lines. After the first year of general coursework, when I walked into specialized civil engineering classes, it wasn’t hard to miss that the male-to-female ratio was roughly 10:1. None of that really gave me reason to question my choice of career, and I’ve never regretted sticking with it.
Years later when the Prequel Trilogy reignited my passion for the Star Wars franchise, I again experienced being outnumbered in the early period of online fandom. The second time around it wasn’t my high school best friend and I debating whether Darth Vader had lied to Luke at Cloud City, but rather many voices on the internet – usually identities hidden behind screennames. And those early, male-dominated message boards had some very specific notions about the who’s, what’s and how’s of fandom. Once again, though, I refused to let it dissuade me from joining discussions and sticking up for myself. Tina Fey, a comedienne and writer who is respected for her ability to tap into pop culture’s pulse, once noted in an interview: “What I took from Star Wars was kind of the Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship story.” Admittedly, Star Wars wasn’t just about Princess Leia for me, but also Han Solo – and their relationship. Like Tina Fey, I’m a ‘shipper. While I’m at confessions, I’m a huge fan of Jaina Solo – daughter of Leia and Han. Who didn’t want to see Leia swinging a lightsaber or flying an X-wing once Luke’s story played out in Return of the Jedi? Or so I thought. Yet as recently as five years ago, ‘shippers and fans of female characters like Jaina or Mara Jade were often dismissed or bullied out of fandom discourse. Fangirl, ‘shipper, fanficcer, and more recently “fake geek girl” – these all became terms meant to diminish the importance of female fans. There was a time when I almost bought into the mindset; it’s very easy to fall into the trap if you feel alone. When a successful and confident women like Tina Fey talks about herself as a fan, though, it empowers other women to do the same. It helps start a conversation, and one has been building the past few years.
About the same time The Clone Wars came along, the internet fandom really opened up as fansites and blogs flourished and became more user-friendly – and a little company called Her Universe was born. When Ashley appeared on podcasts and hosted panels at conventions, she discussed her love of things geeky with the same genuine passion as Tina Fey. She continued the conversation, then went one step further and gave female fans another way to show their geek pride. Put on a shirt that says, “Hey, I’m a fan!” and barriers of isolation are torn down. Her Universe reminded everyone that fans, who happened to be girls, really do exist. In 2010, I created a blog to highlight the achievements of fangirls and to discuss issues in storytelling and fandom that affected and were important to female fans. I named my blog FANgirl as a way to take back the negative stigma often attached to the term. “FAN” is capitalized to remind everyone of the most important part of the word. I didn’t envision it just as my site, but as a place many voices could be heard. Over twenty fans have contributed to the blog, seven of them regularly. One of the best parts of creating a venue for fans is watching women who otherwise might never have had the chance get to interview a Star Wars author, have their review of The Clone Wars retweeted by one of its writers, or sit on a convention panel to discuss what they love about their favorite franchise.
I always believed women would come into our own in fandom. Powered by a surge of female fans coming to the fore, a female-led action movie ruled at the box office and the range of stories with strong female characters is becoming almost limitless in books, comics, movies, and television. Doors are opening for women specifically because they are fangirls. My personal highlights include writing about Star Wars on Suvudu.com, ActionFlickChick.com and in Star Wars Insider magazine, helping in the creative process for artwork that would eventually end up in Del Rey’s The Essential Reader’s Companion, dissecting The Clone Wars episodes with Jason Swank and Jimmy McInerney of RebelForce Radio, and hosting a standing-room-only panel at GeekGirlCon. These incredible opportunities have given me the courage to create my own heroine and tell her story. I am putting the finishing touches on my science fiction novel Wynde right now. I look at fangirls like Amy, who blazed a trail as a geek girl blogger, or Victoria, who has worn her fandom loud and proud with fabulous cosplay and style advice, and I’m in awe of what they have accomplished. Erin’s story and her passion for the Star Wars Expanded Universe inspire me when the days seem tough, and Lillian’s blogging and outreach exemplify how we can all be good ambassadors for the fandom. It is women like these who have built a community; we make each other stronger. Along with Ashley, each of these women exemplifies what being a fangirl is about to me: Voice your opinions, hopes, or desires about the stories that you feel passionate about. Respect that every other fan – including the ones creating those stories – brings their own unique perspective. I am so excited going forward into the next chapter of Star Wars as Disney becomes its new steward. My hope is that we can build on the community as new fans discover the Galaxy Far Far Away and its many heroes and heroines. May The Force Be With You.