Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Light and Dark Sides of Mara Jade

  My Stance on Female Characters in Star Wars and Beyond 
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss
Princess Leia was revolutionary when she was born from a line of pulp damsels-in-distress, but now, every summer blockbuster has its token action girl. Scarlett from G.I. Joe, Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, and Katniss in this summer’s The Hunger Games all show that American science-fiction and fantasy has come a long way from either Victorian fainting sprees or Frank Frazetta pin-up characters. Action girl isn’t the new damsel any more. She simply isn’t new - and she isn’t interesting, either. She’s better than the way women are portrayed in Michael Bay’s Transformers, for example, but let’s try to have some perspective here. Females in franchise science fiction and fantasy need to be complex characters, with more to them than their ability to fight. “She’s a woman...who’s also great with a blaster!” isn’t an exciting or revolutionary description any more.

In the Star Wars universe of 2012 we have Mara Jade, Callista, Ahsoka, Aayla Secura, and the recent Juval Charn to show impressionable viewers and readers that a Jedi girl - or a Rebel girl - is a tough girl who stands up for what she believes in. That’s a great lesson for younger fans to learn, especially if they, like Katie, who made headlines last year, are still feeling pressured by Star Wars being “boys’ toys”. (McDonalds isn’t doing anything to change the stereotype that “girls don’t like Star Wars” with their tie-ins for the TPM release.)  

However, with the last live-action Star Wars movie having come out eight years ago and many fans still powered by the passion they hold for the original trilogy when they saw it in the theaters, I believe that we as a group of fangirls have the right to a higher standard. The argument I’m going to make here must by nature be a personal one, born as it is from my experiences of fandom. Not everyone’s experience is exactly the same, and different interests guide each of us.

When I first got into Star Wars, the character that drew me in the most was Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be him: to have an orange flightsuit and and X-Wing and a lightsaber. I wanted to get out of my small town and do new things. I was attracted to the actor, but that existed simultaneously with wanting to be the character.  

I learned of the existence of Mara Jade Skywalker in that same summer, maybe the June after Attack of the Clones came out. I was voraciously searching out everything about the Star Wars universe I could find. This was the era of the New Jedi Order, and I loved its strange aliens and new, teenage characters. Some older girls in my social circles adored Mara. While I was taking the first shaky steps that people at the beginnings of fan fiction careers take, those girls were writing about Luke and Mara. They used her as a substitute for the fan-characters I would create in my own image.  I felt that, through Mara, these girls had claims to the canon that I did not.    

Mara bothered me. She brought a romantic element to the character of Luke, who I had seen as either romantically attainable for myself, in that fannish, hyper-emotional teenage way, or as an asexual, monkish, almost genderless figure upon whom I could project my own traits to adventure vicariously through the Star Wars world.

It’s important to be to be able to identify with a character. There is of course an element of wish-fulfillment in all fantasy: I wish I could fight with a lightsaber and use the Force, for example. This sort of wish-fulfillment probably drew many of us to Star Wars.  However, wish-fulfillment is not enough to drive a character alone. You have to be able to identify with them on a more realistic level.

Your first question might be: what about Leia and Padmé? Lots of fans love them. They’re both competent, confident main characters who have been explored pretty well in fan media. However, they rarely appear on my own radar as characters who will make or break the sale of a book.

This is an entirely personal opinion (or lack thereof), but I think it does have something to do with Leia and Padmé’s presentation in the films. While that presentation isn’t bad, it’s notably different from that of Mission Vao or Deena Shan.  My perception of them may be skewed because both of them are presented as adult characters in opposition to a childlike hero. This is literal in the case of Padmé, who meets Anakin when he is nine and she is in her teens. In the case of Leia, she is an established, independent woman with a career (two, if you count senator and Rebel leader as separate careers), whereas when Luke first meets her he is living with his adopted parents and working only on their farm. I came to Star Wars as a teenager, and many fans come to it earlier in their lives. It isn’t as easy to identify with Leia and Padmé because they are set apart as separate from children. Some fans who have said that George Lucas puts his female main characters on a pedestal might be coming at this same idea from a different angle.

I looked for a character who looked and acted like my ideal self and couldn’t find one. When I began to hear the fan community talk about how fangirls needed to be heard, I was delighted until I realized that many people were identifying the voice they would speak in with characters like Mara. I did not think that Mara represented the kind of person whom female fans wanted. She did not illuminate the female experience by having to work through her emotions. She could not be imperfect (except in a dramatic, “I’ve fallen to the dark side!” kind of way). She came across as a reaction or a byproduct instead of a fully-formed character: a “wouldn’t it be cool if we had a dark Jedi....but she was a woman!” idea that never got past that initial concept. She was created directly as a foil for Luke. She is a man’s woman, shapely and strong. Mara’s voice cannot be mine.

It’s great to support beautiful, talented female characters and then say that they can inspire real women too. It’s also easy. It’s harder to say that a franchise needs varied, flawed female characters of average appearances in order to let the fangirls emotionally connect with those characters. It’s through watching flawed characters that viewers learn about life outside the fiction. Luke’s hero’s journey gave a moral message. I couldn’t find the same in Mara’s development.

However, saying that a publishing house should produce only self-doubting characters I can identify with is a pointless gesture. The franchise is not built around me. There are fans who identify with Mara Jade because they are confident and red-haired and want to be beautiful.  This is neither an unheard-of opinion nor an exercise in shallowness. It’s just true. And that’s how demographics go. If movie studios wanted to cater to a young, freckled audience, they’d cast a young, freckled lead. But I’m willing to bet that not all female Star Wars fans can identify with the nearly-perfect people. Some of us can. But not all of us can, or want to. So where’s our representative? Where’s our demographic?

The next argument that one could make is well, where’s the representative for averageness or fearfulness in male Star Wars characters? Many main characters, like Luke, Anakin, Han, and Dash Rendar, are wish-fulfillment avatars for men. But there are some problems with this:

1. Male is the neutral gender, grammatically and socially. Therefore most characters whose gender is not significant to their actions or role in the plot are male. Thus: Yoda, Chewbacca, Dexter Jettster, the announcer at the Boonta Eve race track, etc. A character being male doesn’t elicit a gender-specific reaction in the viewer. A character being female, well - she’s instantly either an empowered representative of her gender or intended to be attractive. Or both. (It’s when you try to do both that you get Mara Jade.)

2. Most lauded science fiction (I do not count the numberless Anita Blake etc. spinoffs in fantasy) is written by men, for a young male audience. When they put Princess Leia in a bikini, it is not to show empowerment for women, it is not because that outfit just happened to make the most sense for the scene. It’s because scantily clad people are entertaining, and because if you can grab a young person by the hormones you have them hooked to your franchise. This works for women too, whether it’s intended to (Twilight) or not (Halo).

3.  Although beauty is certainly subjective, the list of average-looking males is much longer than the list of average-looking females. More traits are coded to be beautiful in females: most of the Star Wars women are tall, skinny, with brightly-colored hair, at some undefinable age between twenty and thirty, wear makeup and lipstick, and are flawless fighters. The males do not have such clear similarities in type. They vary in age, face shape, attitude, and motivation. Luke, Wedge Antilles, Biggs Darklighter, most of Rogue Squadron, most of the aliens, and most of the bad guys are male. (Exceptions do exist: Asajj Ventress is a good example.)

Instead of just critiquing, I’d like to put forward traits that I would prefer to see in female characters:

1.) Less confidence. Yes they should be role models, yes they should be awesome, but I want a moment, just a moment, of fear to show that they’re human. Someone once said that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s going on in spite of fear. If our heroines don’t show any fear, their young fans are not going to know how to deal with it when it comes in the real world. One of my least favorite lines ever in The Clone Wars is a bit where Ahsoka says something like “I used to be afraid but then I decided not to because fear doesn’t get you anywhere.” Life doesn’t work like that. That’s too clinical, too disciplined to be realistic. Maybe a Jedi could do it but that caveat is never given.

2.) More varied body shapes and traits. Short people in Star Wars are usually aliens.

3.) Varied professions, interests, and points of view.

4.) Character arcs that focus on real emotions and  how to live with them: fear, jealousy, charity, enthusiasm, or simple, honest dislike.

I want to show one more example of the representation of females in a current Star Wars product. The two quotes below are referring to the MMO The Old Republic, a game which has received mostly positive reviews among fans.

 Blogger Rachael Ambrose writes that "Probably the biggest experience changer is the actual appearance options of the male and female characters. With the male, you can have a stick thin, scrawny male, muscular, average, or overweight. Female characters aren’t overweight. You can make one bigger, but it’s not like the overweight male. It doesn’t seem right to limit the possibilities or to only allow players to make characters that some consider “attractive.” The variation between male characters is much more defined than the female characters."

 Another observer has a different perception: "In my opinion, the worst one could say is that the 'fat guy' is a bit easier to believe is 'fat' while the 'fat girl' is really just buxom. I think their objective for 'fat guy' was 'built like a brick house,' and they just sort of landed on 'fat guy,' but pulled it off with the female version."

 The underlying idea in his point is that the characters in TOR were meant to be fit. As Jedi, smugglers, or whatever character class they chose, that character would have to be physically fit to some degree in order to complete the tasks they are given in the course of progressing through the game. 

Just as damsel has made way for action girl, action girl needs to make way for unique characters the likes of which are usually seen outside science fiction.  Women in science fiction can progress again to become not types, but, you know, real characters. My advice to writers and franchise publishers is to vary your heroines: give them different occupations, interests, and areas of speciality. Not everybody has to be good with a blaster.  BioWare does this well: witness Mission Vao, and Atris from Knights of the Old Republic, or Jack and Tali from Mass Effect. In addition to unique backstories they have strong traits and features: Jack’s tattoos, criminal record, and penchant for cursing, or Tali’s almost polar opposite shyness and constantly concealing suit. These characters are more like real people, whose likes and dislikes the reader can predict. Maybe a good test is asking the reader what they think  the character would like for as a gift. If the reader can think quickly of a few areas of interest they might start looking in, the character has enough traits at least for a start. Joss Whedon, as has been discussed extensively in the internet (and, increasingly, in academia), is good at writing characters like this. Keep in mind, I don’t hate a character instantly if they’re good at fighting. I love warriors. Jaina Solo from Star Wars, or Tex and Carolina from Red vs Blue, are great. They just have to have personality traits in addition to their skills.

I hope that I have accurately pointed out the inequality in character designs and why more characters like Mara Jade will not change that. There are some great female characters in the EU and elsewhere in science fiction. I shouldn’t go on without mentioning Jaina Solo, Deena Shan, Laranth Tarak, Yaddle, and the Knights of the Old Republic characters mentioned above. All of these are great. But they aren’t enough yet.


  1. As someone who still doesn't know much from Mara Jade (but may well have been a fanboy 6-7 years ago), I nevertheless agree with pretty much all of this.

    The issue of "Strong Female Characters" (as Yahtzee calls them, Supercilious Badass Action Girls) vs. actually strong--i.e. developed and compelling--characters who happened to be female is a big issue with me.

    1. Thanks for the comment: I thought you might have something interesting to say about this. Supercilious is a good word for the kind of character I dislike. I'd be interested for a link to the context in which Yahtzee was speaking.

  2. For such an amazing and in-depth review, I feel like I need to write a long response. But I don't know what to say other than: I totally agree with you, Nem. And this has really inspired me to try harder to vary my characters - make them different, more interesting. I do give my characters flaws, but I think I need to make them more... human (even if they're alien. you know what i mean).

    Yep. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks! My intent is to teach and inspire. :)

      P.S. I got your fic requests: they're on the to-do list.

    2. And you do it well, Nem.

      P.S. Awesome! I look forward to reading them!

  3. I totally agree with you on this. Flat, one-dimensional characters simply can't hold up in a galaxy of *usually* pretty well-developed ones. I do wonder if the problem is because the authors are mostly male to begin with. Delving into the mind of the opposite sex is definitely not something you get good at overnight.

    The thing with TOR is that you need physically fit characters to do most of the stuff they do. You simply don't see larger, heavier beings hurtling over obstacles like a lithe, skinny person. Admittedly, there is that option for building a literally square male in TOR, but just from looking at it, it is less fat and more muscle. Now I did make a female character when beta testing as well, and while they had the option for burly as well, it was much less square than the male.

    I also feel the need to mention that creating a flawed female character is a very fine line to travel. I see more and more *rabid* womens-rights activists saying that we need more fearless, totally self-sufficient, blaster-toting female characters to act as rolemodels for young female readers. To create a flawed character is to bring the ire of some potentially influential people. I think the only good remedy to this currently is a female author creating a realistic female character complete with their own flaws and quirks.

    I suppose this is also about the time where I ask if you've read any of Karen Traviss' Republic Commando books. I'd like to know your opinion of her female characters

    1. I thought a lot about your comment today and whether it's easier for guys to write girls, or vice versa, or whether it's just plain easier for everyone to write guys. I feel like that latter one is the trend, for some reason. I myself have trouble writing girls, but then, I have trouble with original characters in general.

      Yeah, for TOR there's a practicality aspect.

      That's true. And maybe I'm underestimating exactly how influential said people are, but I feel like rapidity like that is pointed in the wrong direction. What I've tried to say in this post, and quote in the one about Molly Hooper, is that the "fearless, totally self-sufficient, blaster-toting female characters" aren't pushing the strange, media-centric modern brand of "women's rights" forward. Don't be scared to explain that.

      As much as I wish I could pontificate on the subject, I may have finished the first Republic Commando book but don't even remember because I got bored. Clones and Mandos just aren't my area of expertise.

      Thanks for the comment! It got me thinking.

    2. ^^ Well to be perfectly honest, I will never know if it is easier for a girl to write guys personally, but your thought on everyone writing guys is an option I hadn't really thought of. (Oddly enough, my first actual fanfic, Broadcast, was centered around a female character...albeit I went into as little detail as possible for most of the story)

      Mmhmm. And I like that. When Reality and PC collide, I personally like to see Reality come out as the victor.

      Well it was more of a musing on my part, so I may be overestimating said people. What's funny, though, is while these characters aren't pushing the movement foward, the people behind the movement don't want anything but these characters. I've honestly gotten tired of the more modern "women's rights" people. It's not for what they stand for (I'm with them on equality and such), but it's how a very vocal group of them want to be equal+ (great example; wanting absolute full equality on everything in the Air Force...except when running the mile and pull-ups. A 65 year old man has to do more pull-ups and run faster than an 18 year's kinda ridiculous).

      It's true. The series isn't everybody's cup o' tea. I personally liked how her female leads were much more dynamic than many, MANY other EU females. Etain Tur Muken is probably the character who made me so jaded against Ahsoka and her sue-ness.

      Not a prob! Reading your post got me thinking, so I figure it's an even trade-off.

    3. Sometimes it's hard for me to emphasize enough that I'm not really talking about "the movement" of real-life women's rights people. I don't know enough about things like the Air Force to comment on that, although generally I think America is the best country one could possibly be a woman in. I stick to the media because it's what I know. I'm more interested in perception than reality.

      Yeah, I think it just wasn't my flavor. But if you think she's better than Ahsoka, I believe you and applaud it!

  4. Very good and thought provoking article! I agree with you in all - except that I as a Mara fan think she's more complicated than that (or can be, depending completely on who's writing). But your points are still extremely valid - female characters have come along way and are on the right track - but we're far from "there" yet.

    And interestingly enough, in his last two books, Mara's creator Timothy Zahn has actually been moving MORE towards the perfect/controlled and over-confident in his portrayals of her, instead of diving deeper into the complex. Maybe because he as man is satisfied with her on that pedestal? While I, as identifying reader, found myself disappointed. Reading your article, I realize I had allowed myself to hope for more...

    So here's to voicing those hopes! And thank you!

    1. Thank you very much! I always appreciate hearing a different point of view. I think a good writer could do a lot with Mara's character. Like you said, Zahn has done a lot of resting with her development instead of examining her potential flaws further.

  5. Thank you for writing this. Might help me a lot in the future when creating female characters in original fiction. While I'm normally either neutral or ignorant about famous SW female characters such as Mara, Padme, Ahsoka, and Leia, I agree with most of your points (especially the ones about Ahsoka). Unlike most SW fangirls of my age, I don't like Ahsoka. I liked her when I was younger, but now, she seems flat compared to most EU females out there. I could barely relate to her.

    Glad you mentioned Laranth, by the way. I really like her character. Err... how about Kerra Holt? Any opinion on her?

    1. I haven't read Knight Errant, so unfortunately I can't comment on Kerra Holt.

  6. Thank you for writing this. Might help me a lot in the future when creating female characters in original fiction. While I'm normally either neutral or ignorant about famous SW female characters such as Mara, Padme, Ahsoka, and Leia, I agree with most of your points (especially the ones about Ahsoka).

    When I first got into Star Wars, Ahsoka was my favorite character. But now, she's annoying instead of cool to me. She seemed too... perfect.

    Glad you mentioned Laranth, by the way. I really like her character. Err... how about Kerra Holt? Any opinion on her?