I imagined a lot of stuff when I was a kid. Space battles, fantasy worlds, robots and dragons and hobbits oh my.
Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Transformers, with their mix of myth and pulp sci-fi, and their almost entirely male casts, made the tentpoles of my imagination. They made me want to tell my own fantasy and sf stories.
But for all that, I didn’t often imagine, y’know, women as heroes.
In 1992, I read a little something called Heir To The Empire. And I have to credit Timothy Zahn, to this day, for Mara Jade. Fighting compulsion for free will, shading between light and darkness–Mara’s journey was one of the first epic, serious tales I read for a female character. She wasn’t overly sexualized, or made a plot device for the male characters. She was everything good about Luke, Han & Leia, and the Thrawn trilogy worked because it was her story.
However, after I’d read enough of it, the Expanded Universe became… ah, unwieldy is a good word.
So is lumbering slobberbeast created by a barn full of drunk writers only allowed to refer to each other by call signs.
Three years out, in 1995, I stopped drinking from the fire hose of EU novels and comics. Not before, though, I gave, I not you shit, young Jedi, a presentation explaining the EU to my high school freshman English class.
After that presentation, the girl I had a crush on actually walked with me to the bus, and talked to me for the first time. I was fairly shocked. Hadn’t I just outed myself as the world’s biggest nerd? It never occurred to me, even though I had Mara Jade to guide me, that my crush could 1) be a nerd herself, 2) actually find someone interesting when they expressed their passion, no matter how nerdy, or 3) a combination of the two.
Here is where it would be nice to say “Reader, I married her,” but no. I stuttered through one or two conversations with her.
Instead, I decided that conventional wisdom had to be right. Girls didn’t dig nerds. I traded the EU for neo-Beat cool. I dropped all my regular comic buys and dialed down the nerdiness in all aspects of my life for a while. (This is why I am the only fantasy writer in the world who never played D&D. )
Based on religious programming, cultural programming, and yes, the lack of women in the stories I grew up on, I ignored Mara Jade and bought into the idea that women were like another strange race of beings, and couldn’t understand the nerdy boys’ world.
And then, as hope was lost and nerdiness lay fallow behind pseudo-cool, the prophecy came true.
STAR WARS EPISODE ONE.
Okay, sonny, you really have to try to understand how COOL that sounded.
EPISODE ONE!!!!!!!! FINALLY THE TALE OF YOUNG VADER, WHICH WOULD NO DOUBT BE COOL BECAUSE how could THAT be bad?
For this movie, I accepted that I would go full nerd again. I waited for the midnight show tickets. I watched Empire Strikes Back a good thirty times in the months leading up to Phantom Menace. (I also watched Trainspotting, to brush up on young MacGregor, and learned the hard way that one wasn’t much of a date movie.)
I saw it aaaaaand…
I loved The Phantom Menace!
Specifically, I loved the bit setpieces. I maintain that Episode 1 has the shape of Star Wars–cool lightsaber fights and a space battle and a podrace–but after the fourth showing, there was no soul behind those set pieces. All the story beats felt wrong. Why were we wasting time on midichlorians and trade agreements? Why was the movie about Qui-Gon, with Obi-Wan relegated to a supporting player? Why was Jar-Jar such a one-note doofus, with zero redeeming qualities?
The story, if you really squinted, was a good one–young Anakin Skywalker, a slave with nothing to his name, becomes a Jedi and helps save the galaxy. But it didn’t flow! The characters didn’t connect the right dots! This obscure dude Timothy Zahn was able to write a realized, complex character like Mara Jade, and George Lucas couldn’t make Padme and Anakin interesting?
I began obsessively rewriting the movie. In retrospect, it was very good for me as a writer, if not as a Star Wars fan.
My experience with Episode 1 was more positive than negative. It showed me that I was going to be both a normal successful adult and a raging nerd and that there was no way around it. Sometime in 1999, I realized that all people, men and women, worked on a balance between a dreamy-eyed kid and a practical adult.
(I soon had the Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, X-Men and Spider-Man movies to make things better, although not entirely on the female representation front.)
So when I met a girl in college who liked comic books, and we were having a good time together, and I was trying to 1) keep the fun times moving, and 2) find out just how nerdy she was, I asked the fateful question.
“You want to see my Star Wars toys?”
She did. This time, reader…
I MARRIED HER.
She doesn’t even like Star Wars, and here’s the crazy thing: it’s because she felt pressured to like it as a teenager. She’s a raging geek otherwise, who loves anything animated, tried to change her name to Harley Quinn, collects Legos, and still makes a fortnightly trip to the comic store with me.
My wife might not get it, but she and I both owe a little hat tip to Mara Jade, now erased from canon, but not my heart, and my mind.