Actress and designer Ashley Eckstein is living the dream of every Star Wars fangirl. As the voice of Anakin Skywalker’s scrappy apprentice Ahsoka Tano on the Cartoon Network series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, she’s become a part of sci-fi history. But even as a member of a legendary franchise, Eckstein encountered an all-too-common problem for female geeks: a lack of Star Wars items for women in retail stores. Sure, one could make do with a boxy tee made for a man, but that shouldn’t be a woman’s only option.
Eckstein took action, approaching Lucasfilm with a proposal to create licensed Star Wars apparel and accessories for the ladies. The result is Her Universe, an online shop that has quickly caught on with fangirls. It’s not just that the clothes are cut for the female body; they also have themes with women in mind. When was the last time you saw a tee based on Vader’s relationship with Leia, and not Luke? And there’s no question a market exists. The same week that I interviewed Eckstein, a friend texted me from (insert large retail chain here), ticked off that the store’s only Boba Fett shirt was for guys. In the interest of full disclosure, I own the Luke Skywalker tee, which never fails to make a guy geek say, “That’s an awesome shirt.”
But while the business is growing — the Her Universe SyFy Channel line launches this month at San Diego Comic-Con — Eckstein said she also wants to create a community and make a statement.
“This isn’t just about cool T-shirts,” said Eckstein, who grew up in Orlando. “This is about giving female fans a voice and trying to break down the stereotype that Star Wars is just for boys; to create an environment so that little girl, Katie, doesn’t have to go to school and worry about being bullied for her Star Wars water bottle. There are a lot of us, and we’re a force to be reckoned with.”
We talked to Eckstein about dressing the female geek, her origin story, and what it’s like to be part of the storied Star Wars universe.
Girls Gone Geek: When did you become a Star Wars fangirl? What was your conversion moment, so to speak?
Ashley Eckstein: I have an older brother, and I always watched everything he did. So of course, Star Wars was a movie that we watched. I remember having that influence as a kid, and playing Star Wars at a young age. Star Wars did have a place in my childhood, but I really became a fangirl when I started working on The Clone Wars. We really have to understand the story to best perform our characters, and (Supervising Director) Dave Filoni goes into detail about the backstory of each episode. Naturally, after working on the show for almost six years now, I’ve just become a massive fan.
G3: How did you land the role of Ahsoka?
AE: I tried out for the show just like any other audition (originally for the Padme role). I remember telling my agent, “I don’t really sound like Padme, but I’ll go in.” Sure enough, the very first line out of my mouth, they stopped me and said, “Your voice is too high, but we do have this new character who’s a 14-year-old girl. Would you mind reading for her?” … I ended up getting the part, and they wanted me to use my own voice. With my natural expressions, how I talked, and my body movements, they just felt that I embodied what they envisioned for Ahsoka.
G3: When did you begin to notice that there wasn’t much Star Wars female apparel? Were you making your own stuff in the beginning?
AE: I was making do with what I could find in the boys’ department or the men’s department. When I was cast in The Clone Wars, I owned one Star Wars shirt that was made for girls. The rest of them were all men’s or boys’ shirts. I figured there had to be more fashionable products out there for female fans, but I found out that they didn’t really exist. Close to half of all Star Wars fans and science fiction fans in general are women, and 85 percent of all consumer purchases are made by women. It didn’t make sense.
I’ve always been into fashion design and arts and crafts. For all the women (on the set), I was buying men’s Star Wars hats and bedazzling them with Swarovski crystals. I didn’t know if I could make a difference, but I was in contact with the people who made those decisions at Lucasfilm. I figured I could at least say something.
I started petitioning everyone at Lucasfilm, saying, “We need more merchandise for female fans.” They really value their female fans, and they gave Her Universe a chance. It was a couple of years in the making, but I have to give them a lot of credit.
G3: It seems to be a carefully edited collection, and it taps into the things that resonate with fangirls. The Daddy’s Little Girl shirt reminds people that Leia is part of that Luke-Vader dynamic, too.
AE: Each item has a story behind it. Most of the designs were inspired by other women — close friends or cast members from The Clone Wars. I either made stuff that I would want to wear or that my friends would want to wear.
I would go conventions and Disney Star Wars weekends, and I would see all of these little girls and women who talked about how they were introduced to Star Wars by their fathers, and the close bond they had because of Star Wars. It wasn’t just the dads and the sons. That (Daddy’s Little Girl) shirt was inspired by all those relationships. You always hear about the line, “Luke, I am your father,” but what about that whole other storyline that we never got to see? [Note: Illustrator Katie Cook did the design.]
G3: What has the response been like, especially at cons? Are women immediately drawn to your booth?
AE: Definitely. When you get down to the nuts and bolts, there’s not much (at cons) that is specifically made for the women. When you take all the non-licensed product away, there’s nothing left but a bunch of boxy T-shirts and a couple other T-shirts here and there. On the first day, they’re just looking. By the last day, people are coming back to us saying, “We’re back to buy the shirts, because this is really the only thing that’s made for us.” In terms of licensed product, no one is really catering to the female figure.
G3: Female geeks have always been out there, but why do you think we’ve become so visible in the marketplace?
AE: I definitely think it’s the Internet and social media. Girls are finding their voice in this arena, and we’ve seen that if we speak up and band together, we will be noticed. It’s become more socially acceptable to be a fangirl or fanboy, and with all the shows and movies that are sci-fi related, it really is chic to be geek. I know some consider that to be a tired phrase, but it’s given girls more confidence to step out and say, “I’m a nerd. I’m a dork. And I’m proud of it.” If we continue to speak up, people aren’t going to be able to ignore us.
Our next step as a brand is to get into the retail market. There’s one store that we’ve reached out to, and they said, “Oh, no. Our consumer isn’t interested.” It was very disconcerting. The biggest thing I can ask is for girls to go into the stores. If you want this product readily available, speak up and go to the stores and request it: “See the boy’s Star Wars section? We want it for girls, too.” Women’s apparel has always been an afterthought. We want to bring it to the forefront. The goal is to be treated fairly.
G3: Ahsoka is an interesting character because she challenges Anakin in some of the same ways he challenges Obi-Wan. Do you have any insight into whether she’s become popular with girls who are discovering Star Wars?
AE: From the very beginning, I asked Lucasfilm if they hoped that they would gain more young girl fans because of Ahsoka. They said, “Well, we didn’t set out to do that with this character, but that would be great if we did.” The number of little girls (at Star Wars Weekend) who want to be Ahsoka, who dress like her, and who tell me they play Clone Wars on the playground … is just amazing. As an actor, you are a role model by default. These kids do consider what you do and look up to you. I take it very seriously. To be able to make an impression on kids and especially young girls by being the voice of Ahsoka is an absolute honor.
G3: Finally – Han or Luke?
AE: (Laughs) As you can tell by the Luke shirt, I’m definitely more of a Luke girl. I always liked the good guy. Han gets all the love, so I wanted to show Luke a little bit of love.