Exclusive: Ashley Eckstein & "Her Universe:" Women Love Sci-Fi Too

Exclusive interview with Ashley Eckstein of Her Universe and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Interview by Jamie Ruby and Karen Moul
Written by Jamie Ruby

Ashley EcksteinFor years many people have thought that science fiction was for guys, but that's simply not true. Nearly half of all science fiction fans are female and we want our voices heard.

For the second year, Ashley Eckstein, founder of Her Universe and voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, will be hosting a panel at Comic-Con. The panel, "Her Universe: What Women Want in Their Female Sci-Fi Heroes," will take place on Thursday and will feature an all-star group of panelists.

Ashley EcksteinEckstein has not only started a clothing line for female fans, she has also started a community where women can talk freely. The idea was born after she started working in science fiction. "I got the idea for Her Universe shortly after I was cast as the voice of Ahsoka Tano on Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I'm a huge Star Wars fan, and after working on the show, I wanted Star Wars merchandise for me, made for women, to wear. I started searching stores and the internet and found out that it didn't really exist. There were a couple pieces here or there, but either they were sold out, back ordered, or just weren't made anymore.

"So I started paying attention, and I was like, "I know I'm not alone," because I would go to all these conventions and events and I would see so many women, and it wasn't adding up. So I started doing research and found that close to half of all sci-fi fans are women...that of all consumer purchases, 85% of the consumer purchases are made by women...Close to half of our sci-fi fans are women and the women are the ones that are doing the buying, why wouldn't you give us something to buy that's made for us?

"So I came up with Her Universe. I founded the company and then I went to Lucas Films because obviously they were a natural start because of my role. I have to give them credit; they gave me the opportunity, they gave me the shot. I said, "Hey, if I'm working on the show, I'd love to be able to design the merchandise for your fans." They gave us our first chance.

"Then last year when we launched at San Diego Comic-Con we did a panel, because what's very important to me is to not only create a merchandise line, but also a community for female fans. I think one of the other biggest complaints I found by women is that they thought they weren't being listened to, or they were too scared to come out and say that they were a female sci-fi fan, because obviously the genre has been dominated by men and boys for so long.

"Even online, a lot of gamers, a lot of girls on the message boards, they would pretend that they were men so they would be taken seriously. That really bothered me, because sci-fi is for everyone; there's just as many passionate female fans as there are male fans. So I said, "I want to create a community where female fans can step into the spotlight and say, "Yes I'm a sci-fi fan, and I'm a woman," and not be ashamed of that and be welcomed and accepted.

"So we did a panel at San Diego Comic-Con to just have discussions about this and just start throwing it out there...

"And on our panel last year we had Erika Kennair, who is an executive at Syfy, as well as Jane Espenson, who obviously is legendary with so many of the sci-fi shows, and she's such a geeky girl role model for me. Through those two women we met so many people at Syfy.

"This year we have an amazing executive, Chris Sanagustin, who has been instrumental in creating Battlestar Galactica, Caprica, so many of the shows. And we just met so many people at Syfy and kind of organically - they have so many viewers that tune into their network. Pretty much it's dead even, 50-50. [For] some shows more than 50% of the viewers are female. So they really recognize the female fans too, and it just organically kind of happened, and we found that we would be a natural fit to work together, and next thing you know, we announced the line last October."

According to Eckstein, people are really surprised to learn how many science fiction fans are women. "I think it's because this stereotype is so strong. We have so much work to do to break down this stereotype. I think we've just accepted it, so people just assume it's a boy's property, or it's a man's property. And what they're not realizing is the amount of women that are tuning in to watch and are passionate about it...I think we just need to realize the stereotype is just that, it's a stereotype, and it's not true anymore."

Because of this stereotype, vendors have been generally hesitant to sell women's sci-fi clothing. "One thing I'm learning, is that to going into the retail space, retailers only want to put something on the shelves that will definitely sell...Again, you have the stereotype that women aren't into sci-fi, and so they're way too hesitant to put something on the shelf that for years we've been told that women won't buy it."

Garments from Her Universe are cut and made specifically for women. "What we're doing right now is, we buy blank garments and we do our screen printing on them. Pretty much the only thing that's been done in the past for women are primarily in junior sizes. That's because that's what these garment companies make; most of them only make blank garments in junior sizes. We've really scoured the market and found companies that make a variety of sizes, including some companies that make plus sizes. That's something that's been very important to me from the very beginning, to offer a variety of sizes because women come in a variety of sizes."

Her Universe, which up until now has only sold Star Wars merchandise, will begin selling Syfy items, starting at Comic-Con. "We're going to be introducing the Syfy products in waves, we're going to have some new products released later on in the year, but these first couple of items [will be] at San Diego Comic-Con.

"We're going to have three items for Battlestar Galactica. "We're going to have an exclusive necklace. There's only 300 of these at San Diego, and we're also going to Dragoncon and New York Comic-Con where there'll be a limited number there as well. This is our 2011 convention exclusive...It's a 100% sterling silver toaster charm with the face of a Cylon on the side, a little piece of toast popping out of the top. It's very subtle, it's not huge. If you are a fan, and you are an insider, it's the perfect necklace. So I'm really excited to be offering that.

"Actually, Erika Kennair, who works at Syfy and who was on our panel last year, she inspired the necklace. That was an idea she had, and I just was really excited to be able to bring that to fruition from what was just an idea by Erica and actually make it happen.

"...We're going to have a really cool red spine Cylon shirt. We're going to have a zip-up hoodie sweatshirt that will have the phrase "So say we all" on it, which I'm really excited about. It's a very cool zip-up hoodie with the Battlestar Galactica seal on it. It's a really soft comfortable hoodie. It's actually inspired by the hoodie that the crew wore on the Battlestar Galactica.

"We also have a shirt from Warehouse 13. I was inspired when I was watching the show, because again, I'm a fan of all these shows. I kind of feel that you can't really design for something if you're not a fan of it, or if you don't know it at least.

"So I was watching Warehouse 13 and one thing that really stuck out to me was Lena's Bed and Breakfast. I saw their sign, and it was such a cute shabby chic looking sign and I thought, "I want that on a t-shirt." So we have a really cool Lena's Bed and Breakfast shirt.

"Then I really followed the Monster Madness competition back in March, and the winning monster Sharktopus really caught my eye, so we have a Sharktopus shirt, and this is the first time we're offering a men's shirt as well. We're offering his and hers Sharktopus shirts. Her Universe will always stay focused on the women, but for this instance, because it was such a popular competition, Syfy let us make a shirt for the guys too. I thought that Sharktopus was something universally loved by all, so I didn't want the guys to miss out."

Eckstein has more plans for other merchandise in the future. "...We're actually looking into Ghost Hunters International...Of course we're going to expand on our Warehouse 13 line, we're working hard on some new designs for Warehouse 13, and of course Battlestar Galactica.

"Then we're actually working on something for the Syfy brand that I'm really excited about, but that's all I can really say at the moment, because so many details are up in the air. But we have some designs we're working on that really capture what Syfy is all about, and I'm just excited that they've let me play with their brand because its just very inspirational and really inspires imagination."

Not all of the items will be strictly clothing. "We have some more jewelry in the works as well. We're actually working on some accessories for our Star Wars line right now, and I absolutely plan at some point to bring that to Syfy.

"So my goal for Her Universe is to...make girls be chic from head to toe. I'm learning things just take time, especially things that have to be made and designed from scratch...There are definitely some accessories in the works.

"[There are] also some stories we're actually working on, our own story and our own franchise. I'm creating my own female sci-fi hero, so definitely getting into publishing as well.

"That's very important for me, because our panel at San Diego Comic-Con this year is all about what women want in their female sci-fi heroes.

"Another big complaint I've gotten from women is that they've always said, "If I would have written that character, I would have written her differently." And I always thought that was very interesting. It's like, "Then how would you have written her? How will she be different?" Because [there are] so many complaints in the past that these women have just been written by men and it's what men want in a female character and not what women want in a female character.

"Our panel, it's on Thursday night at Comic-Con at 6:00, in room I think 25ABC. And we have so many amazing people on it. We have Dave Filoni, Gail Simone, Bryan Q. Miller, Melinda Hsu Taylor, Chris Sanagustin. We have so many amazing people coming to chat about how to create a strong female sci-fi hero according to what women want and what they want to see in their female heroine..."

They also have will have Betsy Mitchell at the panel. "She the editor-in-chief at Dell Rey Books...We have some really fantastic people in their different categories, different jobs, whether it's writing or producing, or creating, so we have a lot of great people to join that discussion and tell us their opinion on how to create a strong female character."

So what do women want? According to Eckstein, "To me, I've had several discussions with Dave Filoni, our supervising director of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, about this...I really feel that they've achieved that with Ahsoka; I feel like they've made her a strong character for girls and for women...Because I think a testament to that is the fact that after awhile you forget that she's a girl. Both boys and girls they view her now as Anakin Skywalker's Padawan. They don't view her as the girl that's Anakin Skywalker's Padawan, they just view her as Ahsoka. She's Anakin's Padawan; she's the best Padawan for the job, and they look past her gender. You have boys wanting her action figure because she's Anakin's Padawan, and in the past, they might have turned their nose up to her action figure because she was a girl, but they're able to look past that.

"So I asked Dave, "How did you do that, how did you achieve that?" And he said, for him, he just sometimes writes her lines as though she were Anakin and then would just change the name later.

"And actually I remember on our panel last year Jane Espenson said she did that. Sometimes you take away the name and you just write it as though it were a male hero and then you change the name later, because there shouldn't be a difference between a male hero or a female hero, it's just a strong well written character.

"And so that's what I think women want they just want interesting well written characters. They don't want another damsel in distress; they don't want another girl that can't think for herself or save herself. They just want a strong female character."

For more information on Ashley Eckstein, or Her Universe, you can visit her website, or stop by to see her panel this Thursday.

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