6/20/11

Ashley Eckstein: Why "Her Universe" is More Than Star Wars Shirts

Audrey and Ashley Eckstein, voice over artist
and owner of "Her Universe", pose next to
Eckstein's Clone Wars character Asoka Tano.
On June 12th, I stood in a long autograph line like I have many times before. It was the last day of Star Wars Weekends at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Florida and I had come prepared to meet Ashley Eckstein in the merchandise tent "Jabba's Hut."

I had interviewed Ashley a couple weeks before about her company "Her Universe". I thought that meeting Eckstein, the voice of "Asoka Tano" in the animated Star Wars show "The Clone Wars"  for a photo op might make a great ending to the story. But I wasn't prepared to get emotional. I have to tell you this story to get to Ashley's, so bear with me for a minute...

I wasn't prepared to stand in an autograph line and be surrounded by fellow female fans. Mostly young female fans. Almost every other autograph line I've ever experienced has been...I'm sorry to say this...mostly comprised of men. But under the fluorescent lights of the merchandise tent, everywhere I looked I was surrounded by ladies. Moms wearing Star Wars shirts. Pre-teens giggling in ponytails with lightsabers. I had never been to any geek-centric event where I was primarily surrounded by fans of my own gender.



As a fangirl, it's easy to feel like the geek universe is unbalanced. Living in rural Indiana for most of my life, I was used to being outnumbered by guys in my geek life. It started way back in first grade when I came dressed as Indiana Jones for "career day". (God bless my parents for just letting me be myself.) All day long I was told by well-meaning teachers and annoyed little boys that I was dressed "wrong". Not even in first grade under the guise of total fantasy was my geek-ness allowed to pass because I was a girl.

To make a long story short, I've become a little bit jaded. I've spent a lot of time writing about how the media often portrays female characters and lady geeks as over-sexed and oversimplified. I've always considered it something of a calling to defend all of fangirldom in one way or another. Like some sort of Mid-Western misguided member of The Three Amigos, I've always thought that I had to point out any and every injustice of gender in the geek world.

I still feel that it's incredibly important to call out the media when they don't give young lady geeks enough strong role models. And I admit that I love going to battle for the integrity of my fellow fangirls on message boards everywhere. But after having a conversation with Ashley Eckstein about Her Universe, I can honestly say that my perspective has shifted a little bit. Seems like kind of a big epiphany over a clothing line I know, but Eckstein has a lot more to talk about than t-shirts.

Her Universe is Eckstein's freshly minted company of just over a year. Like the rest of us, Eckstein has always been frustrated with the fact that if you wanted a cool Star Wars t-shirt and you are a girl or a woman, you had to go to the little boys section at any major retailer to get it.

Eckstein says, "I (once) witnessed a little girl being told she couldn't carry a Clone Wars backpack because it was for boys. That's what Her Universe is all about. There are so many female fans out there, especially the young ones. The Clone Wars is...to break down that stereotype and say that Star Wars is for everyone. Not just for the girls, for everyone. Trust me, I have a closet full of Star Wars shirts from the little boys section of Target, Wal-Mart, all sorts of places and none of them are for girls."

While it's true that Eckstein founded the company to fill a void, this isn't a company that feels like it's about some militant brand of aggressive, stereotype-perpetuating "Girls rule, guys drool" oversimplified sentiments. Yes, the merchandise is for women. But you won't find that glossy and patronizing girl-power tone that some of us may remember from the nineties. Once upon a time it was a catchy trend and not a real sentiment, like the way that smiley faces and peace signs caught on all over again. But talking to Eckstein about the feel of the company I could tell that she was extremely sincere in her intentions.

"What makes it unique is that it's designed by women for women. We actually work with several men. Some of our in-house designers are guys, we've had some guest designers that are guys. But we have several strong women that are at the heart of the Her Universe company and we all give our input and opinions and put them into the design. Our head designer is a woman, two of my business partners at the top are women and we know what we want. In the past I feel like most of the designs that have been made for women were designed by men. What a man wants on a t-shirt for a woman is different than what a woman wants on a t-shirt for a woman. I think that's the difference there."

All feminist considerations aside, Eckstein is also concerned about the practical. She was eager to create something that was designed to fit the female form. "A little boy's shirt, if you can fit into a little boy's shirt if it fits you in the shoulders up top usually it's too short on the bottom. If it's long enough for you, chances are it's too boxy up at the top. So it looks like you're wearing a sack. There's no perfect fit in a guy's shirt for a women's body." 

Can I just speak for lady geeks everywhere when I say, aren't you glad you won't have to wear a Star Wars t-shirt so misshapen that it looks like you cut sleeves and a neck into a pillowcase? On the flip side, you won't see any belly-baring shirts for sale. "It's not always appropriate to have your stomach hang out. We have longer fits, longer cuts. We try to keep it sexy, stylish and classy all at the same time."

Through Her Universe, Eckstein works with designers (and does plenty of design herself) to create geek chic apparel for women. The t-shirts have sleeves that actually fit our arms, and they are long enough to cover our waists. They don't shrink! (And you can trust me, because I purchased my own shirt like the rest of the fans that day. So I don't have "free gift syndrome" where I say everything is awesome just because it didn't cost me anything.)

So far, Her Universe offers primarily Star Wars merchandise, but they've just joined up with SyFy to create a lot more. But I told you this is about more than t-shirts. It is. A lot more. When Ashley and I spoke, the conversation went from shirts to feminism to female empowerment. (As anyone who has talked to me before will tell you, the conversation will inevitably turn to these things. I'm kind of obsessed with action heroines...)

Tina Fey wrote breezily about feminism (and everything else under the sun) in her hilarious memoir "Bossypants". But the page I dog-eared on the first read, the page that felt like she was writing just to me had a lot to do with what Ashley and I talked about. In her chapter "I Don't Care If You Like It", Fey captures perfectly the impulse to try to change the way the world sees you. For me, the way the world sees fangirl culture. Sees me. Lady Geek Extraordinaire. Queen Acne of the Nerd People with terrible vision and a nasty habit of referencing things like "the warp core" in casual conversation as though everyone will know what I'm talking about.

Fey says, "Again, don't waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions. Go "Over! Under! Through!" and opinions will change organically when you're the boss. Or they won't. Who cares? Do you thing and don't care if they like it."

Ashley Eckstein is doing her thing. While some of us are hunkered over our computers haunting message boards and trying to change misogyny by pretending we're an intellectual Buffy Summers meant to slay every rude or sexist comment, Eckstein is doing her thing. Really well. She's out there creating something new instead of policing something already created. (Writing that sentence made me think of Lloyd Dobler.)

On top of her stellar voice work, she's got a bigger vision for Her Universe that's not only working for older lady geeks like myself, but changing the fate of young fangirls everywhere by showing them that they are not alone. Thus preventing countless bitter or frustrated geeks. Eckstein loves Her Universe for the potential that it has to lend a larger voice to the fangirl community. As we talked, I could hear the conviction in her voice as she tapped into something larger than her own interests.

"The message is, we have to band together and prove that female sci-fi fans are out there. Our voices have to be heard. People are going to start catering to us, people are going to start listening to us. Her Universe as a brand is going to be able to offer you more if we prove that we have a fan base...there are fangirls all over the world. I think we just need to band together and prove that we exist. We're power in numbers is what I'm trying to say."

I geek, therefore I am. We're here. Fangirls are all here. Maybe we just need to do a better job of linking up. I should say, continue to do a better job of linking up. The old (embarrassing/fictional) cultural default is that girls will turn on each other. We're "catty". We're hateful toward one another. So many websites having to do with Comic-Con pit female fans against each other based on who looks more attractive in their costumes. Movie websites are no stranger to this behavior either with their ratings system for which actresses are more attractive than the others.

But like so many other pop-cultural hot spots, sometimes it's the negative nancys who get the most attention. Nobody is paying much attention to the well-behaved websites where girls and women chat about their interests in a calm and respectful manner. So many of us flock to the drama and become outraged. Her Universe is one of the many places on the web that is inviting us into an alternative fangirl lifestyle.

But there are technical issues to leveling the playing field. Sometimes it starts with a price tag. Ashley explains, "Our t-shirts are in the $28.00 - $35.00 range.  A lot of the female fans compare them to the prices for guys' shirts or little boys' shirts in Wal Mart or Target. Just to consider, those shirts are being made sometimes fifty thousand shirts at a time because the stores know that the guys are going to come in and buy the shirts. Right now we have to prove sales by ordering a smaller amount (of shirts). Our order numbers are minuscule compared to what Wal Mart is able to order for the boys or the men. Just realize we're offering you a much higher quality shirt."

Eckstein wants fangirls to know that when they won't pay the extra cost of buying a shirt specifically designed for a woman, "We're sending a message to the retailers that says they don't need the product made for them. They're fine with buying a boy's shirt." You can hear the voice of an entrepreneur in her frustration. "It stinks. I wish I could offer the same prices and a wider variety that the guys have but we're not there yet. Even by buying one shirt that sends such a message. If we prove that girls are buying shirts made for girls the retailers are going to listen...sorry I just went off on a long-winded tangent!" She said it like she needed to apologize. I speak tangent. I live tangent. I think most fangirls do, our centers are made up of compressed nerdy passion. I get that and I can tell you firsthand from experience, so does Eckstein who means absolutely every word she says. 

When I was the age of so many of the young Star Wars fans in the autograph line that day, I didn't have anything like Her Universe merchandise, or the messageboards where they can find other geek girls like themselves. Sure, it's primarily a clothing company. But talk to Ashley for two minutes and you realize, it's not primarily about the money. (Though there would be nothing wrong with that if it was. Hooray for free enterprise!)

It's about building a landing platform for a sub-culture, women who love sci-fi are underrepresented. Or so it feels. They're not actually, women are out there working on the films and TV shows and books and comics that we all love so well. We just don't hear about it very often because they are busy doing their thing. There's a disconnect between those of us who write about what we think we see vs. what's actually happening. A large portion of fangirls feel isolated. Maybe we need more behind-the-scenes information or videos or something...I don't know. (Oh wait, Her Universe is doing that too! Check this out!)

Her Universe will be at San Diego Comic Con this year. Soon they will be debuting new Star Wars jewelry as well as their new SyFy line. You can hear the voice of Ashley Eckstein in "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" when it returns with a brand new season this fall Friday nights on Cartoon Network.

On top of that, the Padme Nouveau shirt is really very cool. I suggest you go buy one. Right now. They also have one called the "I Know" (my personal favorite) and if your heart just fluttered, you know you're a Star Wars geek.

I make an effort to make a serious examination of the more important aspects of all geek culture...but can I just say...I LOVE all the Her Universe merchandise. I've been haunting the website ever since I found out about it, and if you read this blog I can almost guarantee that you are going to love it too. Aside from fostering a sense of community and positivity, the site is just plain fun to visit.

***

Many thanks to Ashley Eckstein for putting up with my sometimes overly serious questions...comes from a couple of years working for NPR. It took me much longer to process and post this interview than it normally does, part of that whole moving 1000 miles away thing. But as an apology, I'm going to give you some great bonus audio from my interview with Ashley tomorrow. (Because I can't interview a voice over artist and not let you hear her voice! That would just be cruel of me.)  I'll give you a few snippets of our conversation that didn't make the cut and plenty of pictures of some more Her Universe merchandise. Think of it as a way to browse without having to do any of the work. You can listen to the bonus audio, look at the pretty pictures and relax!

4 comments:

Daniel said...

Fantastic read, really have a newfound respect for Ashley. I was already a big fan of her's before this, her personality makes it hard not to like her. Can't wait to hear the audio tomorrow.

Amy said...

Just wanted to say this is a wonderful read and that you rock for posting it. I felt very much the same way the first time I met Ashley and continue to be impressed with what the company is doing for fangirls!

Tracey Thomas (gatorfan70) said...

VERY well said! Ashley really stands out above all others because of her vision and understanding. It has taken me about 40 years to find a band of females with whom I fit in (not that really mattered to me being a fan girl!) But, I really love that Ashley is actually chaning the world for all little geek girls eveywhere...for the better....

Jedi~Chick said...

Excellent post! Ashley Eckstein is the sweetest, nicest person on the face of the earth. :) She's very kind, and she really cares about her fans. :)
I was glad to get to meet her, and she is so wonderful. I can't say enough good things about her. And I am one of the people who HU has changed, I am now part of a group of girls that were brought together through HU, and we now talk everyday, about everything! Star Wars especially! LOL! :)

You've got an awesome site too. ;)