6/20/11

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

Audrey,Ashley Eckstein and Asoka Tano.
UPDATE: I checked in with Ashley again, six years later. This time for Hello Giggles. And now, back to your regularly scheduled ancient blog post. I also wrote this follow-up treatise on why we care so much about celebrities.

And now, back to your regularly scheduled, ancient blog post:

On June 12th, 2011, I stood in a long autograph line like I have many times before. I had just moved to Orlando. It was the last day of Star Wars Weekends at Disney's Hollywood Studios and I came prepared to meet Ashley Eckstein  in the merchandise tent, Jabba's Hut.

If you don't know her, Ashley is the voice of Asoka Tano in the animated Star Wars show "The Clone Wars". I interviewed her a couple weeks prior about her new company "Her Universe". I thought meeting her in person might make a great ending to the story.

I wasn't prepared to stand in an autograph line and be surrounded by fellow female fans. Almost every other autograph line I've ever experienced has been...I'm sorry to say this...mostly comprised of men. That's not an innately negative thing. I was just used to the feeling of being the odd man out, so to speak.

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 with lightsabers in hand and tons of adorable littles.

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 can be thrown off balance just like the force. Growing up in rural Indiana, I was accustomed to being outnumbered by guys in my geekdom.

It started 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 I was told by well-meaning teachers and annoyed little boys that I dressed "wrong".

Years of similar incidents left me jaded. I 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 thought I had to point out any and every injustice of gender in the geek world. Frankly, it's been exhausting.

It's still important to call out the media when they don't give young lady geeks enough strong role models. And I admit, 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 my perspective has shifted. Seems like kind of a big epiphany over a clothing line, 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, she's been frustrated that finding a cool new Star Wars shirt usually means scouring the men's clothing racks at the nearest big box store.

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 she founded the company to fill a void, Her Universe isn't making an aggressive, stereotype-perpetuating "Girls rule, guys drool" sentiment. Yes, the merchandise is for women. But you won't find the outdated glossy, sometimes patronizing girl-power tone that some of us may remember from the nineties. Talking to Eckstein about the feel of the company, I could tell 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."

Egalitarian considerations aside, Eckstein is also concerned about the practical. She was eager to create something that was designed to fit the female form. "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." 

Ashley is aiming for classic looks. 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. I just bought my first this weekend. I'm happy to report, the t-shirts have sleeves that actually fit our arms. They're long enough to cover our waists. They don't shrink!

So far, Her Universe offers primarily Star Wars merchandise, but they've just joined with SyFy to create a lot more. But I promised you this would be about more than t-shirts. It is. A lot more.

When Ashley and I spoke, the conversation went from shirts 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 my 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. 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 they're not alone. Thus hopefully preventing countless bitter or frustrated geeks.

Eckstein loves Her Universe for the potential 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.

Like so many other pop-cultural hot spots, sometimes it's the negative nancies 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 inviting us into an alternative fangirl dialogue.

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.

[When we buy men's clothes] we're sending a message to the retailers that says [women] 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. 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. It's why the subtitle of this blog is "the ravings of a fangirl". I get that and I can tell you firsthand from experience, so does Eckstein. She's entirely sincere.

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 message boards 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!)

Her Universe is 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.)

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.

4 comments:

  1. 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.

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  2. 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!

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  3. Tracey Thomas (gatorfan70)June 24, 2011 at 7:13 AM

    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....

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  4. 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. ;)

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