I had a lot of mixed feelings the other day watching the new video on Ahsoka Tano.
I’m not in The Clone Wars generation by any means – I’d been active in fandom for more than a decade when Ahsoka came around – hell, this blog was four years old in 2008.
But what Ahsoka is to that generation, Mara Jade was to mine. She was, back in the day – or at least to some of us – just as big a Star Wars figure as Leia. In fact, she was only the second female in the whole franchise to get anywhere near that much development. For nearly a decade – before the prequels – Mara Jade was the second-most important woman in Star Wars. But she’s not canon any more. And though I don’t really care about that, I have to admit it hurts to see her effect ignored. Oh, I know that to mention her in that video would just muddy the waters, but so much of what you see with Ahsoka and fandom right now mirrors what was happening with Mara and fandom back in the day.
Now: I don’t play the Legends pity party card. I welcomed the decanonization with open arms. The old EU was running on fumes, and as I have written extensively on this site and others, I am perfectly happy for the new films to sweep it away. (The real question is: Would I have felt that way if they hadn’t killed off Mara back in 2007? Hmm…)
I more than understand that the books will always have lower profile for much of fandom, even back when they were (arguably) canon. Hell, that’s part of the reason I started a blog on this site – because back in 2004, the other fansites simply weren’t covering them as much as I thought they could. But I can also say that Mara is a huge reason I got into the fandom in the first place. And Mara was a large part of the reason I kept reading, which is why I stayed in fandom.
When I got into Star Wars, I was probably the perfect age for it – I had just turned 13. It was 1991, and there were only three Star Wars movies. I had just watched them all, for the first time I can really remember. I was a kid in the ’80s, but Star Wars was never much on my radar before: I knew Darth Vader was Luke’s father and Luke and Leia were siblings and who R2-D2 and C-3PO were, but I hadn’t really played much with the toys or anything like that. So all I knew were the movies.
The prequels (with Padme Amidala, handmaidens, female fighter pilots, etc.) were just under a decade away.
Now, look at the original trilogy. There’s really only one woman in those movies who had a name that was mentioned onscreen: Princess Leia. Of course I liked Leia. And because I grew up on cartoons like The Smurfs and He-Man and G.I. Joe, the fact that there was only one woman who appears in more than a single scene didn’t really seem that unusual. But I was also a big reader, and I don’t really realize it yet, but I gravitated towards books with lots of women in them, with women in major roles.
So that was my mindset when I picked up my parent’s copy of Heir to the Empire. Obviously I wanted to know more about Luke, Leia and Han. But then, Chapter three: Mara Jade. She was a major character in Heir, and she remained one through the Thrawn trilogy. The title of the third book, The Last Command? That’s her last command from the Emperor.
When you encounter a franchise is just as important as how: I can honestly say if it hadn’t been for Mara in 1991, I don’t know if I’d even be a hardcore Star Wars fan today. And maybe if I’d been 13 in 2001 or 2011 I’d be talking about Padme or Ahsoka, but that’s simply not my experience.
Mara was so important in the Thrawn books that a lot of us were shocked that she didn’t carry through to the others – that she eventually did show up in non-Zahn books is a testament to exactly how loud many of us were. Sound familiar? The scale may have been quite a bit smaller (this was before social media, too) but the effect was the same: More Mara.
With the sequel trilogy prompting fans to dredge up all this old EU stuff, I’ve sometimes seen people get angry at the focus some fans have on Mara. “What about Ahsoka?!?” they say. Or Hera, Ventress, Sabine, etc. Why the focus on some random book character whose only notable action was marrying Luke Skywalker?
What these people forget – or maybe just don’t know – is that there wasn’t a whole lot of non-movie Star Wars stuff out back in the early 90s. Star Wars was, for all intents and purposes, a closed franchise. A ‘dead’ franchise, even. There were 3 movies, 7 novels published back in the 70s/80s that were out of print, a bunch of goofy comics languishing in remainder bins, and some pen-and-paper roleplaying stuff. Heir to the Empire was the first wave of ‘new’ Star Wars content in a while, and the only one I (and many other fans) were really aware of at the time. And Heir was a huge book, a bestseller for something like 22 weeks.
More books followed – reference, fiction, you name it. Within a few years, Lucasfilm announced Episode I was happening. Would that have happened without Heir? Oh, almost certainly. (George Lucas was citing the effects of Jurassic Park at the time.) But what the Thrawn trilogy did was show that there was a real hunger out there for more Star Wars, a hunger for new Star Wars stories. I’ve met so many casual Star Wars fans out there who didn’t keep up with everything over the years, but they still remember Mara and the the Thrawn trilogy favorably.
Mara became a fan-favorite once internet fandom got going in the late 90s, particularly among female fans. In a Star Wars Insider poll in 1997, she was the only non-movie character to make the top 20. THE ONLY ONE. At the time, that was huge – beyond huge.
Yes, Luke/Mara had a significant following in fandom and fanfic, years before it happened in the books. But her popularity is rooted in far more than just the ‘shipping. The Mara we get to know over the course of the Thrawn trilogy isn’t presented as a love interest. She begins as an antagonist, as someone convinced she hates Luke. She’s bitter and angry about the fall of the Empire. But over the course of the trilogy she has to deal with her past, and how the Emperor used her as much as he used anyone. She has to work with the former Rebels, and see them differently. She learns to let go of her past, and her hate. Nothing in her actual arc is about romance.
You can read Luke/Mara into the Thrawn trilogy, but it’s subtle enough that you don’t HAVE to. Hell, they don’t get together until a book that’s set 10 years later and published in 1998, and even that happens rather abruptly. (Which is maybe just as well? Zahn has many talents, but out and out romance isn’t exactly one of them.) His Luke and Mara are excellent partners, however, and that’s clearly something that fed into the ‘ship.
And even as the EU developed, and added more female characters (though not really enough) Mara was one of the few who actually made an impression, who fans WANTED to see more. The only book character that comes close is Jaina Solo, Han and Leia’s daughter, and her fandom didn’t really come into their own until the New Jedi Order series in the early/mid ’00s. (And she then spent 20 years of book-time mostly getting romance-heavy plots, which… Yeah. Poor Jaina.)
Hell, what’s really refreshing about this new batch of female characters – they don’t need a romance with an established character to ‘matter.’ Ahsoka’s ‘romance’ is more of a footnote than anything else, and Sabine hasn’t had any love interests to speak of. (Hera and Kanan’s relationship is heavily anviled, but as ‘new’ characters they’re on equal footing.) Sure, they are (or were) mostly fairly young, but it’s certainly nice to see fandom evolve in that direction. I certainly hope it holds true going forward.
Please don’t take this post as though I resent Ahsoka or Padme or Hera or any of the other female characters who came later, in all formats. The more the merrier, and we absolutely should have just as many different types of characters to identify with as the guys do. But canon or not, Mara is still an important character in her own right to the fandom, from a time Star Wars only had a handful of important women. She’s still important to a lot of fans, even if their experiences aren’t exact mirrors of mine. But that didn’t come out of nowhere: For nearly a decade, she was the second-most significant female Star Wars character that existed, and that makes a impression. She was the Ahsoka of her time, and if she gets a return, too? Well, that’s a party I’ll be happy to plan.