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November 5, 2012

How women can save the 'Star Wars' franchise

If you're a young girl watching "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope," as I once was a long time ago in a state far, far away, you might not know that you're watching something unusual. You might not know that, over three movies, George Lucas and company didn't just create the ultimate fanboy surrogate in Luke Skywalker, but they also told a story about the rarest of action movie creatures: a woman with a job and political principles, who was more competent and important than either of the two men who showed up to rescue her, and who fell in love with a guy who changed to be with her, rather than the other way around.

Princess Leia is one of the original "Star Wars" trilogy's strongest legacies. And as Disney reboots the franchise, starting with Episode VII, it should recognize that women, as much as farmboys from Tatooine with a penchant for bullseying womp rats, are "Star Wars' " secret weapon.

"The Star Wars Expanded Universe" — the umbrella name given to the licensed novels, games, graphic novels and comics that followed the movies and are generally treated as if they are an official part of the story's continuity — has pulled off a feat that's unusual in science fiction franchises: It's built a rich lineup of female characters that all fans, not just women, are heavily invested in. Pride of place in that universe goes to Mara Jade. Introduced in 1991 in "Heir To The Empire," the first in a trilogy by Timothy Zahn, Mara got to occupy roles that had previously belonged to men in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. Like Darth Vader, she was a lethal agent of the late Emperor Palpatine, and like Han Solo, we meet her as a cynical smuggler. But unlike Vader, Mara got to redeem herself of the Emperor's influence without dying in the process. And even though she became a formidable Jedi warrior, she also got to be the leading lady in one of the "Expanded Universe's" most epic love stories, her romance with and eventual marriage to Luke Skywalker.

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