'Her Universe' is Ashley Eckstein's battle cry

Ashley Eckstein, voice of "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" kick-ass Jedi Ahsoka Tano, believes there is a stereotype built around girls who like sci-fi that's as thick and impervious as a brick wall. And it's finally starting to crumble.

The words geek and nerd "are not necessarily being looked at as negative labels anymore," she said. For the last two years, her company Her Universe, which creates sci-fi fandom T-shirts, hoodies, pajamas and jewelry for women and girls,  has proudly been using the phrase "geek girl" in their advertising and communication.

"Like, 'heck yeah, I'm a geek girl, and proud of it!' " Eckstein said. "I think that that's a major shift. If you had seen, a couple of years ago 'geek girl,' in an article or if you were being referred to as a geek girl, it wasn't necessarily a positive thing." Geeky girls, she said, have similarly been marginalized when it comes to expressing their love of sci-fi.

"Several years ago girls just had to accept the fact that if they wanted to show off their fandom and their geek pride, they were just stuck wearing a guy's oversized tee," she said. "And I'm trying to say, 'No, you can look fun and sexy and flirty and girly and strong and powerful all at the same time.' Our items are just as geeky as what the guys have but they're truly made for women."

Expressing femininity in the sci-fi fan community hasn't been much valued in the last 50 or so years, Eckstein said. Almost as if women have been erased from the genre. Citing one of the formative science fiction writers, Mary Shelley, Eckstein said, "There are so many women behind the scenes, creating these stories. I’m not saying it’s more women than men but I would venture to say it’s equal."

"How do you debunk this stereotype that it’s just been men involved in creating this when it truly hasn’t been? I don’t know how you prove that, but it would be interesting to see. Even a lot of the top websites about science fiction are run and created by women," she said. And yet, somehow even children hold fast to the idea that sci-fi is only for boys.

"I think we have a responsibility to the younger fans today, and I think obviously we saw that with Katie Goldman, the 'Star Wars' girl. The reason that had such a big reaction is because we all related to her," Eckstein said. "And I feel like we all wrapped our arms around her and said, ‘No. We’re not going to allow this to happen to you.’ "

Many girls are told "this isn’t for you - for so long. Told that, 'just accept that (sci-fi franchises are) a boy’s and a men’s property,' " she said, and she included herself in those ranks. After a while, it's hard not to believe that kind of statement, she said.

"I was met with the same statement several times. 'Girls don’t care enough, just be happy with men's shirts. Just forget about it,'" Eckstein said.

But something about 2011 shook the foundation of that stereotype. Eckstein noticed a shift in 'Star Wars' culture around the Disney "Star Wars" Weekends last June.

It was her third year signing autographs at the event, and in 2011 the line for her autograph was dramatically different than it had been in years past. "The first year it was a lot of men, the classic fans of the original trilogy, and then we did see a lot of little boys at first, and this year it was mostly little girls and their moms," Eckstein said. "And that was something I was really proud of.  The fact that little girls and their moms are coming out to enjoy this together, to me that’s so special. A clear statement about girls not being afraid to show their love of a sci-fi franchise like 'Star Wars.' "

"It’s something that’s not fully being recognized, how big Ahsoka’s becoming with little girls. She’s very popular with the boys as well because she’s Anakin Skywalker’s padawan,  but finally there’s this girl Jedi that’s elite in a 'Star Wars' show that is just a kick butt, strong character for young girls. I see it more and more," she said.

Disney saw it too. Her Universe's most successful T-shirt, the "Daddy's little girl" design from Katie Cook which depicts an assertive-looking Princess Leia standing in front of Darth Vader (who, as squillions of people around the world found out starting in 1980 with the movie "The Empire Strikes Back" is Luke Skywalker's father. Later in "Return of the Jedi" it was revealed Darth Vader is Leia Organa's father, too, since Luke and Leia are siblings. This is not a spoiler, people.) was one of the reasons Disney has decided to sell Her Universe merchandise year-round in Disneyland and at Disney World starting in 2012.

It's not only Disney who's noticed. In 2011 Her Universe began a relationship with geeky Internet retailer, thanks to Eckstein's "Battlestar Galactica" Red Spine shirt. It's been a best-seller for Eckstein and something she is proud of.

"We specialize in more subtle designs that you have to be in the know to know what you’re wearing.," she said. "I do love the classic logo shirts ... but I like shirts where you’re not a walking billboard. A lot of people have no idea what that red spine means, what that Cylon face means on the bottom corner. They just think it’s a cool design."

Retailer Hot Topic thinks it's pretty cool, too, and Eckstein said the company's leadership actually got the "Battlestar Galactica" message, loud and clear. After her first meeting with Hot Topic, Eckstein said, "Hot Topic truly, truly gets it. They truly care about the fans and they want to be legit - they want to be offering the product that's truly legit for the fans." And they'll be stocking Her Universe merchandise in their stores in 2012, too.

With the addition of two new major sci-fi franchises to the Her Universe group of licenses (which currently includes "Star Wars," Syfy Channel brands and "Battlestar Galactica") Eckstein plans to build on her success in 2011 with the development of Her Universe-branded merchandise.

"One thing I’ve said from the beginning is that Her Universe is also a community of female sci-fi fans," she said, "and I want Her Universe to be a brand that endorses and expresses strength in women and encourages the sci-fi genre for girls and women." Eckstein sees that as her responsibility to female sci-fi fans, everywhere.