Leia is awesome. It should go without saying. Especially after so many years. Many people have written about her (and about Carrie Fisher) over the years. And, Fisher herself has had plenty to say. For example, in Rolling Stone, 21 July 1983, she says, "There are a lot of people who don't like my character in these movies; they think I'm some kind of space bitch." She follows that up with:
She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds--along with her hairdresser--so all she has is a cause. From the first film... she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry.
But, that isn't really true. 1) she may have friends. Star Wars Rebels has shown us recently that Leia was involved with the rebellion for a while before the events seen at the end of Rogue One and the opening of Star Wars, but even as a rebel, she could have friends. At home an Alderaan, maybe. Or she goes out for drinks with other senators. She has adopted parents--Bail and Breha Organa. Prior to her planet being blown up--and I'll get to her being surprisingly capable after that shock in a moment--Leia was a strong leader, she had a sarcastic wit, and she stood toe to toe with Darth Vader and challenged him rather than shy away. She was tortured and didn't give up the name of the location of the rebel base. She was already a soldier, already front and center. And, by choice. Of course, her (adopted) father was there when the republic fell apart, and he surely told her stories. But, really, taking just this first film as the measure, what makes Leia so impressive is that after her entire home planet is destroyed, after she has been tortured and is scheduled for execution, she is still more capable than Han or Luke when they get pinned down. Picture it: they've run down that hallway in the cell bay, there's only one way out and they've got imperials there firing on them...
LEIA: Looks like you managed to cut off our only escape route.
HAN: Maybe you'd like it back in your cell, Your Highness.
Jump forward a few seconds. Luke's been chatting with Threepio over the radio to figure a way out.
LEIA: This is some rescue! You came in here, and you didn't have a plan for getting out?
HAN: He's the brains, sweetheart.
She takes Luke's blaster rifle and fires a hole in the wall.
HAN: What the hell are you doing?
LEIA: Somebody has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, flyboy.
Luke goes after Leia without a plan beyond the stormtrooper suits they've already got and the simple ruse of Chewbacca as prisoner. Han goes along with it because Luke told him Leia's rich. And Chewbacca is just muscle. It falls to Leia to take charge and get things done. Fisher says they made Leia angry, but I think she plays Leia as something far more positive than that. She should be angry. She should be sad. But, she doesn't have time for that. She has to save the galaxy.
Still, Fisher's got a point about Leia beyond this one film... "In Return of the Jedi, she gets to be more feminine," she explains, "more supportive, more affectionate. But, let's not forget that these movies are basically boys' fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes."
She also says something interesting--which I almost made a paranthetical Sidenote but it really cuts to the heart of the role of someone like Leia in this kind of story as well) about the way romance works and how real-life women are presented in movies...
It doesn't work, even in the Forties movies where it works the best, for me anyway. In stories like Adam's Rib and His Girl Friday, you've got two people competing as equals, but they love each other. It's the classic Forties relationship, and the conflict is what makes it passionate. And no matter how much the woman might avoid the man in the beginning, she always softens up and marries him in the end. You don't ever see what happens after the thrill of the chase is gone. I'm interested in what happens in the day-to-day business of living relationships, and that isn't what movies are cut out to do.
It's the same reason, really, that so many movies fail the Bechdel Test (or the Mako Mori Test)--screenwriter and directors, most of Hollywood really, fail to be able to imagine a female who is capable but still feminine, feminine but not inclined toward romance for her story to happen. Leia follows that same sort of path, but in this one movie she really doesn't. Luke is clearly smitten with her. And, Han is interested (but mostly only after he realized Luke wants her). But, Leia has bigger things on her mind. The Empire Strikes Back really plays up the love triangle, and then Return of the Jedi smashes it back down and forms up the nice couple, Leia and Han, and ends with a party (an echo of the classic wedding ending to remind the audience that all is well and traditional norms are in play again, evils is vanquished, men and women can get together and be happy).
But, however much Hollywood may have trouble with well-rounded women who might be independent and capable and be interested in romance (or just sex), reality doesn't play the same way. And, plenty of women and girls have seen Leia as a feminist role model. Suzi Parker, Ms. Magazine, 17 December 2015: "Leia's sassy insults and commanding wit in the first Star Wars movies showed that she wasn't going to be the ditzy female who was looking for love throughout the galaxy." Even though, I must interject, the plot hinges on her being a princess in need of rescue, which is a plotline so very far from feminist. Parker continues: "However handsome Han Solo was, Leia wasn't going to be at all tempted or intimidated by his looks or swagger." Until they were on Hoth and she might have gone for anyone who would offer up some body heat, I suppose. Parker continues: "Her unwavering sarcasm gave girls some one-liners that we still used today. Example: 'Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerd-herder!" And, Parker makes a good point about the Tattooine segment of Return of the Jedi;
Leia rescu[es] Han, the love of her life, from the evil lair of Jabba the Hutt... Yes, she becomes a slave girl and wears the infamous gold bikini, but she also doesn't need a guy to help her escape. Using her own smarts, Leia chokes Jabba to death with the chain he had used to keep her hostage. Never let something like a skimpy bikini stop you from doing what needs to be done.
Mary Pflum Peterson, writing for Huffington Post, 27 December 2016, explains:
Without question, the princess part of the story was what intrigued me the most. Growing up, I was one of "those" girls--the girly girl types--who spent hours reading fairytales and dreaming of spending my days in long, frothy gowns, waiting to kiss the frog that would turn into my prince or to be rescued from a turret in a castle. I longed to see the Star Wars princess my brother tole me about because I longed to *be* a real-life princess.
But when the lights went down and Princess Leia first appeared on the big screen, she wasn't the princess I'd expected to meet. Yes, Leia wore a pretty dress--but it was simple, not ornamental. And it wasn't a garment she was all concerned about keeping clean. On the contrary, Leia gamely maneuvered in that gown in trash compactors and gun battles alike.
And Peterson gets to the sticky angle of things...
And yes, like any good princess, Leia was technically rescued by a pair of handsome would-be princes in the movie. But she quickly established that she was just as capable of doing the rescuing as she was of being rescued (and she quickly made clear, too, that were it up to her, she would have much preferred to get herself out of her own mess than be lectured to by sexist men, thank you very much).
Most importantly, "she wasn't demure. She was strong. She wasn't quiet. Instead, she had a razor-sharp tongue. She didn't stand back and let life and the men in her life determine her fate." Really the only time she balks at all in this first film is when Tarkin threatens an entire planet. And, even then, she lies.
Megan Kearns, writing for Bitch Flicks, 1 August 2012, asks an important question: "[W]hy did Leia have to be a princess? Why did she have to bear a title that too often symbolizes hyperfemininity, passivity, and sexualization? Why couldn't she have been the President's daughter or merely a Senator?" A couple things before the big thing: she is a Senator as well, and that actually fuels her symbology as independent woman; she's a princess who went out and took on a role with more responsibility, then she added to that by going out and joining the rebellion against the Galactic Empire. She is far from hyperfeminine, far from passive, far from sexual (despite George Lucas' insistence that they didn't have bras in space). Another thing, the way movies go, the President's daughter usually plays with a lot of the same tropes as a princess; Hollywood can't let a young woman be that close to power without insisting (generally) that she is inherently weak and in need of saving. Not just Hollywood, of course. As Emily L. Hauser, writing for The Week, 16 December 2015, puts it, "That is, after all, what we do to women every day--we reduce them to their weakest, meekest, most domesticated iterations...
All of this is bad, not just for women and girls (though it is certainly bad for women and girls), but for men and boys, as well. When we reduce fully half of humanity to something far less than they are capable of being, we rob ourselves of all that they are capable of contributing.
Then, there's a big thing. Because, making Leia a princess seems like a step in the direction of reducing her. But, absent her naming in the opening crawl, before we even hear her called a princess, she has already proven herself defiant and capable. Why Leia is a princess has a quite obvious answer and a less obvious but far more important answer. The former is just simple filmmaking; Lucas was copying classic serials when he put together the story for Star Wars, and he's explicitly echoing The Hidden Fortress. Leia's predecessor(s) there are Princess Yuki, who pretends to be mute to protect her identity, and (it has a been a good while since I watched The Hidden Fortress so I can't remember just how big a part this one is) a farmer's daughter who was for sale as a slave. Leia is far from mute, and far from being a slave. But she is an explicit echo of many princesses before her, in need of rescue from evil forces. But, Lucas was in college close to the same time as those who dropped out to join the counterculture, at the same time as those who fueled second wave feminism. As much as he has to put her in the position of being capture and rescued, I think he just couldn't help but, consciously or not, write her as an actual woman with actual skills and abilities and a will to get things done. The sexual revolution turned what could have easily been a damsel in distress into something far more nuanced and positive.
Natalie Reilly, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 December 2016: "Princess Leia reconfigured my understanding and expectations of mythology, fairy tales, and, it almost goes without saying, women." And this:
Much has been made of her elaborate hairstyles, but you'll note that the only time her hair is out is when victory has been achieved at the end of Return of the Jedi. The reasoning is obvious: Leia doesn't take her hair out while there's still shit to do.
Jordan Maison, Cinelinx, 27 December 2016:
As a kid in the 80s, so much of the media consumed portrayed men as the be-all, end-all, heroes of the world and princesses were meant for saving and love interested only...
Leia wasn't some damsel in distress who needed rescuing, she was a take charge heroine who stared, unflinchingly and defiantly back at Darth Vader in the most dire of circumstances.
Glynnis MacNicol, Elle, 14 August 2015: "[Leia] represented to me everything I wanted in my life to include: adventure, independence, agency, and great hair."
Maggie May Ethridge, Romper, 18 December 2015:
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia took the word princess and tore it up, redesigned it, and wore it like a queen. She sparkled with intelligence, wit, passion, and humors. She took charge, sought out answers, and demanded respect from everyone in the galaxy, especially her male cohorts. She assumed everyone around her would treat her with respect.
Finally, my daughter Saer, while I was working on this blog entry: "Leia is just like my cat Lucy because she is fierce and fabulous and better than guys, and perfect."