Before Katniss, Buffy and Furiosa there was Princess Leia: the wisecracking, bun-haired and robe-clad leader of the Star Wars rebellion against the Empire. There she was explaining strategy to Luke Skywalker, gently flirting with Han Solo, and strangling Jabba the Hutt despite being confined to a gold bikini — sure, she got rescued now and then and then again, but she always had a sharp word for her rescuers’ tactics, and was wiling to take up weaponry herself at a moment’s notice. She was the kind of princess you could really relate to: smart, caustic, powerful and even bossy.
Many women who grew up watching Star Wars and felt Leia’s influence as a heroine have put incorporated this into their own work, putting into words the way the character lit a flame in their imaginations. Alyssa Rosenberg notes that as the series begins Leia is the only rebel; Luke is a naive farmhand and Han Solo an opportunist. But she works on the pair of them, and by the end, they’re fully converted to her ideology. “Han and Luke, influenced by Leia’s passion, take their places as full participants in the Rebellion,” she writes. “Everyone else eventually comes around to Leia’s view [of[ the world.”
For Glynnis MacNicol, Leia’s mostly chaste outfits, along with her ability to run and play with the boys, were liberating — and rare. “What Princess Leia opened up to me was an adult version of the childhood I was already living. I can think of very few iconic female characters who can have that effect,” she writes. Leia’s awesomeness even lends the charming rogue Han Solo his own feminist street cred, according to Decider’s Meghan O’Keefe. She notes that the fact that Han Solo is blind during Leia’s notorious “slave bikini” scene “means [he] is more attracted to a mouthy space age shield maiden than he is to a tight female body on display.” Han is a feminist himself, to O’Keefe, because he cares for Leia as a person and is eager to see her take care of herself (practice #selfcare!) instead of always putting the revolution first.
Others are more torn — critics of the trilogy’s gender politics love Leia’s spirit (just like Han does) and her unwillingness to be passive, but they note that she is the only woman in her universe who is not a “space stripper.” They point out that even Leia ends up constantly in need of rescue, damsel-in-distress style, and they especially hate the way that slave bikini from the Jabba the Hutt scene was marketed for titillation. These are fair points about George Lucas’s overall conception of the story, but the overall fan affection for the character — and for Fisher’s performance — remains close to universal. The pieces I’ve cited are just a few of the endless essays and fan videos that praise Leia’s influence as a female character like no other.
Besides, Leia’s life is a space picnic compared to the treatment of gender roles in the prequel trilogy. Initially it seemed like Natalie Portman’s Queen Padmé Amidala, the woman who would eventually be Leia’s mom, would be cut from the same rough white cloth as her daughter. Padmé is a diplomat, a fighter and a queen, but her tight fighting costumes and generic “strong woman” qualities feel flat and forced. In particular, the love story between her and Anakin Skywalker fades when it should sizzle with the same kind of oppositional force and attraction that makes fans cheer the few kisses between Leia and Han.
Those prequels are unloved by many fans for many different collections of reasons, but this plotline is cited again and again as being largely to blame. As I recall, people in theaters actually laughed during several of these “tender” scenes. But they’re more than cheesy, writes Amanda Rodriguez. They’re disturbing:
[Padmé’s] story ceases to be one about political advocacy, diplomacy, and her struggles to keep her people’s liberties and safety intact. Instead, [she] becomes little more than a love interest and a pretty face. Ignoring the fact that the love story is painfully trite and stilted, with zero chemistry and wooden acting, this romance becomes all that Padmé is about. She marries Anakin in secret and becomes pregnant, and her personality totally changes. She becomes a simpering, deplorable character who dies of a broken heart.”
Indeed, in the third prequel, Revenge of the Sith, which is probably the strongest as a film, Padmé fades to the background, becoming a sad vehicle for the twins’ birth, unable to stop Anakin’s devolution into Darth Vader.
This was clearly a step backwards for the depiction of women in the franchise, which explains why fans are so excited about Daisy Ridley’s Rey in the forthcoming The Force Awakens, who — many hints suggest — is going to be something of the universal protagonist, the one that fans identify with most. Her rootlessness, her nomad-style androgynous costume, and that enticing shot of a light-saber being entrusted to a female hand have people positively tingly:
Avid Leia fan MacNichol writes of Rey, the trailer and costuming indicate that “her sexuality is not the source of her power.” It’s impossible to get too speculative about a mere trailer, but it’s hard not to be a little excited when the cast is going all out promoting the feminist bona fides of the film: not only is Rey a “girl power” icon who bosses people around, according to Ridley, but there’s also a great female villain and a more diverse cast overall. A generation that grew up with Leia as their girl power icon might finally get to see her promise at least somewhat fulfilled — finally, in an era when feminism isn’t an anomaly, but actually a selling point. But even if none of these things turn out to be true, and the film fails at transcending stereotypes, we’ll always have Leia.