In the past few weeks, my husband and I have seen the new Star Wars movie and re-watched each of the original trilogy–I tend to watch those about every ten years or so. I’m, not a major fan, and I don’t think the movies are flawless, but I always enjoy them.
No new-movie plot spoilers here, but I want to talk about Leia–a really remarkable character whom people do not seem to really see.
In all the hubbub about Rey, the series’ first female protagonist, I’ve noticed writers also asserting that Rey is the first strong female character in Star Wars–and she is not.
Now, it’s true that more that a few movies over the years have made half-hearted attempts at female empowerment and failed. The result usually involves a leading lady who is sassy and has a couple of good one-liners but still resorts to helpless shrieking when the going gets tough. It’s also true that Leia is sassy and that the entire Star Wars franchise is fundamentally about men interacting with other men.
But Leia herself is no damsel in distress. She never asks for help for herself (Luke decides she needs rescue on his own), only for her cause, and she frequently puts herself in harm’s way for others. And that bikini thing? That was not her idea and she took the first opportunity available to kill the being who made her wear it–strangling him with the very chain he had bound her with.
And yet somehow viewers watch her and come away with Leia, the sex-symbol-in-distress. Even the man who scored the movies (and did so brilliantly) got her wrong, naming the soft, romantic musical passages “Leia’s Theme.” There is nothing soft or romantic about Leia. Romance–that’s Luke. He was the boy who wanted to run away and join the Alliance for the adventure of the thing. Leia is all hard-nosed pragmatism.
Maybe it’s just the way she looks. In the original trilogy she was obviously very young as well as quite beautiful–and young, beautiful women have a hard time getting other people to notice anything other than their beauty. The romance, the tenderness, the vulnerability, the sexual objectification, they were all projections that had nothing to do with Leia.
In this sense, middle age agrees with Leia Organa. In the newest movie she appears somewhat thickened and lined. She looks tired and sad in a way a younger woman probably couldn’t. Leia doesn’t look bad–indeed, were she dressed glamorously, she’d look very good. I imagine Carry Fisher will look very good at the Oscars this year. But no one will ever again stick Leia in a bikini against her will. What she looks like is a powerful, dignified authority figure who is not afraid of getting her hands dirty, or of anything else. And that’s what she’s been the whole time.
Maybe now, people will notice.