The impact of Star Wars on the landscape of cinema, science fiction and fantasy cannot be underestimated. Suddenly movies set in outer space could be fun instead of ponderous, they could be believable instead of riddled with cheesy, unconvincing special effects, and high mythic fantasy stories could be set in worlds of starships and robots just as convincingly as in the realm of castles and dragons. And among all of George Lucas’s ground-breaking achievements we have the creation of an iconic, unforgettable female character, brilliantly portrayed by Carrie Fisher: Princess Leia Organa.
It would be a stretch to call the original Star Wars a piece of feminist cinema. Certainly not by today’s standards, in any case. Aside from Leia, there are almost no women at all. There’s Aunt Beru, Luke’s mother figure, who has a handful of lines before dying offscreen partway through the story. And you might see a few female faces in the crowd scenes on Tatooine. But it’s perfectly fine to notice a story’s flaws while also being able to enjoy the good things it does offer. So let’s talk about Leia.
From her first mention in the film’s opening crawl, Princess Leia is identified as an active player in the story, as she “races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy.” But her ship is captured, boarded by Imperial agents. Will she become a helpless, passive prisoner, the prototypical damsel in distress who must wait for men to rescue her? Not exactly.
We see her resourcefulness as she hides the plans in a droid before being captured. Oh, and she takes out a few stormtroopers first before they can stun her, so, no, not passive at all. Once she’s taken to Vader, she confronts him with a bold rhetoric that reflects the skills she must have honed as a Senator. To him and later to Tarkin, she offers a few well-worded insults – “holding Vader’s leash” and “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”
But – and this is very important – Leia is allowed to show vulnerability as well. Too often, when writers set out to create a “strong female character” they make someone who’s virtually flawless; tough-talking, never overwhelmed, never cries, never shows any emotion that might be considered feminine. This is really kind of insulting to women and human beings as a whole, because it implies that emotions are dumb and weak. It also makes the character vastly difficult to sympathize with, because no one is flawless or emotionless like that. We catch glimpses of Leia’s fear in her message to Obi-Wan, finishing with a desperate plea of “You’re my only hope,” as well as when she is about to be tortured with a mind probe. She ends up resisting its power, but that victory wouldn’t be as meaningful if there wasn’t a very real possibility it could break her. And we see her fall into utter devastation upon the destruction of her home world of Alderaan.
We learn a lot about Leia from how she responds to her enemies. We learn more when she interacts with her would-be rescuers. Leia, Luke and Han have some very entertaining dynamics when all three of them are together, as each of them represent three very distinct personalities. Luke’s eager “I’m here to rescue you” is echoed sarcastically when Leia points out, “This is some rescue!” as they leave her cell only to be met with a barrage of blaster attacks from stormtroopers. She quickly takes charge and blasts an alternate route through a garbage chute, earning Han’s shock. She smoothly retorts, “Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”
Sure, her situation was technically that of a damsel in distress, but now that she sees an opportunity, she’s not going to wait for someone else to take charge. (And clearly, she’s far more competent than the dubious heroes trying to help her.) We’ve seen Han deal with bounty hunters, Imperial agents and TIE fighter assaults and remain relatively unfazed, but within minutes of meeting Leia, Han is thoroughly rattled. “Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her, or I’m beginning to like her!” Already the seeds are planted for the tempestuous romance that will play out in the next Star Wars film. But Leia is far, far more than a token love interest.
Throughout the remainder of the movie, her actions and conversations continue to encompass a wide range, from anxiety regarding the very narrow likelihood of escape to elation at their successes; disgust at Han’s mercenary selfishness and warmth in comforting Luke; her insight in knowing the Empire is tracking their ship; determination as they prepare for the assault on the Death Star; slipping into despair as all hope seems lost; giddiness at their triumph; delight to have both her new friends safe and close upon their heroic return; a face of solemn but warm dignity as she awards their bravery.
She is a political leader, a skilled rebel agent, someone who faces danger head-on when it comes to her, who finds unlikely solutions to overwhelming problems, who always has a ready retort and shifts easily from formal eloquence to snappy one-liners. There was never anyone quite like Leia before, and I don’t know that there’s ever really been anyone like her since. I could go on about her role in the rest of the trilogy, but what she did in this movie alone was enough to forever change the perception of the roles that female characters could play in tales of high-flying adventure. The Force is strong with this one.