It’s time for a rant.
We are living in a marvelous era of compelling female characters. Thanks to the outcries of a vocal audience of girls and women, along with a (slowly) increasing willingness to support female storytellers, we see princesses who don’t need rescuing, women warriors who save the day with maybe just a little help from their male sidekick and/or love interest, and so many more narratives for ladies that revolve around something other than romance.
That’s great. But I’m mightily peeved by the oversimplification that can arise from such stories. One of them is a meme that was making the rounds and causing me an irrational amount of anger. It pictured Robin Wright’s Amazon character from Wonder Woman and Carrie Fisher’s recent portrayal of Leia Organa, with a caption saying something like “So great to see my childhood princesses become generals.”
Now, obviously, I’m going to be over-sensitive about this, since I have opinions about Disney’s current batch of Star Wars films, oh boy do I ever. But stick with me; I’m going somewhere other than just another bash-fest about Disney Space Movie (though a little bashing is inevitable).
I realize that when it comes to memes, we’re not really looking for a complicated explication of character development. We’re looking for something pithy, easily understood and easily passed along. I get it. But SOMEONE IS WRONG ON THE INTERNET AND I HAVE TO FIX IT. Ahem.
First off, the comparison of the two pictures is misleading, since we’re talking about two completely different characters for Robin Wright. Princess Buttercup was part of a very memorable movie, but alas, not much more can be said for her. She has a few awesome moments, like jumping out of the ship to escape her kidnappers or shoving (she believes) her lover’s murderer down a steep hillside, but for the most part she is the object of desire between Westley and Humperdink, acted upon rather than doing the acting. So of course playing a fierce warrior in Wonder Woman is going to be a major upgrade.
Leia, however, was already awesome. She was fantastic long before she changed titles. And if you want my excessively biased opinion, she was way better as a princess. Because she upturned every single expectation of the damsel in distress. Yes, Luke and Han rescue her on the Death Star, but she’s not weeping helplessly in her cell. She had willingly embarked on what was basically a suicide mission, transporting the space station’s stolen plans while pursued by Darth Vader himself. She’d done everything she could to get those plans into the right hands before being captured, and she subsequently refused to betray the location of her fellow Rebels even under torture and threat of death. She doesn’t want to die, but she’s ready to face it.
Then, when she sees the possibility of escaping, she takes charge from the two lunkheads who didn’t plan a way out. She’s resourceful, inventive and daring; she has a snappy retort for every attempted insult or disparagement. From the moment she showed up on movie screens, Princess Leia was a revolution. And she didn’t have to change her title to do it.
To be frank, General Leia is just sad. All her supposed awesomeness is implied but never proven. It’s lazy writing, frankly, giving her a new title as a shorthand for character development. Instead, her role is a massive disappointment that turns all her triumphs in the original trilogy into tragedy. Most of her scenes are reactions to something yet another man has done to screw up her life, either her son or her lover (husband? the movie never tells us) or her brother. She’s someone that men have abandoned. That’s the primary thing that defines her, reacting to things that other people do. What a sad, sad, removal from the woman full of determination and hope at the end of the original trilogy. It breaks my heart to know that Carrie Fisher’s health issues required a somewhat subdued role and ultimately stole away her chance to finish the trilogy. It breaks my heart especially because the fiery, inspiring, trope-defying princess was replaced with…a general. That’s a demotion. Princess hire generals and tell them what to do!
I could pontificate on what I would have rather seen (JEDI MASTER LEIA, COME ON PEOPLE) but instead, I’ll explore why we all seem to accept it as a given that being a general is an upgrade in awesomeness. It’s a military rank. It implies fighting prowess as well as leadership. Well, those are all fine. And I’m certainly not about to suggest that only men can be generals. Heavens, no. What I do find troubling is that we’ve been fed the lie that traditionally masculine roles are the strongest and the most worth doing. And now that we’re seeking more stories about strong women, which is great, we’re leaning heavily toward giving women characters only those traditionally masculine roles. Which is not so great. Because there are so many different ways to be strong.
Something that I’ve always loved about Princess Leia is that for all her toughness, she’s also warm, caring and gentle. She comforts Luke upon the loss of Obi-Wan (even though, for heaven’s sake, she’s just lost a whole planet). She values her relationships and connections with others. You get the sense that even while she’s a highly competent fighter and leader in the Rebellion, she’d really rather be a diplomat. A peacekeeper. Like her mother.
And Padmé’s character was not universally well-received like her daughter was. There are plenty of reasons for that, and I can’t possibly explore all of them, but I suspect that part of it came from the audacity of giving Padmé softer roles. Like falling in love rather rashly. And spending most of the third film being pregnant. And dying from the sheer emotional weight of her entire universe imploding, how dare she. Even though there are plenty of instances showcasing her strength and courage (for example, passing along a heritage of hope to her children with her dying breath), they are too often overlooked because she doesn’t enter every situation with guns a-blazing and a steady supply of witty one-liners. Would people have been more excited if she was General Amidala? Maybe. But I, for one, am very glad she wasn’t.
I find her portrayal to be quite inspiring. Not that I’m looking to follow Padmé’s unfortunate trajectory, but I appreciate the notion there are different kinds of strength. And sometimes, strong as we are, we can be overwhelmed. That doesn’t make us weak. It just means we live in a hard world. It’s all right to cry. It’s all right to be soft. It’s all right if you’d rather be an diplomat than a warrior. Sometimes the situation calls for a sword (or lightsaber) and sometimes the situation calls for an impassioned speech. Or a helping hand. Or kind words, or a smile.
I understand that fighting prowess can serve as metaphor for other kinds of strength in storytelling, particularly in fantasy, but I fear that we’re taking it a little too literally. I fear that we tend to demean anyone who’s not particularly keen on violence. And me? I can play around with toy swords and sabers, but I’m about as physically imposing as a goldfish. I don’t have that kind of strength. I do strive, however, to cultivate a different kind of emotional endurance and resilience. And that’s a trait of all my favorite characters, female or otherwise.