Strong

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.

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6 thoughts on “Strong

  1. Hear hear!!! That meme really drives me up the wall, for all the reasons you mention. I didn’t want to see General Leia. I wanted to see Senator Organa Solo, or Prime Minister, or some other political role. Or Jedi. Heck, how cool would it have been to see Leia help rebuild the Jedi as something more than warriors? Instead, we get someone who was never able to move on past the war. It’s DEPRESSING that she’s still part of a military organization, and not even a very legitimate one if you get into the background info. And it’s DEPRESSING that, despite the lack of any big career successes, she’s still portrayed as something of an absentee sister/mom/wife. Nope, sorry – much like “hermit” Luke isn’t the man that risked everything on the faith he had in his father’s goodness, General Leia isn’t the woman who left the Rebellion to go rescue Han from Jabba. It’s just sloppy, without any understanding of her sources of strength.

    • Yes! It is deeply depressing, and a total character assassination. Everything that mattered in the original movies has been completely undone. Why would anyone celebrate that?

      • The Episode 7 Prequel novel gives answers – but It’s really debatable how good they are. The Force Awakens novelization already confirmed the fact that Han and Leia were married, but Bloodline fills in a little more of their relationship, explaining that the two got hitched shortly after the fall of the Empire. Bloodline delves a lot into Leia’s complicated feelings for Han, although Han’s presence in the book itself is kept to a minimum.
        What Bloodline tells us instead is that Leia and Han mostly live amicably apart. Early on in their marriage they discovered that their lives were too different to be living together, so outside of visits and travel stints, Leia would continue her work in the Senate while Han jetted off… becoming a starship racer, apparently. Meanwhile, following the liberation of Kashyyyk, Chewbacca retired to his home planet, but keeps regularly in touch with both Han and Leia.

      • That…doesn’t match at all with my perception of those characters and their relationship. Han wasn’t a selfish, childish thrill-seeker by the end of Return of the Jedi; he’s responsible, willing to be vulnerable, and fully dedicated to the people he loves. Ugh. It’s just so cynical and world-weary, like one of those navel-gazing “realist” films where shallow people undergo self-indulgent midlife crises. It’s not the stuff of epic space fantasy. I’ve always seen Star Wars as a sort of galactic fairy tale. I’d never end it with a tedious sort of estrangement between the princess and her love. It’s not even interesting or dramatic, just blandly depressing.

      • Well, the Bloodline Information is kinda weird, right? Granted, I haven’t seen Episode 7 since the first viewing in 2015. But I clearly got the vibe that Han an Leia had a happy, long running marriage that only broke after their Son fell to the dark side. But now Disney said: “Well, it’s not as if they were happy couple drifing apart after their son became evil, it’s more a case of they were never a real couple to begin with.” What? I mean, for all the Prequel references in their extended universe, the Sequel trilogiy is obviously pendering to the “real” Fans who disliked the Prequels. But now they erase the romance these people charish so mutch?? Why? And did they even consider this while writing the new trilogy? The publishing of a novel can take around a year atleast. Is that the reason they didn’t include an annoucment flyer for the novel in the Episode 7 dvds? So that they could make the general public believe that they were a couple until Ben’s fall? I’m really confused.

      • It’s terribly confusing, and it seems a strange choice when the rest of the film is clearly pandering so much to fans of the original trilogy. “All the characters you loved so much, isn’t it great! — except they’ve lived basically miserable lives ever since Episode VI, and everything they did was pointless and resulted in worse trouble, so — yay?”

        And I hate this coy withholding of every single plot point, like the nature of Han and Leia’s relationship, as if one’s enjoyment of the movie is completely dependent upon the initial surprise of huge, shocking, mind-blowing reveals. First off, it doesn’t work, because when they keep winkingly reminding us that surprises are coming, they don’t end up being very surprising. The shocking reveal of Luke’s parentage was shocking because no one was EXPECTING any shocking reveals. There weren’t hundreds of fan theories about his father; everyone knew his father was a Jedi Knight killed by Vader. The thrill of that shock can never, ever be replicated or outdone.

        Secondly, if all the movie’s excitement depends on a surprise, then it doesn’t lend itself much to re-watches. Once you know the answers, there isn’t much point, is there? I love the original six films that Lucas made because I find new things to appreciate every time I watch them. I knew Palpatine was Sidious from the first time I watched Episode I, and it didn’t ruin anything. It just makes watching his duplicity all more rewarding. Shocking surprises alone cannot support a story. I actually have a full post exploring that idea, as if this rant hasn’t already gone on too long. 😉 https://cynthiaailshie.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/the-long-view/

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