The Star Wars trilogy is a series of films that is primarily focused on character arcs. While there is a broader story going on with the Rebel Alliance challenging the might of the evil Galactic Empire, these movies are not meant to be broad history of that conflict. Instead we see the war through the eyes of a select few group of characters, primarily Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Han Solo. However, today’s article is not about any of the men in Star Wars, but on the lone female presence in the movie: Princess Leia.
This really should be obvious, but if you are one of the poor souls who has not yet seen these movies, there are many spoilers to follow. Why are you reading this instead of watching those movies already?
If there is one criticism I have against the original Star Wars films it would be the lack of female characters. The original film has Luke Skywalker’s aunt Beru and Return of the Jedi has Mon Mothma, and The Empire Strikes Back… maybe it has some female civilians in Cloud City? I don’t honestly remember. My point is that these movies do not have an overwhelming female presence. Fortunately, it does one of the best female characters in a major blockbuster film series. Princess Leia Organa is not treated as inferior to her peers or as eye candy for the male audience (usually…), but is a fully fleshed out character with her own set of skills to contribute to the adventures of everyone else. I kind of view her as analogous to Wonder Woman: clearly the only female presence on the team, but also enough of a personality that she never feels like the odd one out.
I have previously discussed that the basic structure of Star Wars follows classic medieval tropes: knights, wizards, castles, that sort of thing. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Leia’s character: she is named Princess Leia and is placed in the position of being the damsel in distress. While this trope was played out even then, Leia manages to subvert this by.. well, not being in distress. More like a damsel in dire straights. She isn’t stupid, she isn’t weak, she doesn’t show fear. She shoots a stormtrooper in the beginning of the movie (right after we’ve seen these things mow down rebel fighters like they are nothing), so we know she can handle herself. Darth Vader has her tortured but she doesn’t give any information; even when her home planet is destroyed by the Death Star she doesn’t give away the actual location of the Rebels. The fact that this woman is captured and held hostage is more a mark for the Empire than it is against Leia.
One of the defining aspects of Leia’s character to me is her reaction to her rescue; she constantly points out the flaws in the plan Luke and Han have concocted, but doesn’t sound like she’s whining. The tone is of somebody who knows how to pull off a rescue mission and is having to deal with two numbskulls who don’t. She convincingly assumes command of the group by showcasing her intelligence and willingness to risk her neck.
Leia’s role as a leader is expanded in The Empire Strikes Back where she is the one who gives orders to the Rebel pilots during the escape from Hoth. It’s clear that she is comfortable leading an army, which makes Empire perhaps the movie where she is at her weakest. Not in a bad sense, but when she’s stuck on the Millenium Falcon with Han Solo she doesn’t exactly have a lot of resources to work with. She’s got a cocksure loose canon pilot who’s routinely shown to care more about himself than anyone else, a prissy protocol droid, a wookiee who she can’t understand, and an entire Imperial Fleet on her tail. Staying true to the dynamic of their relationship from the first film, she doesn’t view Han as being overly competent until she’s around him long enough for him to show that he can be capable when he wants to be.
Empire is an example of developing a character during quieter moments; Leia doesn’t have to stay strong in the face of her enemies as much in this sequel, so we get to see her be a little more emotionally vulnerable. And I don’t mean emotional weak, I mean open and exposed; real. She’s obviously used to taking action and tries to help Han however she can even though most of the situations are out of her control, and it’s also clear that she’s more used to being a leader than a partner. Leia is authority, and Han challenges authority, which she finds both frustrating and attractive. Han and Leia’s romance is one of the more organically created ones in Hollywood history. The characters don’t seem fated to be together, the just get thrown together through circumstances and get to know each other and find that they actually like each other.
While Leia started as a strong damsel in dire straights in Star Wars, she becomes a more fleshed out, human character in Empire Strikes Back. Which is really the general goal of this movie on the whole. The first movie introduces the archetypes and gives us a bit of a glimpse into the characters, but is more about telling the story of an adventure. Empire is the middle act where characters are developed, given layers and humanity, and consequently the stakes are raised because we now have a strong emotional attachment to the characters. Leia’s defining moment in Empire is when she makes an attempt to save Han Solo from the bounty hunter Boba Fett, firing helplessly at his ship as the man she loves is carried away to some distant planet. She may never see him again, and that is a powerful moment that sets up Leia for greatness in the third act.
Return of the Jedi is something of an uneven film, with some glaring weak points in the narrative but arguably the greatest thrills and most emotional resonant moments as well. It is also where we get to see Leia at the height of her “action heroine” capability. She sneaks into Jabba’s palace as a Bounty Hunter to save Han Solo; the woman who was rescued is now the one doing the rescuing. This whole first act is so utterly brilliant because we never have a scene where the heroes discuss their plan, so we don’t even know there is a plan at all until the pieces fall into place. We never see Leia dress up as a hounty hunter; we just assume that some bounty hunter has captured Chewbacca and wants money from Jabba. Then the bounty hunter frees Solo from the carbonite, and we still don’t know until that glorious moment when reveals who she is.
And seriously, everybody talks about the gold bikini, but this is the real moment where every Star Wars fanboy fell hopelessly in love with Leia. She rescued her beloved when there was no way for him to escape, risking her life to do so. In short, she’s a dashing hero who has come to save the day. I don’t really know what it feels like to be a girl who falls in love with some handsome knight in shining armor, but I have to imagine it’s pretty similar to how we feel when Leia takes off her helmet and kisses Han. Is it emasculating? Maybe? Who cares? Leia is freaking awesome.
But okay, let’s talk about the bikini. The infamous golden bikini. Now there is clearly an argument to be made that this is a wholly unnecessary thing in Return of the Jedi and reduces Leia to being a sex object. It gets worse when one considers the extreme lack of other women in these movies. But to me, this was never really a huge fanservice moment; there’s not a lot of sex appeal in seeing this awesome hero reduced to slavery at the hands of the despicable Jabba the Hutt. Within the context of the story, it’s more unsettling than anything. My most distinct memory of Leia in this outfit is not when she’s sitting there like this (though I do love her looks of annoyance and disgust), it’s when she turns the leash around on Jabba and strangles him, killing off a major villain who has made life a living hell for the person she cares about most.
Leia has plenty of other action scenes throughout Empire, but it’s this opening act where everything comes full circle. She is now in the opposite situation that she was in when the saga started. While the Star Wars movies still have a long way to go in terms of presenting a film that doesn’t have a male gender bias, Leia is an example of how to do a character well. When somebody asks me to point to strong female character, she’s one of the first that pops in my head. It’s a combination of Carrie Fisher’s acting, how the character is written, and Leia’s overall role in the universe that makes her one of the standout characters in a movie series full of excellent character development.