Star Wars: The Feminism Awakens? Episode II: Don’t Diminish Leia To Praise Rey
Leia In The Original Trilogy
While fans of women’s empowerment everywhere are rejoicing that the next generation Luke Skywalker is a young woman, I think it’s important that we not underestimate the greatness of Princess Leia. A lot of the praise for Rey has been coupled with complaints that Star Wars hasn’t treated women very well in the past. Sure, I’ve read some say, Leia was a feisty supporting character but they debased her by putting her in that metal bikini and making her a slave to Jabba The Hutt. And the first film famously kicks off with Leia recording a message imploring a man for help. The premise of the movie is that she’s a damsel in distress that several men have to go save. This sort of reductive reading of Princess Leia and her role in the original trilogy and in sci-fi/fantasy lore is just shameful. Let’s look at the wonderful, multidimensional, kickass heroine that Leia was.
Among the main trio of Luke, Han, and Leia, it is Leia who is already an established and competent member of the rebellion, already a respected leader in struggle. She is smart, principled, earnest, and cocky. She does not start out as the whiny farm boy or the cavalier smuggler looking out only for himself. When we meet her she is on a vital mission risking her life to help save the galaxy. After programming R2D2 to seek out Obi-Wan Kenobi, she tells off the fearsome Darth Vader with defiant contempt. She resists torture without giving up secrets. When Luke and Han show up to rescue she takes an immediately active role in her own escape. She grabs a laser and starts shooting stormtroopers, she makes key decisions, and every time Han Solo tries to put her down she gives as good as she gets. She is the epitome of a woman unapologetically in charge and unhesitating in standing up for herself. The reason that everybody’s favorite devilmaycare space pirate falls in love with her—and has such crackling chemistry with her that their romance is widely celebrated—is because she’s (at least) equal to him. That’s how strong she’s written.
And when next one of our heroes gets taken captive—this time by an abominable snowman—it’s actually Luke Skywalker who needs rescuing at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, and Han does it. Then at the film’s end, when Lando Calrissean has given over Han to Darth Vader under duress, it is Leia who holds Lando’s feet to the fire. And when Lando and Leia are escaping, it is Leia who gets Luke’s message, sent through their brother-sister bond in the Force (though neither knows yet that that’s how), and it’s Leia who bravely twists Lando’s arm to turn the Millenium Falcon around and put themselves at great risk to rescue her brother.
And, of course, when all is said and done and the credits roll at the end of Empire Strikes Back, the “damsel in distress” is none other than Han Solo, imprisoned in carbonite and on his way to Jabba The Hutt to be trapped as a wall decoration in perpetuity. And the person who shows up in Jabba’s palace to save Han in a badass bounty hunter costume and menacing distorted voice threatening to blow the whole place up with a thermal detonator is Leia. She’s the one charged with the task of actually freeing him from the carbonite in the middle of the night before her brother with the light saber is scheduled to show up. It even seems like the plan was for her to get caught. She had to know that she wasn’t going to be able to just waltz right out of Jabba’s palace with Han Solo, unnoticed. The larger plan they devised involved getting the whole team into position before the moment that they would take out everyone. That’s why Lando got himself a gig as a guard. That’s why the droids knocked on the door and presented themselves to Jabba as a gift from Luke. That’s why the disguised Leia brought Chewbacca into the palace on the guise of handing him over as a captured prisoner. And Leia was the one charged with the most dangerous and important part of the whole endeavor—getting Han out of the carbonite ahead of Luke’s arrival so that they could effectively rescue him. They couldn’t all show up at once and hope to get to Han. Someone had to get in there and free him from first. Leia had that mission. Leia did that knowing she was likely going to be captured thereafter.
So, yes, then Leia wound up in the metal slave bikini. And what of it? Are we going to disparage her because the disgusting gangster slug Jabba The Hutt decided to try to degrade her? Do we really want to say that if a character in a movie sexually mistreats a woman that the film has done so? Does anyone really think the filmmakers are primarily trying to titillate, rather than repulse, us in the scenes where Jabba The Hutt is filling the frame and our beloved Leia is chained up and recoiling from his lascivious monstrous tongue? The idea that a female character is not strong because she has men try to sexually humiliate her is appalling to me and downright anti-feminist. It enables victim blaming to insist that “women can’t be sexually assaulted and still be strong”. It implies that a truly strong female character would never land herself in Jabba’s clutches to be collared and chained as a sexual object and slave. It implies a truly strong female character would not be raped (as was the perverse unintended message of a lot of feminist blogosphere backlash against Game of Thrones last season–my take on that controversy is here). The reality is that strong women do have terrible things happen to them and their strength shouldn’t be doubted on that account. And such strength especially shouldn’t be doubted when they take the chains that bind them and boldly swing them around the gigantic neck of Jabba the Hutt and choke the life out of him.
And while I can’t speak to other boys and girls who grew up fantasizing about Princess Leia in the slave bikini, I can say that growing up I much more remember my action figure of Leia in her bounty hunter costume (with removable and replaceable helmet and everything) being one of my very favorite toys. And all those countless weekend mornings that I would wake up before everyone in the house and go downstairs to watch Return of the Jedi again I only remember feeling empathy for Leia when she was chained up next to Jabba. I’m not saying that I don’t find her very sexually attractive in a bikini or denying that incidentally any number of boys or girls wouldn’t have realized some of their burgeoning sexual feelings seeing her like that, but that was not the point of the film. And I hardly think it influenced a generation of people to dream of having sex slaves. A beautiful woman in a bikini was beautiful and pulled from its actual story context where it’s repulsive adults now enjoy sexy cosplay (and who knows what else) related to it. Big deal. The fact that Leia has this sexual dimension does not diminish her, it does not disempower her as a character, it doesn’t make her a bad role model. Han Solo is clearly also a sex symbol for a generation and yet his seriousness as a character has never been doubted on account of it. Saying that Leia loses her ability to be powerful and empowering because out of context her metal bikini has become fetishized is to send the extremely anti-sex message to girls and women that the only way to be serious is to never present yourself in a way that can be taken for sexually revealing. Seriously, that’s not an empowering message.
Then on the Endor moon, Leia is an integral part of the force that disables the shield generators and makes it possible to take down the Death Star. Again she is the one saving Han in the scene where a stormtrooper from the back who can’t see Leia in front of Han has Han put up his hands in surrender. Leia reveals her weapon to Han. He tells her he loves her, she tells him, “I know” (again Leia giving back what she gets from Han) and shoots the stormtrooper.
The only charge left that Leia wasn’t “enough” of a character to rise above being just a token Strong Female Character is that she wasn’t the main character and ultimately she, like other Strong Female Characters, doesn’t get the spotlight in the big climactic role. In that way, Rey is an advance. But Rey is not yet nearly as finely sketched or memorable a person as Leia. And, again, it’s a backward feminism that would tear down women who play supporting roles instead of highlighting them. Now is not the time to diminish Leia. It’s time to celebrate her.
Leia in The Force Awakens (Spoilers)
Ironically the one movie that doesn’t seem to respect Leia very much is actually The Force Awakens, which for all its zeal for its impressive young new lead woman, shows the same lack of interest in older women as the rest of Hollywood. In Leia, the filmmakers had a natural opportunity to sell to us a woman leader of the Republic that the audience would have completely bought. And not only that but a Force using one that the audience would not have questioned either. For all the pathetic obsessing over the fact that Carrie Fisher has gained a lot of weight since Return of the Jedi, when I saw her in The Force Awakens I had trouble recognizing her as Leia for a much different reason. The life was sucked out of her. Unlike the real life Carrie Fisher who has been killing it on the press tour, brimming with verve and knowing, punchy wit. (Probably my favorite quip from her current press tour was that in the new movie they gave her “a classy gas station attendant look”.)
That shrewd sharp tongued woman who you can see terrifying interviewers (and probably Disney executives) with her unpredictable, cuttingly clever jabs that make you nervous she might say anything next and hope she actually does—they should have gotten her to play Princess Leia. Why did they give all the fun stuff in the movie to Han Solo? Why did he get to run around playing space cowboy again, while Leia is a maudlin matron defined primarily by her relationships to the men in her life, her missing brother, her adventurous estranged husband about whom she worries so much whenever he flies, and her estranged son whose gone to the Dark Side and is complicit with a genocide. She sends her husband off to go get their boy back conspicuously without her. She does have Force powers. They could help, right? No, actually, apparently her Force powers are only of use to feel the moment of Han’s death and mourn it in an homage to Yoda’s grief feeling the death of many Jedi at once in Revenge of the Sith.
Yes, yes, she had to be sad because her son has gone to the Dark Side. I’d have rather seen the movie where he goes there and she is dealing with all the stages there. Yes, yes, she couldn’t go off with Han because she was an important general… who makes no important decisions really. The only thing for her team to figure out is that they should just do the same goddamn thing they did in A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. Leia’s effectively just there for nostalgia and a brief but woefully insufficient attempt to give some weight and background to Han’s big confrontation with Kylo Ren. The filmmakers saw no more use for her. She was luggage. Here’s how Abrams described what he did with Han:
“I had thought Han’s story and Leia’s story was just about them coming back together. At the end of the movie they would have reconciled and gotten over their differences. And you would have said, ‘Okay, bad stuff happened, but at least they’re back together again. J.J. rightly asked, ‘What is Han doing in this movie?’ If we’re not going to have something important and irreversible happen to him, then he kind of feels like luggage. He feels like this great, sexy piece of luggage you have in your movie. But he’s not really evolving. He’s not really pushing the story forward.”
So, getting Han to not just be a sexy piece of luggage but to actually evolve was supposedly a top priority. Leia? Apparently she could be luggage with no more really to do than get back with Han?
Whereas Libby Anne was struck by how The Force Awakens managed never to have characters talk about how hot or not Rey was. The big joke we were supposed to laugh at when Han sees Leia is about how she “changed her hair”. It’s not very different from the end of Return of the Jedi. Han is clearly trying to wink to the audience about Leia’s iconic buns from her first appearance in A New Hope. As though after being with her throughout the rest of the original trilogy where we all saw her hair change a lot and then being married to her for many more years, the first thing on his mind about her is the hair she had when we first saw her. That moment irks me because it epitomizes the filmmakers’ attitudes towards Han and Leia—they didn’t care for their character developments throughout the three movies. They wanted to just make us nostalgic for how they were at the very start—Han back as a smuggler even though that erases all his growth in the original trilogy—and Leia as just the girl with the funny hair when we first see her. Almost as though that’s the most important thing we’re supposed to remember about one of the most no-nonsense, courageous, effective, and multi-dimensional women in sci-fi/fantasy film history.
More analyses of The Force Awakens from Camels With Hammers:
Readings of the Star Wars Prequels from Camels With Hammers: