Apologies to Princess Leia

A commenter or two has pointed out I was too hard on Princess Leia in my talk. I dismissed her as someone who "sits around for the whole movie so she can give the hero a wink and a medal for saving the universe." While it's true that the Star Wars galaxy of the original films is Tolkien-like in its gender ratios, I was wrong to throw the leader of the Alliance under the galactic bus. 

Strictly speaking, she only sits around for the third act of Star Wars. 

For the first two acts, she is by far the bravest, toughest and most decisive character in the film--probably in any Star Wars film. 

This piece by Emily Asher-Perrin from last summer alerted me to what might be the culprit in my underestimating Ms. Organa: the title of "princess":
Leia doesn’t introduce herself to Darth Vader as a Princess of Alderaan when they first meet on the Rebel Blockade Runner; she identifies as “a member of the Imperial Senate.” She’s a politician, and an important one at that...Leia is also one of the key members of the Rebel Alliance, a leading voice at the core of the insurrection...Leia’s life has been anything but balls and servants and tiara-wearing. She was raised in a household of politicians who were working to overthrow an imposed dictatorship. I doubt she had classes in curtsying, but she definitely had to be taught how to hold up under interrogation, conduct her affairs in secret, and keep her cover stories in check.
But Luke knows none of this. In his eyes, she's a princess. A helpless hologram, a damsel in distress, crying for aid from a man who used to work for her dad. When he learns she's trapped in the Imperial dungeon, chivalry floods his veins. (Crowding out the midichlorians, presumably.) You can practically hear the hope in his cracking voice that she'll be so grateful for the rescue that she'll, you know, kiss him on the cheek.

As an adolescent boy, I was with Luke. She gives him that peck as the trumpet fanfare escorts them across the chasm, and she looks all pretty rousing all the soldiers to applaud him...Nice that the Death Star blew up and all, but I was pretty sure that wasn't the trench he was looking for. (Sorry.)

But before the third act softening, Leia is nobody's object. Having talked back to two big-shot bad guys and survived a floating bowling ball with a syringe, Leia is probably sitting in her cell plotting her own escape when Luke and his friends blow open her cell door.

The dialogue (credited to Lucas, but I suspect punched up by his friends Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck) gets suddenly excellent, with Leia insulting the amateurism and machismo of our protagonists and taking over the decision-making.

"This is some rescue," she says. "You came in here, but you didn't have a plan for getting out?" And then, when they're nonplussed, she grabs a blaster and grumbles, "Somebody has to save our skins." Han, a chauvinist, is appalled.

How did I miss this? Leia is BADASS.

The Star Wars movies would have been so much better if this character had been maintained throughout the trilogy, even while her emotional connections with Han and Luke developed. She does sit back and watch the rest of Star Wars once the military solution is called for--maybe because her home planet is pacifist?

In the lazy Return of the Jedi, somebody calling herself Leia not only gets idiotically captured again, but lounges around complacently in a bikini, and then later lets down her hair and becomes Friend to the Bears while the whole rebellion continues without her.

But the original Leia remains a clear rebuke to the idea that princesses are submissive. For more evidence, see Tangled and Brave.


  1. She's lounging around in a bikini because she has been taken prisoner and will probably be killed if she resists there (or thrown to a rancor). Do not forget that she was only captured because she infiltrated Jabba's lair disguised as a bounty hunter TO SAVE HAN. Also, as chaos ensued while trying to throw Han and Luke to the Sarlac, she strangles Jabba with the very chains he used to bind her. The "original Leia" still exists. Also, those Bears fucking killed Imperial troopers with rocks.

  2. I see your Han rescue, and raise you one "Someone who loves you" and steal a leisurely kiss. I see your Jabba strangle and raise you one "No, Luke, run away, far away." I cede the point on the Bears.

  3. What about the scene where Liea has been shot, Han surrenders to the two Stormtroopers? She pulls her blaster out, hidden from the troopers. Han says "I love you", she reply with "I know", mirroring an earlier exchange from Empire Strikes back. She then proceeds to save Han by taking out the two troopers.

  4. It made my night reading about your presentation at TED's.. I completely understand where you come from and I like where your going with all this.. I am SO into gender equality and all that comes with it, but my two boys, age 3, will always go for the movie with the scare, machine, robot, guns factor.. It amazes me.. they have only watched him during advertisements on tv but already all they wish is to be big enough for mummy to lets them watch Star Wars, Spider man, Iron man and he Avengers.. It's like hey are naturally drawn to that! Only a glimpse at darth vader and they were sold forever..

  5. The design seems to be what makes a big impression on my kids. They recognize in princesses and superheroes a strong aesthetic statement that they can tell is "cool"--they've seen it on other kids and, as social animals, want to fit in and be respected. I don't actually think it necessarily means they're drawn to all the moral and sociological trappings of princesses or superheroes. My son doesn't seem to understand what a "bad guy" is, but he knows they wear cool clothes.

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  7. I just watched the TED talk "Colin Stokes: How movies teach manhood"

    You were really starting to loose me until you said the name "Obiwan"

    I was thinking you were just going off on a feminist tirade about more role models for girls, but you did finally get around to the title of the talk.

    Don't get me wrong, I am all for good role models for girls in the media, but that wasn't the title of his talk.

    Let me say I boldly fight the battle against pink every time my nieces birthday and xmas roles round by presenting her with SCUBA diving barbie, Helicopter pilot Barbie and toy trains, boats and helicopters.

    I was a little surprised by your reaction to Star Wars. The princess in that movie was way ahead of her movie peers.
    She was not only bossy, but knew what she was talking about, while Luke was rather clueless and Hans couldn't have cared less.
    She was the only character in the movie that was an actual team leader focused on a particular objective. She did kiss Luke half way through the film to motivate him to be brave "for good luck" is what she said. She motivated Hans with money because as a smart team leader she knew that's what motivated him. The 1977 Princess Lea was a TEAM LEADER, a Project Manager and the one person that was pushing all the other "Good Guys" to keep going and stay on mission. She is the one that actually roused Obiwan from his slumber out in the waist lands and got him moving again.

    I didn't see Star Wars until I was 14 years old, but it had a huge effect on me.

    In retrospect, the effect was the icing on a cake that was mostly made of influences by men like Jacques Cousteau, and my own father.
    One I watched on TV, the other was right in my own home telling his stories of his time in the Navy.

    Additional effects on me as a kid were toys like the Adventure Team G.I. Joes, who were on quests that were more like
    Jacques Cousteau's than like going to war.

    Both Cousteau and my Dad told a story of "Going out there" EXPLORING, not fighting or conquering, but seeking.

    Both sailed the seas on ships and were involved in Life Sciences. My Dad was a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman.

    STAR WARS: There is one scene that really stuck with me from the original Star Wars that I saw in 1977.

    That one scene, which was always with me in my 20s, was the scene where Luke watches the twin suns set on the horizon of his home world.

    That Twin Sunset scene loomed large in my teens and 20s and it still lingers in my mind to this day.

    That was the moment when you could feel his longing to get out of his little back-water home and "Go out there" and see the wider world.

    To this day the Twin Sunset is the one and only scene from
    "Episode IV" (the 1977 Star Wars) that still has a powerful emotional effect on me when I watch it.

    You claim that Star Wars teaches boys to fight in order to get a reward. That's not what it taught me. It taught me to go looking for all the Obiwans I could find as a young man and use their guidance to find my 'reward' which was the ability to explore even more.

    You are right though. We need more Obiwans in movies.
    I think we need more Captain Cousteaus as well.
    by the way, I don't think today's nature shows really provide that role model anymore. ~ William F. Discher

  8. I agree, Leia does get captured and her outfit is appalling. It's become a sad nerd fetish for the past 30 years. Guy's seem to see it as a woman in her subservient place. They never remember that she uses her chains to strangle her captor to death. No one even thinks of coming to rescue her. They know what she's capable of.

    I think Leia making friends with the ewoks is very much in the vein of what you like about the Wizard of Oz. Women choosing to make friends when they can and fighting when they have to.

    I take issue with your comment above regarding Leia asking Luke to run. Vader tortured her in ANH. You can see the fear on her face in the carbonite chamber. She doesn't want Luke to risk himself in a fight with the only person she's afraid of. It doesn't however, stop her from gearing up and fighting on the front with the rest of the troops. Leia is bad as to the end.

    Of course, that's not to say that Jedi isn't a mediocre film. It really is a showcase of how bad the prequels would turn out to be as far as humor and logic. But it's not a sign of what a wimp Padme would be compared to her daughter.

  9. The plot beats in "Return of the Jedi" of Leia strangling Jabba and befriending the Ewoks, and of Luke and Vader choosing the light side of the Force, are well-intentioned. Unfortunately, they're surrounded by beats that show them waffling, caving, yammering, sitting around, or allowing implausible contrivances to save the day (looking at you, teddy bear insurgency). And all beats are played by the actors with vacant or confused looks, and photographed with flat lighting and prosaic composition. The result is a movie that betrays all its characters--Leia most of all.

  10. I agree with Art-Science-Education, although Star Wars did leave a desire in me to master the force, fight epic space battles and race up and down palaces fighting off storm troopers, it left an even deeper impression of longing for something new, something unique. A thirst for adventure.

  11. Exactly how is Princess Leia a key figure of the Rebellion? On paper, she is supposed to be a political leader of the Rebellion. The movies have shown her perform espionage and military roles, instead. Yet, I've never seen her act in the role of a politician.

    Why did Lucas make her a politician in the first place?


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