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Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Princess Leia: Damsel in distress or feminist icon?

Giving the orders: Princess Leia changes the rescue plan

The third in an occasional series of posts about the characters of Star Wars looks at the only young woman in the galaxy.  

I've said before that Luke Skywalker represents us, the audience, in Star Wars, whereas Han Solo is the character we'd really like to be.

That does, I'll admit, imply that the viewer is expected to be a boy or a man.   And while I've met plenty of women and girls who like Star Wars, I would have to admit that the film really comes across as a fantasy movie for boys. In which case, what should we make of its one major female character, Princess Leia?

On paper, Leia might sound like the archetypal damsel in distress – a young royal who has been carried off to the enemy fortress and needs rescuing. And yet the character we meet in the movie is very different.

There would have been at least two ways for George Lucas to depict the story's princess. One would have been to present the kind of screaming heroine you see in at least some vintage science fiction. That unreconstructed approach would have been pretty feeble – and anyway, even the Flash Gordon movie serials that influenced Star Wars were a bit more sophisticated than that.
A poster of Leia from the UK
magazine Look-In in 1978

The other approach would have been to self-consciously make Leia the opposite of the shrieking victim. That attitude is all very well, but if it's done in too knowing a fashion, you get something like the 1976 remake of King Kong, with Jessica Lange calling Kong a “male chauvinist pig ape”. Star Wars takes care to avoid that kind of self-regarding tone – and in fact, Carrie Fisher recalled that George Lucas refused to let her inject any irony into her delivery.

Lucas happily took an approach somewhere between these two. He created in Leia a surprising, strong woman of action – but as with many of the surprises in Star Wars, he did not make a big deal of it.

In fact, surprise is one of the keys to Leia's character. She may be a princess, but we learn in the movie that she's also a senator, so presumably she's a royal who has decided to put herself up for election. We know that she comes from a peaceful planet with no weapons (or so she tells Grand Moff Tarkin) and yet this princess from a pacifist world is secretly a leading figure in an armed insurrection.

But the biggest surprise about Leia is that at no point does she sit still and behave like a victim. She stands up to Tarkin and Vader, openly insulting them even when her life is in jeopardy. She lies to them in an effort to protect the location of the Rebel base (earning no thanks from whatever life forms inhabit the planet Dantooine, presumably). And when her rescuers finally turn up, she is openly dismissive of their ill-formed escape plan and starts devising a strategy for herself.

Leia doesn't look much like this in the movie

The look of Princess Leia is important too. She is not the exotic, exaggeratedly sexy character of some science fiction. In fact, she bears little resemblance to the glamorous and leggy figure depicted on some of the film's own posters. But neither is she a stereotypically tomboyish character in combat gear. She wears a white dress, plenty of make-up and a hair-do that must take hours to maintain, but yet she totes a gun as confidently as any of the men. While it might be going too far to take Leia as some sort of feminist icon, she is certainly a character that doesn't correspond easily to any stereotype.

Something else that's distinctive about Leia is that she seems to be the only woman of child-bearing age in the galaxy. In fact, she's the only female we see in the movie at all, except for Luke's Aunt Beru. Some have taken this as sexism on the film's part, but you could read it another way. In most cultures, it's men who wage war, and this galaxy far, far away is no different. Surely the fact that Leia occupies such a prominent position in the conflict serves to make her all the more distinctive and remarkable.  She's one of a kind and a character happily in tune with the progressive era of the 1970s.

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