“Someone’s got to save our skins!” (Princess Leia Organa, Star Wars: A New Hope)

Princess Leia OrganaI really can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to profile Princess Leia as a Danger Gal Friday. When Star Wars came out I was knee-deep in pixies and dragons and unicorns. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I still enjoy reading about pixies and dragons and unicorns. But Princess Leia Organa was the first princess I’d encountered who was a damsel but not in distress. Not to mention that Han Solo so ousted Princess Aurora’s (Sleeping Beauty) Prince Philip as my McDreamy. So much has been said already about what a watershed moment the original Star Wars trilogy was for the boys growing up in that generation, but less has been said about the girls. There are fewer of us, and my tastes in Science Fiction have changed since then, but the few female characters have matched the positive impact that Princess Leia had on how women are portrayed in Science Fiction and leadership roles in general for fiction. Along with watching the original Star Trek episodes at this time, Star Wars kicked off my interest in Science Fiction because there was as character I could identify with.

The only thing I would have changed about Princess Leia is to give her a lightsaber, and I’m still disappointed that there was no female Jedi as a main character in the Star Wars prequels. There are female Jedi, however, and characters in some of the books/comics (Mara Jade comes to mind immediately, but she’s a future Danger Gal post), but I’m still disappointed.

Deb Taylor at Mookychick summarized Princess Leia Organa beautifully:

Princess Leia was a strong and fearless character, who stood by her beliefs and fought for them. Whether it was saving the galaxy or the man she loved. She was more than willing to risk her own life for the struggle and never demanded that others do the same. Though she appreciated it when they did.

An important facet of Princess Leia’s story is that she not only had a career, but was at the top of the heap in her chosen profession, and she also didn’t have to sacrifice her love life for it. She fell in love with a rogue who decided to fly the straight and narrow path after experiencing her and Luke’s examples. She didn’t take a bad boy and change him, he chose to change himself.

Not only does Leia take charge, but people follow her commands. She also rescues the heroes several times over. She doesn’t fall prey to the SF stereotype of a scantily clad female until Return of the Jedi — and even then she’s saving all the guys, not to mention strangling her monster captor with her own shackles. Princess Leia challenges the stereotypical spacebabe when as a chatteled half-naked female turns the tables by slaying the monster herself. (Meanwhile, the guys are trying not to fall into a giant vagina dentata, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

No character is perfect, but a perfect character is boring. Real people are torn between social, political and religious issues and are not totally consistent in their opinions on those issues. Some have found fault with ways Leia could have subverted traditional feminine roles further and we should examine those. Mariana at Gatochy’s Blog makes a very good point about female Jedi in general and Leia in particular:

The Star Wars trilogy is generally great in keeping women in their place, because have you noticed how there’s not one. Single. Female. Jedi? Not one? Not ever? Puppets, yes. Samuel L. Jackson, sure, in the movies that followed. But women can’t handle that kind of power. And that’s where Princess Leia comes in: to show us how even if you do supposedly have the Force in you you simply can make no use of it unless you’re a man; and that even if you do hold a position of great power because it was handed down to you on a silver platter, if you’re a woman, you’re bound to be hopeless at it. In fact, you will notice it’s her twin brother, who she didn’t even know she had, who saves the universe, not her.

I couldn’t agree more (and I’ve made a similar complaint in the past), and there are many problems with other female characters in Star Wars as well. However, for the time she was written, this was a great step forward. Princess Leia became a template for later heroines and we continue to build on this new archetype in fits in starts, one step forward and sometimes four steps backward. Part of the motivation for me writing this blog is to highlight the great and not-so-great qualities in characters like Princess Leia so that we can discard the old, useless and degrading qualities of female stereotypes.

When as a kid in the 1970s I played Star Wars in the backyard, my version of Princess Leia indeed had a lightsaber and was a powerful Jedi. After she defeated the bad guy, she rode off into the sunset (the Tatooine binary star, mind you) in her landspeeder (or dragon or unicorn, sometimes) with Han Solo.

And, yes, she was driving.



27 Responses to “Danger Gal Friday: Princess Leia Organa”

  1. > And, yes, she was driving.

  2. AHEM! As I was trying to say before….

    GO YOU! I’m totally with you that there aren’t enough strong heroines who aren’t cut short by being scantilly clad. Are writers/producers afraid men won’t watch if they can’t see skin? Perhaps men will feel threatened? I I’d have thought we’d come a long way in this day and age, but it appears we haven’t. I’d love to have seen Princess Leia swing that lightsaber and do some serious damage.

  3. I love Princess Leia, and I totally remember being so surprised and impressed by her bravery when that movie came out. Thanks for spotlighting her.

  4. I don’t think it matters that Leia didn’t wield a lightsaber. She was a better shot than any of the men, more powerful politically, and higher-ranked in the Alliance (until they all inexplicably became generals). The fact that she was a Princess was a coincidence, and effectively provided a smokescreen for her Rebel activities prior to A New Hope.

    As to why there were no female Jedi, I can’t be too hard on Lucas for not portraying them. Speaking as a female martial artist, (ranked 2nd in my class, and most of the time the ONLY female in my class, certainly the highest-level woman my teacher has trained in 30 years), you just don’t see that many high-level female martial artists because most of ‘em don’t stick with it. And even if you are high-level, a 120-lb. woman is not going to last long against an equally trained 200-lb. man. Ergo, the most skilled Jedi fighters would be men. Tough pill to swallow sometimes, but it’s a reality I accept.

    Furthermore, in the societies of warrior-priests which Lucas was emulating (the Shaolin temple, the Wudan, etc.) the fighting art and the religion/philosophy were wrapped up together. The training emphasized devotion to an ideal, or a cause, and one’s brothers-at-arms, not to exterior ties like wife and family. Celibacy was often a part of the training (and still is, in very traditional schools) and all the practitioners lived a communal life–ergo, no girls allowed.

    It is implied that the Jedi live a monastic lifestyle. However, given the contemporary American audience, there was no way Lucas could come right out and say No Girls Allowed without causing a fuhrer. He took the easy way out and just didn’t address it. However, I think the portrayal was accurate. There would be a few exceptional female Jedi on the fringes, taught by exceptional masters, but probably not in the communal schools.

    Anyway, there are different roads to power. Luke and Leia were what they needed to be to make the story work, and managed to be reasonably well-developed personalities at the same time.

    Wow, I’ve spent too much time on this.

  5. You make many great points, all informed by your experience.

    What has always irked me though, is that Lucas placed such emphasis on the Force and the Jedi, that the message was if you’re not part of it, you’re not much.

  6. Meh. I didn’t get that from it, at least not from the original trilogy. I mean Return of the Jedi did give equal screen-time to the Luke/Darth struggle and the military raid on Endor.

    If the Jedi do get the lion’s share of attention these days, I attribute it to the typical fascination of Americans with all things Samurai. Plus those lightsabers are super-cool.

  7. Oh, one last thing–I should clarify that, without retracting anything I said above, I’m fairly sure Lucas is a sexist dinosaur–perhaps without realizing he is. There are other indications, particularly in the second trilogy, that he is locked into 50′s-era gender and racial stereotypes. But much has been said about that elsewhere.

  8. Yes, those lightsabers are super-cool. I’m a girl and I want one, dagnabbit. That’s OK, I’m a writer, so I’ll come up with something equally cool and make it girls-only. Neener.

    Turning up the maturity level, I see your point about ROTJ.

    And, SNAP! Lucas is so a “sexist dinosaur,” you got that right. I’ve ranted about that very thing previously.

  9. Holly: Based on your comments about how Lucas based the Jedi on warrior-priests like those of the Shaolin temple, Wudan etc. and how the training encouraged celibacy and inhibited ties to family, what do you think about the development of the Mara Jade character?

  10. I wish I could comment on Mara Jade. She sounds cool. But I gave up on Star Wars after The Phantom Debacle and I’m just not that well-versed in the geekery.

    What I can say is that most kung-fu movies have at least one female fighting character in it. However, that character is ususally a mother fighting to protect her children/family or a “virgin” character fighting to protect her honor.

    In the recent “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” these stereotypes were tweaked a bit in Jen (Ziyi Zhang) who defied her parents and her station in life to run away and be an adventurer. Of course her breaking with tradition brought disaster to everyone around her. The other female lead, Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) was a fighter and ran a “security” business inherited from her father, but by doing so she had basically made herself unmarriable.

    Does Mara Jade fit into any of those categories? Since I don’t remember seeing her in any of the movies, I would conclude she’s not very important in the grander scheme of things. Perhaps that’s an answer in itself?

  11. Hi–just got back from Wikipedia.

    Mara Jade–now there’s a character I can rant about. I haven’t read the Zahn books, and probably won’t. However that brief glance was enough to get my dander up, so when you write your post about her, here are some things to consider:

    She was abducted from her parents by an evil man (read: raped).

    She was corrupted via brainwashing/stockholm syndrome into serving the man who corrupted her (read: fell in love with her rapist).

    Was assigned to kill the hero, Luke, by dressing up in a skimpy outfit in Jabba’s palace, but failed because she was constrained by her male captor (Jabba).

    Was eventually redeemed by marrying the hero, Luke, and having his baby, thus restoring the proper balance to the patriarchal universe. Oh, and given permission to fly the phallis-shaped spaceship he gave her. On missions in his name.

    To wit: holding a lightsaber (read: penis) does not necessarily render one “powerful”.

    The specifics may change, but the dynamics stay the same. So yeah, I’d rather be Leia any day of the week. She knows her strengths and she still gets her scoundrel. (Should I point out that The Empire Strikes Back was the only one of the screenplays credited to a female writer?)

    Somewhere on the web is a catalogue of all the female comic book characters who have been raped, murdered, and/or stripped of their powers, never to be revived. I seem to remember there was a pretty good perspective of how powerful women are treated in a fanboy universe. Might be of interest.

  12. It’s amazing you got all that just from reading a Wikipedia entry, but you’ve articulated well what’s always bothered me about Mara Jade, and also why I haven’t profiled her as a Danger Gal. She’s essentially a victim who’s traded one master for another. I haven’t read all of the comics she appears in, but I have read the Thrawn trilogy and, just as I’ve pointed out about Padme, we missed a great opportunity to go somewhere new with a female character — like A New Hope did with Princess Leia.

    This type of romance, where a character like Mara isn’t really an equal partner, is so contradictory to what Romance as a genre is all about, which ultimately is about not restraining female sexuality and finding a balance between men and women in relationships and society. Granted, some Romance novels achieve this better and more elegantly than others, but this is the reason I read Romance.

    At some point I’d like to read the rest of the books and comics that Mara Jade appears in and do a more in-depth character study.

    Is this the site about female comics characters you were referring to?

  13. The site I was thinking of is called Women in Refrigerators. I had to do a bit of hunting to find it. It’s a lot older than I thought.

    Amen re: Padme and missed opportunities. Note how she was effectively rendered powerless once she was impregnated?

    And now I have to go do some posting of my own. Cheers!

  14. I disliked Mara Jade when she first showed up, and quit reading the Zahn books shortly thereafter, so I can’t comment on her.

    But speaking of books… I liked Princess Leia as portrayed in the first Star Wars novel (by Alan Dean Foster, but credited to Lucas) and in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (also by Foster, and credited to him). Especially in the latter, where she piloted her own X-wing (or Y-wing, maybe) and successfully brought it in for a crash landing, survived several nights in a swamp full of horrible things, and later, IIRC (amazing how I can’t remember the details of a book I read four times in SIXTH GRADE ALONE, and yearly after that until I was in college), picked up Luke’s lightsaber after he became disabled and totally thrashed Darth Vader. I agree that Lucas, and maybe Zahn too, are dinosaurs, but Foster isn’t. :-)

  15. I haven’t read the Foster books, but now I may have to! Thanks for the run-down.

  16. I haven’t read any Foster, either, but my husband likes him a lot, and my husband is a bonefied feminist, among other things.

  17. I think those two are the only SW books he wrote… Splinter of the Mind’s Eye came out in late ’77/early ’78, I think, and probably nobody had planned on a movie sequel just yet. It’s not Canon, anyway. :-) You should be able to pick it up on eBay, half.com, or Paperbackswap. I see it fairly regularly at book sales, too.

    I rode on an elevator with Alan Dean Foster at a science fiction convention in 1979. I meant to tell him how much I liked that book, but couldn’t say a word. Hey, I was 13. :-)

  18. Meh. Whatever good Leia’s role in A New Hope did for female characters in SF was surely undone by what happened to her character in The Empire Strikes Back. Instead of being a military leader, she’s pushed aside while men with no personality or character development make all the decisions. (Who is that guy who runs the Rebel base on Hoth?) Instead of helping her comrades survive their tough scrapes and narrow escapes, she becomes a whiny bitch — “This bucket of bolts is never gonna get us past that blockade!” — and lets Han come up with every single solution, make every decision. When they reach Cloud City, she paces around a penthouse apartment changing her hairstyle and trying new dresses, while she could be — oh, I dunno — making sure the Millennium Falcon gets fixed, or something like that.

    While I think TESB is better than A New Hope in every other way — hell, it’s really the only Star Wars movie I’ll watch without somebody paying me — what it does to Leia’s character is awful, and Leia never recovers from it.

    What happened to Padme is not a surprise.

  19. Sorry, Blake, but I think that’s an awfully reductionist analysis of what happened in Empire.

    >Instead of being a military leader, she’s pushed aside while men with no personality or character development make all the decisions.

    Nonsense. She was issuing orders even while Han was dragging her away. The thing everybody forgets is that Leia was a high-ranking officer in the Rebel army. She had to be kept safe and evacuated first because she was more important than the foot soldiers. The guy running the Rebel base on Hoth was, in fact, the commander of the Hoth base. Every major Rebel outpost would have one. She outranked him, and it was his job to stay there while the really important people were removed from Harm’s Way–much like putting the President in a bunker during a bomb scare.

    >Instead of helping her comrades survive their tough scrapes and narrow escapes, she becomes a whiny bitch

    I strongly object to the description of her as a whiny bitch. Yes, she was being rude to Han, but since they spent the whole movie trading barbs, and that behavior was intended to develop the subplot of their attraction to one another, I hardly think that Leia deserves to be singled out for inappropriate behavior.

    >lets Han come up with every single solution, make every decision

    Was she supposed to tell him how to fly his own ship? And were any of the decisions he made poor ones, considering the options? (Trusting Lando doesn’t count, because clearly his betrayal was unexpected by all.)

    >When they reach Cloud City, she paces around a penthouse apartment changing her hairstyle and trying new dresses..

    This is utterly unfair. They were there to rest and clean up. Even Chewie had his hair brushed. I dismiss this point entirely.

    >while she could be making sure the Millennium Falcon gets fixed, or something like that.

    Not her job. Did Captain Picard ever fix the ship? No. He designated people who know how to do it. Also there was a certain amount of diplomacy involved at Cloud City–they were in someone else’s city, asking for hospitality. It was Han’s job to liaison with Lando and Lando’s people, not hers.

    I’m sorry, but I think you have selectively chosen to ignore the context of the scenes you describe.

  20. All good points, Holly.

    Blake, RE: Leia’s behavior in Cloud City. It’s not so much that Leia started putting on pretty dresses that diminished her. As Holly pointed out, every person in the group was being groomed at that point. It was a reward/boon phase of the hero’s journey. What was more interesting was the way Lando treated her — sure, like a princess, but in the beginning like a figurehead with no power. Han, on the other hand, fought with her every step of the way, refused to cow-tow to her. That’s why she fell for him, b/c she could trust him to tell her like it was. He was by no means perfect, but by ROTJ it was clear Han respected Leia.

    As Holly just pointed out in the Trixie/Scarlet/Jun post from yesterday “adventure-seeking and fashion-consciousness” are not “mutually exclusive.” My main issue with how female characters are dressed in movies is the impracticality of it most of the time. Case in point, Scarlet’s breast armor and absurdly tight suit in the new G.I. Joe movie.

  21. Well I stumbled across this now very old comments thread and just felt the need to offer up an alternative perspective on Mara Jade, because I found the analysis given in the comments here to make a lot of assumptions based on relatively little information about her.

    Yes, Mara is pretty much a child soldier (albeit one lucky enough to retain some sense of self) who, when we meet her five years after the death of her master, is still struggling with the lingering shadows of her brainwashing. She describes it in the Zahn books as a cyclical process by which she starts something new and within six months is plagued by nightmares and visions and voices in her head which she ignores the best she can until she’s forced to get away and start fresh elsewhere.

    Does this make her a victim? Yes, but she is still a competent functioning person who makes use of her many skills to support herself. Over the course of the five years (as we learn in comics and short stories) she has worked her way up from being an imperial refugee to second in command of the largest smuggling organization in the galaxy… all the while struggling with the lingering psychological effects of the Emperor.

    Her story in the first Zahn trilogy is about her overcoming the voice in her head and accepting and using her own power of judgement and decision making. Despite the brainwashing, nightmares, and voices of evil so strong she once slammed her head against a window frame in an effort to make them go away, she chooses to act with integrity and compassion. She rescues Han and Leia’s newborn children from an imperial kidnapping attempt, she rescues her boss, she fights alongside the Republic, and she overcomes the command to kill Luke and determines once and for all that the Emperor was an evil slimeball who deserved all he got and then some. She also works directly with Leia to rescue Luke and the gang by killing the one of the bad guys of the trilogy.

    After that she spends 10 years asserting her independence. She acts as a liaison between the smugglers and the traders and the republic. She goes on independent missions, works as an information broker, eventually starts up her own trading company, and she pops in to help Han, Leia and Luke occasionally. Each one of them develops a connection with her and respect for her over that ten years. She can count all of them as allies and even friends although she’s still got enough trust issues that she has difficulty truly believing anyone to be an ally and she’s not big on “drinks with the girls” or anything like that.

    Yes, she marries Luke, but only after he’s figured himself out enough to be a good spouse (he had his own battles with depression, the darkside, his parentage). And only after she made sure he’d done so by reminding him that he was a human – quite eloquently I might add. And she’s an equal partner in the relationship – in fact the fact that the two of them fill in eachother’s weaknesses with their strengths is a big part of their story. They have been a good team since they met, even when she was struggling with her hatred for him, that she was figuring out wasn’t really hers.

    They, uh, also have more fun together than they do with other people. Both seem to brighten up when they’re together.

    Now as for the whole circumstances around her becoming a mother, I’m much less of a fan of her in the NJO novels where she seems to be reduced to two characteristics: her beauty (which isn’t really dwelt on in the earlier novels), and her action hero-ness… and then they give her some wacky disease and it all becomes as plausible as a soap opera.
    - But until that point, I find there is much to be admired about her.

    Would I rather be Leia? Sure. I’d much rather be raised by loving adoptive parents and taught right from wrong and had a shot at something resembling psychological normalcy before my world is blown up, rather than having to struggle for that alone. But all of the prominent Star Wars characters have been through so much that they could spend the rest of their lives on a therapist’s couch and barely scratch the surface.

    In that context Mara’s damage puts her in good company. And she does overcome all the misery to make a pretty good life for herself – and it is she who makes the life.

  22. It is always pleasure to read your articles, will back here soon

  23. really!! It’s just a movie…get a real life!!
    I enjoyed the movie, but I don’t think George really meant to have it picked apart…enjoy it for what it was…ahead of it’s time…and star trek geeks…don’t start. Leia was strong in the first….and forgotten in the other two…with the exception of her little gold outfit.

    I would like to bring up the strength and powerful thinking of old yeller..
    He was a dog that was psychologically ahead of scooby doo…
    Some would argue rin tin tin was a true hero…”…………..
    REALLY people…go outside and play

  24. No women Jedi Masters?

    Surely someone has noticed Jocasta Nu in the prequel series? Jedi Master and Chief Librarian? I wouldn’t whisper in her library, would you?

    Patrick

  25. My comment referred specifically to the movies, not any of the other story material. Jocasta Nu has literally a minute in Attack of the Clones and it’s not at all clear that she’s actually a Jedi master during that minute: http://youtu.be/MT5FHPvbx_U.

    However, the notion of a cronish, arse-kicking Jedi master librarian is freaking awesome.

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