Princess Leia: My First Feminist Icon
For as long as I’ve been a fan of anything, I’ve been a fan of Star Wars. I have vivid memories of sitting on a friend’s couch watching The Empire Strikes Back and being completely immersed in the experience.
Princess Leia was my favorite character. She was a girl just like I was, and she was snarky, had great hair, and did everything the boys did. Years before I had ever heard of fanfiction, I was mentally writing elaborate adventures for Leia as she repeatedly saved the universe in increasingly spectacular (and improbable) ways.
Much of my love for Leia came from how different she was from my real-life examples of what young women should be. I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community, where men were leaders and women were helpers. In the midst of our patriarchy, Princess Leia became my patron saint of feminism.
While I adore her, I acknowledge that Leia isn’t perfect. As one of the very few women in a trilogy conceived of and directed by a man, Leia is very much there for the men–those both on screen and in the audience. She often serves to motivate Luke and Han’s character arcs, is reduced to sexualized slavery in the metal bikini, and is very much the token woman of the films.
But to my young eyes, Princess Leia was the ultimate expression of strength and empowerment for women. Leia withstood torture from Vader, killed Jabba the Hutt, and helped lead Rebel fighters. She was everything I could have hoped for in a favorite character.
And then they announced The Force Awakens.
I was terrified. Media outlets said that Carrie Fisher was too old and too fat to reprise the role of Leia, and I was scared she would be reduced to a background character by producers who felt similarly.
I walked into the theater with my heart in my throat and walked out feeling invincible. Princess Leia had become General Organa. She wasn’t “the wife,” she wasn’t “the mother,” she hadn’t been reduced to one of the one-dimensional roles Hollywood gives women in their 50s. Leia was the leader of the Resistance.
She was also multifaceted. Being a strong leader didn’t make her emotionless, and being in command didn’t mean she was held aloof from the other characters. Leia was still snarky, still had great hair, but this time she told the boys what to do, instead of just doing what they did. General Organa was everything I had loved about Princess Leia without being stagnant; she had grown up and moved forward with her life.
I heard about Carrie Fisher’s death while at a family reunion. I cried in a bathroom and spent the next several days thinking about what Leia Organa meant to me. For many of us, Leia was our first female action hero, our first guide into the world of sci-fi, and our first self-rescuing princess. I’m happy she was part of my childhood, but I’m much happier that girls today get to grow up not only with Leia, but with Rey, Wonder Woman, Moana, and other brave, substantive female protagonists. It’s a great time to be a girl.