The Tragedy of Leia the Feminist Icon: Leia Organa Still Deserves Better From Star Wars
Perhaps the greatest failing of Star Wars is its treatment of Leia Organa (and, by extension, Carrie Fisher), despite how much we love her. Though a feminist icon and one of the great female characters of the saga and beyond, Leia was never given much focus or a defined character arc over the first three movies, and she still deserves better now, even though Carrie Fisher is gone.
A New Hope’s portrayal of Leia is still lauded as revolutionary, and I am inclined to agree. While she does kiss Luke twice and has sexual tension with Han, their relationships are mostly based on friendship, and her main goal is always the rebellion, with her being a representation of what Luke aspires to be: wise, courageous, clever, selfless, heroic, and a symbol of hope. Many Star Wars story leaders and fans also cite Leia as the whole reason the saga started, with her being the reason the plans/R2-D2 got to Luke and Obi-Wan. However, despite seeing her planet destroyed in front of her, no time whatsoever is spent on her emotional trauma, while she comforts Luke over Obi-Wan’s death and Han’s abandonment, instead.
Empire Strikes Back is arguably the best of the Trilogy when it comes to Leia’s treatment, though that isn’t saying much. This is the movie in which Leia has the closest thing to character growth, but even then, it’s mostly a “defrosting ice queen” arc, with hints of the typical romcom trope that growing to love a man is the most important thing in life. The Leia/Han romance is also peppered with predatory undertones, as outlined by Pop Culture Detective (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWoP8VpbpYI).
That brings us to the worst of the worst: Return of the Jedi. I could go on for a millennium about everything wrong with the gold bikini, from how it was used to silence both Carrie and Leia, to how it poisoned relations between Star Wars and its female fans for years to come by attempting to brand it a boys’ story. But perhaps the worst part is how, after Luke got focus in Empire and Han got his arc in A New Hope, Return of the Jedi should have been Leia’s movie. She should have been leading the charge to get Han back. She should have been the General in charge of the assault on the shield generator (there are implications in the new Canon that she was a ranking General at this point, but that’s not shown in the movie), and most importantly, she should have had some reaction to Darth Vader being her father, as she arguably has spent more time with him than Luke.
After the Original Trilogy, there came a period of retroactive recognition for Leia. The Expanded Universe (now Legends) had degrees of this, playing into both feminist and sexist aspects of the Original Trilogy. Leia’s force sensitivity was more fully developed to the point of becoming a fully fledged Jedi knight along with her children, lightsabers and all. However, she also was frequently kidnapped by everyone from Hutts to the Emperor’s imposter son to Han Solo (again, leading to predatory undertones).
This era of retroactive recognition has also carried over into the current Disney era, with Forces of Destiny, novels, and comics like Princess Leia and Vader Down expanding on Leia’s off-screen narrative and showing what kind of growth she went through off-screen. Star Wars: Infinities goes so far as to have Leia replace/join Luke as the “Chosen One” who saves the galaxy. I especially appreciate the Forces of Destiny as, while action-oriented, it also serves to emphasize Leia’s devotion to diplomacy and justice. Rogue One had this to some degree, putting Leia and her ship in the heart of the battle, though I maintain that Leia would have been at the door of the ship, ready to shoot Vader to get those plans if need be. She’s also the only one of main trio to appear in Star Wars: Rebels, showing how much she was doing for both the Rebellion and the Galaxy at a very young age.
Now, we have the ongoing Sequel Trilogy. In The Force Awakens, we don’t get to see Leia being a General until the third act. Even then, a good portion of her character is still based around her relationships with men, whether it be a sister trying to bring her brother home, a wife trying to repair her relationship with her husband, or a mother trying to save her son. All worthy pursuits, but also somewhat unsatisfying from a feminist perspective, especially for someone who started out as independent as A New Hope Leia.
The Last Jedi does have Leia using the Force and being a General, as well as a major symbol of hope for the Resistance, but also has her sidelined (metaphorically and physically) by her more famous brother and then a coma, leaving Admiral Holdo to take her place. While an interesting character, the dynamic between Holdo and Poe may have been somewhat more complicated if it had been Leia he had been questioning and defying. And once again, she is not allowed to deal with the trauma of losing her husband at the hand of her son, but is helping others through their issues, instead.
Episode IX would have supposedly rectified some of these issues, having been set to be Leia-centric as VII was for Han and VIII was for Luke. However, with Carrie Fisher’s death, those plans have since been scrapped and it is unknown how exactly the story will handle the passing of our Princess.
So how can Lucasfilm continue to right the wrongs of Star Wars’ treatment of Leia Organa?
I have a few suggestions:
1. A Leia anthology movie about her early days in the rebellion. Leia, Princess of Alderaan; Star Wars Rebels; Rogue One; and even the upcoming Han Solo movie have already laid the groundwork for this to work. This would be a difficult one, as it almost feels blasphemous to continue Leia’s story after Carrie’s death, since she and her character are in many ways a “Möbius striptease,” as she once said.
However, as this would be a prequel exploring Leia before she became the Rebel Princess and General we know and love, it could work as an exploration of how she found her strength and sense of justice. As an almost political spy thriller reminiscent of Padme Amidala’s episodes in The Clone Wars, it could have Leia struggling with her rebel idealism and the harsh reality of Imperial politics, with a potential cast of side characters like Tarkin, Darth Vader, and (Future Vice Admiral) Amilyn Holdo either helping or hindering her navigation of it. There have already been fan posters of Millie Bobby Brown in the role that are truly inspirational.
Alternatives could also be:
2. A fictional documentary on the life of General Leia Organa, with in-character interviews from the sequels’ and original movies’ casts. It could serve to tie more of the retroactive recognition found in the comics and novels into the movie canon. If not as a movie, it could work as a Netflix documentary or an exclusive feature on the future Disney streaming service. This could pay tribute to both Carrie and Leia in one fell swoop.
3. Another Star Wars: Infinities comic series, this time for what Episode IX would have been like if Carrie Fisher had lived. Obviously, this would have to come out after Episode IX to avoid spoilers, but that would give writers and artists time to capture Carrie’s witty writing and unique portrayal of the character to the best of their ability.
4. More supplementary material, whether comics, novels, or cartoons, exploring Leia’s Force sensitivity, so the audience may know how powerful she was and/or could have been had she been trained.
5. Use the ongoing franchise to tackle issues that Carrie did in life; bring in more women (especially older ones otherwise neglected by Hollywood) and tackle issues like mental health, addiction, and body image. Do not wait to tell these stories about incredible, underrepresented people. If we’ve learned anything from losing Fisher, it should be not to put off righting the wrongs of lacking representation.
Kimberly Terasaki is a Creative Writing major, fanfiction author, and intersectional feminist. She liked Ahsoka Tano before it was cool, will fight you about Rey not being a Mary Sue, and is current Treasurer of her college Dumbledore’s Army. She looks forward to writing more for the Mary Sue and appreciates all constructive criticism.
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