Feminism / Films

Princess Leia: Feminist Icon or Sexist Trope?

Originally published at Bitch Flicks as part of their Women in Science Fiction Week.

When I was a young girl, Star Wars was my favorite movie. I’ve watched it more times than any other film. Premiering in 1977, the same year I was born, the epic sci-fi space opera irrevocably changed the movie industry. Beyond battle scenes, or the twist of Vader being Luke’s father, it impacted my childhood. Because Princess Leia was my idol.

In the Star Wars Trilogy, Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan (Carrie Fisher) was a member of the Imperial Senate, a diplomat and a spy for the Rebel Alliance. Courageous and determined, she boasted a defiant will. Leia boldly spoke her mind. And it’s what resonated the most with me.

When I was 7, my mom sewed a Princess Leia costume for me for Halloween. A white dress with a hood cinched by a sparkly belt and accompanied by a plastic light saber. Yes, I realize Leia didn’t wield a light saber in the movies but she did have a laser gun. I continued to wear that costume long after Halloween. Every week (sometimes multiple times in a week), I would pop in our VHS of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, don my white dress and act out Princess Leia’s scenes. I probably would have worn that costume to school if my mother had let me.

Looking back, why did Leia have to be a princess? Why did she have to bear a title that too often symbolizes hyperfemininity, passivity and sexualization? Why couldn’t she have been the President’s daughter or a merely a Senator? So yes, Leia is a princess. But she’s a badass warrior princess — a precursor to the rise of the warrior princesses we’re currently seeing today.

In the very first scenes of Star Wars, we see Leia shoot a laser gun. Yeah, she gets captured. But she didn’t go down without a fight. When she’s taken hostage, Leia unflinchingly stands up to Darth Vader, who intimidates everyone. But not her. She remains defiant. She stands up to Governor Tarkin, the Death Star’s Commander too as we witness in this compelling exchange:

Princess Leia: Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.
Governor Tarkin: Charming to the last. You don’t know how hard I found it, signing the order to terminate your life.
Princess Leia:I’m surprised that you had the courage to take the responsibility yourself.
Governor Tarkin: Princess Leia, before your execution, I’d like you to join me for a ceremony that will make this battle station operational. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.
Princess Leia: The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Even after she’s tortured by Vader, she refuses to reveal the location of the Rebel Base. When Grand Moff Tarkin, the Death Star’s Commander, threatens Leia to reveal the location of the Rebel Base or they’ll destroy her home planet of Alderaan, she lies disclosing a false location.

When Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca stage a rescue, Leia isn’t automatically obsequious. She immediately questions Luke when he’s disguised as a Stormtrooper with her infamous line, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” When they’re all trapped, Leia takes matters into her own hands and shoots their way into a garbage chute, telling them, “Well somebody has to save our skins.” Leia continues to retain her grip of control when she tells Han: “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you’ll do as I tell you, okay?”

Of course he horrifyingly says to Luke, “If we can just avoid any more female advice, we ought to be able to get out of here.” Nice. So men shouldn’t listen to a fucking diplomatic senator. Oh no. Why? Clearly, because they have vaginas.

Even though Leia has romantic feelings for Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back, she continues to call out his arrogant bullshit. She quips snappy retorts such as, “I’d just as soon kiss a Wookie” and “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain.” She’s never at a loss for words and never afraid to express herself.

She also has burgeoning psychic powers as she picks up on Luke’s cries for help at the end of the film. Obi-Wan tells Yoda when Luke Skywalker leaves Dagobah, “That boy is our last hope.” But Yoda wisely tells him, “No, there is another,” cryptically referring to Luke’s twin sister Leia.

In Return of the Jedi, Leia puts herself in harm’s way posing as a bounty hunter to save Han. Sadly, after she’s captured by Jabba the Hut, she’s notoriously objectified and reduced to a sex object in the iconic metal bikini, essentially glamorizing and eroticizing slavery. And of course she needs to be rescued. Again.

Leia gets rescued. A lot. And that’s incredibly frustrating and annoying. But Leia often subverts the sexist Damsel in Distress trope. She takes matters into her own hands to free herself and others, whether it’s shooting their way into the garbage chute in Star Wars, shooting Stormtroopers, rescuing Han (Return of the Jedi), rescuing Luke (Empire Strikes Back), or killing Jabba the Hutt. Even when she’s being rescued, Leia always spouts her acerbic opinions, refuses to back down, and asserts her identity.

Throughout the trilogy, we see Leia lead and dispense tactical information to Rebel fighters. But ultimately, her underlying role appears to be to motivate Luke on his hero’s quest and Han on his personal transformation. Although George Lucas’ original ending with Leia coronated as Queen of the survivors of Alderaan sounds pretty amazing. It also would have been great to see her begin training as a Jedi, something the books explore. But even when you have a strong female protagonist, like Leia, her story must take a back seat to the dudes.

Now, I love Star Wars. But if you stop and think about the Star Wars Trilogy, it’s pretty shitty to women.

We only ever see 3 women — Princess Leia, Mon Mothma, Aunt Beru (Luke’s aunt) — who aren’t slave girls or dancers. Men make decisions, lead battles, pilot planes, smuggle goods and train as Jedis. It’s men, men, men as far as the eye can see. Hell, even the robots are dudes.

The entire Star Wars Trilogy suffers from the Smurfette Principle. The fact that there are no other women for Leia to talk to or interact with perpetuates the notion that women’s lives ultimately revolve around men. With a marketing campaign — if you look at the poster for each film — turned Leia into nothing more than a sex object (and of course aided by the metal bikini) reifying the idea that women’s bodies belong solely to tantalize the male gaze.

Boys and men see numerous male characters to identify with or emulate. But for girls and women? We get one. Leia. Well, unless you count Aunt Beru or Mon Mothma, both of whom only get like 60 seconds of screen-time. Leia exists as the sole token female.

“In Star Wars, a boy can grow up to be a knight, or a wizard. But if you’re a girl, you have one good role model…But you better be born a princess or good at space hooking cause those are your options.”

As the above video from Cracked astutely points out, all the women in the Star Wars Trilogy are space strippers, aside from Leia, Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma (a Republic senator and co-founder of the Rebellion, aka the red-haired woman in Return of the Jedi who gives tactical orders to the rebels). The Cracked writers also assert that Leia is actually a terrible female role model because she ditches her duties with the Rebellion to save her man (although so do the dudes) and then blows up Jabba’s barge which was filled with other slave women. Okay, that’s pretty douchey, Leia.

Sure, you could blame it on the fact that Star Wars is 35 years old. But even in the Prequel Trilogy, we haven’t come much further. While we definitely see more women — Queen Padme Amidala, Shmi Skywalker (Anakin’s mother), Naboo queens Queen Apailana and Queen Jamillia, Jedi Knights Staas Allie and Aayla Secura, Jedi Master Depa Billaba, Queen Breha Organa (Leia’s adoptive mother), Zam Wessell (bounty hunter who attempts to kill Padme) — only Padme and Shmi receive any focus. And of course their lives revolve around men. Actually, their lives around one man: Anakin. Yes, Padme is a political leader. But her role as birth mother to Leia and Luke and her death fueling Anakin’s anger trump any individuality she possesses. Both Padme and Shmi die tragically; both women’s purpose in the films serves to explain why Anakin turned to the Dark Side.

Clearly, sexism and racism plague the Star Wars Trilogy. Really, only 3 women speak, only 3 women aren’t strippers and only 1 black person…in the whole fucking galaxy?! Gee thanks, George Lucas.

If it seems like I vacillate between hailing Leia a feminist icon and condemning her a sexist trope, it’s because I’m torn. Leia is a spirited, fearless and fierce female protagonist. She kicks ass. Yet she exists in a fictitious galaxy mired by sexism where women barely exist that continually puts men — their stories, their perspectives, their struggles — front and center.

Despite its massive gender and race problems, Princess Leia aided me through my childhood. For a mouthy, opinionated little girl who was always getting in trouble for voicing their thoughts, Leia emulated a confident and rebellious woman. She had crucial duties and responsibilities as a leader and revolutionary. But she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought. Unafraid to let her temper flare, she spoke her mind regardless of the consequences.

In a world that so often silences women’s and girls’ voices, Leia shone as a beacon of hope. Not only did she teach me women could be political leaders and fight for freedom. But she affirmed that women can and should fearlessly speak their minds and take charge of their lives.

9 thoughts on “Princess Leia: Feminist Icon or Sexist Trope?

  1. It was interesting that, in that time period, Leia was written as this
    mouthy, sassy, fearless, sort of character.
    Even her appearance, struck me as sort of tomboy-ish.
    It’s just interesting they didn’t go with the typical “Girly” blonde
    bombshell type princess, in need.
    Kind of cool that Lucas created her that way.

    I never understood the “wookie” thing.
    Chewbacca could read star maps & fly a huge space-craft, yet his
    vocabulary was limited to a series of ape-like grunts.

  2. Honestly, my most hates scene of star wars is Padme dying because she can’t live without ‘Anakin’ the man who just force choked her, despite being pregnant with his kids.

    Seriously, there could have been many reasons for her to die, but it had to come down she had nothing to live for without her man.

    Not that rebellion and help save the democray she belived in.
    Not for her friends, family, and fellow soilder….and I am forgetting something?

    Oh, yeah her NEWBORN TWINS.

    Yeah, she has nothing to live for without her man.

  3. My mother used to say:

    Behind every good woman, there’s even a better man.

    (I’m kidding, she never said that, i just made it up!)

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  5. I wouldn’t normally comment on a 2 year old article but I just happened to stumble across this and have to make some points for anyone else finding this after me.
    Regarding Han’s quote. What do you expect? He’s a smuggler and a pirate, out for himself. He talks smack and gets under people’s skin, that’s his thing. Just like calling the Jedi a hokey religion, calling Obi-Wan an old fossil and his statement that the empire and republic are still on the same coin. He’s an obnoxious mercenary and you’re not supposed to like him at first, that makes his return during the battle of Yavin more rewarding. I would also propose that his and Leia’s constant back and forth is meant to be more playful than hostile, like children with crushes calling each other names and pulling pigtails, as evidenced by his use of “Your Worshipfulness” and similar titles to provoke her.
    Regarding Leia, she wasn’t the president’s daughter or some such because she was adopted by Queen Breha, ruler of Alderaan, a planet with a medieval-esque hierarchical system, it didn’t have presidents. House Organa was a powerful family on Alderaan but in the context of the galactic senate, it was one of many. Kind of like Rockefellers in space. Powerful enough to be ruler at home, sure, but not of the galaxy. And sure she was sexed up as “slave leia” but you’re missing the forest for the trees by taking it out of context. Han was captured by Fett and turned over to Jabba, who intended to kill him. Leia didn’t just go get her man back, she mounted a rescue attempt to save a comrade and when it failed Lando and Luke mounted a rescue to save them both. I would argue the main theme of the story is “all for one” since all six movies are really not much more than a constant series of various people being rescued.
    As far as the metal bikini, Jabba made her a slave because he’s a villain and that’s the kind of thing villains do. I would submit that it was written that way to make it more compelling (beyond the obvious oogah! aspect, that is) because, as a strong, mouthy, independent royal, being a slave would be much worse to her than being a simple hostage or even rancor bait.
    You’re also missing one of the most feminist moments in film by simply stating she killed Jabba. Jabba subjugates this strong, heroic woman, turns her into a slave kept for his pleasure and in return she chokes him out with the very same chain he used to keep her bound then uses a blaster to break the chain and continues on to do her part to save the galaxy, create the new republic, raise a family and become a knight of the Jedi order. You couldn’t get much more feminist than that if she beat him to death with a copy of The Feminine Mystique.
    Finally, Star Wars lore includes billions of people, countless planets, and hundreds of thousands of years worth of history. The Star Wars movies depicts a handful of those people over a span of 20 or so years. It’s one story out of countless stories. To claim the movies represent all of Star Wars is a bit silly. The films do have problems, but Star Wars just doesn’t have the problem you want it to have. When the full body of lore is taken into account, your cups will run over with characters of all sorts including many badass women, some of whom happen to be among the most compelling characters.
    And if none of those characters meet your approval, Star Wars is a big, open galaxy. Write your own stories and add to the lore.

  6. I am so sick of people putting Leia on a pedestal as some kind of ideal “badass” woman character. Is that the only way a woman character can be taken seriously? As a woman who can kick ass? Is she not allowed any signs of weakness, whatsoever? Leia did display her weaknesses. She had revealed herself to be an emotional coward (like her mother) when faced with the opportunity of romance. And after Han was taken prisoner by Boba Fett, she stood by and did nothing while Chewbacca tried to strangle Lando Calrissian for Han’s capture. I take that back. She more or less encouraged Chewie in his act of attempted murder. That was truly a weak moment for Leia . . . and a repulsive one, at that. Yet, whenever I point this out, people will either make excuses for her and Chewie by labeling Lando a “traitor” . . . or they solely blame Chewbacca. Why? Because they don’t want to acknowledge the possibility that Leia has weaknesses. Or if she does, her weaknesses are “masculine” and not “missyish”.

    I no longer regard “kick ass” women as an example of a strong woman character. To me, such a character is nothing more than a second-rate man character. And macho male characters are not interesting to me, let along a macho woman character.

    I don’t care if Padme had succumbed to despair and died. Considering what she had endured in such a short space of time, while in her third trimester of pregnancy, it’s understandable to me. What is not understandable is this purile demand that she behave like her daughter, who is not that great of an example of a well-rounded woman character. All strength and no weaknesses is not a sign of a well-rounded character to me.

    • But, you yourself just said that Leia was written with weaknesses. Fans pointing out that she was a “badass” – and she was – isn’t the character’s fault. Many fans, myself included, see Leia as the most complicated, layered character in Star Wars, including when compared to the men. She is very, very well-rounded. She has faults, and she has strengths, just like humans. She is a character that suffers A LOT, so calling her “an emotional coward” is a pretty narrow-minded statement – yes, she is afraid of romance, because she has thrown her entire life into this rebellion. She has no time for romance – but, eventually, she allows herself it, does she not? Just like any other human who experiences trauma, all she has left is this cause. She has no family, no hometown friends, not even a home planet. She begins the movie as a TEENAGER, and we watch her grow into a 50+ year-old general by the time The Force Awakens rolls around. Leia is an incredible character – she is the most emotionally strong character in Star Wars, hands down, and there is *so much* to her. I don’t understand your anger against her, or the people inspired by her, and I really don’t understand how anyone could ever say she isn’t a character with enormous depth.

      Also, to this author – Lucas turned the princess trope on its head, because even as you’ve said, she isn’t your typical princess. That’s why she was a princess to begin with, I’d venture – so that he could flip it on its head. Also, EVERYONE is rescued in Star Wars, especially the men. Luke had to be rescued multiple times – arguably more than Leia. Why does she get single-out as “needing to be rescued many times.” And, Leia getting captured by Jabba is an odd thing to point out when A. The entire thing seemed orchestrated, honestly, with Luke sending the droids at the beginning of the film – I think they expected her to get captured, and everyone else was also captured, and B. She really rescues herself by, you know, STRANGLING HIM WITH HER BARE HANDS. And, I could be wrong on this, but I thought the slave girls were in Jabba’s palace, not his barge?

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  8. The in-universe reason she’s not called a Senator is because at the time it’s the Imperial Senate – a fairly powerless body controlled by the Emperor which gets dissolved early on in the first film. So she’s not a Senator when Han says about not listening to female advice because there isn’t a senate anymore.

    Also, people in real life don’t always behave in a politically correct way. Some men are sexist, and arrogant. Han is beginning a character arc at that point and he’s a loner who only looks out for himself. He’s not a team-player, and doesn’t listen to anyone. But that’s a believable character. A story where everyone always behaves in a hyper-woke way is not believable.

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