A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…
There was a Princess who was a strong lead character in a major movie franchise – HURRAH!
A New Hope begins with Princess Leia of Alderaan’s ship being attacked by the Empire – the oppressive regime are searching for a data chip that holds the plans for a new location of the rebel bases. Princess Leia, knowing the Empire need it to increase their power, decides to hide it in an R2D2 droid rather than hand it over. Although Leia is captured aboard her ship – she doesn’t go down without a fight. She has no issue with grabbing a blaster and battling storm troopers – this is something that we don’t always see today, let alone in the 70s.
Leia is not only resourceful when it comes to operating intergalactic firearms, she is portrayed as a strong political figure. When pressed for further information on the location of the rebel base she will not reveal it at any cost, with Darth Vader being informed, “She’ll die before she’ll tell you anything”. This suggests the dedication and loyalty that Leia has to her cause, strengthening her character. The fact that Leia is also a trusted leader for the rebels shows that she has entered the public sphere rather than remaining bound by the traditional laws of gender stereotypes. However, as there are few women within the Star Wars franchise, it is difficult to determine the extent of forced gender norms or any patriarchal values.
The R2 unit that Leia hides her message in is eventually found by Luke Skywalker – the hero of the film. Interestingly, when Leia’s hologram first appears, Luke’s first reaction is “Who is she? She’s beautiful”, perhaps suggesting that Naomi Wolf’s concept of the beauty myth exists in a galaxy far far away as well as in our modern society. The fact that the first thing Luke notices about Leia is disappointing, however he seems to see her as a damsel in distress that he needs to rescue rather than a political leader who has sacrificed herself for her planet and the rebellion. Nevertheless, when Luke finds Obi Wan Kenobi, the experienced Jedi steers Luke towards delivering the droid to Alderaan as requested.
Meanwhile back on the Death Star, Darth Vader has now resorted to mind probing Leia – but to no avail. Vader’s last option is to threaten Leia with the choice between giving up the location of the rebel base or allowing her home planet of Alderaan to be blown up. Princess Leia lies about the system where the rebel base lies to try and protect her home planet – which the Empire blow up regardless of her telling them the location. Once again showing quick wit – Leia does all she can in her present situation to save her people. Although this does not pay off – she has still not revealed the true location of the rebel base, which she knows will keep her fight against the Empire strong.
As Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi are on their way to Alderaan along with new acquaintances Han Solo and Chewbacca, they realise that their destination has been destroyed. Instead of being able to turn back, the Millennium Falcon is taken captive by the Death Star, which they realise has Princess Leia on board. Initially reluctant, Han Solo is persuaded to join the rescue mission when Luke describes her as rich and powerful – promising Solo money in return for his assistance. It seems that Leia has been objectified by Luke – namely for her own advantage – however, nevertheless it is not necessarily a socially flattering comment for a woman to just be associated with money and power. Is it better than being described as beautiful? Yes. The fact that Leia is described as powerful is good – but that is not the reason for Solo complying, he is a smuggler that needs the money. In this case – Leia is being used as a bargaining tool for Han Solo’s help in her rescue. This does not really damage her portrayal however; once Leia is rescued she produces the most logical solution for their escape from the stormtroopers. Leia takes Luke’s blaster and shoots at a drain chute in order to form an escape route, yelling, “Somebody has to save our skins!” before shooting at some stormtroopers and jumping down the hole she just made. Once again, this is a refreshing female character is a major movie franchise – especially considering it was bought by the Walt Disney Company. When thinking about characters that the Walt Disney Company produced in the 70s – bar Maid Marian and perhaps at a small push Bianca – the leading ladies of these films, as lovely as they are, are no match for Princess Leia.
Unhappy with Leia’s decisions – which nearly led them to be crushed in a rubbish chute, Han Solo comments, “If we just avoid any more female advice, we ought to be able to get out of here”, we then see Han bring their location to the attention of the Empire again by shooting his blaster to soothe Chewbacca. Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions – but it seems that Han may feel it was not Leia’s place to act for them. This may not necessarily be because Han feels that Leia’s place is in the private sphere rather than the public – we all know how arrogant he can be – nevertheless, it could certainly be interpreted as Han having traditional views of the place of women in the galaxy. After Han reveals their location to the Empire Leia proceeds to take control of the situation once more, scolding Han Solo in the process, “Listen, I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you do as I tell you – kay?”. Therefore, Leia remains a firm leader and a strong female lead within the franchise due to her confidence, weapon skills and quick wit.
Leia’s tactical knowledge does not seem to stop there however, when the rebel group escape the Death Star she cuts their celebrations short by reminding them that, “They let us go, it’s the only explanation for the ease of our escape”. Leia had realised the Millennium Falcon was being tracked by the Empire and that the fight was not over yet. Once again, this shows how knowledgeable Leia is thanks to her exposure in the public sphere.
This knowledge and power that Leia holds is a very positive message for women in society. Some scenes within the film undermine this powerful message. For example, once Leia leaves the cockpit in the Millennium Falcon Han Solo and Luke Skywalker proceed to have a conversation about Leia:
Luke: So, what do you think of her huh?
Han: I’m trying not to kid.
Luke: *smugly* Good.
Han: Still, she’s got a lot of spirit, I, what do you think? You think a princess and a guy like me –
This type of conversation can undermine Leia’s strong portrayal throughout the film. It seems to me that although the two men may appreciate Leia for her knowledge and skill – they still seem to see her as a potential partner and are competing with one another to gain her affection. This presents Leia as an object of men’s affections and desires rather than her own person. Despite this objectification, Leia does inadvertently overcome this with her strong character; nevertheless it undermines the powerful representation of Leia in this film.
Towards the end of the film, once the rebels return to the rebel base Leia is publicly acknowledged for her efforts to bring back the Death Star plans, once again showing how she is respected by the rebellion. This shows Leia as clearly within the public sphere rather than being trapped within the private. This is further emphasised when Leia is regularly seen at the core of the battle station listening to the pilots trying to infiltrate the Death Star. It is clear that Leia is fully involved with decisions and is respected by her colleagues.
Finally, at the end of the film Leia honours Luke and Han with awards that are presumably for services to the rebellion. This shows her prestige, however she should probably have an award herself considering she was a key contributor to their success as well as hiding the plans for the rebel base. Nevertheless, Leia is fully involved in the process rather than standing in the sidelines, which is important for the representation of women in film.
In conclusion, Leia is a strong female character within this franchise, and is a leading example in the heroines of film. As I am writing this I realise I do not have a lot of constructive criticism of Leia. For me, she is a strong character that is undermined by other characters rather than by herself. However – who knows what we will find next time!
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