Princess Leia made me the nerd I am today. Star Wars was my entry point into a lifetime of science fiction fandom, and Leia was my idol. I used my allowance to buy her action figures. I spent hours trying to replicate her hairstyles. And of course, I passed a lot of time pretending to be her as I rescued Han from various perils and generally kicked outer-space ass. Leia was tough as nails and willing to get dirty, attributes that can be all too hard to find as a young girl in search of a role model.
But, for all the good that she did me, there are aspects of my childhood Leia-worship that are troubling in retrospect. Why was I so obsessed with her beauty and stylish clothes, rather than her weapons or her skill sets? Why was her romance with Han so much more important to me than say, her spiritual relationship with The Force? And, perhaps most of all, why was it so damn important that she was attractive to men?
The answers are complex, and they are the result of an amalgamation of the many representations of Leia: on screen, in print, in the toy aisle and in the eyes of her fans. The heroines of nerd culture break boundaries simply by existing, as heroines rather than heroes; but the ways in which they are represented often build those barriers right up again. These fictional women typically engage in activities and behaviors that could be interpreted as advancing feminism, but their appearances, their costumes, and their roles within the universes they inhabit lessen their credibility as feminist role models. In this column, I hope to parse the mechanisms through which the ladies of nerd-dom are alternately empowered and disenfranchised, revered and objectified. I will examine a new fictional character with each installation, comparing her various iterations, and eventually giving each a completely arbitrary rating regarding her viability as a feminist role model.
I should acknowledge that there are several problems inherent in the way I’m going about this; it’s gender essentialist and it reduces women to numbers, for two. But unfortunately, the majority of fictional female characters that populate our cultural zeitgeist today are still oppressed through the structure of a gender binary, and there’s not a whole lot I can do about that. As for reducing the characters to numbers – well, they’re not real people, and it’s kind of fun, so deal with it.
I have devised what I call the “Female Empowerment Meter” as a rudimentary ratings system with which to evaluate the subjects of this column. I will assign each character a number on a scale of 1-10 based on the character’s achievements in 3 categories (1 being she does not to do this at all, 10 being she does this extremely effectively):
2. Resists/returns the male gaze¹ – To what extent, on a scale of 1-10, does she refuse to be reduced to an object of male desire?
3. Possesses agency independent of men – To what extent, on a scale of 1-10, does she exist and act within her universe as her own person? Does she serve a purpose as more than just a love interest or eye candy? Does she have motives or desires that do not involve men or romance? Is she in control of herself and her body?
So there you have it, the Female Empowerment Meter. Let’s see how The Princess fares.
Princess Leia Organa, as portrayed in the original Star Wars trilogy, is Princess of the Alderaan system, a senator in the Imperial Senate and a member of the Rebel Alliance, although her actual role in rebel politics or the ruling of a planetary system is never clarified in the movies. We the viewers first meet her as a mysterious young woman dressed in virginal white, just before her capture by Imperial troops. Her title alone, Princess, situates her within the “damsel in distress” trope, but she begins to tear down those expectations almost instantaneously.
Her coarse language doesn’t sound like that of a traditional princess, and she sure kills a lot of storm troopers for a “damsel”. Especially given the year the original movie came out (1977), Leia represents a major break from the traditional role prescribed to women in movies. She is loud-mouthed, headstrong, physically tough, and generally an all-around badass. At least, that’s the way things appear at first glance.
One of the biggest issues with Ms. Organa as a feminist icon is the cycle of failure in which she seems perpetually trapped. Throughout the original trilogy, she consistently follows a pattern: she starts with a conventional character trope (e.g. a damsel in distress). Then she valiantly breaks with that convention. But ultimately, she fails in her endeavors and returns to her original status. On the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope, she shatters all expectations of a typical damsel by bossing Han and Luke around and taking over her own rescue mission.
Then, about halfway through the garbage chute scene, all of her girl-power gusto seems to putter out. Yes, she helped them hide from the storm troopers… in a trash compactor that is also home to an aquatic garbage monster. In The Return of the Jedi, she completely reverses the hero-damsel roles by sneaking into Jabba’s palace to rescue Han… only to fail, get caught, and need saving by Luke. This arc even exists on a larger scale across the entire trilogy, to a certain extent. For all the progress she makes, at the very end she is essentially reduced to a love interest for Han and a sister for Luke – a mirror to the men around her.
And then there’s the gold bikini.
In many ways, Leia started the unfortunate trend of sci-fi women in needlessly, often inexplicably skimpy clothing (especially in a genre otherwise obsessed with in-universe coherence). Her sex appeal isn’t inherently problematic, but the ways in which “Slave Leia” has become an intensely objectified target for the male gaze are. Let’s face it; Leia in the gold bikini has been masturbation material for teenage boys² for longer than I’ve been alive. What’s troubling about this isn’t her bare-midriff; it’s the fact that “Slave Leia” = sexy Leia. Generally, a collar and chain-link leash as integral parts of a “sexy” outfit are never a great signifier of female empowerment.³ Yes, Jabba assumedly forces her to wear it. But all aspects of how she is framed within the structure of the film (not to mention fan responses) while wearing the gold bikini place her front and center for male voyeurs.
She isn’t owning her sexuality when she shows off those abs; if anything, her sexuality is being used against her as a tool of degradation, a way to make her feel vulnerable and identify her as a slave.
At the end of the day, Leia is not a real person – she is George Lucas’s creation, and we have to take the lens through which we see her character into account when considering her. Add to this the wealth of representations that exist in materials associated with the Star Wars franchise, and things start to get complicated. For instance, most Princess Leia action figures portray her as your traditional, overtly sexualized sci-fi vixen, complete with a boob job and inhumanly sculpted abs. I mean, yes Carrie Fisher’s Leia was pretty damn sexy, but she wasn’t constantly stopping to pose coquettishly or gaze longingly at her male admirers – she was too busy running around with guns.
But as a fictional character, all of these different Leias – movie Leia, action figure Leia, internet porn star Leia – factor in to the greater cultural icon that is Princess Leia as we know her.
F.E.M. Ratings: Princess Leia
Breaks with gender stereotypes – 6
She does break with gender stereotypes quite a bit… but then she kind of circles back and re-inserts herself within them all over again.
Resists/returns the male gaze – 5
The gold bikini kind of ruins this one for her, even though it’s not her fault. Basically, without the gold bikini she could receive an 8 here; with it she gets a 5.
Possesses agency independent of men – 6
Yes and no. She acts independently quite a bit, but this is almost framed as a hindrance, given that her various escape/rescue attempts never go too well. She certainly functions as more than a romantic interest, given that she’s a diplomat and rebel leader – but how much time is actually devoted to those endeavors within the movies compared to, say, her flirtations with Han?
Basically, Leia herself is awesome, but Lucas’s scripts and story are riddled with problems when it comes to treatment of gender. So… when the sequels come out, can we get lots of scenes of say, Leia commanding a Starfleet? Or discussing diplomacy with a colleague? Or, best of all, rescuing Han and actually motherfucking succeeding?! I’m looking at you, Lucas. You (and now Disney) better get your shit together.