Aug 10 2012 11:00am

Can We Talk About Why We Really Love Princess Leia?

Princess Leia

When citing a slew of strong and/or important female characters in genre (or anywhere in pop culture), Princess Leia usually makes the list. It seems almost lazy, the easiest road to legitimacy because people love Star Wars, and Leia’s not perfect but without her you would’ve probably never gotten Korra or Xena or Ripley, and, you know… she’s got that doughnut hair! And carries a blaster! Right?

On the other hand, what we don’t discuss often enough is exactly why Princess Leia belongs on those lists. And she does, make no mistake — we just like to leave it at that. Maybe make a comment about how spunky she is. Or the fact that she happens to see good in everyone’s favorite smuggling rogue.

You know why we have such a hard time defining why Princess Leia is awesome? Because she was first introduced to us by her regal title: a princess.

Of course, being a princess in and of itself isn’t a problem, but George Lucas built the Star Wars trilogy on a lot of mythology. Or, more specifically, mythology as spelled out by Joseph Campbell. Whether or not that’s a good thing is entirely in the viewer’s eyes, but it did necessitate perhaps my least favorite plot trope in all of fiction: rescuing the princess. Princess Leia is cool and defiant in the face of Grand Moff Tarkin and Vader, but her planet gets blown up, and then she’s stuck in a cell being tortured for information.

Thank goodness two strapping young men and their wookiee friend show up to bust her out.

That doesn’t stop Leia from doling out one-liners faster than Han Solo can offer smart retorts, or make her any less tough in the face of powerful enemies who could simply get rid of her if she became too much of a nuisance. But unfortunately, Leia’s primary function in the first Star Wars film is to be the person who needs saving, so Luke Skywalker can have his first adventure before going to blow up a Death Star. She’s the prize, as it were.

And that can make it easy to ignore what came before and what goes after for our unsinkable Lady Organa. Leia doesn’t introduce herself to Darth Vader as a Princess of Alderaan when they first meet on the Rebel Blockade Runner, she identifies as “a member of the Imperial Senate.” She’s a politician, and an important one at that. At least, that’s all anyone in the Empire can prove at the time.

We learn, of course, that Leia is also one of the key members of the Rebel Alliance, a leading voice at the core of the insurrection. Knowing that the Empire has been in place her entire life, and that Bail Organa was fighting it from the beginning, one can easily infer that Leia’s life has been anything but balls and servants and tiara-wearing. She was raised in a household of politicians who were working to overthrow an imposed dictatorship. I doubt she had classes in curtsying, but she definitely had to be taught how to hold up under interrogation, conduct her affairs in secret, and keep her cover stories in check.

Princess Leia

Outside the political arena, Leia still manages to be a wholly impressive figure. While her position in the Star Wars films as practically the only woman is infuriating, George Lucas still created a universe where Leia’s gender was never a reason to question her authority. In fact, Star Wars is arguably similar to how Ronald Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is constructed; there are certain problematic depictions from an audience perspective, but the fictional world that the characters occupy ultimately seems to view gender differently from ours. Notice that before the Battle of Hoth, when Leia’s instructing the pilots on their escape plan, not one of the rebels in the group want to know why they are being given their orders by a woman (who, as far we know, is not a pilot like them). She’s an effective general to them, and is afforded every respect.

Her relationship with Han is startlingly progressive for a character initially woven under a “princess” banner. Leia keeps a level head while they are captured on Cloud City, despite the fact that Han is tortured and there is a chance that she might lose him during carbon freezing. She escapes and lives, preferring to fight another day to get him back. We get to see the inverse at work with Leia; after being the one rescued at the start, she performs a rescue of her own.

And, let’s be real here, her disguise is about one hundred times more convincing than Lando’s. Until she abandons it. Erm.

In fact, it’s Han who’s shown to be short on logic when Leia gets hurt during the Battle of Endor. He’s panicking and calling for Chewie, and Leia’s the one who has to dispatch a few Storm Troopers after being shot in the arm. Aren’t women supposed to be the hysterical ones? Aren’t we supposed to fret over every little thing and absolutely fall to pieces when the men in our lives are wounded? Well, if you’re Princess Leia, you handle these drawbacks with a sardonic rejoinder, shortly before you get the job done. You’re even diplomatic enough to be able to calm down C-3PO, something that must make poor R2 incalculably envious.

Princess Leia

Forced to be a sexual object for a crime lord? Choke him to death and get outta dodge. Find out your stealth party was spotted on by the enemy? Hunt them down with their own vehicles. Meet a strange new species that doesn’t speak your language? Share food and make friends. As we’re shown time and time again, there is nothing that this woman cannot do. She makes Luke and Han look practically incompetent if you’re actually keeping a scoreboard — Luke only has one or two solid goals that he feels obligated to follow up on, and Han spends half his time in the trilogy jamming to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” You need Leia to keep it all together.

Which would be why, in the Star Wars Extended Universe novels, Leia’s eventual title is New Republic Chief of State. That’s right, she marries Han, has a few kids, then goes off to run the whole damn galaxy. Between her brilliance and Luke rebuilding the Jedi Order, it looks like Anakin Skywalker did manage to bring balance to the Force and everything else. He just didn’t do it himself.

Leia’s solidity is one of the primary reasons why Amidala doesn’t hold up in the prequels. Though there are hints that they share a similar nature, from their aptitude for politics to their willingness to get their hands dirty when the fight is on, Padme only ever comes off as a faded version of her daughter. Like Lucas took Leia, scrubbed her squeaky clean, and left her too long in the sunlight. All the vibrancy is bleached out, that key spark is missing, and the prequels are poorer for it.

So it’s not about that fantastic hair or the fact that she can fire a blaster. It’s not about how spunky she is or her lack of concern at being covered in Imperial garbage. It’s not even about how bright she was to hand over the Death Star plans to a cute little droid before things got out of hand. It’s about creative thinking, keeping it together when it counts, and outclassing every pretentious pencil pusher the Empire can throw her way.

It’s about being a leader. The leader. And while the honorary mentions and footnotes are nice, it’s far less than Princess Leia deserves.

Emily Asher-Perrin always thought that Leia’s “politician accent” was the funniest thing. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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1. mutantalbinocrocodile
I must add that, in Heir to the Empire, Leia is allowed to engage in significant and dangerous diplomatic activities WHILE PREGNANT, and no one raises a hysterical fit about the situation. And her judgment doesn't break down into "belly logic". Awesome.
Karin L Kross
2. KarinKross
Wait'll you see Brian Wood's Star Wars comic, coming next year. X-Wing pilot Leia!
Mordicai Knode
3. mordicai
I don't disagree with your analysis but I do think you underplay her skill with a blaster. Leia is the best shot with that blaster; she has the best accuracy of anyone in the series, & the fans-- obsessed with ever inch of minutia-- have really taken it to heart. Leia isn't just able to shoot a blaster...she's a crack shot. A sharp shooter. A gunslinger.
4. g33kboi
Fantastic article! Disney could learn a lot about princesses from Leia. Regarding Leia's "politician accent", I believe Carrie Fisher was studying theater in England around the time she was cast for the role of Princess Leia and had picked up a faint British accent. She sounds much more American in the subsequent films.
6. Henry Sene Yee
I always liked in EMPIRE how Chewie will not listen to anyone's advice but his own, but when Leia says we've got to turn back to save Luke, without hesitation, he has her back. A ChewBacker! And there are numerous times when Leia leans into him for comfort. What's that about?
7. Hills
Great article, but I think you downplay Amidala in the first movie. She is essentially a princess (she's a 14 year old queen) and she has the politickin' going on plus in the scene in the end where they raid the palace, she is pretty awesome during that, driving herself headlong into battle. As a whole, the "first" trilogy is washed out compared to the second, but her role in the first one is equivalent to Leia's in the fifth, because let's face it, Leia isn't a BAMF until movie six (she has glimmers before). I will say this though: being the child of a single mother, I never even thought about the fact that Leia was a female BAMF. Her gender didn't matter to me, just like it didn't matter to those pilots.
8. scifisiren
Princess Leia was one of my first major role models. I was obsessed with her, with her wit, intelligence, leadership, and quick thinking. The Expanded Universe cemented that fact. Also, after basically running the galaxy for several decades, Leia retires from politics (though she keeps getting dragged back into things). What does she do then? Becomes a Jedi Knight. Leia Organa-Solo is the only person in the galaxy bad-ass enough to pick Jedi Knight as a second act career.
James Whitehead
9. KatoCrossesTheCourtyard
I always liked Leia, from the time the original came out. She was one of my friend's favourites as she was the only woman for most of the trilogy - my friend being a girl & all. ;-)

I simply liked her as she was the same level of competent & fallible as Luke & Han. She is definitely as integral to the whole story as the two male leads are. And if she was the 'damsel in distress' at first, that was only in the minds of her 'rescuers.' We had already seen her stand up to Darth Vader, no mean feat that, when his forces boarded her ship & he killed that rebel commander.

That & she had some of the most memorable lines in the movies. Snarking at her supposed 'rescuers' ("This is some rescue" - "He's the brains, sweatheart") and calling Chewie a 'walking carpet" demonstarted clearly that she could hold her own & was not to be written off as some fairy-tale 'princess.'


PS - As for Fisher's accent slips, well she was around a number of british actors & may simply have an ear for picking accents up. My daughter spent 6 weeks in England with her grandparents when she was 11 & when she got home the first thing she said was "I need to use the loo" in a perfect Lancashire accent. ;-)

PPS - @7Hills, nicely put.
Philip Wardlow
10. PhilipWardlow
Great Artitcle Emily!...I've always loved Leia inside and out (my wife is so like her but blonde...:) btw...forget Queen Amidala...I want Queen Leia! Let's not forget what Yoda said in Empire Strikes Back..he alluded to Luke's sister (even though we didnt know it at the time) could be the savior if Luke were to fail...I am not a Super fan of Star Wars so I never read any of the books and history of Leia you mentioned but did Leia EVER get any JEDI training? ..she was after all the daughter of Anakin.
Heidi Breton
11. AnemoneFlynn
I don't feel that women need to abandon 'traditional' roles to be seen as strong, whether in fiction or in life. But part of strength is doing what needs to be done when it needs to be done. And I agree with this article - Princess Leia rocks.
Hello There
12. praxisproces
Glorious tribute of course, but I'm not sure I agree with the criticism of the "save the princess" trope. It's set up that way but the first moment Han and Luke interact with Leia she's brash, insulting, contemptuous, and far more competent and creative than either her besotted rescuer-farmboy or the galaxy-trotting smuggler unwillingly along for the ride. She gets them out of the firefight in the prison block and after they escape the Death Star she's the one who points out they got away too easily. If anything the save-the-princess plot point exists only to be destabilized at first encounter. Which is yet another reason why she's so awesome.
13. CalebCleveland
This analysis is inspiring and right on the money - and it also gets my creative juices bubbling! Now, I'm not up on Extended Universe stories, but has anyone written a book about Leia's formative years? Who would have trained her to withstand mind-probes, inspire courage in the face of overwwhelming odds, and how to encode and hide messages? What would her martial training have been like, and with? That's a book I'd buy for my daughters.
14. Jen Tucker
Amen! Leia is a bad ass. In the first film, she might have been the prize or the thing that needed saving, but as a kid I liked that ultimately, she saved the boys. She's the one running the rescue from the moment Luke walks into that cell. He was just a key. I have no doubt she would've managed to get out of that cell some other way if they hadn't shown up. The Heir to the Empire series was what made me realize that Leia was amazing. I loved her in the films, but those novels wiped away the princess fog & made me see the character as the amazing woman she was. It took years for me to really realize that she was the reason I never felt like I couldn't do anything that the boys could do. Princess Leia was saving the galaxy when Han was hiding from responsibility & Luke was shooting Womp Rats. Not only that, but did you ever notice that Leia made everyone around her a better person? She was such a bad ass that anyone who interacted with her wanted to be a better person themselves. That is strength. I think Lucas meant to make Amidala the way she was. Too dependant on her man. Too emotional. I know people hate the prequels, but I think much of what Lucas has done is missed by eyes glazed over with fury. Amidala is what women in society are expected to be by the majority. Leia is what women can be. The prequels are about everything that is wrong & how it got to be that way. The originals are about making things right & how they should be.
15. Christopher L. Bennett
Leia's strength as a character is why I don't have a problem with fandom's fondness for the "Slave Leia" metal-bikini look. It once came up in a discussion whether that was objectifying women or glorifying sex slavery, but I realized it did just the opposite. Jabba tried to reduce Leia to a sex object, but she remained unbroken and defiant and single-handedly defeated her enslaver. Even while wearing an outfit designed to objectify and diminish, she remained undiminished. And I think that's why the metal bikini look is so iconic. It's not just because it's beautiful and sexy (and it is -- I was nearly 15 when RotJ came out and Fisher in that outfit had a powerful impact on me), but because it shows that a woman can remain just as strong, smart, and capable no matter what she wears (or doesn't wear), and that's the sexiest thing of all.
Melissa Shumake
16. cherie_2137
great post!!

haven't read any of the expanded universe novels (never know where to start, partially) but it's awesome to hear that she eventually gets jedi training as well =)
17. Bittersweet Fountain
@cherie_2137, the best place to start with the Expanded Universe is the Thrawn Trilogy, i.e. Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn. It was the first EU book ever written and is still universally achknowledged to be awesome.
18. Cybersnark
And let's not forget that her "rescue" in ANH would have gone completely pear-shaped if Leia hadn't taken charge.

Consider also, that Leia was (as far as anyone knew initially) born to nobility. She was wealthy, powerful, pampered, and effectively had every physical thing anyone could want. By rights, she COULD'VE been tarting around Coruscant with oversized sunglasses and a dog-in-a-purse.

Instead, she had deliberately thrown all of that away to join a rag-tag group of under-equipped insurrectionists hoping to overthrow a regime that ruled "a thousand thousand worlds" (according to the RotJ novelization). What kind of strength of spirit must it take to do that?
19. KarenK
Amidala willed herself to amount of posturing in a ridiculous dress in front of the Senate can change that.
20. lorq
Note also that the rescue of Leia was completely accidental in terms of Luke's main mission -- to get R2D2 to Alderaan. I've always thought it was a very elegant part of the story that in flying to Alderaan, Luke & company instead encounter the Death Star, which has just blown it up.

So Luke and the rest have *themselves* been captured by the Empire, like Leia. And except for Obi-Wan, they're in over their heads. But once they bust Leia out of the prison, *she* rescues *them*.

Simply awesome.
Lee VanDyke
21. Cloric
Emily, I truly agree with 99% of what you've said here. I have always loved Leia, and although I occasionally have issues with the EU characterization of her, for the most part think they took her storyline down the logical path (as far as I've read, anyway... in the middle of New Jedi Order and kinda stopped a couple years back).

With that said, the one statement I have to comment on is doubting she was made to learn things like how to curtsy, etc. Ya know, "the womanly arts" as we might have called them 15o years ago, or less. I would say part of what makes her the epitome of awesome is that she had to ALL of that right along side the skills you mention. One of the reasons, in my mind anyway, that Mon Motha had so many problems as chief of state is that she still thought like a Rebel and a instigator Senator. She lacked the fundamental skills of a "Princess" to build consensus instead of trying force people to work together.

my 2 cents. excellent post!
Alan Brown
22. AlanBrown
Now, if they could have just avoided all that stuff about her brother being hot for her, and the sibling kisses---ewwwww...
23. Mercury
This makes me want to do an "I love Princess Leia" happy dance. Because, really, the lady rocks. You've got this tiny little woman who looks like, yes, a princess--but she can kick your butt at just about any game you're playing. Politics? Yep. Gunfight? Sure. Stealth, disguise, survival in captivity, field combat, intelligence smuggling? Yeah, any of those. She can even out-snark Han Solo!
24. Doc Rocketscience
"...mythology as spelled out by Joseph Campbell. Whether or not that’s a good thing is entirely in the viewer’s eyes, but it did necessitate perhaps my least favorite plot trope in all of fiction: rescuing the princess."
No, it does not. "Rescuing the princess" is nowhere in Campbell's Hero's Journey. It's one possible (or even common) way, of handling the Call to Adventure, the Road of Trials, or the Meeting with the Goddess, but not the only way.
"As we’re shown time and time again, there is nothing that this woman cannot do."
Isn't this just lazy writing? When you have this one character who can solve all your problems for you, you no longer have a realistic character - you have a walking plot device. Notice how, as competent as Leia is, she repeatedly becomes completely incompetent when the plot requires her to?
25. AGrey
One complaint I do have re: Princess Leia is in the third film.

You've mentioned her rescue of Han here, but I actually put that in the 'cons' column. She's a great general and leader of the resistance, and she's put herself personally in harm's way on an undercover mission, risking her life and the security of the resistance movement... in order to rescue her boyfriend.

Sure, it's badass, but it's also irresponsible and emotional.
26. Cybersnark

Given the presence of Lando, Chewbacca, and Luke, I'm okay with assuming Operation Save Han's Ass was an authorized mission. Given the time frame, Alliance high command (including tactical geniuses General Madine and Admiral Ackbar) would already have been planning the Death Star II attack; Leia's rescue mission was aimed at putting two important assets back into play (Chewbacca would not have taken part without Han, due to the Life Debt).

And even if they hadn't killed Jabba and (they thought) Fett, rescuing a famous Rebel hero would also have been a good morale boost just before a major offensive --and morale has always been one of the Rebellion's main assets (and the Empire's main weakness).
27. SpencerB3
That's exactly the attitude that I was working to convey in my new Print for the Star Wars Celebration. Well Said.
Melissa Spray
28. meowwl
I adored Leia from the first time I saw her. She made a big impression on little 4 year old me, when I saw her kicking stormtrooper butt on my TV screen. She was the first sci-fi heroine that my mud slinging, dirt digging, preferred-her-tonka-trucks-to-any-kind-of-doll, tomboy, self could identify with.

She was the first woman I'd seen in a Sci-fi show or movie that wasn't some useless, screaming frill, or just another bedwarmer to be seduced by the "hero". She was smart, sarcastic, and kicked butt instead of leaning on someone else. She showed that you could be and act feminine, and still be strong and self-reliant. I think this is still an important lesson for girls to learn today.
29. Klady
Forced to be a sexual object for a crime lord? Choke him to death and get outta dodge. Find out your stealth party was spotted on by the enemy? Hunt them down with their own vehicles. Meet a strange new species that doesn’t speak your language? Share food and make friends. As we’re shown time and time again, there is nothing that this woman cannot do.

And she can blow her nose! The way she blows her nose is just AWESOME!
Talk about overpraising...
31. rainajin
I love this gal! As a little girl, my idea of a princess was someone like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella. Leia broke the mold for me. You can be a princess and still be an independent and smart woman.
32. M. Marshall
I liked the post until you unfairly started comparing Padme to Leia. Would you like it if everyone kept comparing you to your mother? Padme was living in a different time period and the fact that she's absent in the original trilogy should've given us a clue that her story would be a tragedy. She's "squeaky clean" because she's living in a time of democracy and political intrigue whereas Leia is living in a time of tyranny and totalitarianism. Leia is also 19 when we first meet her whereas Padme is 14 and age always makes a difference. Leia came at the time of the women's movement whereas Padme came at a time when women were, and still are, struggling with the "superwoman" image created from said movement. Every woman experiences life differently and we need to recognize that.
33. LizzieB
This is why I loved Princess Leia: I had waited all my childhood for her. I saw Star Wars when it was first released long, long ago and I was a young college student studying science.

All my life, in school and out, people had told me, "You can't do that, you're a girl," or "Men make the plans, not women," or "Put down the lab squipment, dear, the boys will use it." But Leia used the robot to send a message, schemed, stood up to Darth Vader.

In TV and movies, all the heroines just stood by and shrieked while the heroes fought bravely. I wondered why they didn't grab the nearest object and bash the bad guy over his head. But Princess Leia grabbed a blaster, thought on her feet, utilized whatever was handy: people, technology, garbage, artifacts.

Princess Leia was intelligent and attractive, if not beautiful. She was smart, snarky, funny, determined, courageous, capable. She was what I dreamed of being when people were not pointing out everything I could *not* be, everything I could *not* do, because I was a girl. She showed me that in the future, there would not only be a place for me, but there would be people to love me.

Princess Leia set me free. And I loved her for it.
34. SteveG
I get where you are going with this, and agree with everything you say about her as acharacter. I do not agree with how you say she is diminished into the role of a princess and becomes the "prize." I can tell you did not see this when it came out, and have a sensibility that puts you at no younger than 30. I saw this when it first came out, and at age 12, knew that George Lucas was turning the damsel-in-distress trope on its ear with her. She was an absolutely competent and in charge person. The only person more capable than she in the original film was Ben. She is not perfect, however, because she did get caught and she was not getting out without help from Luke and Han, as bumbling as they were in that rescue.
Maybe I am wrong, though, because you use the word SPUNKY, and that is of the time. Kind of out of fashion now.
The only negative on the effect that Princess Leia has on women characters in films is that, for example, you get to read Scarlett Johannson talk about Black Widow being "not a damsel in distress," a strong character, etc. Everything one said and says about Leia, and the damsel in distress is still a popular meme.
But you also have to acknowledge that she was never all that feminine alluring until she put on the bikini to many, many guys. (Not me. Always hot for Leia.)
Jeff LaSala
35. JLaSala
One easily-overlooked detail I appreciate about Star Wars. No one cared at all that Leia was involved with a "commoner" instead of someone as high born as she. No drama, no forbidden love. Left more room for their characterizations.
36. Susan Macdonald
I honestly thought Leia came off better in the radio series than in the movies or novelizations. In the radio series, Senator Organa had a reputation for mercy missions, delivering aid and supplies. By purest coincidence, these supplies always went to planets with rebel sympathies.
38. AlreadymadwithLeia
LOL. And that pose when Luke walked into her cell!
By golly! Lounging like a boss!

@25 and @26
Err no. At this point in time, Leia was a figurehead. She's a princess of a ruined nation, but her place in the military hierarchy was less defined. Chewie was first mate on the Millenium Falcon. Lando was acting captain. And despite having stuck with the Rebellion for the past three years, its true master, Han Solo made it a point to keep the Falcon separate from the Rebellion command structure.

You don't see rebel troopers cramming onto the Falcon during the escape from Hoth. You don't see rebel technicians helping Chewie with repairs. Heck, you don't even see full time gunners until Han officially loaned it to Lando for the Battle of Endor.

High command may well have been aware of their mission, but IMHO if they did, why not send a crack commando unit as well? It's not like they needed a lot of ground units, everybody had either gone to ground, or hiding with the fleet at the Rendezvous Point.

Also at this point in time, none of them had any defined roles in the big battle to come. Han and Lando volunteered for their posts and were promoted generals totally without consulting each other.

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