It’s rather disgraceful that Princess Leia is pretty much the only woman of any note in the first trilogy of Star Wars films. The balance of male to female characters in Episodes IV-VI are decidedly unbalanced. But the character of Leia holds up pretty damn well under the intense scrutiny that brings, and though she often appears on the various lists of Best Female Protagonists that are written every year, those same articles rarely go into why she kicks so much bottom.
This is where Tor’s Emily Asher-Perrin comes in, with a fantastic article that takes a long look at Princess Leia, starting with that oh so familiar, eye-roll-worthy trope of the princess needing to be rescued, and how that essentially gets turned upside down completely over the course of three films.
It’s a cracking read, and it makes a number of points that I think all script writers could do with taking onboard, but this is probably the most important.
Lucas’ universe is a flawed universe in many respects, and Leia is pretty much on her own in terms of flying the flag for women (Mon Mothma’s brief appearance aside). However, not once is her capability undermined by her gender, through action or the opinions of others:
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.
Even the ‘rescued princess’ trope is quickly revealed to be only there in order to be subverted and challenged by the character herself. Before her incarceration at the hands of Vader, she goes toe-to-toe with both the Dark Lord of the Sith and Grand Moff Tarkin. Immediately after she’s freed by Han and Luke, she’s away with the sharp, zinging one liners, a flurry of activity and practicality.
Asher-Perrin makes another great point later on in her article: Leia’s just so much more competent than Han and Luke.
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.
It’s a brilliant article that serves to illuminate exactly why Leia is such a cracking character — she’s the only one who consistently keeps her shit together.
She’s also probably the only character in the Extended Universe to have ‘Jedi’ as her second occupation, you know what with basically running a galaxy as Chief of State.