The first time I met Princess Leia, I was in fourth grade. My little sister’s third-grade class was on a huge Star Wars kick, so she picked up A New Hope at the local video rental shop. On a Friday night, she popped the cassette into our VCR, expertly fast-forwarded through commercials, and hit the ‘play’ button right at the opening scroll.
I don’t know at what point I got hooked. It might have been John Williams’ opening fanfare. Maybe it was just the fact that A New Hope threw me right into the action. There was no need to explain who The Galactic Empire was, or The Rebel Alliance. They were fighting, and look, there goes a spaceship! The film was filled with strange creatures, intriguing characters, terrifying enemies, and awe-inspiring weapons. That first viewing launched an obsession that has stood the test of time.
By the time I was in fourth grade, I was already pretty jaded about gender roles. I didn’t play with any of the girls in my class, because acting out real-life scenarios, like cooking dinner or sweeping floors, felt a whole lot like work. The boys might let me re-enact the most recent episode of Batman: The Animated Series, but Catwoman usually took a backseat to the fights between The Dark Knight and The Joker, and within minutes I was a forgotten figure, practicing cartwheels in the grass.
The first sight of Princess Leia in A New Hope didn’t inspire me. Ah. A pretty girl in a white dress. Other than her earmuffs-on-steroids hairstyle, she could have stepped right out of the type of movie where the ladies break out into song about how great it would be to find a nice prince and settle down on a planet with a good education system and live happily ever after.
I probably should have noticed that she was sneaking around on a ship that was under attack by the fearsomely dressed Darth Vader, but hey, I was a fourth grader.
I started to reevaluate my opinion when she shot her first stormtrooper.
Then she went toe-to-toe with the baddest bad guy I’d ever seen. Held captive, diminutive compared to the armored man towering over her, she stood defiant. She responded to his booming voice with courage, and even sass. Didn’t she know that he’d just strangled one of those guys in the funny white helmets? I was scared of Darth Vader, and I was separated from him by a TV screen. Princess Leia, though, seemed more irritated than anything else.
Over the course of A New Hope, Leia kept defying expectations. When threatened with Alderaan’s destruction, her fear was palpable. She mourned her people, her culture – everything that had once been her life.
Han Solo’s reaction to her, as she takes charge of her own rescue mission and orders him to jump down a garbage chute, is perhaps most fascinating. The self-assured, universe-weary rogue stares in wonder. A damsel, yes. In distress, not so much.
I think it’s really easy to forget how revolutionary Princess Leia was, how revolutionary she still is. How many other characters, male or female, dare to rage across the screen as she did in anything other than a moody drama? A million copies have been tried, and a million copies have failed to capture the spirit of the original. Princess Leia stands alone, driven by an inner fury, a singular purpose.
I’ll admit that I didn’t appreciate Princess Leia throughout my Star Wars drenched youth. I wanted too much to identify with the Jedi. The idea of The Force was intoxicating, the buzz of a lightsaber like music. That was what I wanted, and so Princess Leia fell into the background. It was Luke Skywalker I followed most closely, and later, as I delved deeper into the canon, Mara Jade. Anyone who didn’t wield a lightsaber or connect to the power that bound together the fabric of the universe seemed far less interesting to me.
And yet, always Leia was there, and as I got older, I came to appreciate her more and more. Of all the primary characters in the Star Wars universe, she has by far the greatest leadership skills. She commands armies that fight incredible odds against the encroaching darkness of the Empire. She never backs down when she is called on to lead. And she’s never afraid to make bold choices or take risky shots.
She calls upon a friend of her father’s, whom she has never met, to help combat a weapon capable of destroying planets. She jumps down garbage chutes, refuses to abandon the base on Hoth until the last possible moment, disguises herself as a bounty hunter to rescue Han Solo from Jabba’s Palace. She does everything with admirable courage, as well as cunning reason. Maybe Luke Skywalker wasn’t the best choice to be trained as the last Jedi Knight after all, though I suspect Yoda would have found a much more infuriating student in Leia.
These days, as excited as I am to see Rey on the movie screens, as thrilled as I am to see a Jedi Knight of my gender wielding a lightsaber and The Force, I am equally excited to see General Organa Solo. Still commanding armies in the fight for galactic freedom, still dealing with the drama of being a Skywalker with her head held high. It is Leia who, of all the characters in Star Wars, seems the least escapist, the most grounded in a life that looks familiar to me. Yes, she is a high-level politician, but she is also a decision-maker, someone who must face reality as it is, and find the best way through. This can’t be said for many of the characters in the galaxy, who constantly retreat for training, or to recover from massive mis-steps.
I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker.
I think it’s the rage, honestly. When I was younger, I was an idealist. Among my friends, I was the most likely to bewail, “But why can’t we all just get along?” I was most likely to quietly explain my Zen point of view when everyone else raged about the difficulty of one of our teacher’s quizzes.
Somewhere in the midst of my young adulthood, I lost my grip on that Zen, and when I did, I found a well of something hot and, to me, terrifying and uncomfortable. I found myself angry at the fact that things hadn’t worked out the way I’d thought they would. The universe, it seemed, had turned on me.
But I shoved that anger down, because it makes people uncomfortable. It didn’t take me long to recognize that. Yelling was not appropriate, was not cute, was a little bit scary. So, as much as I could, I swallowed it. I learned to work through it, to look at things differently, to adjust my expectations.
Now I wonder – would Princess Leia have done all that, or would she have fed her rage and used it to power through, until she set things back on the course she wanted? Probably a little bit of both.
Leia rises up above the title of Princess, and becomes something else. A woman willing to lead, willing to take risks, a woman who refuses to run or back down. More than perhaps anyone else in Star Wars, she fights, unceasingly, for what she believes in. And these days, it is Leia whom I admire most.