Leia’s Legacy | The Women of Star Wars
[Editor’s Note: The following editorial contains some spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.]
Star Wars fans across the galaxy have had a lot of surprises surrounding Leia Organa this month. On the light side, we got a wonderful cameo appearance from the Princess we all fell in love with in the closing moments of Rogue One and on the dark side, we face the tragic loss of Carrie Fisher. Not only was she our General, she was an astonishing woman who set a brilliant example for us to carry on throughout our lives.
Rather than dwell in tragedy, let us further examine the character: Leia Organa. Often in a time of great loss it is easier to focus on the sadness that we all share, rather than the positivity that has been brought into the world by performers and figures who are larger than life. Leia is many people’s easiest reference to Carrie Fisher and, as such, deserves examination and celebration at this melancholic time.
Although she is adopted into a world of privilege by Bail and Breha Organa, Leia transcends the princess tropes that persist to modern day. Before the death of Alderaan, when she was at the height of her status, Leia was an integral member of the Rebellion. So much so, in fact, that Princess Leia is the inciting incident in A New Hope – thereby, effectively becoming the catalyst for entire Star Wars saga that is so near and dear to our hearts.
“Active” is perhaps the best adjective to describe Leia, in particular when viewed through the 1977 lens of A New Hope. When we are reintroduced to her through the eyes of Luke and Han it is clear that Leia is no damsel in distress. Princesses and high status women appeared in many great sci-fi/fantasy tales since the time of fairytales. They were almost always relegated to the role of reward for the hero at the end of his classic journey (think Arwen in The Lord of the Rings trilogy who waits to be married to Aragorn, or Valeria in the Conan series), or the damsel in distress (like Princess Aouda from Around the World in 80 Days who must be saved from her husband’s funeral pyre, or any number of women from Star Trek waiting for Captain Kirk to show up).
For many of us Leia was the first princess to take hold of her own destiny. There are decades of Disney animated films starring princesses that fail to achieve such self-sufficiency. Even The Little Mermaid’s Princess Ariel (1989, some 6 years afters Return of the Jedi), needs Prince Eric to deal the actual death blow to Ursala, whereas Princess Leia is unafraid to mow down any and all stormtroopers who might get in her way mere seconds after stepping out of her jail cell. I concede that Leia Organa was not the first princess type to break the mould (Deja Thoris from the John Carter of Mars franchise comes to mind), but with the breakout success of the Star Wars movies more people have seen Princess Leia than many of her predecessors. The aforementioned success elevated the science fiction genre into the mainstream and has become the foundation upon which almost all subsequent genre films have been developed since its debut.
A character like Leia changed the face of women in science fiction – a character shift that was so effective it has gone on to have direct influence on every other prominent female character that has appeared in the Star Wars franchise since then. Would the prequel trilogy have even had a female lead had Leia not been so beloved? It would have been so easy for the prequels film to have focused on the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Without Princess Leia would Rey have kickstarted The Force Awakens or, instead, would Finn have been our sole focal character? Would Cassian Andor in Rogue One have been named “Cassian Erso” with no place for Jyn to have even existed? Leia Organa’s groundbreaking presentation as the equal – or better – of the male characters in Star Wars is directly responsible for all we know and love about the current block of films being released.
It is probably worth noting that Leia’s influence extends beyond the original trilogy of Star Wars movie. Sticking simply within the Star Wars franchise, Leia herself has appeared in Star Wars: Rebels, a number of video games and her own Marvel comic book series. There is even an original character appearing in the Darth Vader comic book series (also released by Marvel), named Doctor Aphra who is visually similar to Leia – dark hair, pale – who serves as a companion to Vader throughout the series and was such a breakout star that she now has her own series – aptly titled Doctor Aphra – that was released into the world on December 7th, 2016. She is a much more mercenary, sassy character than the Princess Leia we know from the big screen but could definitely not have been born into the universe in absence of Leia Organa.
There’s an obvious visual parallel (as mentioned above), to be drawn between these characters, but Leia’s influence on the female characters who followed her transcends the superficial. Leia Organa, Padme Amidala, Rey and Jyn Erso have much more in common than pale skin and brown hair.
Let’s begin with Leia’s birth mother who she never knew – Padme Amidala. Admittedly, the character of Queen Padme Amidala predates Princess Leia Organa in the linear Star Wars timeline, but nonetheless she was created, brought to the silver screen and retroactively inspired by her own daughter, due to the films’ production schedules. That in mind, Padme is in every way reactionary compared to Leia’s active role in the original Star Wars trilogy. Padme is the Queen of Naboo – a very important planet and people which grants her significant influence in the Senate. She is responsible for a living population and has subjects to whom she must be answerable to daily.
Princess Leia stands in obvious contrast in her youth as the princess – not a queen – of Alderaan… the very planet that dies on her watch. We never get a chance to see Leia take on the title of Queen that her mother carried from such a young age. By the beginning of A New Hope there is no one to hold Leia responsible for her actions, no one for her to report to, save herself. Perhaps this is why we see Leia accept the title of General in place of Queen? There is no planet and there are no people for her to rule over after Alderaan is destroyed, leaving Leia to build a community of soldiers (read: Rebels), around her in order to ensure that a genocide like that never happens again.
Whereas Leia is fiery, spirited and willing to charge into danger for the sake of the greater good, Padme is restrained and measured – the consummate politician. In many ways, Padme epitomizes the kind of life Bail and Breha probably wanted for Leia before the Empire threatened everything they held dear. Ultimately, Padme’s more subdued nature plays into Anakin’s delusions about her betrayal. If you consider the unwarranted anger with which Anakin lashes out against Padme and the fear with which she responds and then try to replay the scene in your head with Han and Leia it would have ended very differently. Leia would have easily matched Han’s volume of voice and talked circles around his head until she proved him wrong. Perhaps there is a little more of Anakin in Leia than any of us originally suspected.
This observation is in no way meant as a criticism of Padme Amidala’s character. It is a completely logical decision to make the second leading female character in the Star Wars movie franchise a foil for the woman who launched it – and is Padme’s progeny – that so many people know and love.
This, of course, brings us up to the latest crop of Star Wars films, beginning with The Force Awakens. Rey – and her, as of yet, undefined parentage – even dresses like Leia when she initially appears, garbed in flowing pale fabrics belted at the waist and with a hairstyle comprised mainly of hair buns. By contrast the Padme, Rey is an incredibly active character almost immediately tasked with leading around not only an adorable droid, but a Stormtrooper who hasn’t lived outside of the First Order’s confines for the better part of his life. Rey is a less reactionary character to Leia than Padme was and is, really, Leia-redux for 21st Century sensibilities with a less privileged upbringing.
Even their treatment of characters that are being set up as potential love interests (see: Han / Finn, who even share single-syllable names ending in “n”), and refusal to be looked after by these men draw comparison. Both Leia and Rey are kidnapped by Sith Lords (well okay, one is Sith Lord fanboy), and taken to a Death Star to be interrogated – a process which turns out to be only minimally successful. Han Solo, aided by a naive young man, comes to the rescue of both Leia and Rey during these times of crisis, even if the women are ultimately the ones taking charge of their own salvation. Rey even steps into the role Obi-Wan filled in A New Hope by engaging in a lightsaber fight with the main villain of her movie. She becomes an even more active heroine than Leia having ascended to the role of protagonist and most competent combatant in the scene.
With Leia and Rey, in particular, we are looking at a generational legacy. One generation paving way for the other. Much like, as actresses, Carrie Fisher paved the way for Daisy Ridley to bring Rey to life in such a wonderful way. Life imitates art here and drives the cultural significance of Star Wars – and Princess Leia – higher still.
Now we come to Jyn Erso, the protagonist of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Jyn is the daughter of Galen Erso, a ground-breaking Imperial scientist behind the master stroke that is the Death Star. Orphaned at a young age – not unlike Leia Organa, herself – Jyn turned to a life of self-preservation that eventually landed her in an Imperial prison. She continues the trend of looking a lot like Leia – pale, dark hair, loose-fitting clothing – while being more of an alternate-reality version of Leia. Had Leia not been adopted by Bail and Breha and inherited the last name of Organa, and the titles that came along with it, she could just as likely have turned to a more unscrupulous career path; let us remember that Anakin Skywalker is Leia’s biological father and she takes after him, with a tendency to talk back. To rebel. Both women find themselves in Imperial custody at a young age only to be rescued by characters of questionable morality with a tendency to shoot first (and a droid!).
Much where we find General Leia in The Force Awakens, Jyn Erso finds herself as the leader of a branch of the Rebellion bent on destroying the Death Star. Jyn’s band of Rebels are even directly tied to Leia in a number of ways. She works directly under Bail Organa and sacrifices her life to acquire the plans that we see Leia smuggling into R2-D2 in A New Hope. Jyn retroactively passes on her mantle to a character very much like her, Princess Leia.
Where Leia was raised in greatness – arguably having always been setup to lead fearless people in Rebellion against the Empire – Jyn has a less romantic rise to leadership. The responsibility of the Rebellion is thrust upon Jyn Erso, despite the fact that she is an inexperienced, emotionally-involved figure. She ascends from a position of suspicion to one of great responsibility in the universe. In many ways, Jyn Erso is directly responsible for the salvation of everything she knows and can imagine, and her sacrifice allows Leia Organa to transition into a similar position at the head of the Rebellion.
Both women are driven to take arms against the Empire following the death of their respective fathers (yes, in Leia’s case it is her adopted father, but Bail Organa had more to do with who Leia turned out to be than Anakin Skywalker could ever have hoped to as Darth Vader). They are daughters of tragedy and grief who both manage to harness the overwhelming loss they have experienced into something bigger than themselves in order to ensure that no other little girls will have to suffer in the same manner.
In the past, social media has carried several accusations of female characters across Star Wars being “Mary Sues”. I would contend that this is a completely unfair accusation. I would also contend that the term has been so overused – and so improperly used – over the years that its original meaning has been somewhat lost. “Mary Sue” character-types are defined by being characters that the audience is constantly told are special, without ever getting a chance to see why she matters and why she is integral to the overall narrative. Frankly, Star Wars does not do this.
Rey was the character to bear the brunt of this accusation and, yes, she is not a tremendously flawed character. Her skills are impeccable and necessary to the forward momentum of The Force Awakens and many of them can be explained as being a result of her force sensitivity – in the same way that Luke Skywalker’s skills as a pilot and in wielding a lightsaber can be also couched. Star Wars built lead characters on tropes from the classic hero’s journey, as much as Leia pushed against pulpy stereotypes. Joseph Campbell (famous for his essay on The Hero’s Journey), might have been surprised to discover so many women as the heroes in question undertaking these journeys, but he would have recognized the need for Leia, Padme, Aphra, Rey and Jyn to be aspirational characters – to be role models for their audiences to look up to and try to be more like. Our heroes are supposed to be better than us and the women of the Star Wars franchise absolutely are.
Leia Organa, as tremendously portrayed by Carrie Fisher throughout her life, has left a monumental legacy in Star Wars. It is to their shared credit that it is being so honored throughout the films presently underway. Almost everything about Leia is iconic – from the hairstyles, to the lines (“Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”), to the character beats – and will continue to inspire the creation of diverse and increasingly more complicated characters in the Star Wars films yet to come.
Not only was Leia generations of people’s first crush/first princess/first role model, she was ahead of the curve by decades in the slow shift toward female representation in mass-media and she has left a slough of badass ladies in her wake. Padme, Doctor Aphra, Rey and Jyn all contribute not only to the narratives they inhabit, but to presenting strong female role models for children of any gender. More exciting even than these five women of the Star Wars franchise and their shared impact are the undoubtedly numerous unknown princesses, generals and rebels yet on the horizon for the ongoing future of Star Wars across all media – not to mention in real life!
Thank you, Leia, for the legacy you have left us.