image: ign.com

Strong Female Characters: Princess Leia

For those of you that don’t know, Leia is the heroine of George Lucas’s original (and best) Star Wars trilogy. The story follows her attempts to lead a rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire and bring balance to the Force – and also make out with 1970s Harrison Ford when she finds the time (and also her brother, but let’s not judge – it worked for Cersei Lannister). She’s an iconic science fiction character and has been hailed as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

NOTE: For clarity’s sake, I’ll be basing my analysis off the original trilogy of movies ONLY. I’m well aware that there is additional information about the character in the extended universe novels, but I just don’t have the time to read them all (and besides, my volumes of the Star Wars Encyclopaedia are in a box in the attic and I can’t be bothered to get them down).

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Leia spends most of the trilogy leading a rebellion against a thinly veiled Nazi allegory, and she plays a very active role in this. She co-ordinates battle plans, steals the schematics for the Death Star, and literally has to be dragged out of her military base when it starts collapsing around her ears. She does all this at great personal risk – she’s captured more than once, and it’s implied she’s also tortured by that weird floating thing that looks like a cross between a Dalek and a colander – but she keeps on going anyway. She’s very much in control of her own destiny – and of the destinies of many of the other characters – and takes an active role in shaping it. She passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Leia doesn’t really have many hobbies, but her goals and beliefs are pretty clear: she believes that the Empire is evil, and she makes taking it down her first priority. In the movies, there’s no clear source for these beliefs apart from her own convictions, and so once again, she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Throughout the trilogy, Leia’s personality and skills both remain fairly consistent. She’s always a fiery, strong-willed character who knows her way around a blaster. Towards the end of Return of the Jedi she starts picking up on some of her latent Jedi abilities, but this doesn’t happen in a completely unrealistic way: she only hears Luke’s message to her, rather than suddenly developing the ability to shoot lightning from her hands.

"That's what you think." (image: giphy.com)
“That’s what you think.” (image: giphy.com)

The only issue worth raising in terms of consistency is the worrying tendency for her to become much weaker when she’s captured. She’s perfectly capable of fighting her way out of trouble, but as soon as one of the baddies grabs her upper arm, she’s completely powerless and all she can do is flail. However, it’s worth pointing out that when she is captured, she’s usually outnumbered by enemies who are much better armed than she is, so you could make a case that this temporary weakness is a tactical move on her part. There’s not enough evidence for this in the movies, though, so she only gets half the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2.5

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A princess from leading a rebellion against an evil empire and trying to restore peace to the galaxy.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Leia’s love life hardly features in the movies at all. She kisses Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, but most of her decisions are focused around leading the rebellion, keeping her forces safe and trying not to die.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Much like Belle, Leia doesn’t really develop much over the course of the movies. While she does achieve her goals and bring down the Empire – and gets to make out with Han Solo some more – she doesn’t really learn anything while she’s doing it. She’s so perfect she’s practically a Disney Princess.

WAIT A SECOND. (image: screenrant.com)
WAIT A SECOND. (image: screenrant.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Not really. She snaps at other characters a lot, but this doesn’t drive them away from her, and she certainly doesn’t have a weakness that prevents her from achieving her goals. All her problems are external – there’s no element to her personality that seriously inconveniences her, and this just isn’t realistic.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Leia gets captured a lot in the Star Wars trilogy, but this isn’t the full extent of her influence on the plot. It’s true that she manages to get captured at least once in every film, forcing some of the other characters to come and rescue her, but this isn’t all she does – a substantial amount of her screen time is devoted to making sure that the audience sees her leading the rebellion, taking charge of the other characters and just generally keeping the plot moving. So much of the movies depend on her getting captured to even have a plot that I can’t award her the full point, but she gets half a mark for trying.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Leia relates to gender stereotypes in a really interesting way. In some ways, she’s very clearly in the role of the damsel in distress, who must depend on the male characters to save her. She’s also absent from a lot of the serious battle scenes (particularly the X-wing fights), often being placed in the rebel base, watching the attack from the sidelines. This plays into a lot of ideas that women are not capable of fighting to the same standard as men – which is a pretty tired old stereotype.

But that’s all undermined when she does this:

Most metal princess EVER (image: starwars.com)
Most metal princess EVER (image: starwars.com)

While she’s absent from a lot of the big fight scenes, it’s shown that she’s a capable fighter, can pilot a speeder relatively easily, and is more than prepared to full-on CHOKE JABBA TO DEATH WITH HER OWN SLAVE CHAIN. What’s more, she’s shown to be a very skilled political leader, who’s more than capable of drawing up battle plans and inspiring her troops. This really undercuts the stereotype that young women are not cut out for political or leadership roles – she is by far the best political leader we see in the original series.

In this respect, Leia’s character can be pretty divisive. While the positive aspects of her character in relation to gender stereotypes cannot be denied, whether she passes this round or not really depends on how much the individual viewer is bothered by her role as the damsel in distress. For my part, I think it’s worth noting that being captured by an enemy doesn’t make you weak (it just makes you a prisoner), and during her captivity she withstands torture and Sith mind games and never gives in. I think that deserves the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Leia doesn’t really relate to other female characters, for the simple fact that she’s pretty much the only named female character who survives beyond the first half an hour of A New Hope. What this means is that she effectively becomes a representative for her gender – her actions are no longer seen as the actions of an individual, but as the actions of someone standing in for 50% of the human population.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

 

Leia is a competent leader who drives the plot of the whole trilogy, and while she’s handled pretty consistently as the series progresses she just isn’t fleshed out in the way that fully developed characters are. She doesn’t have a weakness, she doesn’t progress over the course of the movie, and because she’s the only significant woman in the whole trilogy, her actions aren’t always seen as truly her own.

She hasn’t passed my test, but that’s not to say that she hasn’t had a huge impact on popular culture. Aside from being one of the most metal princesses ever, she’s a role model that lots of young girls look up to – and it wasn’t so long ago that I was one of them. She might not stand up to a full-blown character analysis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she’s not worth analysing at all.

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of the classic romance novels, Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie Bennet, I’m coming for you.

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14 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Princess Leia”

  1. Leia was never the leader of the Rebel Alliance. She was one of the minor leaders. And unfortunately, George Lucas never provided any scenes featuring Leia as a political leader . . . only a military leader, an intelligence agent or a commando. To this day, I have no idea what he was doing with her character.

    Leia has weaknesses and flaws. But hardly anyone is willing to admit this.

    Again, why does a woman character have to behave like an action man in order to be considered “strong”?

    1. I think it works – she’s clearly accustomed to negotiations and strategy. Could we have seen more? Certainly – but perhaps the newer movies will build on this. Her strength for me is more about how active she can be, and how unwilling she is to tolerate injustices.

  2. Care to have a go at her mother, Padme?
    I get the feeling that they’re going to try and make a feminist statement with the new movie that’s coming out next month.

        1. Haha, that’s more than enough Jar Jar for me!

          And I’m thinking about looking at Rey when the new film comes out, but as it’s part of a trilogy I’m a little bit hesitant. If possible I prefer looking at stuff that’s finished developing, to get a more complete view of the story.

  3. Nice review, I agree with nearly all the points. In terms of character-consistency I think there are unfortunate moments where she veers between tough rebel agent and sweetie-pie teenage prom-queen, the scene where she kisses Luke for luck being a case in point, also the scene at the end where she runs at Luke and hugs him.

  4. You: “Towards the end of Return of the Jedi she starts picking up on some of her latent Jedi abilities, but this doesn’t happen in a completely unrealistic way: she only hears Luke’s message to her.”

    Towards the end of Empire Strikes Back, you mean.

    At the end of Return of the Jedi, Leia however does “feel” that Luke was not on the second Death Star when it blew, and is therefore not worried about her brother’s survival.

    1. My bad, must’ve been a typo. My original point still stands though – Leia’s gradual use of her abilities is much more believable than, for example, immediately Force-crushing an X-wing. I thought it was a good decision to keep her abilities low-key, considering she didn’t get Luke’s Jedi training.

  5. Yes, unfortunately Leah’s rather static character with no weaknesses compared with Luke and Han and complete lack of other female companions let her down quite a bit. Otherwise, she is a great character and role model but she just isn’t as well-rounded as some of the other modern-day strong female characters you analysed here.

    1. I just had another thought after watching the Force Awakens; would you say any of your scores/thoughts have changed as a result of Leia’s role in that movie? There is also the Last Jedi coming up in 6 months that could also revise our assessment of Leia couldn’t it?

        1. I think after the Force Awakens there’s case for giving Leah half a point for question 10 and maybe even question 7 as she did have some kind of relationship with Rey now and the fact her son turned towards the dark side that also fractured her relationship with Han as well feels like clear weaknesses for me. She still wouldn’t pass the test but she’s getting a lot closer.

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