The Legacy of Leia – The Gender Politics of Star Wars and other Science Fiction

jyn erso

Cinema has never had a series of films that has touched the lives of so many people around the world as much as Star Wars has.  Since it’s premiere in the summer of 1977, George Lucas’ creation has gone on to become one of the most profitable and influential films in the last half century.  And it’s influence extends far beyond just the big screen.  With sequels, prequels, published extended universe novels as well as merchandise and product tie-ins, Star Wars has continued to remain relevant in our culture at large and will remain so for some time.  No other series has managed to cross the generations as well as it has, to the point where older audiences are now sharing their Star Wars memories with their grandchildren.  And it’s that broad appeal that has helped the series grow over the years and continue to find new stories to tell.  With the acquisition by Disney in 2012, Lucasfilm (the company behind the series) has promised to open the flood gates, not just continuing the beloved story that we all know, but expanding the broad scope of the universe to tell all kinds of new stories in the same setting.  This bold plan started off perfectly with the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), which is now the highest grossing film of all time domestically.  But, that was just the beginning.  Coming this December, we will be getting the first of the extended universe spin-offs in the form of Rogue OneA Star Wars Story.  The recently released teaser was universally praised (and rightly so), but it was also met with controversy, which unfortunately addressed an issue which shouldn’t be all that important in the first place; that being the gender of the main character.

The Rogue One teaser introduces us to Jyn Erso (played by Oscar nominee Felicity Jones from The Theory of Everything) a rebel spy who is recruited by the rebellion to help a band of rebel fighters steal the blueprint files for the Death Star away from the Imperial Forces of the evil Empire.  As we see in the trailer, Jyn is somewhat of an enigmatic figure who may or may not be the most trustworthy person for this task.  It’s an intriguing introduction for the character, and I for one am very interested in learning more about her and how she fits into the Star Wars universe.  And that’s a sentiment that’s shared by the vast majority of fans who are just excited to see more Star Wars anyway.  But, some people have foolishly complained online that Star Wars is making too many movies with female characters at it’s center, and that it’s a betrayal to the Star Wars franchise as they see it.  This is presumably in response to this movie coming on the heels of The Force Awakens, which also centered around the character Rey (played by Daisy Ridley), who’s also female.  The assumption that focusing on female protagonists is against what Star Wars is about is wrong on many levels.  For one thing, who says that Star Wars was only meant for boys?  There are just as many female Star Wars fans out there as male, and they’ve never once complained before about all the male heroes in the series.  Secondly, it doesn’t matter what gender the character is; it only matters what part they have to play in the narrative in this universe.  And thirdly, Star Wars hasn’t just suddenly awakened to the notion of gender equality in their narrative; it’s been a part of Star Wars from the very beginning and both The Force Awakens and Rogue One are continuations of that principle.  Jyn Erso and Rey aren’t just filling some gender mandate for the franchise; they are continuing the rich legacy set from the beginning by one Princess Leia.

Leia Organa of Alderaan holds a special place in the hearts of Star Wars fans, and it has more to do than with just her place in the story.  Leia was never your average damsel in distress, because not once in the story does she ever in distress.  She is fiesty, independent minded, resourceful, and above all else, a natural leader.  A lot of her personalty certainly derives from the equally independent minded actress playing her, Carrie Fisher, and her portrayal can’t be understated.  Up until the 1970’s, Science Fiction was not exactly a gender neutral genre in Hollywood.  For the most part, female characters were either potential victims of spaced-based monsters needing to be rescued by the hero, or the exotic object of desire that our hero aspires to claim for his own.  You can see a strongly minimized role for female characters in many B-movie Sci-Fi films of the 50’s, with many of them basically in there to scream as the giant monsters come their way.  And Science Fiction films that did center on a rebellious female character would usually turn them into the monster themselves like The Leech Woman (1960) or Attack of the 50ft. Woman (1958).  Basically, 50’s Sci-Fi reinforced outdated gender roles as opposed to breaking them and their rebellious 60’s counterparts didn’t help much either. 1968’s Barbarella did feature a female protagonist who was liberated, but mostly in a sexual sense, which merely just fetishised the sci-fi heroine in the end.  After all of these, Princess Leia was a huge step forward for the presence of a heroine in the Sci-Fi genre.  No longer would the girl be a bystander to the heroics of her male counterparts; she would stand out on her own and be the hero herself.

Of course, Star Wars (at least in the original trilogy) is Luke Skywalker’s heroic journey for the most part, but Leia carries a captivating arc of her own.  She’s a vital member of the rebellion against the empire, entrusted with delivering the secret plans for the Death Star to her base.  It is through her resourcefulness that the plans stay out of the hands of the villainous Darth Vader, who captures and imprisons her.  The remarkable thing about her character throughout the whole movie, which marked a big departure for female heroines in the overall genre to that point, is that not once does she feel helpless in the face of her predicament.  She’s defiant towards her enemy, even dissing her captor by saying “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”  Even being rescued gives her no pause, as she reacts sarcastically to her rescuer Luke by saying, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”  All this shows that she’s a woman who determines her own fate and is not waiting for her prince to sweep her off her feet.  And it’s not as if George Lucas set out to rewrite the books on how to create a compelling heroine in Science Fiction.  Leia is a product of her environment.  In a conflict between an Empire and a rebellion, a woman at it’s center would indeed be defiant and independent as well as resourceful, and that’s what makes her so appealing a character.  She plays a part in the story that only she can fill, and it’s far more complex than just filling a female quotient to the cast.  She’s on a mission just as much as Luke or Han Solo or any other male character.  So, by giving her that complex role, Lucas was able to change the Science Fiction heroine forever.

Leia would begin an era in science fiction that changed the role that female characters played in each story-line, though probably not by design.  Lucas merely made her equally important as her male counterparts because it was essential to the plot.  But, that simple act of elevating her purpose paved the way for Hollywood to accept more of a female presence in the genre.  The influence of Leia perhaps played a part in the casting of Sigourney Weaver in the role of Ripley in the classic Sci-Fi thriller Alien (1978).  Had Star Wars not been a success, I don’t believe Fox would have gone forward with Ridley Scott’s dark take on the genre, and had Leia not been such standout in the movie, I don’t think the studio would’ve comfortably gone with a heroine at the film’s center.  Amazingly, Ripley was originally written as a male character and it was only later that the decision was made to swap genders, with little to no change to the script.  That decision would propel the presence of female characters in the genre even further and through much of the 80’s, it became more frequent to see films with heroic women in big Hollywood productions, especially in the Sci-Fi and Fantasy genres.  James Cameron in particular made the heroic female character archetype a special trademark of his writing style, with Sarah Connor of the Terminator series being one of Science Fiction’s most iconic characters, as well as one of it’s toughest.  Princess Leia may not have much in common with these other heroines, but her influence can be felt in a lot of them.  Had Leia not been such a hit with fans, female characters in the Science Fiction genre would probably be very different today.

At the same time, Star Wars doesn’t flaunt the fact that it’s rewriting gender roles into the genre.  When George Lucas wrote the character, I don’t think he had it in his mind to make a statement about gender politics.  His upbringing probably gave him a more progressive view of the role of women in society in general and it’s that worldview that just ended up being reflected in his creation of Leia.  Leia Organa is not written to represent the idealized, women’s lib poster child; she is just who she is and that’s what makes her essential to the story.  I think it would be a mistake to say that Leia only exists because of some greater statement on gender roles in society.  Certainly the women’s liberation movement came into it’s own around the time of Star Wars premiere, but I don’t see it reflected in the characterization of Leia.  The reason she stood out was because the genre itself had been stuck in the past and George Lucas was merely writing his story with a mindset caught up to the present.  Leia was both timely and timeless, and that accounts for her enduring appeal.  She was modern in design, but still belonged within the world of the setting.  I think it would have spoiled the character for her to have been too much of a winking gesture to the gender politics of the day, because that would have dated her character and limited her legacy.  Such a “white knight” gesture to female audiences would have diminished the film’s appeal too because it would have come across as cynical and disingenuous.  It nevertheless is beneficial to the series to have had an up to date sense of women’s roles in society and by making that an underlying subtext in the story, it has helped to make Star Wars both influential and revolutionary to audiences of all genders.

That legacy continues in the series, though not without some minor missteps.  Though I don’t think it was intended to be such a big deal, the Leia “slave girl” outfit has become a contentious point of interest for both female and male fans.  In Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983), Leia’s attempt to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt results in her own capture, and she is forced to wear a revealing, gold-patted bikini outfit for Jabba’s pleasure.  For male fans, this turned Leia into a “sex idol” and many claim that this endeared her to them as their first big screen crush.  Meanwhile, female fans complained that this reduced Leia’s character to a sexual object and that it was a big step backward for the character.  There is merit to the last point, and it is sad to think that some only find Leia appealing because of this version of her.  But, at the same time, I don’t feel that the character was ruined by this either.  Story-wise, you can tell that Leia wears the costume under protest and her only satisfaction in the sequence is at the end is when she uses her own slave chain to choke the life out of Jabba.  Still, it’s unfortunate that a sensationalized aspect of the character’s overall story has turned into such a contentious point and that the progress made with regards to gender roles in the series was overwhelmed by the preoccupation over what Leia was wearing.  Honestly, it matters little how she dresses; she certainly was not any different a person in her slave outfit as she was with her bun-haired get-up in the first movie. But, doing this probably diminished the idea that gender roles were meant to be equal in this story-line, as the studio perhaps saw an opportunity to capitalize on a little sex appeal with their heroine.  This certainly didn’t help much in the prequel trilogy either, where Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) is diminished in the story to just being a love interest and mother of Luke and Leia, as opposed to a genuine force in the story overall.

That is why I am glad to see more focus on female protagonists in the Star Wars franchise today, because it feels like a nod to the overall legacy of Princess Leia in the series.  It’s especially great to see Carrie Fisher return to the character as well, showing that this renewed focus has the full blessing of the one who started it.  I especially like the fact that having strong central female characters in Star Wars only feels natural at this point and that the large majority of Star Wars fans accept that fact.  Anyone who complains that Star Wars has too many girls in it and has been taken over by a feminist agenda clearly doesn’t understand Star Wars at all.  This has always been a part of the the franchise from the very beginning, and it all comes from George Lucas’ own choice to not reduce his heroine to strict gender constraints and instead make her an active force in the story.  Princess Leia is rightly held up as one of Hollywood’s most iconic heroines, and she has achieved that status by never compromising who she is, even when put into compromising situations.  How can you not love a character who tells her potential love interest that he’s a “scruffy looking nerf-herder.”  The fact that she’s still a present in this series today, handing off the reins to the new generation while still being the face of the Rebellion, is a treat for every Star Wars fan.  I also can’t wait to see the future Jedi training that awaits Rey in Episode VIII, as well as learning what intriguing role Jyn Erso plays in this universe.  I like the fact that Disney and Lucasfilm are choosing to put strong characterizations to the forefront and that the genders of the characters are becoming more of an afterthought.  It’s a reason why Star Wars is as relevant today as it was nearly 40 years ago, because it stays relevant with the times and values that we live in.  The force is still strong with the ladies of Star Wars, and may it forever be so.