Princess Leia’s Feminist Agenda: Yeah, She Had One

15039346566_5a4ab41880_zReprinted with permission from The Broad Side

In 1977, the year Princess Leia hit the big screen in the original Star Wars movie, the National Women’s Conference was held in Houston with a galactic agenda that included the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), reproductive rights, the nuclear family, child-care funding, sexual orientation and the rights of disabled, minority and aging women.

Many female luminaries attended, including then-First Lady Rosalynn Carter and former First Ladies Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson, activists Coretta Scott King, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Barbara Jordan and Maya Angelou.

While these women discussed issues that still linger at today’s political front lines, little girls were fighting on the playground to be the best Princess Leia they could be. For Generation X women like me, Leia was one of the first feminists we knew in the movies. She was smart. She went toe-to-toe with Han Solo. She didn’t stand by helplessly waiting for anyone to save her. In fact, if that had been her in the Mos Eisley cantina instead of Han, she definitely would have shot before Greedo said more than five words.

With The Force Awakens-mania hitting fever pitch this week and Carrie Fisher returning as Leia, who now commands the military rank of general, here are some of Leia’s most kickass feminist moves in the original trilogy:

— Within minutes of the opening scenes of Star Wars, Princess Leia meets Darth Vader’s stormtroopers before Han or Luke. The stormtroopers attack her ship, Tantive IV, and an unidentified stormtrooper spots Leia who has hidden herself in an alcove. He aims at Leia, but she draws her blaster and shoots him dead. We know immediately she is a feisty force. Score one for the princess who doesn’t give up without a fight.

— Alas, Leia is captured by Darth Vader and taken to the Death Star. Enter Han and Luke, who rescue Leia from Cell 2187. I would argue that she would have eventually figured out a way out of there, but who doesn’t love a damsel in distress on the big screen? “You’re a little short for a Stormtrooper, aren’t you?” she sasses Luke as he rescues her from that cell. Not exactly a thank you, is it? Trouble quickly ensues, and the trio finds themselves in dire straits with stormtroopers. But it’s Leia who devises the escape plan by blasting a hole into a vent that leads to a garbage chute. Go Leia!

— Leia’s sassy insults and commanding wit in the first Star Wars movies showed that she wasn’t going to be a ditzy female who was looking for love throughout the galaxy. However handsome Han Solo was, Leia wasn’t going to be at all tempted or intimidated by his looks or swagger. Her unwavering sarcasm gave girls some one-liners that we still used today. Example: “Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf-herder!”

— In the 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back, Leia returns leading the troops on the icy Hoth and ditching the iconic white dress for a combat jacket, pants and boots. A much-unnoticed thing in that movie says a lot about Leia: She can weld. In one scene, she works on a control panel, and moments later, Han kisses her in the now-famous romantic scene. Lesson here? Guys do make passes at girls who wield blowtorches.

— Who needs a boy to fly the Millennium Falcon? Not Leia. At the end of Empire, Leia co-pilots Han’s light freighter with Chewbacca while Han is frozen in carbonite. She barks orders at Chewbacca like a seasoned pilot so Leia fans assume—and I don’t think wrongly—that she previously flew some sort of spacecraft. Yeah, that was before Sally Ride went to space.

— Return of the Jedi, released in Reagan-era 1983, finds Leia rescuing Han, the love of her life, from the evil lair of Jabba the Hutt. She impersonates Boushh, a male Ubese bounty hunter who was dead, in order to infiltrate Jabba’s palace. She fools the disgusting villain and frees Han but is captured. Yes, she becomes a slave girl and wears the infamous gold bikini, but she also doesn’t need a guy to help her escape. Using her own smarts, Leia chokes Jabba to death with the chain he had used to keep her hostage. Never let something like a skimpy bikini stop you from doing what needs to be done.

Sure, Leia landed on Endor amid ewoks and showed her feminine side in Jedi by falling—and falling and falling some more—in love with Han. But what’s wrong with a heroine finding her match? Nothing, especially if she does it on her own terms. If Leia’s legacy is anything besides the iconic buns on the side of her head, it’s that she taught girls to throw—not toss—hard balls with the boys and never ever play dumb even to land a scruffy-looking nerf-herder.

More from The Broad Side:

It’s Not Her Fault You’re Distracted by Her Outfit

Why Are British Feminists Being Called Islamophobes?

Exploring the World of Girl Gamers

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tom Simpson licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

suzi_parker_120x120Suzi Parker, TBS’ cultural writer, is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of Echo Ellis: Adventures of a Girl Reporter, Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt and 1000 Best Bartender’s Recipes. She writes frequently for The Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, The Daily Beast and numerous other publications. Follow her on Twitter @SuziParker.

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    Comments

    1. Kain Thrace says:

      Great piece, and if you read the books ( now not considered cannon because they killed Chewie) Leia being captured was part of a plan she, Lando, Luke, and R2 devised. So still… not a victim in need of rescue. They were not only rescuing Han but it gave Leia the opportunity to take out Jabba!

    2. Love this. I’m a year older than you and feel exactly the same way. Thanks! (tiny edit: it’s garbage “chute”)

    3. Funny how feminists keep inserting their beliefs into other people’s words and actions. I see more blog posts and articles about what feminism is or isn’t or should be or shouldn’t be than about the practical day to day activities that change the world for women. Nothing in this post about how to change the world. Oddly enough, I find those practical day to day activities that change the world in the women’s magazines that feminists tend to look down their noses at. For the record, I have a degree in women’s studies. One practical day to day step for feeling more confident? Helping others.

    4. Just wanted to add that Princess Leia withstood torture while Darth Vader tried to make her reveal the location of the rebel bases. Her ability to not break under pressure saved the entire rebellion and countless lives.

      So wasn’t it nice of her to hand out medals to the guys for their efforts?

    5. My favorite line in the first Star Wars was, to Han, “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you do what I say. And keep this walking carpet out of my way (about Chewy)!”

    6. Parker Brown-Nesbit says:

      I was 20 when “Star Wars” first came out & Leia has always been one of my favourite characters. She follows in the footsteps of Katherine Hepburn’s characters, who were never at a loss for words.

      A few years ago (when my now 10 year-old granddaughter was young) there was a marvelous T-Shirt which read “Self-rescuing Princess”. I thought of Leia (as opposed to all those *other* princesses, who needed a prince to rescue them)

      Lovely article!

    7. Holly L. McEntyre says:

      I can’t believe it! I grew up with Star Wars (I was 10 when it was released). I’ve been teaching Gender in Pop Culture for years. And I never “did the math” until seeing your article! And now we have a new feminist SW icon for a new generation. LOVE.

    8. Elene Gusch says:

      (It’s “canon” too.)
      All the way back in the ’70s we had at least a few great strong female characters like Leia, yet Joss Whedon still gets asked why he writes strong female characters! Glad Leia is still around.

      Back even earlier, when Whoopi Goldberg was a kid, she saw Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, and yelled, “Mama, there’s a black lady on TV, and she ain’t no maid!” It may have required imagining a distant future or a galaxy far, far away, but we did get those role models and they did stick with us as we grew up.

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