Thursday, January 17, 2013

Apologies to Princess Leia

A commenter or two has pointed out I was too hard on Princess Leia in my talk. I dismissed her as someone who "sits around for the whole movie so she can give the hero a wink and a medal for saving the universe." While it's true that the Star Wars galaxy of the original films is Tolkien-like in its gender ratios, I was wrong to throw the leader of the Alliance under the galactic bus. 

Strictly speaking, she only sits around for the third act of Star Wars. 

For the first two acts, she is by far the bravest, toughest and most decisive character in the film--probably in any Star Wars film. 

This piece by Emily Asher-Perrin from last summer alerted me to what might be the culprit in my underestimating Ms. Organa: the title of "princess":
Leia doesn’t introduce herself to Darth Vader as a Princess of Alderaan when they first meet on the Rebel Blockade Runner; she identifies as “a member of the Imperial Senate.” She’s a politician, and an important one at that...Leia is also one of the key members of the Rebel Alliance, a leading voice at the core of the insurrection...Leia’s life has been anything but balls and servants and tiara-wearing. She was raised in a household of politicians who were working to overthrow an imposed dictatorship. I doubt she had classes in curtsying, but she definitely had to be taught how to hold up under interrogation, conduct her affairs in secret, and keep her cover stories in check.
But Luke knows none of this. In his eyes, she's a princess. A helpless hologram, a damsel in distress, crying for aid from a man who used to work for her dad. When he learns she's trapped in the Imperial dungeon, chivalry floods his veins. (Crowding out the midichlorians, presumably.) You can practically hear the hope in his cracking voice that she'll be so grateful for the rescue that she'll, you know, kiss him on the cheek.

As an adolescent boy, I was with Luke. She gives him that peck as the trumpet fanfare escorts them across the chasm, and she looks all pretty rousing all the soldiers to applaud him...Nice that the Death Star blew up and all, but I was pretty sure that wasn't the trench he was looking for. (Sorry.)

But before the third act softening, Leia is nobody's object. Having talked back to two big-shot bad guys and survived a floating bowling ball with a syringe, Leia is probably sitting in her cell plotting her own escape when Luke and his friends blow open her cell door.

The dialogue (credited to Lucas, but I suspect punched up by his friends Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck) gets suddenly excellent, with Leia insulting the amateurism and machismo of our protagonists and taking over the decision-making.

"This is some rescue," she says. "You came in here, but you didn't have a plan for getting out?" And then, when they're nonplussed, she grabs a blaster and grumbles, "Somebody has to save our skins." Han, a chauvinist, is appalled.

How did I miss this? Leia is BADASS.

The Star Wars movies would have been so much better if this character had been maintained throughout the trilogy, even while her emotional connections with Han and Luke developed. She does sit back and watch the rest of Star Wars once the military solution is called for--maybe because her home planet is pacifist?

In the lazy Return of the Jedi, somebody calling herself Leia not only gets idiotically captured again, but lounges around complacently in a bikini, and then later lets down her hair and becomes Friend to the Bears while the whole rebellion continues without her.

But the original Leia remains a clear rebuke to the idea that princesses are submissive. For more evidence, see Tangled and Brave.