Science fiction has always been a male-dominated genre, but that hasn't stopped a few notable women from taking the lead on several occasions. We've seen this more recently with characters like Ryan Stone in Gravity. Ellen Ripley of the Alien films has become something of a role model for strong female characters, and with good reason; being one of the greatest examples of a strong female lead one can get. Yet Ripley was not alone in her influence. It is true that Ellen Ripley was a strong character. She was intelligent, resourceful, and knew how to handle her emotions in the face of danger.
Yet only three years before the introduction of Ripley, another woman made a huge impact. In 1977, George Lucas released Star Wars (later re-titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), which introduced another icon of the science fiction genre: Princess Leia Organa. Leia was a huge deal in her time, and to an extent still today. Across the original films made by George Lucas, Leia was the lone female lead in a cast otherwise made up almost entirely of white men (and one black man who appeared very late into The Empire Strikes Back). But it is true that some aspects of her character have not aged well.
Let's face it: when she first appears in A New Hope, Leia's primary role is that of a damsel. It is also obvious that George Lucas originally conceived of her as a love interest for Luke (even if he later changed his mind and decided they were twins, resulting in lots of jokes about incest). The very first scene of the movie has her overpowered and captured by Stormtroopers. She then spends most of the film as a prisoner until she is finally rescued by a party consisting of three white men and a walking carpet. She then becomes a fairly passive character, observing from behind while Luke gets to blow up the death star.
Leia was slightly more active in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but even this was limited. In the former, Leia spends the first act on Hoth by herself mostly comforting Luke. We do get to see her taking part in organizing the evacuation, but she still mainly serves to provide instructions while it is men who do the actual fighting. She then spends much of the movie being dragged alongside Han Solo in a broken Millennium Falcon before reluctantly following him to cloud city. There she mostly ends up being pressed into watching Han get frozen.
In Return of the Jedi, Leia takes part in Han's rescue but also (notoriously) gets captured by Jabba the Hutt resulting in her infamous bikini. This iconic moment has been interpreted many different ways. On the one hand, the fact that it is the lone female character who gets forced into this situation could be taken to have some negative connotations, as it could be seen as unnecessary sexualization. On the other, the film doesn't exactly glamorize her outfit. The bikini is treated as humiliating and also functions as a symbol of Leia's imprisonment (note that this is literally the only time in any of the films she wears such an outfit, and that in every subsequent scene she wears less revealing clothes).
Another important detail to note is that while Leia gets captured, she does is not dependent on the men to save her. During the battle which climaxes Return of the Jedi's first act, most of the fighting is done by men. That is with one major exception. While Han, Luke, Lando, and Chewie spend most of the battle outside moving between skiffs and taking out thugs, Jabba himself is saved for Leia. She is the one who takes the initiative and opportunity to kill him, and does so with extreme prejudice. It is Leia who frees herself. Of the two male characters who play into her escape, one of them (R2-D2) functions as a tool (cutting her restraints) while the other (Luke) only provides her with an exit strategy after Leia's already released herself.
In Return of the Jedi, Leia kills Jabba, but only after being captured and forced to wear a bikini.Return of the Jedi also tries to show Leia taking a more obvious leadership role in the battle of Endor, but she does spend much of the early stages of the battle hanging out with the Ewoks while everyone else is in the thick of the action. The film also alludes to Leia being force-sensitive, but refrains from having it occur through anything more than observation. One could counter these arguments by noting that both developments end up saving her (male) partners. Her force-sensitivity, while not given much focus, becomes important when it allows her rescue Luke under Cloud City. Later on, Leia's friendship with the Ewoks is what eventually allows them to be recruited as allies during the final battle.
Leia's roles across the original three films is obviously complicated, and there are a variety of different positions one can take. From a modern perspective, the damsel aspects of Leia's character have not aged well, as has her role being largely overshadowed by male protagonists. One could also note that this is true of George Lucas's prequel films as well, in which the primary focus is once again on relationships between men. Although we see several female Jedi among the extras, the ones who are actually given a role in the story are all men.
This could easily be seen as a shortcoming on the part of Lucas himself. After all, the entire prequel trilogy was made with huge casts and yet across three films there is a grand total of one female character who even gets so much as an identity that appears in the films themselves (nearly every other female character who appeared only got named by reference material and the expanded universe; basically material not written by George Lucas). Even though George Lucas could have taken the opportunity to give us an awesome female Jedi or at least work to diversify the main cast, the only woman who actually plays a notable role in the films is Padme Amidala.
In the prequels, Padme, played by Natalie Portman, is supposed to be Leia's mother; and she could have been a great character. There does seem to be an effort to make her a strong figure but Lucas has an unfortunate tendency to be extremely inconsistent and skew his priorities. In The Phantom Menace, Padme is established to be the elected Queen of Naboo (don't ask, I don't get it either) and ends up taking charge when her efforts to get support from the Republic are unsuccessful. Yet instead of actually taking the time to play up Padme's strengths, George Lucas instead opts to make her the subject of the viewer's gaze by repeatedly placing her into passive situations and overly convoluted costumes.
Padme gets a few moments of her own, but across the trilogy these are greatly overshadowed by men. The Phantom Menace arguably comes closest to making her a strong character. Starting with Attack of the Clones, Padme gets pushed to the side and instead is used as a motivation for the (male) protagonists who often go on adventures while leaving her behind. One of the very first developments is an attempted assassination that leads Obi-Wan and Anakin on a big chase through Coruscant while Padme remains in her apartment.
Later on, while Obi-Wan is uncovering a conspiracy Padme is running around in fields with Anakin with only the occasional political remarks occasionally shoved into love scenes in a desperate attempt to make her seem intelligent. The only strengths she gets to display as a character are near the end, when she takes part in the Battle of Geonosis, but even this is limited. She is the only one of the protagonists to get injured, and eventually gets knocked out of a republic gunship, a move which keeps her from playing any role in the film's climax.
Revenge of the Sith takes Padme to a new low. She doesn't even get the one or two action scenes she did in the previous films. Instead, she is cast entirely as a motivation for Anakin. The entire narrative is driven by his fear of losing her. Nearly all of Padme's scenes relate to her relationship and secret marriage with Anakin, with almost nothing to follow her political career. This also leads to the infamous resolution of her story. Because Leia mentioned in Return of the Jedi that her mother was dead, George Lucas contrived the whole situation that she "loses the will to live?"
Really? That's the best explanation you could come up with? First off, this doesn't even line up with Leia's statement because the latter claims to remember her mother, and her description sounds more like Padme died when she was a child, old enough to have vague memories; not remembering the five seconds she glimpsed her mother as a baby. Second, losing the will to live seems a tad extreme for the situation. It is true that she was just betrayed and nearly killed by her secret husband, and in that regard she would have every right to be upset, even traumatised by the experience. But even if a person could die just by losing the will to live, it seems extreme.
Personally, if I were writing this, I think I'd take a different approach. Instead of contriving a silly death scene, I think the logical thing to do would be to have her death occur between Episodes III and IV. While she would easily be emotionally affected by Anakin's betrayal and could experience psychological trauma (especially after nearly being strangled by him), I would think she would still be concerned about her children and protecting her values. Instead of having her die there, what would probably make more sense is to have Padme, alongside Bail Organa and Mon Mothma, go on to set the groundwork for the Rebel Alliance. This would also have the effect of making Leia's "princess" title even more meaningful. Additionally, I would want to imagine Padme's death as something heroic, perhaps dying to protect the alliance.
Part of Leia's reputation could be linked to revisions that have come from other appearances elsewhere in Star Wars lore. The original expanded universe timeline had Leia going on to become both a significant figure of the New Republic and a Jedi Knight. In the new timeline, Leia has also been an important figure. She made a guest appearance on Rebels (set before A New Hope) where she used her position as a major political figure to discreetly provide the alliance with ships. The same episode also went into her psychology (she delivers a speech about how she often wonders if it is worth fighting but manages to keep going anyway) When Carrie Fisher returned to the role in The Force Awakens, Leia had become the most prominent leader of the resistance with the new title of "general" (though one could argue that this position is technically a downgrade from princess).
Leia's guest appearance in Rebels
Even so, the fact remains that Leia was a hit as early as 1977's Star Wars. So what was it that made her so popular a character. One could argue that Ripley was a much stronger character and she only came out three years later. Lucas's films are riddled with problems of gender representation that have, thankfully, been addressed with more recent entries to the franchise. One can easily notice, for example, Lucas's aversion to depicting female soldiers in the rebellion (going as far as to re-dub an actress with a man's voice for the climax of Return of the Jedi) or female Imperial officers. In the prequels most of the female characters amount to background roles, and even The Clone Wars tends to favor showing the adventures of male Jedi when there are plenty of female characters who could be used.
Yet Leia still made an impact, which leaves an interesting question open: what exactly was it that made her so popular? Why is she still not just one of the most iconic sci-fi heroines, but female characters in general? It can't be only because of how other people have treated the character. There is something less obvious going on here. Leia has become one of the most iconic female characters ever. Even her double-bunned hairstyle has become instantly recognizable. That alone is odd seeing as Leia appears in five of the eight movies (six if you count her as a baby in Revenge of the Sith) and only displays her buns in two: A New Hope and her cameo in Rogue One (which leads directly into A New Hope). A lot of the improvements that affected Leia have been in more recent installments, many of which came after George Lucas stopped working directly on Star Wars. In order to understand why Lucas treated her the way he did, it may be useful to understand his thought processes.
While it was a huge hit, Star Wars wasn't exactly original when it came out. Lucas borrowed from a wide variety of different sources in order to bring his vision to life. To list them all would be futile, but there are a few big names. Star Wars was heavily inspired by 1930's serial films, especially science fiction adventures like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. There was also a lot of influence from Star Trek (making the imagined rivalry between fans of the two extremely ironic).
Lucas also borrowed a lot from World War II propaganda films, especially those dealing with the air force, most notably in his depiction of space combat. The various battles depicted across the saga often tend to play out more like World War II aerial dogfights or naval warfare than actual space combat. This was another detail that was changed in The Clone Wars, with The Force Awakens placing the action on a planet with an atmosphere to more realistically allow conventional dogfights.
It's also no secret that the Empire was inspired by Nazi Germany. Palpatine's rise to power in the prequel trilogy was intentionally made to parallel that of Adolf Hitler. Even the word "Stormtrooper" is not Lucas's own. When used today, it is often associated with the white-armored henchmen who frequently tried to thwart our heroes. In fact, its use goes back as early as World War I. But more famously, the name was used in a particular branch of the Nazi military. Specifically, "storm troopers" were soldiers serving in a kind of Nazi Secret Service known as Sturmabteilung ("Storm Division" in English). It is no accident that George Lucas adopted this name for the soldiers representing his fictional dictatorship.
So where am I going with all this? Well, it is very likely that a lot of the gender-based issues are connected to the material which inspired George Lucas. This is likely one of the main reasons he only shows groups of men taking part in the dogfights- the same was true for the World War II air force films he was drawing on. Luke Skywalker was borrowing a lot from the (usually male) heroes of sci-fi serials from the 30's like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Lucas was borrowing heavily from these old films which likely shaped how he made a lot of his story, including Leia's characterization.
On the surface, Leia as she appears in A New Hope seems very much a classic archetype: the princess who needs to be rescued and eventually falls in love with the male protagonist. She is the Maid Marian to Luke's Robin Hood. Comparing Star Wars to the various stories of Robin Hood is nothing new. It is also not unreasonable to assume that Lucas got ideas from the various films Hollywood has made about the classic hero. In particular, George Lucas probably borrowed a lot from 1937's The Adventures of Robin Hood, which has arguably become the most iconic treatment of Robin Hood.
Comparisons to Robin Hood are nothing new, but Leia's role in A New Hope does bear some resemblance to Lady Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood. In the 1937 film, Marian serves mainly as Errol Flynn's love interest. Most of her character is based around her love for Robin, and she generally takes on a fairly passive role which includes getting captured in the film's climax while it is the men who take part in the main action. She also ends up getting captured by the bad guys and has to be saved by Robin Hood. But she does get a few small moments, which include providing information to the Merry Men and organizing a plan to save Robin Hood from execution (though it is actually carried out by men).
These are small but notable traces of Marian's character in The Adventures of Robin Hood. Some of this passes on to Leia. Unlike Marian, Leia spends most of the film getting captured, but the moments she does get are more prominent than those used by Marian. It is established early on that she is an important figure of authority in the Rebel Alliance, even if these aspects of her character didn't get much focus prior to The Force Awakens. She is also not totally defenseless. She does get captured at the start of A New Hope but only after fighting a group of stormtroopers.
She also manages to perform one important act prior to being taken: getting the Death Star plans off the Tantive IV. It was already a hopeless situation. We already saw that the Rebel soldiers who had so far tried to hold the ship had been largely wiped out. Leia was probably going to be found regardless of what happened, but the one thing she does manage to do ends up being crucial. That is to leave the Death Star plans with R2-D2. It is this one action that allows the plans to end up reaching Ben Kenobi and ultimately the Rebel Alliance.
Interestingly, one perspective that could be taken comes when considering the sequence of events that come from Leia's brief interaction with R2. It is entrusting him with the plans that results in them ending up on Tatooine and (accidentally) in the possession of her brother. This in turn results in Luke bringing the message to Ben Kenobi and joining him on a mission to Alderaan. This same expedition results in Luke, Han, and Ben being brought aboard the Death Star, allowing them to rescue Leia. In short, Leia could be seen as rescuing herself, if unknowingly and in an extremely roundabout way, as her one act of entrusting the Death Star plans indirectly results in her escape later on in the film.
There is still the matter of Leia being trapped on the Death Star for the majority of A New Hope. Yet here Leia seems to be more complex than a typical damsel in distress. During her scenes, she is repeatedly seen as a valuable source of information by the (all-male) Imperial forces. Grand Moff Tarkin goes to great lengths to get her to reveal the location of the Rebel Base. Leia is also the only known person aboard the Tantive IV alive (we do see some rebels being captured, but what happened to them is never stated), and Vader seemed to consider it important for Leia to be taken alive. These facts to work to create the impression that she is a high-value target.
More important is the various tactics Tarkin attempts to use against Leia prove unsuccessful. It is suggested that Leia is tortured and resists. Tarkin later attempts to blackmail her, threatening to use Alderaan as a test for the Death Star's weapons if Leia fails to give him the information he wants. This is perhaps the biggest psychological test Leia faces in A New Hope, where she is forced to make a difficult choice with no obvious right answer. She is also the only major character to face such a situation. Although there are high stakes involved, most of the men seem to have an obvious moral choice for dealing with every problem. We never see Luke or Han being faced with a difficult or morally ambiguous choice.
Now it is true that on a narrative level this infamous scene functions to reinforce the audience's disliking towards the Empire, which is especially evident with its resolution: the realization that Tarkin was going to destroy Alderaan regardless of Leia's response (as if his earlier speech about maintaining power through bully tactics wasn't enough). What does stand out is Leia's reaction to this incident. It is obvious that Tarkin is able to strike her on a psychological level, and this is the closest he comes to persuading her (though the emotional ramifications of her home planet's destruction are not explored beyond this one scene, likely another oversight on the part of George Lucas).
Leia is genuinely torn and faced with a difficult moral decision. This is the only instance in the entire original trilogy of a situation where there is no clear moral answer. Leia's two options, at least as far as she is aware are to either give up the rebel base, saving her homeworld but turning on everything she believes in; or withholding the information, protecting the alliance and her values but losing her home and presumably her family in the process. There is no solution that would prevent Tarkin from firing the laser at something. The most optimistic outcome Leia can find is to minimize casualties by trying to get Tarkin to fire at a more remote world, a move that would likely still get people killed.
Tarkin refuses to keep his promises, and infamously destroys Alderaan anyway. But Leia's reaction is an interesting one for her position. She still takes a huge risk by trying to provide false information (as we later learn, she only gave them the location of an abandoned base, not the one currently being used). This alone is a daring move, and a huge gamble. Tarking is momentarily convinced, but there was no guarantee that it would work. But he also blows up Alderaan anyway. Although Leia is clearly upset, she does display the interesting strength that even the destruction of her home planet fails to break her. By the time the information she gave turns out to be incorrect, she has proved so resistant that the Empire basically gives up even trying to extract information from her.
Leia's role as a sci-fi heroine is one of several in a transition, and a huge deal for 1977. In order to better contextualize Leia's significance, it would make sense to make reference to another science fiction film from the same year by a close friend of Lucas': Steven Spielberg. The same year Star Wars was released, Spielberg made his own science fiction adventure: Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg's film was very different, attempting to depict the changes faced by an everyman protagonist as the result of an extraordinary experience. More specifically, Spielberg focused less on action and instead opted to focus on the enigmatic nature of an alien visitor.
The important detail to note is Spielberg's women. There are two major female characters: Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon) and Veronica "Ronnie" Neary (Terri Garr). But the story is first and foremost about Roy (Richard Dreyfus). Of the two women, Jillian is the more prominent figure. Ronnie spends much of the film trying to run a dysfunctional family, and eventually leaves the narrative entirely when she abandons Roy. It's true that her maternal instincts could be seen as a strength, and she is arguably performing a smart move by leaving her seemingly abusive husband; but these aspects of her character are given little focus or depth.
At the very end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg finally allows the aliens to make an appearance, but he makes one notable choice in writing the script: only allowing one of his protagonists to meet them up close. Roy is brought to the center of the action, being able to witness the aliens up close and eventually being taken with them on some interstellar adventure. And while this is going on, where is Jillian? Watching from a distance on a cliff. Although she has worked hard to get to this moment, Spielberg still denies her what he is offering to Roy. Instead, Jillian's entire motive is based on maternal instincts. She loses her femininity by losing her son and regains it upon his return, remaining in a domestic role while the man gets a more interesting experience.
Jillian is placed in an extremely passive role for Close Encounters, one where she is able to observe but never to act, and her story revolves exclusively around Roy. Meanwhile, in Star Wars, Princess Leia is entitled to her own plotline. Although she is greatly overshadowed by the male protagonists, the film does allow the viewer to get to know Leia as a character. In fact, it is not until towards the end of the film that she and Luke directly interact. The small amount of screentime she gets does manage to show her taking some initiative: smuggling the Death Star plans off the Tantive IV, buying the droids time to escape, resisting interrogation, and aiding Han and Luke's escape. Even if these are not perfect by modern standards, they may seem a step up when compared to Spielberg.
Now it is also true that Leia will seem like a weaker character when compared to a later role. Only three years after Leia, we got Ellen Ripley who could easily be argued to be a much stronger character. Ripley is a tough and independent woman who manages to prove herself a very capable survivor. She very famously outlasts every male character with her resourcefulness and intelligence, but it's also worth noting that in the film's earlier stages no emphasis is placed on her gender. Ripley is just one of many different people on the ship, and only comes to stand out because she is the last one standing at the film's conclusion.
But if we are going to go into a history of science fiction heroines, it's a complex situation and one that has evolved significantly over the years. A likely precursor to Leia, and one easily could have influenced Spielberg and Lucas is the infamous sexploitation film Barbarella. This bizarre 1968 adventure was produced largely by men for male audiences, and its attempts at sexual appeal are barely subtle (this film literally has an orgasm death machine). On the other hand, if one is willing to look past the various sexual themes and Jane Fonda's minimal outfits, there are some interesting things to note about the character herself.
As blatantly sexualized as she is, Barbarella is established almost immediately to be an independent woman, and the film rejects the inclusion of a specific love interest in favor of allowing the character to explore her sexuality with different people. One thing to note is that after the opening sequence of Barbarella removing her spacesuit in microgravity, the first thing that happens is she is given an important mission. More specifically, she is given a task to, without any backup, find and apprehend Dr. Durand Durand on a high-risk mission and even gets entrusted with a variety of weapons. Though a lot of these go unused, this opening would seemingly suggest that the character is strong enough that she can be trusted on such a dangerous mission by herself. She does frequently take initiative as well, although her action scenes are minimal.
This likely wasn't intentional, but Barbarella was about as strong a sci-fi heroine as one could expect from 1968. Nine years later, Leia developed a few major upgrades. First, she lost the revealing outfits (not to mention being forced to wear a bikini is treated as a negative development). The few action sequences she does get are also more than can be said for Barbarella. Sexuality and relationships are also moved to the background of her storyline. Although she is obviously intended to be Luke's love interest in A New Hope, their romance is only alluded to and never given much focus.
This also would have been happening only a few years after the original Star Trek. Unlike George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry made a much clearer effort at diversity but there was also only so far he could go. In the 1960's the idea of a future without discrimination by race and gender was a radical concept (ironically, it was heavily influenced by the very conservative film Forbidden Planet). There were vast censorship networks that made his vision very had to put onto television. Yet the fact that he was able to do as much as he did ended up being crucial to social progress.
The character of Uhura was a background telephone operator but became an icon for Civil Rights just for being a black woman working as something other than a maid. The vast television censorship made it very difficult for Roddenberry to introduce racial and gender diversity, and there are plenty of stories about the difficulties he and the cast faced to make this vision happen. Roddenberry tried to have a strong female lead in the original pilot only to have everyone crack down on her. There was also the iconic moment when William Shatner and Nichelle Nichols took a huge risk in performing the first interracial kiss on American television.
If Barbarella is to be seen on the foundation for strong sci-fi heroines and Ripley is to be seen as the end result, than Leia is the framework that brings them together.It is Leia who laid the groundwork for women like Ripley to step into the forefront, and she herself was already building on what had been set up by Barbarella. Today, Leia's role in the original films may not seem to have aged well. She certainly may not seem like a strong character in A New Hope compared to her appearance in Rebels or The Force Awakens, yet it was this role that proved so crucial to shaping the sci-fi genre.