Like little girls everywhere, I learned from the princesses in fairy tales. Girlhood seemed to consist largely of being rather than doing. Princesses were beautiful. They wore pretty clothes. They hung around in castles and waited for princes to come rescue them. Then Star Wars hit the theaters in 1977.
Princess Leia was another kind of princess altogether: tough, capable, and resourceful. Instead of waiting in a castle somewhere doing needlepoint, she spied for the Rebel Alliance. She might have been beautiful, with a flowing gown and pretty hair, but those things didn’t define who she was. Her toughness did. She was my first feminist role model.
Caught by the evil Empire, she resisted torture and interrogation. Faced with the annihilation of her own planet, she gave the Empire false information. The motley team who came to her rescue managed to board the ship where she was being held and release her from her cell, but their plan went south pretty quickly after that. Pinned down in a hallway under heavy fire, Princess Leia took matters into her own hands, grabbing a gun a blasting a hole through the wall. At the age of four, I didn’t remember the consequences of her plan. All I remembered a woman all in white, hair immaculate, gun blazing.
At preschool I learned first-hand how to be that kind of princess. I preferred playing with the boys. Their games were more fun. We played Star Wars and of course I was Princess Leia. Darth Vader locked me in the tricycle shed and Luke Skywalker came to fight him. Luke won, I suppose, but I’ll never know for sure because he forgot to rescue me from the tricycle shed. I had to let myself out.
Since the 1970s, the trope of the Strong Female Character has become a standard in Western media. But more often than not she is the sole woman in a crowd of men. And because there is only one of her, she becomes subject to a level of scrutiny almost no character can pass. Black Widow’s portrayal in the latest Avengers film created just such a firestorm among the fans. But as NPR blogger Linda Holmes points out, the real problem was one of scarcity. How can one female character possibly enact all the story lines that feminist fans would like to see?
Female directors and producers in Hollywood are still such a rarity that earlier this year the ACLU called on officials to investigate the industry’s hiring practices. So perhaps it’s not surprising that so few big budget blockbuster films pass the Bechdel Test. Feminist fans have begun to demand more though, and Hollywood has begun to deliver.
Mad Max: Fury Road had such a strong feminist message (and a plethora of female characters) that antifeminist Men’s Rights Activists nearly had a collective aneurysm. Melissa McCarthy’s Spy features not one but five female characters, each with her own strengths and flaws. On the small screen, Agent Carter and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD show that the Marvel universe is capable of portraying nuanced female characters relating to one another as well as to their male counterparts.
40 years ago, none of these advances seemed possible. But Princess Leia was a harbinger of things to come.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of articles where contributors discuss their early feminist role models or figures who influenced their early feminism.