Princess Leia: My First Feminist Role Model

by | August 10, 2015
filed under Feminism, My Reality, Pop Culture

leia2In the 1970s, women were holding consciousness-raising groups in living rooms and throwing away their bras, but I was just learning how to be a girl.

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.

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  • dougsbeard

    my only problem with princess leia being a role model is that her actions rarely support this.

    1) yes, she is leading the rebellion. she is in charge. her homeworld is destroyed and yet she charges on. completely admirable. however when the boyfriend she makes along the way is adequately punished for his actions she puts the rebellion on hold to rescue him. did han deserve to be frozen in carbonite? yes, he was a smuggler who didnt honor his contracts and kept on the run because thats what he was good at. was he crucial to the success of Return of the Jedi? no, not at all. he didnt pilot the ship that destroyed the death star. it wasnt his actions alone that destroyed the base on endor. the rebellion couldve won the fight without him as they all worked together. rescuing han was a convoluted storyline that didnt have to exist. leia could have continued with leading the rebellion and rescued han AFTER they were successful.

    2) during her escape from jabbas slave ship she helped in the destruction of jabba and rescuing her friends. only problem is…over 50% of the females ever shown in the movies were on-board this ship as slaves. jabba was dead, luke was fighting and winning. she didnt have to aim the gun at the ships deck and destroy the ship killing countless innocent slaves (most of them apparently women). leia proved herself to be great with a blaster in the first movie, hitting more targets than anyone else in the movie, she was fearless when she invaded jabbas palace in disguise, shes resourceful for locating the technical readout of the death star. she couldve picked up a blaster and helped luke, saving the slaves on-board before heading back to the rebellion. instead…she saved herself and killed everyone else.

    this is how i have always seen leia. shes tough, shes resourceful, but in her own actions she appears to be “nothing without her boyfriend so lets kill the other women since theyre just slaves.”