In the introduction to Misfit Sisters: Screen Horror as Female Rites of Passage, Sue Short makes the incisive statement about contemporary media that “while the male journey from adolescence to adulthood is relatively commonplace, the female passage towards maturity has been virtually ignored” (4). As an example, Short cites George Lucas’ Star Wars saga, pointing out that while Luke Skywalker grows from “simple farmhand…to a man equipped…to battle the forces of evil and earn his places as a true hero”, his twin sister Princess Leia “has no equivalent claim to Luke’s destiny” despite their shared parentage (4-5). As Short notes, Leia “shows no propensity towards using the Force and even seems to diminish in her assertiveness as the trilogy develops” (5).
Lucas has stated in interviews that Leia was intended to be a different sort of fairy tale princess, not simply a damsel in distress, yet aside from being a crack shot with both blaster and her tongue, Leia is continually relegated to the role of damsel in distress. There is a reversal of this when she attempts to rescue Han, but the success of the rescue is ultimately in Luke’s capable fully trained Jedi hands. Leia goes from successfully infiltrating Jabba’s palace to metal bikini clad slave girl before her twin brother shows up to rescue her. And while she is given equal opportunity during the battle for Endor, one wonders how the final chapter of the Star Wars saga might have been different if Leia had been given the same tie to the Force earlier on in the series, rather than simply stating that she always felt it was there?
What if, during the opening moments of Empire Strikes Back (rather than at the end), Leia senses Luke’s call from the frozen wastes of Hoth, and begins to wonder at how she could have such a link? Her sudden awareness of Luke’s location on the outside of Cloud City would be a further clue to her Force sensitivity; then, at the beginning of Return of the Jedi, we could thrill to Leia’s Force abilities in tandem with Luke’s, her teacher while they scoured the galaxy in search of Han. Imagine the speeder bike scene if both Leia and Luke had been wielding lightsabers against the Imperial troops. Imagine the final moments between Vader and Luke completed with Leia there; otherwise, there’s really no narrative point to their being twins in the films (the books carry this legacy on, but these books are largely apocryphal for marginal fans of the series). Return of the Jedi could have carried more weight in its title alone if Leia was Jedi as well; the damsel in distress completely inverted when she successfully rescues Han in the opening moments, and Luke at a crucial point in his struggle with Vader, reversing the roles these two heroes played to her heroine in
Lucas had the opportunity to redeem himself in the prequel trilogy with the next damsel in distress, Amidala/Padme, and in Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones it seemed that Leia’s mother would indeed be given the opportunity to be a stronger female figure than her daughter. She is instrumental in the rescue of her planet; in the thick of battle, not merely watching an electronic read out while Annakin flies into the Trade Federation’s Droid Control Ship and wins the battle with a perfectly aimed photo torpedo. Yet by the third film, she is a pregnant mother, mainly existing as fifth business while ostensibly she is the twisted motivator for Annakin’s final step to the Dark Side of the Force. And what is arguably one of the most powerful feminine moments her character is granted, her birthing of the twins, becomes a moment, not of self-sacrifice, but of a sort of passive suicide (one wonders how Leia had any memory of this woman at all).
I know that the die-hard fans will argue it’s George’s movie, not mine. I would argue however, that as a modern fairy tale, Star Wars exists not only in the original literary visual performance by Lucas and crew as bardic communal, but also as an oral tradition in the imaginations of many children who played with the action figures, the video games, and imagined themselves on Hoth when at recess on grade school playgrounds in the dead of winter. The books and graphic novels extended the universe, but have not had the right to play with the original text, as though the six films are somehow scripture. Perhaps Lucas, in the spirit of play would consider allowing some of the best writers and filmmakers genre fictions to reinvent his trilogy in various mediums. Who wouldn’t want to see what Peter Jackson or Guillermo Del Toro would do with the visual landscape of that galaxy far, far, away? I can imagine that Joss Whedon might give Leia a little more room to kick ass with a lightsaber.