Today is Star Wars day. You know, May fourth. As in, “May the fourth be with you.” Like, “May the force be with you.” You get it. Anyway, today I want to talk not only about Star Wars, but Princess Leia and her role as an empowered female character. Before I begin, I would like you all to read this hilarious article by Mallory Ortberg.
Funny, right? It should be. It’s a satire on the media’s portrayal of empowered female heroines. As Ortberg points out, there is a sex-unknown character who is a badass and is revealed to be a woman to the surprise of the audience. As per usual, she’s flawlessly beautiful, skilled in combat, or knows about cars, or is successful/ the boss at her job. The typical empowered female character embodies both traits that are masculine and feminine. I am not saying this is a bad thing. We all could use a balance of masculine and feminine traits; however, there is hyper-sexualization when it comes to the empowered female character as she cannot only be a lawyer, she must be sexy or, she cannot only be a firefighter, she must “clean-up” well. Long story short, read Ortberg’s article if you haven’t already because she touches on all the bases of your cliché empowered female character in about three paragraphs.
Can’t seem to think of any modern characters that fit this role? I can think of one. Scarlett Johansen’s character, Black Widow, in the Avengers series. She first appears in Iron Man as a well dressed redhead who is smart, obviously sexy (as Tony Stark points out, but let’s be real, it’s not Johansen’s fault that she’s beautiful), and is skilled in close-combat and martial arts. For a long time, this is all we get of Black Widow: a beautiful redhead with more masculine than feminine traits. As though being an empowered woman means you’ve learned to behave in ways men are more comfortable with (re: masculine) and look good while doing it. Later in the Avengers movies, we get some background to Black Widow as the series slowly tips the water glass into making her a fully-fleshed character.
But I wanted to talk about Princess Leia. Princess Leia. Not Princess-pretending-to-be-Prince Leia/Lance/Lars/ create-your-own-version-here or a mysterious hooded figure who has impeccable aim (unlike some white-armored soldiers I know. *cough* storm troopers *cough*) and “What?! You’re a girl?!” She’s an agent to the Rebel Alliance and a member of the Imperial Senate who was captured on enemy ship and was later saved by –and teamed up with– Luke, Chewy, and of course, Han Solo. Later in life, Princess Leia is general to the Resistance. She isn’t a character that denies or disowns any help –I’m sure we all know, “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi,” the message played by the cute, sometimes screaming, R2D2 droid– or picks a fight with men just to show how tough she really is (which has also been known to happen in media). She is a leader, which isn’t surprising as she was raised with the title Princess. She wasn’t treated “like a girl,” she was treated as a capable human being, more than willing to state her mind and stand for what it is she believes in. Because we are introduced to Princess Leia as female rather than someone who is revealed as female later or seen as a woman who shouldn’t be in leadership positions, we don’t look at Leia’s roles as masculine. There isn’t any distinction in the movies that masculinity means leadership and femininity does not, there are just leader-type characters, Jedis, Siths, and droids.
Now, there is the matter of that gold bikini of hers when she’s taken by Jabba the Hutt but that scene isn’t integral to Leia’s character. She doesn’t don a gold bikini of her own volition just to show Han how hot she is, this costume is what Jabba puts on his slaves as seen earlier in the movies. Now, if Leia wanted to put on a gold bikini, that’s all fine and dandy, but the way she looks shouldn’t propel her character forward or have a direct effect on her temperament. Leia is a feisty, knowledgable woman who is seen as such. She isn’t displayed to the audience as a sexy, look-at-her-body-and-she-kills-people kind of character. She has wants, dreads, desires, and fears. She is complex and dynamic and stubborn. She’s a leader. Like a princess ought to be. Like many women are, and portraying capable women as sex objects isn’t empowerment. It’s better-accepted objectification because at least this woman calls herself empowered. A woman can still be a stay-at-home mother and be desired and empowered, or a general and still be desired and empowered. With or without the “sex glasses”. Just like Leia.
In memory of Princess Leia- Carrie Fisher.
Thank you for reading,
*header image courtesy of Juneleeloo (instagram: @juneleeloo)
** unsure who created the quote and image, however, it’s not mine