Tink: “Mommy, am I old enough to see Star Wars?”
That’s all it took to set off a weekend Star Wars movie marathon in our house.
I was a bit younger than Tink is now when the first Star Wars movie came out in theaters in 1977. I loved it – like everyone else. And like a million other girls, I was captivated by the blaster firing, smart talking, rebel leading Princess Leia. I had never seen a princess like her.
She was the first princess I had ever seen who could kick-ass and take names, instead of sitting around waiting for the guys to come rescue her. I wanted to be just like her, and I was thrilled to finally introduce my own daughter to Leia.
Leia is a fantastic feminist hero for girls. She is far more than just a princess. While it seems at first that her character might be the typical fairy tale damsel in distress whose only function in the story is to look pretty, be rescued and get kissed by the hero, Leia quickly reveals herself to be much more active and powerful than those other princesses. She’s no Sleeping Beauty.
Leia is also a far better hero than the giant breasted, stiletto boot wearing, puffy lipped sex objects running around a lot of science fiction/super hero/action movies today, who derive their power from how well they can fight in a metal bra and 6 inch heels, while simultaneously making men drool.
Leia is not powerless, passive, nor in distress. Leia is a character with real access to power within her world and not the false power of sexuality either.
Leia is a politician and a rebel leader. She is a diplomat who steals secret plans, foils the plots of the more powerful Empire, and leads the rebellion. While she is captured by Darth Vader, we see her treated no differently than a male prisoner. She is imprisoned and tortured. Although she is physically small, she does not back down when faced with her enemies. She never cries. Yes, she does get rescued by Luke and Han . . . at first. While they may get her out of her cell, she’s the one who takes over and gets them out of the cell block.
“Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy.”
She does not defer to the men. In fact, it’s just the opposite. She voices her opinions, often and loudly. She expects to be in charge.
“I don’t know who you are or where you came from, but from now on you’ll do as I tell you, okay.”
She fires blasters. She works on the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive. She commands the Rebel forces . She’s the only one who realizes Vader is tracking them when they leave the Death Star. She is a fully participating member of the team, and there is nothing passive about her.
Her power is not based on her sexuality either. I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to see a female hero fully clothed. I think I’ve become so accustomed to the super tight, gravity defying leather unitards, corsets, and armor of distraction that pass for clothing on most female action/super/sci-fi heroes these days, that I’d forgotten you don’t actually need to wear a thong to be a hero.
While we have made progress since Star Wars came out in that more female heroes exist, these heroes exist largely in a hyper-sexualized form where much if not all of their power is derived from their ability to hold and manipulate the male gaze.
This sexualized power is a false power because it only works as long as men are looking. It involves trying to take power from another group and hold it based on one thing only – sex. That’s not empowering. That’s the same trick that’s been used to hold women back for centuries. Access to power because of your vagina is no different than no access to power because of your vagina. It’s still all about your vagina and it reduces you to nothing more than that.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a lot more than a vagina. I have one, but it’s hardly the locus of all my hopes, dreams and abilities. It sure as hell doesn’t hold some kind of key to equality.
Leia never trades on her sexuality to further her agenda. She doesn’t try to flirt her way out of danger, or play the sex card to convince the men around her to do what she wants. She affects the world around her through her own actions and her own genuine power and intelligence.
Leia’s clothes are actually functional. She doesn’t have heaving cleavage or a g-string for pants. She is modestly dressed, sensibly shod and completely kick-ass. The only time in the entire triology that she’s wearing a ridiculous sci-fi bikini is when Jabba, a bad guy, makes her fashion choices. As soon as she finishes throttling Jabba to death with a chain, she ditches the boy toy clothes immediately.
And while she is a love interest, she is a reluctant one, and her contributions as a rebel leader, a politician, and a crafty fighter far outweigh her role as the hot girl that the guys fight over.
In a time of hyper-sexualized female heroes, it was so refreshing to see Leia with her white gown and her cinnamon bun hair kick ass by wielding power that didn’t come from her gender.
Tink watched Leia and saw the same thing I did more than 30 years ago. An imaginary world where women have real equality and access to real power that is not based on their sexuality. When I first met Leia back in 1977, everyone thought it was only a matter of time before this wouldn’t be an imaginary world, but the actual one.
But I watched Princess Leia with my daughter this weekend in 2012 and I still sighed and thought, “Someday,” just as my mother probably did more than thirty years ago.
We’ve made progress, yes, but not enough. Princess Leia says, “It’s not over” as the Millennium Falcon raced away from the Death Star, and she’s right. It wasn’t over for her, and it’s not over for us. Things aren’t equal yet. Equal pay, equal rights, equal access to power. Equal choice to not be defined by your gender.
We’re not there yet, and I’m afraid we still have a long way to go, but Princess Leia?
She gives me some hope.