This is my third post about the heroes of the Star Wars saga. For the previous posts, see “Luke Skywalker and Other Celibate Heroes” and “Han Solo and Other Toxically Masculine Sidekicks”.
Mild spoilers for the latest Star Wars movies.
In some ways, Leia is the least interesting of the three Star Wars leads. Certainly, she’s the one who undergoes the least character development. Over the course of the original trilogy, Luke gains wisdom and fighting skills, while Han becomes more caring and selfless. But, apart from falling in love, Leia is basically the same person at the end of Return of the Jedi that she is at the beginning of A New Hope. Still, there are reasons to admire Leia, both as a woman and, specifically, as a princess.
Princesses are, of course, very common in children’s movies, especially Disney films. Disney princesses are usually defined by their romantic arcs. Their physical beauty is their chief asset. Even if they do have other talents, these usually have little relevance to their stories. They are often victims who must wait passively to be rescued. And their happy ending is usually to marry a man.
Leia is not this kind of princess. She isn’t just beautiful; she’s also intelligent, assertive, and skilled in combat. Yes, Han and Luke rescue her in A New Hope, but she returns the favour in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. And, though she does fall in love, romantic union is not the primary goal of her story.
But it’s not just that Leia is badass. Action chicks are their own cliché, as common, these days, as damsels in distress. In a way, they’re a nice alternative to more traditional female characters, but they also reinforce patriarchal values that equate violence with strength. Being good at fighting is not, in itself, enough to make someone heroic.
No, what makes Leia admirable is the particular way she expresses her identity as a princess. Disney films might make you think that being a princess is mostly a matter of singing, dancing, playing with your friends, wearing pretty dresses, and, of course, marrying someone rich and handsome. This might be an appealing fantasy for children, but it won’t give them a very accurate idea of how to be an adult. Nor are any of these activities distinctively regal; they could be done by anyone with sufficient wealth and physical beauty.
Royalty isn’t primarily about wealth or beauty; it’s about leadership. Kings, queens, princes, and princesses are, at least traditionally, the ones who govern. Governing well requires understanding the needs of one’s people and putting those needs above everything else. In other words, being a princess involves a lot of responsibility.
Leia takes her responsibilities very seriously – in spite of two factors that complicate her “princess” identity. One is the fact that she’s adopted. Leia isn’t a princess by birth or blood but by upbringing. The other is that she loses her home planet early in the original trilogy. She continues to be called a “princess”, but for most of the series she’s not really the princess of anything.
Despite this, Leia always acts like a princess. Not in the sense that she expects people to serve her, but in the sense that she serves her people. Even after Alderaan’s destruction, she remains loyal to the wider Rebellion. She risks execution rather than betray the Rebel headquarters. She fights in the Battle of Endor. And, in the new movies, General Leia works to keep the Rebellion alive even while coping with personal tragedy.
For me, the best princesses – like the best heroes – are the ones who put the needs of others before their own. In The Hidden Fortress, Princess Yuki is outraged by the idea of someone else being executed in her place. Princess Nausicaä puts herself between her people and a herd of giant stampeding bugs. Moana insists she is not a princess, but she still exemplifies the best princess behaviour when she undertakes a dangerous mission to save her people from destruction.
I’m not saying that all of us need to live up to this standard. Not all of us can be princesses, after all. But if we’re going to continue making movies about princesses and holding them up as role-models, then at least we can make sure they’re positive role-models. And that means modelling not just beauty, victimhood, and heterosexuality, but courage, ethics, and altruism. Whatever her shortcomings, Leia has these qualities. And that makes her awesome.