Princess Leia, portrayed by the iconic Carrie Fisher, subverted the archetypal image of women characters that were floating in mainstream cinema in the 1970s. Leia exuded an aura of self-assurance, self-governance and a sense of stability. Very rarely did she exhibit her vulnerable, feminine side. Leia’s fierce determination to ‘lead’ (a traditionally male characteristic) the Rebellion and destroy the Evil Empire was groundbreaking in the history of how women characters were portrayed before Star Wars. Princess Leia was a badass rebel.
As a child, I was brought up on a diet of certain fairy tales: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, for instance, where the eponymous characters were always shown to be dependent on men. By way of circumstances, these women characters would invariably find themselves entangled in grave situations, and it was always the sword-wielding, charismatic, Prince Charming who’d come to their rescue. Prince Charming was the quintessential “hero” — not Snow White, not Cinderella, not Sleeping Beauty. The fairy tales were instrumental in sending out the overarching message of patriarchy: that women were meant to be beautiful, coy and patient (to be rescued, you see). When I watched Star Wars for the first time, Princess Leia stood as a jarring contrast to that message. She challenged, and eventually altered, what I was conditioned to believe.
My perception of how women should behave in society changed when in Episode IV – A New Hope, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker sneaked into The Death Star to rescue Princess Leia. While the two men were engaged in a serious battle with the Stormtroopers, the Princess refused to sit back demurely, waiting for the men to finish them off. In fact, Leia was quick to pick up the gun (again, a weapon that is traditionally used by men) and fire back. She even openly mocked Han when he accidentally blocked their only route of escape. “This is some rescue!” Leia told him before shooting open an escape passage. “Somebody has to save our skin,” she continued, implying that she was the one who finally would. Right then, Leia’s character introduced a paradigm shift: in conventional terms, she was being “rescued”, but the film dramatically steered off conventionality when the Princess decided to take matters in her own hands. Here, it was she who was the hero.
Leia spoke her mind and told the men around her to zip it when they were trying to wield their male entitlement to command women. For instance, Leia tells off Han in Episode IV – A New Hope, “I don’t know who you are or where you’ve come from, but from now on you’ll do as I say, okay?” She was practical, goal-oriented and smart.
While Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia was sculpting a new sense of confidence in women, the 19-year-old Fisher at that time was as self-conscious as any adolescent girl would be. Unfortunately, Fisher was also self-deprecating. In her recent interview with NPR‘s Terry Gross, Fisher confessed that while many teenage boys saw her as a sex symbol, she saw herself as a “giant fat face, like a sand dab, with features…and the horrible hair…and to put more hair on either side [hair buns] on a round face was going to make it look even wider.” What this anecdote revealed was that Fisher was an ordinary girl who was conscious of her physical appearance – something that society continues to successfully ingrain in our minds.
Princess Leia’s propensity to become a sex symbol was evident. It led George Lucas to dress Fisher in a quasi-metal bikini – an outfit that went on to achieve cult status. Bikinis were a characteristic trope in sci-fi/fantasy productions. Whether it was Jane Fonda wearing the ‘spacekini’ in Barbarella (1968) or Raquel Welch in the fur bikini in One Million Years (1966), the bikini pandered to the ultimate male fantasy. So, in Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia’s character was unclothed. And she had to look sexually appealing, flawless. The director therefore, was extremely careful of Fisher’s appearance. In the scene with Jabba the Hutt, Fisher was dictated to sit erect. “I couldn’t have lines on my sides, like little creases,” Fisher informed Gross. “No creases were allowed, so I had to sit very, very rigid straight.”
However, while Princess Leia’s outfit (interestingly bridled by chains) conformed to the overarching desires of the male fantasy, her character refused to conform to the role of playing the ‘damsel-in-distress’, or to the idea that only the men kill the bad guys. In the scene, it’s not Han Solo nor Luke Skywalker who chokes Jabba to death with the chain, but Leia herself. In that moment, Princess Leia overturned the image of a woman who is a slave, to that of a fearless warrior. She rejected the idea of pandering to male desires by killing its representation – i.e. Jabba, the slug who forced her to wear the bikini in the first place.
While on-screen Fisher embodied the feminine identity which was revolutionary and rebellious, off-screen she continued to instill hope and confidence in young women. Suffering from a mental illness which couldn’t be tamed by alcohol, Fisher unflinchingly spoke about her bipolar disorder. Every now and then she doled out inspirational nuggets to women. “Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident”, she had said once, which motivated women to plunge into action. But it was her crackling wit, deep-seated in feminism that conquered the hearts of many.
Carrie Fisher and the character of Princess Leia, who Fisher confessed eventually melded into her, encapsulated the ideology of a modern woman who could think for herself and not bow to patriarchal agendas or stereotypes. The two broke the mold of feminine expectations, where Fisher, a strong champion of feminism taught young women that nothing should stop them from being themselves. Princess Leia delivered immortality to Carrie Fisher. Her passing is a monumental loss not only to cinema, but to generations of women who were taught the importance of carving their own identities, distinct from men. And that’s one lesson I’ve etched in my mind, indelibly.