Full disclosure: Princess Leia was my first idol growing up. Little kids always play make-believe, but while most of my friends wanted to play house or dress up in tiaras, I wanted to be the princess that was kicking ass all over the galaxy. Of course, at the time, I just thought Leia was super cool. I didn’t really understand why; I was maybe 6 at the time when I finally saw Star Wars, but I was instantly drawn to her from the first minute I saw her on the screen. Maybe it was because she had dark hair, like mine? Maybe because my father always called me "princess," and Leia was the only tangible example I saw of what that word meant? Maybe it was because she was the only girl, surrounded by testosterone, having to hold her own with the boys and I, being the only girl in my family, could identify with that?
As I got older, my admiration for the princess with an attitude never wavered. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a piece of me that doesn’t still relate to her in many of the ways I did back then. But as an adult, I’ve realized how much more powerful that character really is, not just for me, but for little girls everywhere. And now, even 38 years later, she’s still one of the greatest role models for women of all ages.
She shows that a woman can be a leader.
Leia was the original #GirlBoss long before being one became a trend. Unlike typical fairytale princesses in pretty gowns who got locked away in towers or under spells, Princess Leia was kicking ass and taking names, especially as the trilogy went on, and never apologizing for any of it. From the moment she’s captured by the Empire in A New Hope, Leia exudes strength and stands by her convictions. It’s one of the first times there’s been a woman in a leadership position in fiction who wasn’t reduced to the stereotype of being too emotional to effectively do her job.
The Princess took “lead by example” to a whole new level. She didn’t sit idly by waiting for anyone to do her bidding, but was always on the front lines, fighting right alongside her male counterparts. She is literally the only female in the first trilogy we see fighting. Considering the movie was made in 1977 and our own armed forces didn’t allow women on the front lines until 2013, it sends just as powerful a message now as it did then. It showed that a woman can fight, and just as well as any guy does.
She never needs saving.
Sure, Leia got captured in A New Hope and Jedi, but she was far from a damsel in distress either time. In fact, as soon as Luke shows up to rescue her in Episode IV, the first thing out of her mouth is “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” That one sassy line set the tone that this was one girl who didn’t need to be saved. And let's not forget that it was Leia's quick thinking that led our heroes into the garbage compactor as a means of escape when pinned down by heavy enemy fire.
Almost immediately, Leia proves that she can handle herself, and it’s a theme that continues to be reinforced throughout the original trilogy. Not only is she skilled with a blaster (seriously, she has some of the best aim in the movies), but she also flips the script and ends up rescuing her boyfriend instead of the other way around, going against the narrative so many little girls are subconsciously fed in their bedtime stories. We can probably count on one hand how often that’s happened in TV or movies since.
She's feminine and strong at the same time.
And then there’s the infamous slave outfit. Sure, it may serve as one of the most popular male fantasies ever, but it’s also a shining example that being sexy, feminine and strong are not mutually exclusive things. Leia may have been bound in chains and reduced to nothing more than a sex object by her captor, but in the end she singlehandedly killed him before helping Luke blow up his ship.
She shouldn't be our only hope.
So, why does any of this matter? It may be 2015, but there are still very few characters like Leia Organa today. It’s important for young girls growing up to see an alpha female character in pop culture, one that shatters the myth that woman cannot or should not be strong or dominant. These early icons leave a lasting impact, even if it’s mostly a subconscious one.
As more female heroines start to make their way to the big screen, Hollywood is still having issues with how they represent them. You needn't look any further than the recent Black Widow backlash. Not only has she been virtually nonexistent in the Avengers merchandising, but even Joss Whedon, historically known and praised for his strong female characters, gave her a bit of a raw deal in Age of Ultron. Her relationship with Banner seemed rushed and like an afterthought, which made the normally formidable femme fatale a shell of her former herself. Natasha spent too much time worrying about her schoolgirl crush instead of keeping her head in the game. There were clearly bigger issues at hand, no?
Leia is the type of heroine little girls deserve. She shows that a woman's identity is a sum of its parts, and those parts can be multiple things all at the same time. She's independent, loyal, trustworthy and compassionate. But most of all, Leia is capable, and it's a character trait that is rarely showcased often enough in fiction or elsewhere.
We need female characters that are strong with their words and their bodies. Women who own their sexuality, regardless of the circumstances around them. We need to see women who put their careers first, and if and when they fall in love, don’t lose themselves in that relationship. We need to see women characters who can be powerful leaders and equally powerful soldiers. And most of all we need female characters that never allow anyone to control their narrative, that continue to defy sexist and ignorant tropes. After all, these fictional characters that little girls look up to may one day shape the type of women they are determined to be.