Kimberly Kerasali writes at The Mary Sue:
Perhaps the greatest failing of Star Wars is its treatment of Leia Organa (and, by extension, Carrie Fisher), despite how much we love her. Though a feminist icon and one of the great female characters of the saga and beyond, Leia was never given much focus or a defined character arc over the first three movies, and she still deserves better now, even though Carrie Fisher is gone.
Well sure she did. Princess Leia started out as spoiled royalty who went out on “diplomatic missions,” and ended up getting her hands dirty engaging in battle for the Rebellion on the front lines. She started in one place, and ended up in another. That’s a defined character arc.
A New Hope’s portrayal of Leia is still lauded as revolutionary, and I am inclined to agree. While she does kiss Luke twice and has sexual tension with Han, their relationships are mostly based on friendship, and her main goal is always the rebellion, with her being a representation of what Luke aspires to be: wise, courageous, clever, selfless, heroic, and a symbol of hope. Many Star Wars story leaders and fans also cite Leia as the whole reason the saga started, with her being the reason the plans/R2-D2 got to Luke and Obi-Wan. However, despite seeing her planet destroyed in front of her, no time whatsoever is spent on her emotional trauma, while she comforts Luke over Obi-Wan’s death and Han’s abandonment, instead.
She’s not that kind of person. She almost confides in Han on Endor, but ultimately tells Han that she can’t tell him what she was talking to Luke about, and just wants him to hold her. She doesn’t whine. She keeps it inside. She’s stoic.
Empire Strikes Back is arguably the best of the Trilogy when it comes to Leia’s treatment, though that isn’t saying much. This is the movie in which Leia has the closest thing to character growth, but even then, it’s mostly a “defrosting ice queen” arc, with hints of the typical romcom trope that growing to love a man is the most important thing in life. The Leia/Han romance is also peppered with predatory undertones, as outlined by Pop Culture Detective (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWoP8VpbpYI).
It’s a little deeper than that. She reveals the reason behind her reluctance to get involved with Han when she says to Han, “Then you’re as good as gone, aren’t you?” She doesn’t know if she can really trust him to stick around.
He made passes at her. That’s predatory now?
That brings us to the worst of the worst: Return of the Jedi. I could go on for a millennium about everything wrong with the gold bikini, from how it was used to silence both Carrie and Leia, to how it poisoned relations between Star Wars and its female fans for years to come by attempting to brand it a boys’ story.
You could, but you’d be incorrect. What feminists are apparently incapable of understanding, is that the gold bikini was a reflection of the gangster Jabba the Hutt who forced her to wear it when he held her in captivity. I’m not sure that the Jabba character would have been quite as ruthless if he had feminist sensibilities.
All three characters received a full arc over the course of the three films. I explained Leia above. Luke started out as a naive farm boy, transitioned into a hot headed impatient fighter, and ended as a wise Jedi. Han started out as a unreliable rogue, but after being frozen and rescued by his friends, volunteered to become General of the ground forces at the Battle of Endor as a changed man.
She should have been leading the charge to get Han back. She should have been the General in charge of the assault on the shield generator (there are implications in the new Canon that she was a ranking General at this point, but that’s not shown in the movie), and most importantly, she should have had some reaction to Darth Vader being her father, as she arguably has spent more time with him than Luke.
Well, no. She shouldn’t have been. Because the Original Trilogy was an ensemble piece, and didn’t focus on any one character. But for goodness sake, she strangled her captor with the very chains that he held her captive with while in the gold bikini that he forced her to wear. How much more feminist can you get than that?
Some would say that it was merely the next logical step in the character’s development, rather than anything as dramatic as “retroactive recognition.”
Now, we have the ongoing Sequel Trilogy. In The Force Awakens, we don’t get to see Leia being a General until the third act. Even then, a good portion of her character is still based around her relationships with men, whether it be a sister trying to bring her brother home, a wife trying to repair her relationship with her husband, or a mother trying to save her son. All worthy pursuits, but also somewhat unsatisfying from a feminist perspective, especially for someone who started out as independent as A New Hope Leia.
Are you arguing that Leia shouldn’t have any relationships with men, like Holdo?
1. A Leia anthology movie about her early days in the rebellion. Leia, Princess of Alderaan; Star Wars Rebels; Rogue One; and even the upcoming Han Solo movie have already laid the groundwork for this to work. This would be a difficult one, as it almost feels blasphemous to continue Leia’s story after Carrie’s death, since she and her character are in many ways a “Möbius striptease,” as she once said.
That’s actually not a bad idea, but it would be a mostly political movie, since Leia didn’t engage in battle until she fired that blaster on the Death Star. To depict her as battling before then, would undo the defined character arc that she had in the Original Trilogy.