Today I watched Star Wars episodes IV and V, not for the first time of course – I was ‘educated’ from a young age! But this was the first time in a while that I’ve seen them side by side in the one day and this time I was struck by the difference in the character of Leia in the two films. What interested me was the change in Leia from independent woman to helpless damsel in need of protection.
When Luke first sees Leia, it appears that she is in some kind of trouble and asking for help. Indeed, she is in peril, but her concern is not for herself but for the Rebellion and the stolen plans. She is even fearless enough to insult Governor Tarkin with a combination of sweetness and acidity, composure and confidence. But just in case the sight of her sleeping when Luke arrives to rescue her lures us into the assumption that she is somehow passive, that’s quickly overturned as she takes charge of the rescue mission, criticising Han’s approach and providing an alternate escape route. She asserts her authority undeniably: “I don’t know who you are or where you’ve come from but from now on, you’ll do as I tell you, OK?” Even though Lucas keeps her from some of the more major fight scenes, most notably those where the battle occurs in space, she’s located during those on the bridge or at the strategy table. She may be small but she’s fearless, independent and smart. It’s Leia who confers honors on Han and Luke at the end of the film, and she stands on a higher step than them.
In contrast, the character development of Leia in The Empire Strikes Back is almost entirely centred around her romance with Han Solo. The only scene we have of Leia forcefully expressing her opinion to Han is when they’re still on Hoth – prior to the blooming of their romance. Thereafter, she tells Han she doesn’t trust Lando, but does nothing to challenge his handling of the situation. Unlike the Leia of A New Hope, she goes along with Han’s plan. Coupled with this submissiveness is a new vulnerability in Leia. She shrinks back from Vader and looks dolefully at Chewie when Han commends her to his care, shrinking into his fur as if to derive some comfort from hiding in it.
If you’re hopeful that Return of the Jedi will redeem her with her attempted rescue of Han Solo, think again. After all, she fails and ends up barely clothed and chained to a monster! And, while she strangles Jabba, it hardly feels like a win for powerful femininity as the camera captures her exposed thigh as she swings across the deck with Luke. As the movie progresses, she’s not even included in strategy discussions – it’s a suprise to her that Han is leading the assault team! Indeed, she’s further marginalised until by the end of the film, she is almost entirely defined by her relationships with men. While the trilogy saw her start out as a regal political figure and feisty leader, by the end, she is simply Han’s lover and Luke’s sister.
Perhaps this is a maturing of Leia’s character. She’s bloomed from the girl clamouring for her way to being a team player. She’s learnt that her fire can also serve tender purposes. Or has she been subdued? Was she just too much to handle?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.