Princess Leia May Be Tough, but She Wasn’t Always the Feminist She Is Today

How did ‘Star Wars’ damsel in distress, Princess Leia, become today’s celebrated self-rescuing princess?

Today the character of Princess Leia is celebrated as a feminist icon. But the initial reviews of the first Star Wars film in 1977 make clear that Leia wasn’t always a feminist. When not characterized as a traditional damsel in distress, reviewers and fans alike drew attention to her “masculinity”. In the context of the Vietnam War, masculinity was suspect, linked with dangerous and militaristic violence. Second-wave feminism embraced the antimilitarism of the war protest movement. As such, to the feminists of the ’70s, the masculinity of the character of Princess Leia was problematic. It smacked of militarism, foreclosing the possibility of second-wave feminists embracing Leia as one of their own.

On 21 January of this year at the Women’s March held in Washington, D.C., and worldwide, one noticeable feature was the prominent signs that featured Princess Leia. Their appearance was hardly surprising. Carrie Fisher had passed away only a few weeks earlier, prompting recognition of Leia’s feminist legacy. Moreover, the creators of two of the most popular signs depicting the character distributed their designs for free via the Internet before the march.

The idea of Leia as a feminist role model is generally accepted these days, but the initial reviews of Star Wars show that this was not always the case. When the character of Princess Leia first appeared on the screen in 1977’s A New Hope (at the time simply referred to as Star Wars), many reviewers described Leia as the traditional archetype of the damsel in distress. Yet Leia is now celebrated as the self-rescuing princess, a strong female character capable of saving the skins of herself and her male companions. Why was this not the case in 1977?

The reviews of the film frequently described the character of Leia in traditional terms. The Los Angeles Times labeled her the “captive and endangered princess” (22 May 1977); the reviewer in the Denver Post wrote, “Carrie Fisher… is here [portrayed] as the wholesome, courageous planet princess in distress” (26 May 1977). The New York Times review emphasized that the character was out of step with the image of modern women, noting “Princess Leia Organa [is] a pretty round-faced young woman of old-fashioned pluck” (26 May 1977).

This emphasis on Leia’s traditionalism was not confined to movie reviews. It can also be found in Alderaan, the first fanzine (or zine) dedicated to Star Wars. Distributed via mail or at sites where geeks gathered, zines like Alderaan allowed fans to keep track of developments in their favorite pop culture universes. In the days before the Internet, they also provided a venue for fans to share their opinions on the franchise through letters of comments (LOCs). Think of them as a discussion board, only much less immediate. An initial letter published in the zine opened up a topic for conversation, which would then be continued in letters printed in subsequent issues.

The first LOC about Leia in Alderaan expressed disappointment at the character. “And don’t anyone bring up the fact that Princess Leia fought along with the boy and men—she still occupies the old-time place for women in 30’s sf—as a prize for the hero, after he has all the adventures and returns home. Lucas more than gave this away on the ABC program when he said they didn’t know yet who they were going to award her to, in SW 2, the callow youth or the adventurer Han” (September 1977). In subsequent LOCs several fans took issue with this characterization of Leia. Nonetheless, it’s surprising that even in the fan community, the initial response to the character was not to praise her as a new style of heroine, but rather to condemn her as the played-out stereotype of the woman as a reward for the conquering male hero.

Despite the development in its earliest days of a fan base among adults—like the readers of Alderaan—it’s worth remembering that critics and viewers alike generally thought of Star Wars as a kids’ flick. This perception of the film helps explain the initial rejection of Leia as a feminist role model. It was the girls, not the women, in the audience who first saw the potential of Leia. Carrie Fisher perhaps best understood the influence of her character on this younger generation. Rian Johnson, the director of the upcoming film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, revealed in a recent interview for Yahoo Movies that Fisher was adamant that the portrayal of her character be respectful to a generation of fans who admired Leia as a strong female (10 October 2017).

This explanation of the less than favorable reception of Leia by critics and adult fans is not sufficient, however. The first reviews of the film point to another contributing factor. When not portraying Leia as the damsel in distress, critics frequently brought attention to her “masculinity”. The Toronto Star called Leia “a no-nonsense royal tomboy” (11 June 1977). Even the damsel in distress characterization was not completely free of the tendency toward the masculization of Leia. The reviewer in New York magazine opted to describe Leia as “a princely maiden in distress”, rather than a more gender-neutral “royal maiden in distress” (20 June 1977).

The fan community took issue with Leia’s so-called lack of femininity. In the second issue of Alderaan, one fan wrote, “Leia will probably be better remembered for her feistiness than for her ultra-femininity” (June 1978). This idea emerged again in the fifth issue, with one fan hoping that “in the sequel they can make her a strong character, but sufficiently feminine, too. I ask for someone to tone down her sharp edges and give her a streak of softness, gentleness.” This same letter writer also brought attention to Leia’s “masculinity”. The author recounted a supposed conversation between two male fans after seeing the film: “‘Who did you like, Han or Luke?’ ‘I’ll take the Princess; she’s got more balls than either one of them'” (July 1979).

This masculization of Leia offers a significant key to understanding the initial rejection of the character as a feminist role model. The Vietnam War created a crisis of masculinity in the minds of many. The horrors of the war, conveyed nightly on television screens, prompted those at home to suspect that that the war was unleashing a hidden brutality in the souls of young men, transforming them into agents of unimaginable atrocities. An article that appeared in Time in 1985 reflected on the war’s erosion of the ideal of the knightly soldier. “When the knights somehow seem monstrous, killers risen out of a black id, perpetrators of My Lai, then the entire chivalric logic collapses, and masculinity itself becomes a horror—all rage and aggression and reptilian brain.”

In other words, the Vietnam War was believed to have revealed the dangerous side of masculinity, and female antiwar protesters in particular took it upon themselves to condemn such masculinity. As one Vietnam veteran explained in the Time article, “I went over there thinking I was doing something right and came back a bum… I came back decked with medals on my uniform, and I got spit on by a hippie girl” (15 April 1985).

That hippie girl likely became a feminist. Second wave feminism overlapped with and drew inspiration from the antiwar movement of the ’60s and ’70s. One of the many social movements of this tumultuous period, second wave feminists promoted legislation that would extend women’s equality, including the failed attempt in the United States to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. It also produced women’s liberation. Remembered as bra burners (a regrettably persistent popular myth), “Women’s Libbers” wanted to bring attention to the daily oppressions that all women experienced as a result of the social expectations placed on them as women.

Born in the context of the anti-war protest movement, second wave feminism embraced anti-militarism as well. Take for example the debate over women’s place within the military. This issue heated up significantly during the push for the Equal Rights Amendment. Opponents of the amendment tried to scare women into rejecting the proposition by arguing that constitutional equality would open the door to drafting women into the military. This would be, the conservatives argued, an affront to womanhood itself.

On this one point, as it turned out, the feminists agreed. During the second wave, feminists found the idea of women taking a more active role in the military dubious and even antithetical to the movement. In an article entitled “Women and the Military: A No-win Proposition”m which was published in the feminist journal Off Our Backs, author Janis Kelly argued that “feminism is directly opposed to militarism… Feminism is fundamentally nonviolent, except in matters of immediate self-defense. Rejection of violence as a tool for forcing agreement is so basic that it is rarely even discussed. For two feminists of even widely different perspectives to resort to physical violence against each other is unimaginable” (30 April 1980).

This hardwiring of antimilitarism into second wave feminism helps explain the poor reception of the character of Leia. Leia’s apparent masculinity was suspect in 1977 because of its strong association with militarism.

In a review of 1977’s Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope published in the Daily Telegraph, Adrian Berry brought together both threads of the initial responses to Leia. He wrote, “With the help of a handsome young farmer (Mark Hamill) and an ageing warrior with awesome telepathic powers (Sir Alec Guinness), she [Leia] starts a resistance against the evil junta which leads to explosions, murders, ferocious space battles and her own imprisonment in durance vile” (16 December 1977). On the one hand, as prisoner of the evil empire, Leia is nothing more than the traditional damsel in distress. On the other hand, as leader of the rebellion, she is the instigator of violence. In the feminist environment of the ’70s, neither Leia held much appeal.

Of course, time eventually transformed Leia into the feminist hero she is today. The girls in the movie theaters of 1977—who saw Leia as a role model from the first moment she appeared on screen—grew up. Many of them likely were drawn to third-wave feminism. The third wave, which began in the mid-’80s, divorced feminism from its antimilitarism roots. It embraced the idea that there should be no limits placed on women’s ambitions and that each woman should feel free to be whatever kind of woman she wants to be. She can choose to be a mom, a beauty queen, a CEO – and even a general.