It is hard not to think of the late, great Carrie Fisher without thinking of her most iconic role, Princess Leia Organa. Upon her first appearance in 1977, it is strange to think that this young woman with a pastry-inspired hairstyle would become a key player in one of cinema’s most famous franchises, but her creation led to something else.
40 years on, Leia has set herself as a template for female action stars in both film and television, paving the way for fellow franchise characters Padmé Amidala and Rey. It’s impossible to say for certain how much of Fisher’s performance were channelled in the creation of the major female characters that followed in Star Wars: A New Hope‘s wake, such as Ellen Ripley, Buffy Summers and Sarah Connor, but Princess Leia marked the start of a change in how women appeared on-screen.
Amid the array of classic animated fairytales (produced mostly by Disney, ironically) where princesses are remembered as the ‘damsel in distress’, so they didn’t represent a realistic, strong role model for female viewers. These princesses, admittedly, weren’t written to be realistic or strong, but to be rescued by a dashing prince to live happily ever after. This is where Princess Leia shoots her way in.
If one takes away the TIE-fighters, X-Wings, and lightsabres, then George Lucas’ epic is a well-executed fairytale set among the stars, with all the tropes one would expect to find, except for Leia. She is rescued by Luke and Han, for sure, but she doesn’t waste any time mocking her knight in shining armour; she shoots back and throws herself down a garbage chute to escape. Rather than cower and run away from a fight, she stays to the end. Luke might have ultimately defeated the Emperor but one can’t help but feel that’s because Leia just hadn’t gotten around to it herself.
The Star Wars films has always been about two warring factions – the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire – with characters belonging to one or another. Throughout the saga, Leia is a pillar of the Rebellion, maintaining a position of authority. From her first appearance in A New Hope, Leia holds a formal rank within the Alliance but doesn’t exploit it for personal gain, nor use it to pull rank. Instead, she exudes a confidence that is neither arrogant or high-handed, which allows her to present herself as a leader, showcasing traits that only grow as the war grinds on.
As the only noteworthy female character in the original trilogy, Leia’s pop culture longevity stems from her intelligence and bravery. Even though she is quickly captured by the Empire in A New Hope, she doesn’t cower in the face of Darth Vader or Grand Moff Tarkin (even when her home world Alderaan is threatened). In Return of the Jedi, she takes her vengeance on Jabba the Hutt with the chains used to enforce her servitude – with the Hutt literally choking on the symbolism.
In a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone, Fisher agreed that her character in Return of the Jedi was ‘more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate’ but this doesn’t cut her popularity as a heroine. Instead, the discovery of her and Luke’s true lineage gave both direct links to the franchise’s enduring religious order, the Jedi, although this narrative thread has been utilised more with her son.
In the original trilogy, Leia was the most rational protagonist, and her straightforward demeanour and gutsy attitude meant that she was neither a supporting character or a forgettable love interest, but a woman that is ready to fight. While her role in the most recent story arc will undoubtedly be curtailed, Leia is still an intrinsic part of the saga. The Force Awakens moves her to the background, allowing the focus to remain on Finn and Rey, as well as providing space for both to grow into the new heroes the galaxy needs. But, for Rey at the very least, it’s Princess Leia who forged a path among the stars.