Star Wars is such a genre-codifying franchise that sometimes it’s hard to remember that it had its own influences. In fact, Star Wars drew heavily from many sources. When compared with them, some of its most famous moments turn out to be directly copied from its predecessors. Conversely, elements we now take for granted turn out to be striking departures from formula that deconstruct the earlier works — none more so than Princess Leia.
Nowadays, while female characters in science fiction are still often princesses and damsels in distress, we take it for granted that they also fight, quip, and don’t take any crap from the male protagonists, as in this Rocket Raccoon page. Indeed, these traits are now so common that they have lost all progressive value (particularly as people rightfully point out that fighting and quipping are often a smokescreen for passive characters with little influence on the story). But it wasn’t always this way. Looking back at the works that preceded Star Wars, we see an entirely different gender dynamic — one that Princess Leia would blow into a million pieces.
Star Wars’ main influence was early 20th century pulp, franchises like Buck Rogers and John Carter. The interplanetary action-adventure of Star Wars is immediately recognizable in these earlier works, complete with spaceships, ray guns, and aliens. The iconic Star Wars title crawl is based on the nearly-identical title crawl from the Flash Gordon serial.
Pulp is loads of fun and well worth checking out now that large amounts of it have entered the public domain. But before Star Wars, this genre had largely been abandoned. Science fiction literature had moved away from pure escapism toward deeper ideas and harder science, and in film, it was the realm of the B movie. Star Wars brought soft sci-fi adventure roaring back into the mainstream. Delightfully, the snake would eat its own tail as old pulp franchises enjoyed a revival — this time emulating Star Wars.
But back to Leia. Even for its time, pulp was never what you’d call progressive. A typical pulp heroine, like John Carter’s Dejah Thoris pictured below, was beautiful, emotional, scantily clad, and prone to being kidnapped. Some were fighters, like Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers, but their fighting skills were rarely used and inevitably they, too, needed to be rescued. They rarely, if ever, had their own goals or motivations outside of their relationships with the heroes.
Leia’s introduction in A New Hope is typical. A princess has been captured and the heroes must rescue her. But the instant Luke meets her, the formula goes out the window. Instead of acting grateful and emotional, she greets Luke with a snarky one-liner. Quickly realizing that her new companions don’t have an escape plan, she immediately takes command of the group. This makes sense; she’s a princess and a diplomat, so in a group comprised of a farm boy, a smuggler, two droids, a Wookiee, and her, she’s the natural leader. Besides, she’s the one with the goal: Stealing the plans for the Death Star was her plan, and throughout the second act, Han’s and Luke’s goals are subordinate to hers, not vice versa.
Throughout the series, Leia proves herself to be smart, resourceful, a gifted leader, and a crack shot with a blaster. (When she shoots, she hits a higher percentage of the time than Luke or Han. Go ahead and count.) None of these traits are informed; we actively see all of them. Never shying away from danger, she plays an active role in various missions, even shrugging off a wound during the battle for Endor. She takes crap from no one and gets a large portion of the most memorable lines. In contrast to the fainting damsels of pulp, Leia is unflinching and defiant when she faces her enemies.
Leia’s adversarial relationship with Han is somewhat reminiscent of the relationships in pulp stories, whose lead pairs often did a lot of fighting and making up (a necessity for maintaining a relationship arc over the course of a long series). But in those stories, the woman was nearly always in the wrong, getting angry over the mildest of perceived slights and leaving the hero baffled. As often as not, she would storm off or make some other rash choice and end up captured, allowing the hero to get back in her good graces by rescuing her. In contrast, Han and Leia’s bickering is a natural result of their equally bullheaded personalities. Leia certainly never bursts into tears or gets in trouble as a result.
But let’s address what you’re all thinking about: The slave Leia outfit. This is another direct homage to pulp, where such outfits were common, such as the one below from Flash Gordon. (In fairness to pulp, sexualized outfits were not universal; Wilma Deering, as a soldier, wore a sensible uniform similar to those worn by the male characters. In fact, Wilma probably deserves more credit than I’ve given her. But I digress.) The image of a half-naked female character chained at the feet (or tail) of a villain would be right at home in a pulp movie.
But the context differs. How did Leia get there? She wasn’t kidnapped so a male character could rescue her. Quite the opposite: She was captured while attempting to rescue a male character. And who saves her? She saves herself! Not only does she kill Jabba the Hutt unarmed and unaided, she does it with her own chain, turning the tool of her oppression into the tool of her victory.
To be clear, none of this means that Star Wars is a feminist or exceptionally progressive franchise, because it really, really isn’t. But Leia is a progressive character who consistently takes the patriarchal tropes of her origins and turns them on their heads. Her presence in such an important work set the standard that sci-fi heroines would be tough and capable, not flighty and helpless. For forty years now she has been inspiring girls, and I hope she continues to do so.