Mother of the Rebellion
Where’s our Leia Organa origin story?
In the lead up to J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the director came under fire for describing Star Wars as “…always a boy thing and a movie that dads take their sons to.” Abrams, of course, said this in the context of talking about how he hoped that the new movie would be more inclusive, going on to say that, “I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and seeing themselves in it.” And though the Star Wars saga (and Hollywood as a whole, despite blockbusters like Black Panther, Wonder Woman, and Get Out) still has a problem with representation—as Donald Glover’s SNL skit, “Lando’s Summit,” points out—Abrams’ striving towards inclusivity and representation gave us wonderful new heroes in Rey and Finn, while also driving home what Star Wars fans always knew about Leia Organa: That she is and has been (since about a quarter of the way through A New Hope), the mother of the rebellion.
Typing “Star Wars” and “feminism” into your friendly local search engine comes up with an “interesting” (let’s call it) mix of results. In other words, if you don’t feel like getting fired up by reading the diatribes of Internet trolls, don’t bother. But amongst the hysteria, two articles caught my eye, both published in the months surrounding the release of The Force Awakens. The first is from The Atlantic, which argues that in Rey, Star Wars has found its first feminist hero. And the second is from The Week, which basically argues that Leia has always been that feminist hero. And though both were written irrespective of each other, it’s interesting to read these two articles, which both bring good evidence to their thesis’s, as a point/counterpoint to the argument around feminism and representation in Star Wars.
Is it a matter of splitting hairs to argue the feminism of Rey or Leia? Or is it, in the arena of pop culture at least, an important aspect of these movies to consider? Not to pose myself easy questions only to answer them, but I’d say, yes, the debate is important, and yes, there is a big difference. And that difference is the span of thirty-eight years between A New Hope and The Force Awakens, because over that nearly four-decade-long stretch, two whole generations of people were inspired by the heroism of Leia. To call her anything but a feminist icon is to give her short shrift.
Princess Leia's iconic look was inspired by real-life Mexican Revolutionaries pic.twitter.com/hJFhQgm60K— NowThis (@nowthisnews) December 29, 2016
What’s so compelling about the article from The Week is its perspective on the problematic “slave” Leia scenes from Return of the Jedi. The article points out that when the average person conjures an image of Leia, two things come to mind: Leia in a white robe, with her rebel hairdo, and Leia in the gold bikini. As writer Emily L. Hauser writes:
“This despite the fact that she's in that bikini for less than three of the 399 minutes that make up the original Star Wars trilogy (yes, I did the math); despite the fact that it was forced on her as humiliation and punishment after being caught infiltrating Jabba the Hutt's lair disguised as a bounty hunter and carrying a thermo-detonator (aka: space grenade) in order to rescue Han Solo (again, might I add — to rescue Han Solo again); and despite the fact that as her final act in Jabba's clutches, she kills the universe's greatest crime lord with the very chain he used to bind her.”
What Leia really suffers from in the original series is screen time, or lack thereof. Leia is given roughly thirteen minutes of screen time in A New Hope. Think about that when compared to Rey’s forty-three minutes in The Force Awakens, which is by far the most of any character. There are a couple ways to interpret that: The glass-half-full way would be that the immortal Carrie Fisher managed to bring something special to the role in a limited amount of screen time, something that has stuck with fans for decades. But the other way is to think of it as an act of relegation. While not strictly true, the amount of time a character occupies on screen is often a sign of how much the filmmakers value their importance, and Leia’s screen time in the first movie is about four and a half minutes less than R2-D2 (who, don’t get me wrong, is great, but, really?). By contrast, Rey’s forty-three minutes signal that she is absolutely the most important character in The Force Awakens. It also says something that as the original trilogy progressed, so did Leia’s screen time, so that by The Return of the Jedi, it was second only to Luke’s.
Speaking of screen time, considering that Leia appears in the gold bikini for so little of the Star Wars franchise, not only is it ridiculous, but it could also be considered revisionist, to think of her in solely those terms. After all, she spent most of her time leading the Rebel Alliance, rescuing Han Solo, and blasting storm troopers. And it’s this point that The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi hammer home: That while Luke Skywalker ran away to Ach-To and Han Solo regressed back to his criminal ways in the face of emotional upheaval, Leia did not have the luxury (or privilege) to run away—and you get the feeling that even if she had, she wouldn’t have taken advantage of it.
Without Leia, there is no rebellion. Without her heroism and steadfastness, Poe would most likely still be pod racing (which, okay, is still awesome). Finn would be crying himself to sleep at night, horrified that he’s still a storm trooper. Han would die a pointless death in a smuggling scheme gone wrong, and Rey and Luke would grow old on their respective desert planets. The point is, there are no heroes without Leia. While, for better or worse, the Star Wars story has never been her story (how long do we have to wait for a Leia origin movie?) she is the hero of that story.Both Rey and Leia are the heroes we need, right now and forever. It’s on their shoulders that the fate of the galaxy rests. In other words: The future of that galaxy far, far away is female.