Why stories are important
What do we mean when we say a character has ‘agency’? We want to know if a character’s internal decisions move the plot or if the characters are passive with the plot being something that happens to them.
Consider Leia. In A New Hope, she grabs the blaster and directs the team’s escape into the trash compactor. She firmly tells Han she’s now in charge and she clearly knows her way around a briefing room.
But does she have agency?
In that first movie, she is reaching out for help, listing her father’s connection as the reason General Kenobi should listen to her plea.
Later, after she’s tortured and her world is destroyed, her grief is brushed aside in order for her to comfort Luke who has lost his home, but who seems to be mostly grieving for Ben – a mentor he’s had for the past couple of days.
In the second movie, she becomes the point of a possible love triangle between Han and Luke – the two main male characters the audience is meant to identify with. To add fuel to that “she must belong to someone” streak, Empire Stikes Back also gives us some flirty banter with Lando. It’s never clear to me if Lando flirted with her because he flirts with everyone or if he saw her with Han and wanted to take something from him like Han took Lando’s ship – I imagine it was a bit of both and either way reduces Leia to an object rather than a person. She’s a known leader of the actual rebellion and yet Vader doesn’t even bother with her – other than using her as bait. While she is granted a scene in which she’s once again brandishing a blaster, her role in this film is clearly that of the love interest.
Throughout the first two films, while she’s clearly positioned as a prop for the main protagonists, the objectification of her character isn’t too overt. There’s the story Carrie Fisher told of how George Lucas didn’t think women in space would wear bras, but that topic aside, she’s often dressed rather demurely. So demurely, in fact, that she is dressed all in white more than once (sans bra, we assume). In Empire Strikes Back she’s dressed in similar gear as other soldiers on Hoth, or in flowing robes when she’s on Bespin.
It isn’t until the third movie that her character becomes highly sexualized. The objectification is rather blatant with the slave outfit. This isn’t a costume she chooses to wear to go undercover – that choice was very different (see Boushh, a bounty hunter). The skimpy slave outfit includes an actual chain. Yes, she uses that chain to kill Jabba and goes on to participate in the guerilla attack on Endor, but do either of those threads show her having agency? Her actions are determined by the plot, her actions are not driving the plot. Participating in the attack on Endor was something that was happening and the plot wanted her there.
Outside the movies, the Star Wars Universe is full of other storytelling. Books, comics, video games, animations, shows, additional movies, etc. But in the first set of stories, in the first trilogy, I contend that Leia wasn’t afforded the same characterization and focus as Luke or even Han. She was a supporting character that strengthened both their stories.
This isn’t a complaint, per se. Nor is it a new analysis – this is not something too many would bother arguing about. The Original Trilogy was about Luke, he was the hero of that story. And on that point, I find them enduring and endearing – I have a great love for Star Wars and his ‘hero journey’ makes for a satisfying tale.
Leia was considered one of the strongest female characters in media and pop culture for years. This is the role model we had as young girls. A character I am fond of and still admire – flaws in the narrative and all.
She was smart. She was beautiful. She was capable. She was brave. And she was still not important enough to become the hero of her own story.