What the heck happened to Leia in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’?
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has opened to rousing cheers from fans old and new and even more rousing profits — more than $1 billion worldwide so far, breaking box office records. J.J. Abrams’ crowd-pleasing relaunch of the franchise gets a great many things right: likeable leads, our fav veteran stars, touching human stories, snappy humor, stirring music and magnetic female moxie in the form of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the new Inheritor of the Force.
Too bad Abrams doesn’t know what to do with Leia Organa. Despite having an actress as intelligent and game as Carrie Fisher on board the starship, the iconic, ground-breaking model for adventure heroines is a snooze in the season’s blockbuster.
It’s not that Abrams isn’t compelled by strong, boundary-pushing female characters. When we first see Rey shimmying up the side of a junk pile scavenging for parts, we might assume we are watching a small, nimble man. When she removes the rags covering her face, we know that we are in the presence of a scrappy, lively young woman who can do pretty much anything the boys can do — probably better.
She’s a perfect match for Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who swashbuckles into the film as Rey’s mentor and co-adventurer. Solo, ever the lovable rogue, settles into easy rapport with the young heroine-in-training, tossing off wry quips and advice on piloting and mechanics that Rey ablely returns. Rey is far more mature and formidable than Finn, her greenhorn of a love interest, played by John Boyega.
So far, so good. While Rey and Solo are establishing their bond, we hear that Princess Leia Organa is now General Organa, leader of the Resistance, so we have a chance to imagine just what kind of butt-kicking military leader this feminist icon of the 1980s turned out to be.
Alas, not a very exciting one. The general emerges from her spacecraft looking grave and almost beatific as she bestows a plaintive look upon Solo, once her partner in planet-melting sexual chemistry. Leia is far less impassioned about seeing the great love of her life after a long estrangement than about the loss of their son Ben to the Dark Side.
“Some things never change,” says Solo, pressing the diminutive general to his breast. Unfortunately, they do.
Especially when men can’t see mature women as anything but mommies and rescuers. The tension between the two fizzles as Leia melts into a swoon of motherly concern.
This is not the Leia of the first three Star Wars movies. In the 1977 Star Wars (later retitled, Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope), the princess, though taken captive by Darth Vader, quickly establishes her redoubtable presence. Fixing the leader of the Dark Side with an imperious stare, she talks down to the galaxy’s most heinous villain with how-dare-you indignation even as he towers gigantically above her.
In 2014, Fisher confessed that when she first read the original Star Wars script, she yearned to be Solo. “I thought that’s the part to be,” she said, “always wry and sardonic. He’s always that. I feel like a lot of the time Leia’s either worried or pissed or, thank God, sort of snarky.”
True, Leia spends a lot of time being gruff. But Fisher brought an edginess to the character that is something more than just toughness or, some might say, bitchiness.
There’s deep intelligence lurking in Leia’s dark eyes, and Fisher was able to give her an uncanny gravitas even as a teenager (Fisher was 19 when she first played the role). Cunning diplomat, fearless warrior and undercover agent, Leia is so badass that she doesn’t even need blasters to prove her power — though she’s plenty handy with them. She can wield it with a glance, whether withering or empathetic or commanding. In whatever mood, Leia is a force to be reckoned with. A welcome departure from space bimbos shaking their assets through the cosmos, she was both dignified and noble, while exuding a sensuality that went far beyond her physical form.
This is the Leia who foils the plans of the evil Darth Vader and helps destroy the calamitous Death Star. Who will later slay Jabba the Hut with the very chains he used to bind her.
But the Leia of Star Wars: The Force Awakens spends most of her time standing around and looking pained and concerned. De-sexed and de-energized, especially in comparison to Solo, she comes off as a sort of celestial Mother Superior. She gets off a few snappy exchanges with Solo, her sparring partner of yore, but what had once been screwball comedy, heavenly romance and pin-me-to-the-wall lust all rolled into one has sputtered mostly into shared parental concern.
If Han and Leia were a long-time married couple, perhaps this might have been expected. But they aren’t. They’ve been away from each other for years, off on their own adventures. Their meeting should have rattled the universe. But this Leia would be hard-pressed to inspire much more than a cosmic yawn.
Part of the problem may be that Abrams does not understand the connection between original female audience members and this beloved and admired character. “Star Wars was always a boys’ thing, and a movie that dads could take their sons to,” Abrams told Good Morning America. “And although that is still very much the case, I was really hoping this could be a movie that mothers could take their daughters to as well.”
What? I went to see Star Wars with my dad when I was 7 years old and emerged strongly identifying with the smart, feisty Leia, crushing on both Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, and completely swept up in the mythic skyscape.
It never occurred to me that this was a boy’s movie. Leia did not run around in mini-skirts like the ladies of Star Trek, or bounce around like Jane Fonda as Barbarella. She led with her mind and fierce spirit, and she was treasured by my friends, both male and female.
It’s a shame that even more than three decades after the release of the first Star Wars film, Fisher is still fighting the stereotypes that plague female actors. She found herself pressured to lose weight for The Force Awakens and complained of the continued age and image obsession in Hollywood.
Not much progress, as she tells it, since 1977: “They don’t want to hire all of me,” Fisher recently said in a Good Housekeeping interview. “Only about three-quarters! Nothing changes, it’s an appearance-driven thing.”
Can’t an actress age without being expected to fit into the same costume she wore in her 20s? Can’t she show care without becoming pious and boring? Can’t she display wit, sexuality and fierceness as an experienced woman?
Clearly, the force of mature female characters in Hollywood has yet to be awakened.