In December, the world will get to feel something that it hasn’t felt since 1983: The unmitigated joy of seeing Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia and the other heroes of the original Star Wars trilogy gallivanting around in a galaxy far, far away. But as the new film looms, it’s worth reconsidering the role that Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher, had in the original films. Although she’s referred to as Princess Leia, she was more than just a titular figurehead of a planet’s monarchy. She was, over the course of the films, a politician, a resistance leader, and a soldier.
In the original film, A New Hope, Leia is introduced in the script as “Princess Leia Organa, a member of the Alderaan Senate.” In the film, she’s variously referred to as a senator, a rebel, a princess and even a traitor. In reality, she’s probably a bit of all of these. According to Star Wars lore, Leia is the (adopted) daughter of Queen Breha Organa, the ruler of the planet Alderaan, and Bail Organa, a senator. Her birth mother Queen Padmé Amidala of Naboo died in childbirth with her and her father, Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader wouldn’t have made for an ideal single parent. Leia most likely grew up attending the best schools and was afforded every luxury provided to royals. But Leia didn’t just sit back and enjoy her regal life: She became a member of the Imperial Senate, and when she realized that the Supreme Chancellor of the Galactic Republic appeared to be using his influence to turn the republic into a totalitarian regime, she risked her life and joined the rebellion. As Obi-Wan later tells her brother Luke in Return of the Jedi:
Leia became a princess by virtue of lineage… no one knew she’d been adopted, of course. But it was a title without real power, since Alderaan had long been a democracy. Even so, the family continued to be politically powerful, and Leia, following in her foster father’s path, became a senator as well. That’s not all she became, of course… she became the leader of her cell in the Alliance against the corrupt Empire. And because she had diplomatic immunity, she was a vital link for getting information to the Rebel cause.
Leia displays strength that is not typical of the average Disney princess. The first scene of A New Hope shows Leia ensuring that the plans to take down the Empire don’t fall back into its hands. Leia is captured and tortured by Darth Vader; she witnesses the destruction of planet she grew up on and all its inhabitants. All the while, she does not give up any information on the rebel alliance and doesn’t flinch when threatened with death aboard the Death Star.
Ready to be rescued from the Empire’s clutches, Leia remains sardonic and in command. When Luke enters her prison cell in disguise, she asks: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” Luke, the apparent hero in this situation is presented as awkward, whereas Leia doesn’t miss a beat, actually leading Luke out of the room. She adds later: “I don’t know who you are, or where you came from, but from now on, you do as I tell you, OK?” She even takes the initiative to find the group an escape route from the detention cell.
After Luke destroys the Death Star, Leia leads the celebratory procession honoring those who survived the battle, acting much like a head of state would. Three years later, at the start of The Empire Strikes Back, Leia takes on a far more active role in the military proceedings of the rebellion. She gives the pilots orders during the evacuation of the Hoth base, down in the hangar, and appears very much as second in command behind General Rieekan at Echo Base. She is also one of the last people to evacuate the base, as a good leader ensures her troops’ safety.
When Leia introduces herself to Lando Calrissian, she doesn’t say she’s Princess Leia of Alderaan, or Senator Leia, she just says “Leia.” How many earthly princesses would do that?
At the end of the film, Leia is leading the rescue mission for Han with Lando (even though in the next movie, Luke gets all the screen time), as both of them decide to risk their lives infiltrating Jabba the Hutt’s organization to save him. After she’s found out, she isn’t imprisoned and sentenced to death like the rest of the crew, she’s demeaned and forced to be Jabba’s slave, wearing a golden bikini. Fisher has since referred to that bikini as “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell.” Fitting that her character got to kill Jabba with the very chain that had been holding her captive.
Leia joins Han (who’s been promoted to a general, though no rank is given for Leia) on the guerrilla mission to take down the forcefield protecting the second Death Star. She again risks her life for the rebellion, and it turns out, may well have had the best shot of any of the movies’ protagonists.
It’s unclear what Leia’s role will be in The Force Awakens, but she’s briefly depicted in the new trailer wearing something similar to the rebel military uniform she’s wearing in Empire. It’s possible that she’s taken over for Mon Mothma as the leader of the rebellion, which seems, for some reason, to still be going on 30 years after the destruction of the second Death Star and the deaths of Vader and Palpatine.
While the movies tend to display Leia as strong-willed, forceful, and far more than a damsel in need of saving, they’re far from perfect representations of a strong female lead. Leia is pretty much the only female character in all of the original Star Wars films, barring minor roles from the likes of Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma, and none of the movies pass the Bechdel test (although the prequels do).
But Leia’s character is worth celebrating, especially in the presence of so many commanding male figures. Hopefully, this trend continues in the new trilogy. The prequels edged in the right direction, and it seems there’s every indication the new movies will fare better: The main character of the first new film is a woman, and she isn’t the only woman in the film this time.
In 2014, Disney added Princess Leia products to its stores, but hasn’t explicitly said yet whether it’s going to add her to the pantheon of official “Disney Princesses.” In recent years, Disney seems to have realized that its princesses don’t need their agency to revolve around a man (or beast)—think of Mulan, Merida from Brave, and the sisters in Frozen—and Leia would fit in perfectly with this new crop of princesses. There aren’t many princesses out there who can stand up to torture, aren’t afraid of death, and lead a rebellion.