Portrayed by: Carrie Fisher
Film: Lucas Film’s Star Wars IV-IV
For so many of us Leia Organa, as Princess Leia, was the first woman in a large franchise that would’ve otherwise primarily appealed to boys. She broke barriers and kicked things into motions for female characters that were so much more than just the hero’s girlfriend. She wasn’t just the princess, she was the star, and until her final days she continued to lead by example. She continued to be the human personification of hope, and she continued to be the layered badass so many women and little girls looked up to.
There has been (and still is) a lot of discourse on the internet about women in Star Wars, primarily coming from men that continue to view us as one dimensional. There is too much discourse about what strong looks like and how it’s represented and what that has often done is continued to discredit and dismiss the plethora of work Leia (and Carrie Fisher) have done to ultimately carry so much on their shoulders.
This deep dive was initially a paper submitted for a Shakespearean grad course where the topic of female rage was the primary focus, and I chose to take the type of route that compared the different types of rage. Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s winding Anger, Mercy, and Revenge could easily serve as the foundation to various character strengths especially when taking apart media today. Pop culture’s strategic influence from classic Greek literature and Shakespearean texts is nothing new, and presumably something that will never cease. From films like Disney’s Lion King being an almost exact replica of Hamlet to Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge standing a juke-box musical thoroughly inspired by Orpheus and Eurydice–the influences are often undeniable.
There is also the examination of George Lucas’ Star Wars films having direct influences from Greek mythology and could be tied to Shakespearean works upon close examination as well. The transition of female characters has been drastically altered, but what has remained a constant has been the undeniable importance of a female’s role in any type of media. (And without question, there is a reason why Leia paved the road for so many in science fiction and fantasy genres.) Women have been looked to and criticized in a number of ways based on their positions during the time and their actions. And women were especially the subject of heavy criticism when they had displayed any form of rebellion or rage. While feminist theory and societal influence has altered the way female characters are analyzed, when it comes to the display of rage, there is still a clear difference in how they are judged alongside man. This deep dive will look into Princess Leia’s adamant choice to walk with the Light Side in spite of the challenges that continuously arose.
As the character with both agency and a type of divine influence (the force), Leia Organa’s deliberate choice not to act on her anger through villainy is the very thing that needs to be continually praised.
“Anger—a point I stress—has this particular evil trait: it’s unwilling to be controlled. It grows angry at the truth itself, if it appears to contradict its will. It pursues its intended victims with shouting and uproar, the whole body shaking, with abuse and curses added in. Reason doesn’t do this; but should the need arise it uproots whole households—silently, quietly—and destroys families that are a plague on the commonwealth, together with their wives and children, it overturns the very dwellings and extirpates the clans that are freedom’s enemies, doing all this without gnashing its teeth or tossing its head about or any other behavior unbecoming a judge, whose expression should be calm and in repose most especially when heh is making an important pronouncement” (Seneca 58).
There are a ton of notions I don’t agree with in Seneca’s essay because it frames anger as one dimensional whereas today, and through a character like Leia especially, rage is the reason she is the way that she is. Rage does not have to go hand in hand with nihilism. To dismiss the absence of it in human’s is just downright dismissing the complexities of human emotions.
Anger is a prominent emotion within the entire Star Wars universe; the battle between the Dark Side and the Light Side could be argued the essential battle between anger and reason. In The Phantom Menace, Jedi Master Yoda tells a young Anakin Skywalker “fear is the path to the dark side, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Anakin’s separation from his mother can be one of the likely triggers to his descent towards the Dark Side–a legitimate fear that could have later slithered into the life of his daughter in spite of the fact that she grew up in a fairly loving home. But when audience members first meet Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, she is not a cookie-cutter sweet princess; Leia is at the heart of the rebellion and thus, a force behind the resistance.
“I don’t know who you are, or where you come from, but from now on, you’ll do as I say” (A New Hope).
The audience is introduced to a woman in a predominately male-centric world who is not afraid of standing up to them. They are introduced to a woman who does not swallow her words or sugarcoat her emotions. Above all, they are introduced to a woman who is clearly battling more than one thing at a time.
She is battling her own demons, the battle to gain recognition, and the battle against the Empire. “Anger, by contrast, is put to flight by instruction because it’s a fault of the mind subject to our will. It’s not among the things that happen to use just because of our lot as humans, and happen, accordingly, even to the very wise; and among these things must be included the initial mental jolt that stirs us when we believe we’ve been wronged” (Seneca 62). The version of Leia the audience is introduced to in A New Hope is not interested in holding her tongue, taming her words, or obeying any one’s orders. But that very Leia has only seen the beginning of the darkness that would likely fuel her anger further along with the struggles to control it.
Leia will experience losing Han Solo more than once, she will find her brother then lose him, and she will lose her only son and pass before she could see his redemption. And since the temptations toward the Dark Side run through her veins, her resistance will prove to be her greatest character strength. As Seneca believes, anger weakens a person, thus if his argument is taken into consideration, because Leia seldom acts on her anger through traditional nihilism, she can be deemed as one of the strongest female characters in the media. (And she is!)
The audience is rarely given glimpses into Leia’s past as a child instead, they are to believe that she has lived a relatively fair life. (Since this is addressing solely the films, I’m not going to get into book context.) The Empire Strikes Back ends on a relatively hopeless tone, but the audience, given Leia’s admission of love, know she is not willing to give up. It is that very understanding that serves as the first glimmer that this woman isn’t merely the Princess of Alderaan, but rather a represent of something bigger. She is layered. She is multifaceted. She can be both.
And though it isn’t until years later where audiences can see parts of her in Padme, it is relatively clear that her path is more than just the token female character in a male-centric franchise. Leia’s resilience is present in the original trilogy, but it isn’t until later films where the audience acutely understands just how much of her rage she has controlled. The audience knows Leia is sensitive with the force after learning that she is Luke Skywalker’s sister, and thus, Darth Vader’s (Anakin Skywalker) daughter. “You have that power, too. You’ll learn to use it as I have. The force is strong in my family. I have it. My sister has it” (The Return of the Jedi). To this Leia responds that she has somehow always known thus authenticating force sensitivity and how it could work in comparison to divine intervention. In the Star Wars universe, the force can (and often has) been framed theologically.
Being a Jedi does not necessarily mean purely good as much as the Sith predominatly caters to the sides of evil. But what differentiates Leia, and where it is clear philosophers defining anger would agree, is how infrequently Leia uses the force from what we have seen. And when they learn that temptation turned her son to the Dark Side, it is perhaps easy to understand why she would not use it in her everyday life, except of course if she needs to save herself when she is floating in mid-galaxy such as in The Last Jedi. There is no evidence of Leia using the force as manipulation, but there is evidence perhaps of how often the force, and as Yoda says, fear could have swayed her.
By the time Leia loses her son to the First Order, she is General of the Resistance. And at this time, people like Rey, an orphan have entered into her orbit. Poe Dameron, Finn, and Rose Tico all look to Leia as their guiding light in every situation. (As does literally everyone around her, including the audience.) “I don’t really know how to do this. What you did. I’m not ready. I’m not ready” (Poe Dameron, The Rise of Skywalker). It says a great deal to the audience when a man as stubborn as Poe is still looking towards Leia’s guidance even after she has passed. Because even in the colossal loss that was losing her son to the Dark Side, Leia was unwavering in her love towards everyone around her. She would call out Poe Dameron when he was out of line, but she was loyal, and nurturing thus extending the love she had towards those around her.
Leia especially takes on the role of a mother to Rey, an orphan who finds her way into the Resistance when she essentially commandeers the Millennium Falcon. And when Luke Skywalker can no longer give her the Jedi training that she requires, Leia does so in The Rise of Skywalker, even noting before they part one last time: “Rey, never be afraid of who you are.” Perhaps it is safe to assume that while the film audience is never given intel into just how much Leia knows about the force that they could still believe she understood the profound weight of fear and anger. And perhaps this is where she also differs significantly from various characters who hide so much of themselves. Instead, Leia faces everything headfirst, she loses her only biological child to the Dark Side but continues to be a loving force in the lives of anyone who is in need of guidance.
While there’s no direct confirmation as to what immediately followed Ben Solo’s turn to the Dark Side, understanding that it caused a tremendous rift between her and Han Solo could perhaps explain just how viscerally each of them reacted to the loss. However, given what has been shown to the audience in the canon world of the films, Leia remained with the resistance and fought to the end. To presume that Leia was not angry but rather empathetic of what has happened would be denying the Leia that was introduced in A New Hope. A Leia that is very much capable of rage and spite, but a Leia that has now seen even more darkness than the one audiences were introduced to. It is safe to assume that while Leia might have given up her Jedi training (The Last Jedi), she could have still maintained exercise with the force–one doesn’t just lose force sensitivity when it isn’t used. And the audience knows Leia still carries it based on a moment that is alluded to with the visceral reaction she has to Han Solo dying even when she doesn’t physically see the death herself.
Upon looking at the things that could have certainly contributed to Leia’s repressed anger, this deep dive could also look into why she is more sensitive to it than Luke, and thus why it is easier for her to resist, which in and of itself is poetic to her character. Seneca thus states that: “The anger of people whose makeup is predominately most grows gradually, because they don’t have a ready supply of warmth, and it’s gained only by movement. That’s why the anger of children and women is more sharp than grievous, and rather trivial at its onset. Stages of life that are dry have an anger that’s violent and strong, but without increase: it doesn’t grow because cold follows upon the heart which is bound to slack off” (74). From the moment she steps on to the screen, Leia has more to prove to the audience than any of her male counterparts. As a princess, she is already susceptible to ridicule given the history of how royals tend to behave, a detail which both Han and Luke note to in needing to “rescue her” (A New Hope, Return of the Jedi).
Leia is a princess, but above all, Leia is a woman who’s grown up knowing heartache in her mother, a detail she notes to in Return of the Jedi when she states she remembers sadness in her, and inadvertently, she has grown up attempting to not only prove herself in Alderaan, but to prove herself amongst the Rebel Alliance. While Leia’s position as a character was never a question of debate, as a woman, she has had a tremendous amount to prove. In bell hooks’Feminism is for Everybody, she quotes: “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (8), and in using this to examine Leia’s character along with Seneca’s essay, it can be understood that with the feminist movement, and Star Wars’ tremendous success in the 80s, Leia had more to prove as the presumed token female heroine. She wasn’t just there to make Han or Luke look good in their adventures, but she was there to expose the fact that there is always so much more that women carry when they have made the decision to devote themselves to something.
While the Force can be seen as divine influence, the Jedi can control it, too thus while it is there, she has the power to exercise her own decision making, which is what the audience consistently sees in earlier films. If the temptation is there towards giving into the Dark Side, the decision to turn away is also entirely up to the woman, and Leia time and time again has done everything to ensure that she chooses love above all things. She chooses the resistance. She chooses to rise above.
Leia’s agency is not something that is often questioned because if this deep dive examines her through a feminist lens, she has done things that have traditionally been the male’s role. She is the first to tell Han she loves him. She is one to make crucial decisions with the Rebel Alliance and later the Resistance. And most importantly, she is the one who becomes General. While philosophers and even, some fans, believe that the heart slacks off, this deep dive will argue that Leia’s heart is what makes her strong.
Leia’s heart and the complete devotion to what is good, hopeful, and that which benefits people is the very thing that indicates there is unyielding rage in her bones for how much the Sith have taken from her. And how much terror is in this world. Leia focuses on getting her son back, even though there are times she states, perhaps without fully believing, that it is a lost cause: “I held out hope for so long, but I know my son is gone” (The Last Jedi). The keyword “know” is understood to mean more here because it can be assumed that going forward Leia does in fact believe she has lost her son entirely. He did after all kill his father, and in the world of Star Wars, redemption is often met at the hands of death. Thus, perhaps that is also what Leia meant in believing that he was gone, knowing that even if Ben came back, he would die alongside Kylo Ren.
However, Leia is the same woman who states: “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe it when you see it you’ll never make it through the night” (The Last Jedi). In the Star Wars universe, hope is the universal language for success. Rogue One’s Jyn Erso states: “Rebellions are built on hope.” The Rebel Alliance, the Resistance, they all serve as emblems of hope in the Star Wars universe, and while A New Hope popularly refers to Luke Skywalker, the argument can be made that Leia is in fact the emblematic hope throughout the series. Where Luke gives up in The Force Awakens, Leia keeps going. Where Han runs off after Ben Solo’s turn to the Dark Side, Leia keeps working. Leia, according to Seneca, could perhaps be more vulnerable to rage because so much of her heart is on the line, but she is the one who is best at controlling it–especially in later films where the character has gone through colossal growth and more loss. Often, it is the characters that experience the loss who are most susceptible to the rage, but in Leia’s case, the darker her life becomes, the more reliant she is to hope—the more insistent she is on controlling all that is around her without falling apart.
Finally, in Seneca’s essay, it is written: “Accordingly, we must struggle against the passions’ first causes. The cause of anger is a belief that one has been wronged, to which one ought not lightly give credence. One shouldn’t immediately assent even to what is clear and obvious, for some things that are false look like the truth. One must always take one’s time: the passage of time makes the truth plain” (77). The Sith have tempted not only Leia’s father away from her mother, thus inadvertently robbing her of knowing him, but they have successfully taken her only son, too. They have consistently brought destruction and darkness into her life; thereby, Leia has every right to believe she has been wronged. As the passage notes, she doesn’t immediately assent to anger (and even if she did/does, it’d be damn well merited), but she takes the time to understand that though she has been robbed of so much, though the Sith, and by extension, the First Order have caused so much destruction and chaos into everything she has tried to build, the plain truth is that if she fell apart, the entire Resistance would too.
Read that line over–the entire Resistance would fall apart, too. Leia has, and always will carry this franchise into what it has become. She wasn’t just our first heroine in a role like this, but even today, she is hope and strength personified. She was a badass in every way, and Carrie Fisher embodied a force of a woman with just as much devotion and love for humanity.
In 2021, we are all angry and we all have a myriad of reasons to be, but how we choose to channel that rage says everything about us. Do we fight for equality and grow? Or do we cry woe is me when our actions harm others and ourselves? The former. Princess Leia taught us all to fight and to do so by taking care of people. Our strength isn’t determined by how great our arms look, our strength is determined by the love that is in our hearts.
Leia was a Princess, a General, a mother, and the ultimate hope that every single person in the Star Wars universe relied on and will continue to rely on while she concealed so much of her pain to uplift them. We saw so much of it in glimmers because Leia was never afraid of being vulnerable, but behind this force of a woman, there was always so much more. And what this tells us is that because of the choices she continued to make, she is incredibly, or rather, otherworldly, in her strength. She is unmatched.