With Star Wars: The Force Awakens fast approaching, I wanted to talk about a serious issue that has plagued this series and many like it for decades: the low number of women heroes.
Of course it’s no secret that Star Wars lacks female characters. There’s a grand total of three named women in the original trilogy, and the prequels didn’t raise that number by much. What makes this female disparity more apparent is that Star Wars, without even trying, has successfully marketed itself to girls and young women over the past four decades.
Star Wars was always intended as entertainment for boys and men, with lots of lasers, explosions, and space battles complementing the heavily masculine-centric cast of characters. But despite its low level of products and marketing directed towards women, Star Wars has managed to retain a fairly substantial female fan base that keeps growing and growing.
So what about this galaxy far, far away keeps catching the attention of little girls and young women year after year?
The answer is simple: Princess Leia has a gun.
What do I mean by this? Well, let’s take a look at why Princess Leia stand out so strongly among her peers.
This is probably the most popular picture of Princess Leia. Despite going through a slew of outfit changes throughout the first three Star Wars movies, Leia’s white dress-wearing, bun-head style outfit has been her most iconic look since 1977. Look at what happens when you search for pictures of her:
These are the first results I got, even with the safe search off. You may notice that in eight of the eleven pictures above, she’s got a gun.
Another quick search for costumes of Princess Leia reveals her gun-totin’ traits aren’t lost on her fans:
So, do girls love Star Wars because Leia loves to exercise her second-amendment right? Well, no… at least, not most of them.
When you create a fictional universe, whether it’s science fiction, fantasy, superhero, or just a plain ol’ adventure, you want to create characters that look iconic (think Indiana Jones’ hat, Harry Potter’s scar and glasses, Luke Skywalker’s messy mop top, etc.) and are capable of surviving in the dangerous worlds they inhabit. If Indiana Jones wasn’t good with a whip and a gun, or Harry Potter couldn’t cast a spell to save his life, they wouldn’t last very long even in their own stories.
So Leia, unlike most damsels and princesses, is often pictured with a weapon because we know she is capable of wielding it. Whenever we see an image of her holding a blaster rifle, we’re reminded that when she is rescued by Luke and Han in the first Star Wars movie, she takes charge right away and blasts a whole in the garbage chute. The audience knows right off the bat that she doesn’t take sass from any walking carpets or nerfherders, scruffy-looking or otherwise.
Now, it’s not the gun that’s important. Leia could have been given a lightsaber, superpowers, or kick-awesome kung-fu skills. It doesn’t matter what weapons or abilities she has so long as they giver her power and agency. Leia, unlike many female protagonists, has power on par with the rest of the main ensemble. She can fight just as well as Han and Chewie and thus, in a world full of lasers and explosions, possesses equal agency with the men surrounding her.
But if giving a girl a gun is all you need to appeal to women, why hasn’t this worked for other franchises? There’s lots of other examples of weapon-carrying female heroes who haven’t had nearly the same cultural impact as Leia.
Arwen from Lord of the Rings may have a cool weapon just like the rest of the boys, but she lacks something Leia has in spades: any kind of personality. If you don’t believe me, take a quick test. Describe Arwen based solely on her personality. All I got when I tried was “sad” and “in love with Viggo Mortenson.”
Leia, on the other hand, is strong-willed, compassionate, argumentative but sympathetic, stubborn but practical, exercises command and doesn’t take guff from anyone. When I said Star Wars attracts female fans because Princess Leia has a gun, the emphasis is not just on the agency she possesses, but on who Leia is as a character. She’s not just the token girl in Star Wars, she’s Princess freakin’ Leia! When you give a character as strong and three-dimensional as Leia her own power, you further cement how interesting and memorable she is by letting her take the front seat when things get exciting.
So Leia’s got the weapon and she’s got the personality. Is that all she needs to be a popular female hero? Well, there’s one more thing that makes Leia stand out.
She gets to be a woman.
OK, so this one may come off a little strange, but let me clarify what I’m getting at. In a lot of fantasy action movies, most female characters that appear on screen aren’t able to maintain their femininity without compromising their capability.
Let’s look at an example:
Padme Amidala, another female hero from the Star Wars universe, should have been as popular and memorable as Leia, right? She’s got the gun and she’s not afraid to speak her mind, whether it’s to Jedi, politicians or her own kidnappers.
But what separates her from Princess Leia is that Padme tends to switch between two separate roles: diplomatic negotiator and generic warrior. When she’s playing politician, Padme gets to express herself by taking command and giving orders. But when she decides to take part in the action alongside the men, she has to check her character traits at the door.
Leia –when running around narrow corridors in the Death Star, escaping the jaws of an an asteroid worm, or held captive by the carnivorous Ewoks– is still able to use her speech, body language, and choices to express herself and what she wants. But Padme –whenever she’s capturing a viceroy, fighting with some clonetroopers, or running along an impractical, robot factory conveyor belt– has to put her desires and feelings on hold. Padme goes from a strong, female leader to a neutral-faced nobody with no discernible drive or motivation the second the lasers start flying.
As a result, Padme is never allowed to be both herself and a warrior at the same time. It’s almost as if the Star Wars prequel trilogy is saying woman can only participate in the action if they lose everything about themselves that makes them unique.
Leia, on the other hand, doesn’t have to sacrifice who she is in order to fight, travel, and adventure with the rest of the men in the story. She can express herself as a woman and a individual in whatever way she wants, in any situation.
So, Leia’s popularity has endured because she possesses agency on par with her male counterparts, a distinct and memorable personality, and an ability to remain true to her self in any situation, as a woman and a hero. When children in the 1970s first saw the independent and engaging Princess Leia fighting on equal footing with the boys, she became an instant female icon.
And nearly 40 years later, kids today still think Leia is awesome.
You may notice that quite a few kids carry a lightsaber while dressing as Leia even though she never so much as touches one in the movies. Leia is so closely associated with power and the ability to defend herself that it seems only natural for her to carry the coolest weapon in the Star Wars universe.
So all of this is well and good, but Leia’s popularity could just be fluke, right? When else has a woman with agency, attitude, and the ability to be herself become a worldwide phenomenon?
The answer is, of course, over the last three years.
Let’s start with Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, who fits the three qualities of power, personality, and independence perfectly.
Already, with just the picture above, we can see that Katniss has power and agency. Through her archery skills, Katniss can fight for herself, an ability which certainly comes in handy when she’s forced to fight other teenagers to the death for our, I mean, The Capitol’s entertainment.
We also know Katniss has a distinct personality: she is headstrong, rebellious, caring, and torn between protecting the ones she loves and risking their lives to build a better world.
And lastly but not least . . .ly, Katniss is consistent as a character. Whether she’s killing murderous teens with arrows, leading a rebellion against an evil aristocratic dictatorship, or choosing between precious Peeta and grumpy Gabe (and his abs), Katniss still expresses who she is: an independent woman who has suffered and persevered. Even when she is hiding her real self from the aristocrats in the Capitol, we the audience still know and relate to the woman underneath.
Katniss meets the three criteria for a female hero and has become an inspiration to women around the world in only a few short years. I don’t really need to remind you of Katniss’ popularity or marketability.
OK, so who’s next?
Arguably the most popular (well, more like inescapable) female hero in the last decade is Elsa from Frozen, and she fits the three criteria perfectly.
- Elsa has agency through her sweet ice powers. She is able to take control of her own destiny and no one stands in her way. She can make sentient snowmen, massive ice palaces, and the year’s hottest dress without missing a note. Now that’s power.
- In case her arched eyebrows didn’t tip you off, Elsa does indeed have attitude and personality. She showcases a cold and professional side, a wild and carefree side, and of course, a loving and tender side that can thaw even the frostiest of hearts.
- Unlike most Disney princesses, Elsa can transition from well-adorned ruler to ice-summoning rebel without batting an eye. When she uses her awesome snow powers, Elsa doesn’t just retain her femininity, but embraces it, singing her heart out and expressing her self through new residential and fashion upgrades. She is woman, hear her roar . . . and then nearly kill a bunch of dudes with icicles. Sick!
And I really, really don’t need to remind you how popular and marketable Elsa is. I mean, who doesn’t want to be her?
If the sheer popularity of these characters are any indication, Disney would have a lot to gain by creating more memorable woman heroes, not just from a feminist perspective, but from a business standpoint as well. If Disney were to create more female characters as powerful and interesting as Leia, Katniss, and Elsa, they would probably never stop making money off of toys, costumes, and Star Wars-themed Spaghetti-O’s.
Kathleen Kennedy, the current president of Lucasfilm, already seems to be on top of this. She is one the first in her field to really capitalize on female characters placed in a series not initially intended for women. Not only does The Force Awakens feature two new major female characters, but Lucasfilm is actively marketing these characters without diminishing the importance of their gender and personalities.
What many companies trying to market films to boys and girls don’t realize is there doesn’t have to be a huge divide between how male and female characters are created and marketed.
The simple truth behind why Leia and other powerful characters appeal to girls is because there isn’t actually much difference between what girls and boys want in their heroes. All the most popular Disney princesses have attitude and agency within their own worlds just like every Avenger and Jedi has in theirs. There are lots of kids who want to emulate and buy merchandise of characters who have unique personalities and cool abilities, whether it be lightsabers, whips, wands, bows, ice powers, or just being able protect themselves when the going gets tough. Plus, an iconic hairstyle –whether side buns or a Padawan braid– and a long flowing piece of clothing –whether it’s a dress, a cape, or a robe– always helps.
So I hope Kathleen Kennedy and the Lucasfilm writers continue to create unique female heroes for the foreseeable future. We still have yet to see a princess in a ballgown wielding a lightsaber, a roguish female smuggler and her alien copilot jumping to hyperspace, or an elderly woman mentoring the next Jedi in the mysterious ways of the Force. Just like their male counterparts, female heroes will be successful in Star Wars and any other fantasy, science fiction, superhero, or action-adventure series so long as they can do anything and be anyone they want to.
So go on, Hollywood. Let Leia be your guide.