Monday, November 21, 2011

Feminist Fun with the Force!

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Princess Leia Organa was one of my earliest feminist idols. At eight years old, Star Wars became my first full blown fandom. I remember how my timid 2nd grade-self had to be convinced to watch the first film, which I was sure would be scary and violent, by the promise of a beautiful princess. My very shrewd older cousin told my sister and me that we could turn it off as soon as Leia made her first appearance. Of course, by the time the escape pod containing R2-D2 and C3PO tumbled into space, we both said “You know, we don’t have to turn it off.” One trilogy marathon later, we were hooked. Star Wars was my first geeky obsession, my first favorite movie that wasn’t Disney, my first intro to myth and action and memorable characters. For that, it holds a very special place in my heart. It still remains one of my top fandoms. 

Eight-year-old feminist fangirl, with Sis, circa 1997. We were awesome, clearly.

So, without further delay, let’s analyze Leia.

It's pretty non-negotiable that Star Wars represents the definitive cinematic treatment of classic myth. George Lucas was a student not only of the American New Wave or New Hollywood Movement, but also of Joseph Campbell, renowned scholar of world mythology. With the Star Wars trilogy, Lucas consciously used symbolism and the structure of the universal, ancient Hero’s Journey myth to create a cathartic narrative. Infused with the cinematic references and film student vocabulary of the American New Wave, it was transformed into an even more resonant modern myth. In terms of the Campbell structure, particularly in A New Hope, Leia represents the maiden. But Lucas had some feminist inclinations, and he knew that while Leia would fulfill the role of one in need of rescue for the purposes of the mythic narrative, he did “not want her to be a passive damsel in distress.”[1]

Thus Leia’s initial distress has nothing to do with any supposed “feminine delicacy.”  She’s a political prisoner, captured by the Empire because she is a high ranking leader of the rebellion, participating in key espionage regarding the new Death Star, as well as both royalty and an elected senator from the knowingly seditious planet of Alderaan. In other words, she is anything but passive. He capture under these circumstances is believable and does nothing to reduce the power or agency of her character.

Her attitude while imprisoned is also admirable. As Mary Henderson puts it in Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, “She does not scream, faint, plead or cry.”[2] In fact, she maintains surprising eloquence and confidence throughout her ordeal. She is tortured, but she doesn’t betray any information. Her planet is destroyed by the Death Star in a twisted interrogation, and she still maintains general cool. She does display realistic and appropriate distress in both terrible situations, but any breakdown she might have had, she has in private, off-screen. Leia’s attitude seems to be “They are going to kill me anyway, so I’m not going to give them the pleasure of seeing me snap.” And that’s badass!

Meanwhile, A New Hope has some fun satirizing our expectations of who Leia “should be.” Bored farm boy Luke Skywalker builds her up in his mind from the moment he sees her holograph message. Rescuing the beautiful, helpless princess will realize his heroic dreams and possibly get him laid! For Star Wars, John Williams composed his finest work, one of the greatest classical film scores of all time. It’s Wagnerian influence and strict leitmotif[3] structure makes for a character analysis gold mine. Leia’s Theme, a gentle, melancholy strain, is not entirely inappropriate for her character, but it also functions in an ironic sense. It represents the abstract idea of a beautiful princess, but as the trilogy develops, it plays during moments when Leia is acting particularly badass, as if to say, “I’m sorry, did you expect dainty? Too bad.” Luke’s first encounter with Leia is a wonderful parody of “Sleeping Beauty.” Luke, in his Stormtrooper disguise, opens Leia’s cell. She appears to be sleeping, and her naïve theme plays. She wakes up almost instantly, however, immediately asking, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

Luke is obviously taken aback by the jibe, as well as by the fact that Leia doesn’t need much rescuing once her cell door has been opened. She immediately takes charge of Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca’s highly incompetent plan. She doesn’t even introduce herself to Han, except with “Looks like you’ve managed to cut off our only escape route.” She grabs a blaster gun from one of the guys and starts making decisions, and knocking off Stormtroopers, when they clearly can’t. One of the most amusing things about A New Hope is how haphazard and unplanned the whole grand adventure is. Leia is the only person who has her shit together, and the only well planned and legitimate military action, the Rebel assault on the Death Star, is an operation of Leia’s rebellion, born of her stolen plans. Leia’s role in A New Hope never moves far beyond a strong willed, “self rescuing” princess, appropriate to the fun Saturday morning serial vibe of the first Star Wars film. But with The Empire Strikes Back, her character will give us much more to talk about.  

Next week; A Feminist Reading of The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

[1] George Lucas, quoted in “Star Wars: the Making of the World’s Greatest Space Adventure Movie,” Screen Superstar no.8, special Star Wars editions, 1977, 14.

[2]Henderson, Mary. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. 1997, 50.

[3] Leitmotif is a recurring musical theme associated with a particular person, place, or idea.

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