The Tragedy of Princess Leia’s Character




I want to talk about the tragedy of Princess Leia’s character.  No, I am not talking about the fact that she Force flies in space.  Nor am I talking about the fact that she will not be in Episode IX due to the fact that Carrie Fisher died last year.  I am talking about the fact that Princess Leia is the most static, disposable character of the original trio of main characters.

This is not a popular opinion, given Princess Leia’s place in popular culture, especially for women.  Princess Leia was definitely a subversion of people’s expectations for a princess in need of rescue.  And yet, when I think back on what Princess Leia actually did in the original Star Wars Trilogy, I have to conclude that her story has no arc, and her actions are rarely relevant to the plot.

1 Princess Leia has no arc.

Luke Skywalker and Han Solo both have arcs within the trilogy.  Luke Skywalker’s arc is one of coming of age.  At the beginning of the trilogy, he is an impulsive, immature, teenager.  He is a Jedi and a man at the end of the trilogy.  Han Solo starts out as a selfish smuggler who only cares about money.  At the end of the trilogy, he is a general willing to sacrifice his life for a cause.  Princess Leia starts out as a feisty member of the rebellion against the Empire.  By the end of the trilogy, she is a feisty member of the rebellion against the Empire.  The only major transformation her character undergoes is to fall in love with Han, but this does not change her character.  She stays exactly the same.

2 Princess Leia’s actions are rarely relevant to the plot.

The most significant action she ever performs is to put the Death Star plans on R2-D2.  For most of the movie, she is a prisoner.  When she arrives on Yavin 4, she literally stands around listening silently while Luke and the other soldiers destroy the Death Star.  It is much the same in The Empire Strikes Back.  She is shown as a leader with decision making power at the beginning of he movie, but then she is immediately stripped of this power when Han takes her on the Falcon.  She spends most of the movie complaining about Han’s choices to no avail, after which she is captured and then rescued.  The only other decision she makes is to take the Falcon back to rescue Luke at Cloud City.  In The Return of the Jedi, she is a participant, but not a leader.  She participates in Han Solo’s rescue, freeing him from carbonite and killing Jabba the Hutt, but it is not clear how much influence she had on the actual plot.  The focus is on Luke saving everyone.  At Endor, she is once again relegated to a participant.  Han is promoted to general.  It is this lack of decision making power that robs her character of a chance to grow.

None of this is to say that Princess Leia is a bad character or that it is wrong that so many love her and are inspired by her.  However, her character is only a shadow of what it could have been.  We know that Disney was planning to feature Leia in episode 9, much as they featured Han in episode 7 and Luke in episode 8.  Despite the outrage of fans, I actually like how they handled Luke’s arc in episode 8 and I am fine with what they did with Han in episode 7.  I like to believe that they were going to give Leia what she has never had in the series: the chance to grow as a character.  It is sad that we will never see it.

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5 Responses to The Tragedy of Princess Leia’s Character

  1. Yeah, I agree with you here. I think too that the Han x Leia romance would have been more effective if she had HAD a character arc, and if Han had been the catalyst for some change in her, like she was in him. How do you think they’re going to handle her death in IX? It’s really too bad, because a focus on Leia would have been a beautiful finish to the trilogy and it would really connect well with a Ben Solo redemption arc, if they go that route.

  2. Eric Graham says:

    I have to strongly disagree with you. Leia DOES have an arc in the original trilogy. Yes, consistently throughout the entire original trilogy, she has a fighting spirit that refuses to allow her to give up. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have an arc. Leia’s arc is about femininity, growing from a young idealistic girl to becoming a woman.

    In “A New Hope,” Leia is a feisty princess, a member of royalty, and the Imperial Senate. Because the opening scene of the movie showcases her, R2-D2, and C-3P0, she still remains at the core of the story. Stereotypically, princesses are vulnerable and don’t contribute much to their respective stories. A LOT of the princess tropes/cliches present themselves here, but Leia was anything but helpless. Even while captured by the Empire, she refuses to give up the plans to the Death Star or the location of the Rebels’ hidden fortress (kudos Kurosawa). Nevertheless, she goes through adversity, such as torture from an Imperial torture droid and watching her home planet of Alderaan get destroyed by the Death Star (one of the rare moments of emotion shown from her in ANH). Then Leia’s feistiness is present in the foreground when Luke, Han, and Chewie stage a rescue for her in the Death Star. Arguably, “A New Hope” is the story where Leia didn’t really change much as a character because she’s firm in her beliefs to the Rebels’ cause. The rest of the story from her POV is just that.

    In “Empire Strikes Back,” Leia starts to undergo a shift in character. She starts to sway back and forth between duty and her own emotions. When Luke is lost in the middle of a blizzard on Hoth, she continually gets worried for his well-being but has to accept shutting the blast doors on him for the sake of the Rebel Alliance’s survival. After the Rebels suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Empire on Hoth, the rest of the story is no longer about the Rebels fighting a war; it’s a character study about our band of heroes in the face of adversity. Han, Leia, C-3P0, and Chewbacca are constantly on the run from the Empire. After Han takes the Falcon deep inside an asteroid (later revealed to be a giant space slug), a lot more of Leia’s essence start to reveal themselves. This is also Joseph Campbell’s phase in the Hero’s Journey – the belly of the whale, a metaphorical death and resurrection. It means the character starts to undergo a change of sorts, from the old person they were to someone NEW. Leia becomes more and more vulnerable to the charms of Han Solo, the man she’s got feelings for. Hell, she even starts to loosen up around him. Vulnerability starts to envelop Leia in the rest of “Empire Strikes Back.” After Vader caught them all in a trap on Cloud City to lure Luke to him, Han is forced under carbonite to satisfy Boba Fett’s bounty. Leia then finally admits her love for him and is devastated when Han is placed under carbonite. She, Chewie, and Lando embark on a last-ditch effort to save him, but Fett leaves Cloud City with his bounty. As far as she was concerned, Han is gone. Lastly, Leia sensed Luke’s call for help through the Force, compelling her to turn the Falcon around to save him just as THEY were about to escape for their lives themselves. “Empire Strikes Back” threw Leia out of her elements as a fighter and exposes who she is as a person: vulnerable, emotional, and caring.

    “Return of the Jedi” explores a lot of Leia’s characteristics as a person, except it’s brought to the forefront in the form of presenting her femininity. After a failed attempt to sneak out Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, she and Han get caught. Han is thrown into Jabba’s prison cell, while Leia is forced to become Jabba’s slave and stripped down to wear a metal bikini with a collar and leash tied to her. This is Leia at her most vulnerable: almost nude and uncharacteristically silent. Lucas’ idea for making Leia wear the slave bikini is that “she’s growing up,” and indeed she is grown up (“in full bloom,” if you will… wink wink). However, when Jabba and Boba Fett fail to kill Luke and his friends at the Sarlacc Pit, she takes matters into her own hands and uses the chain that bound her to Jabba to kill him (heavily implied she used the Force to kill Jabba; there’s no way someone as petite as Leia can kill an overgrown slug with 20 chins). Afterward, Leia hears from Luke a serious family revelation right as he’s about to leave them behind to face his destiny: Darth Vader is his father, and she is Luke’s twin sister (transitively, Darth Vader is HER father). Understandably, Leia is rather shocked by all this and didn’t want to tell Han right then and there about what she just heard. After a brief episode of jealousy from Han, he does apologize and holds Leia for comfort.

    Leia Organa Solo is a memorable original trilogy character for a reason. Yes, she seems uninteresting given her fighting spirit that never seems to diminish. But on-screen, underneath all the witty banter and the blasters, it’s about Leia growing up – like all girls do – into a young woman. Leia does have her moments of emotion and vulnerability, but that in no way diminishes her fighting spirit. She continues fighting the Empire regardless, and it’s the Empire transgressions that fuel her fighting spirit.

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