I’ve recently been thinking a lot about what makes a strong female character- strong? There was recently a meme going around presenting pop culture female icons versus sci-fi female icons, implying sci-fi characters were better role models. Then another meme was created as a response, showing some examples of poor female representations of sci-fi, implying that the geek community has no right to present itself as feminist. One aspect that stands out in the positive role model meme is that all the women are in the military and are known for being tough. This is a classic example of how our society views masculinity as a sign of strength while femininity is always seen as weak. Tomboy = good, Girly girl = bad. As a wearer of dresses, I’ve always found this insulting. My biggest issue with the negative role model meme is its inclusion of Princess Leia in her slave costume. I hope the creator of the graphic is trying to say that even stronger female characters get relegated to eye candy in sci-fi, because, to me, Leia is one of the strongest, most complete female characters in sci-fi history due to her ability to be tough and in charge without relinquishing her femininity.
While Princess Leia is royalty she is no damsel in distress. She is an active member of the rebellion. Without her giving the Death Star plans to R2-D2 when her ship is boarded, the rebellion would have most likely been squashed. She also is seen giving orders to the troops and actively participates in the Battle of Endor. And, while she does need to be save in A New Hope, she isn’t some poor victim, and not only sasses her rescuers but takes control of the situation by firing a few shots and finding an exit plan. She also never cracks under pressure. When General Tarkin (to whom she delivers one of the most awesome put-down in film history) threatens to destroy her home planet and everyone she loves, she doesn’t reveal the true rebel base. While the gold bikini is a bit much, even as a slave Leia kicks ass, strangling Jabba to death with her own chains.
Leia is involved in a romance (and a sort of love triangle until it’s revealed two of the participants are related) but it is a love based on respect. While Han Solo is initially taken aback by Leia’s independence, he is enviably won over by her refusal to do what she’s told. Harrison Ford’s “I know” is one of film’s most famous ad libs, but Leia throws it right back in Solo’s face as she saves his life in Return of the Jedi.
Gold bikini aside, Leia isn’t as sexualized as most sci-fi/action movie females. Leia is pretty, not aggressively hot. She’s someone girls can relate to because nothing about her is over-the-top. She’s the intergalactic girl next door who doesn’t shy away from a fight but still can wear dresses and try new things with her hair. One truth about feminism that often gets ignored is it should be about women have the opportunity to be/do whatever they want and not sticking to one specific mold.