But I have always felt, keenly, that Leia was shortchanged by that original trilogy. Her story of torture at the hands of the man who turns out to be her biological father is conveniently backgrounded; her trauma at seeing her planet blow up, at the hands of her father, is similarly ignored. Leia has a story that is never told—a princess who turns out to be adopted, who chooses to make her life about resistance instead of acquiescence. When Luke first meets Leia, she is making flirtatious wisecracks in a prison cell, following her life’s total devastation, to a man wearing a Stormtrooper’s uniform. There is so much written there that is never given voice, a story of a woman who is at the very end of her rope.
I concur with the qualification that Leia didn’t start out as an afterthought.
The characters’ backstory and strengths were often left unstated in the first two movies. This was one of the things that made Star Wars and Empire great. They effectively implied character, most notoriously in the “Han shot first” debacle.
When George Lucas decided that Han shooting Greedo before Greedo could fire made beloved Han too harsh, fans wailed because it is the small moments, often the ones that pass without comment, that allow us to define a character. The original scene in the cantina told us volumes about Han’s character. It said that he wasn’t a straight-up nice guy. He was decisive, calculating. He looked out for himself, perhaps to a fault. And he wasn’t stupid. What idiot would let the baddie take the first shot at close range? Beyond changing Han’s character, the edit also flattened his character arc. The more you make him warm and fuzzy at the beginning, the less it pulls at your emotions when he comes barreling in to shoot Vader off Luke’s tail. We expect second-shot, nice Han to join the fight over the Death Star. (We might wonder if he will miss the shot, so I guess we should be thankful that some dramatic tension remains.)
The same holds for all of the Leia moments. But unlike Han and Luke, her story never closes. Like Sonia Saraiya at Salon, this has bothered me for years. I wrote it up in an “underrated heroines” piece here a few years ago:
The anonymous twin sister of Luke Skywalker and daughter of Darth Vader, Princess Leia is a young Galactic senator dedicated to ridding the Star Wars universe of intergalactic imperialism.
Seasoned, gray-haired generals take instruction from her not because of her physical prowess or her political position, which has no more force as neither her world nor the Galactic Senate exists any longer, but because of her smarts, endurance, dedication, and sacrifice. She possesses super powers, but she doesn’t know that she has them, much less how to use them. Furthermore, while Lucas kept it vague to maintain his PG rating, the floating needle, a lovers’ kiss, a disgusting lick, and a metal bikini all hint at rites of passage or horrible violations. Lucas did not exempt her from the vulnerabilities of womanhood.
She endures and overcomes these challenges of state and sex without tapping into anything more than her own courage. Princess Leia should hold a more vaunted place in the heroine pantheon considering the iconic popularity of Star Wars. I used to think she didn’t get her due praise because Lucas did not understand her character, admitting in one of the many “making of” shows that when he was writing the final confrontation between Luke and Vader he had not yet worked out “the significance of the sister.” I’ve also suspected that Carrie Fisher playing Leia while in the bowels of heroin addiction hampered her ability to bring much power to the part by Return of the Jedi. Neither helped the character, but I think if she punched Han or sliced Jabba up rather than strangling him, we’d have more respect for her.
Lucas didn’t bother to close her story. The Extended Universe tried, but unlike many fans, I thought they failed. There were a few exceptions, Death Star, Tatooine Ghost, and the more recent Razor’s Edge. The nadir was The Courtship of Princess Leia, a truly awful bit of storytelling. But usually, the authors turned Leia into a modern everywoman who just happens to be in space. That is merely a setting change and far, far less interesting than an examination of how the rules of the far, far away galaxy affect a heroic soul.