I remember the first time I watched Star Wars.
I was a kid in the 80s. My family was watching a VHS copy of Star Wars: A New Hope.
We saw the white armor-plated Imperial Stormtroopers board a Rebel vessel. We heard C3PO fret about “the princess.” Then we saw Princess Leia load a disc onto the R2D2 droid.
I was brought up on old school Disney movies and first generation Mario Bros games. I knew what princesses did. They wore pretty dresses, got captured, fainted and had to rely on being beautiful enough for the male heroes to consider them worth rescuing.
It was a simple formula.
When I first saw Princess Leia, I was not very impressed. Yeah, she had the flowy white gown on but it was very underwhelming. Leia was just wearing a white turtleneck with some sheets draped over it. It looked slapped-together.
(By the way, what was it about sci-fi movies in the 70s always putting their main characters in turtlenecks? Did people during the Carter years really think turtlenecks were the future?)
Anyway, back to Princess Leia
I was young and my first impression of Leia was very “meh.” I didn’t like Princess Leia’s hair. The two iconic buns tied around her ears did not please me. Everyone knew that princesses needed long flowing blond hair, not something that looked like a pilot’s helmet with headphones.
Princess Leia’s expressions also threw me. She never seemed scared. She wasn’t pleading or seductive or kind. Princess Leia didn’t traipse through nature singing songs to her woodland friends.
Princess Leia looked grim. She looked like my second grade teacher when I had forgotten to do my math homework.
By my Disneyfied elementary school definition of “princess,” however, Princess Leia did have some “princess” qualities in her during that first scene in A New Hope. When the Stormtroopers confronted Leia, she immediately ran and hid. It was a very expected princess maneuver.
And then, and I’ll never forget this shot, we saw Princess Leia again. She had not fainted. She had not screamed for help. Instead, we saw Princess Leia lean back into the frame with a studied expression, staring at the Stormtroopers.
And Princess Leia was holding a gun.
I know this sounds weird, but this shot of Princess Leia with a gun preparing to ambush Stormtroopers who had just surprised her completely blew my pre-adolescent mind.
I didn’t know women could FIGHT BACK!
I didn’t know that someone who was a friggin’ PRINCESS could do things like ambush enemy soldiers in a fake-retreat-rearguard-attack maneuver. Like, wait, what?
Now granted, Princess Leia’s ambush attack didn’t get her very far. She shot the Stormtroopers, missed, ran again and this time was hit by a Stormtrooper blaster.
Still, that iconic shot of Princess Leia quietly leaning into the frame while holding a gun peaked a lot of girls into feminism. The idea that women didn’t have to run away but could stay and fight was a welcome inversion of the feminine paradigm.
I wouldn’t consider Star Wars to be a feminist movie. That galaxy long, long ago and far, far away seemed to be populated only by men and Princess Leia. Star Wars does not pass the Bechdel Test by any stretch of the imagination.
That being said Princess Leia with that gun in A New Hope is an icon.
Seeing a woman possess a stereotypically lacey title like “Princess” while being a rebel leader, military strategist, soldier and assassin broke a lot of female character norms at the time.
And, needless to say, I like her hair now!