The first princess I ever wanted to be was not created by Disney. She did wear a long dress, have spectacular hair, and get locked up by a villain in a cape, but the moment her handsome rescuers arrived, she started calling the shots. Literally. She grabbed a blaster and improvised an escape plan that involved diving into a garbage disposal.
Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, was the first character who showed me that women can be action heroes.
From the moment I watched her stand up to fearsome Darth Vader and take over her own rescue mission, she became my go-to heroine. Leia is courageous, defiant, smart, resourceful, combat-trained, and not about to let a man tell her what to do. Like all kids, I had no concept that things existed before I was born, so when I watched the original Star Wars movies in the ‘90s, I didn’t realize they were over a decade old. To me, Leia fit perfectly into my world of “Girl Power,” which told us that being a girl was an honor, not a hindrance. We could achieve what the boys do and more, and we could do it wearing lipstick and a complicated hairdo if we wanted.
I clung so tightly to Leia as child because she was the only major female character in those movies. And in the action film genre, she certainly felt like one of the only female characters to possess the guts and smarts to match the men.
Leia became such an icon that directors seemed to believe that they only had to dump one “strong female character” in a movie for it to be a hit with girls as well as boys (non-binary characters weren’t even on the agenda). In most of the scenes from that first Star Wars film, Leia is the lone female warrior surrounded by men. Her tenacity, heroism, and willingness to fight make her an exception among women, not the rule. And of course, she had to be stunningly beautiful and painfully thin so that heterosexual men would not be turned off by her boldness.
Yet I never thought about Leia as being the object of someone else’s lust. That’s partly because I was young, but mostly because Carrie Fisher made sure that Leia was never just eye candy.