Thursday, 13 February 2020

Heroine Fix: Rebel Spy, Princess, and General: Let's Look At Leia

Heroine Fix is a monthly feature where I examine heroines who have inspired and influenced my own writing.  I want to take a closer look at why they've become real to me, despite being fictional.  Warning: this post will contain spoilers, including for The Rise of Skywalker.

It's really hard to overestimate the impact that Star Wars had on me.  I don't even remember watching it originally.  It seemed as if I just always knew the story.  Even today, it surprises me when I find someone who hasn't watched it.  I want to talk about Leia Organa, played by the supremely funny and talented Carrie Fisher, and why it has slowly dawned on me that the entire series should have been done from her point of view.

Luke Skywalker is fine and cool.  Han Solo is entertaining and awesome.  But, in my opinion, Leia outclasses them all.  Let's look at her story.  (I'm only looking at what happens in the films.  I realize there's a lot of other material out there as well, but I'm focusing on the 6 movies with her character.)

Buckle up.  This is going to be a long one, celebrating the awesomeness of our Princess-General.

Episode 4: A New Hope

While Luke is wandering around Tatooine and hanging around Tosche Station looking for the power converters, Leia is representing Alderaan in the Imperial Senate, and being a major player in the underground Rebellion.  She receives the secret plans for the Death Star and is on a mission to recruit Obi Wan Kenobi to assist the Rebellion.

When she is caught by Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, she is defiant.  She puts the plans in R2-D2 and sends him down to Tatooine to find Kenobi.  She fires on the stormtroopers assaulting her ship.  Tarkin confronts her and she snarks back at him without hesitation.  Vader and Tarkin subject her to interrogation but she is too strong willed to surrender the information they seek.  They take the Death Star to Alderaan and threaten to blow the planet if she doesn't tell them where to find the Rebellion.  She meekly tells them "Dantooine" (which is a complete and bold-faced lie, proving that she is one very impressive lady under pressure).  The Empire blows up Alderaan anyway, killing everyone that Leia knows.

I want to take a moment to really examine this moment.  In the movie, the focus is on the evilness of the Empire.  There's no real effort to see Leia's pain.  She's sent back to her interrogation cell to await execution.  I imagine that she must have spent the hours between the destruction of Alderaan and the arrival of the rescue party being devastated.  The reality would have probably taken a long time to sink in.  Humans just aren't equipped to process that scale of loss.  And yet, during those hours, she also found the strength to keep fighting the Empire.

When a random stormtrooper bursts into her cell, she isn't impressed, dismissing him.  When Luke reveals himself, she's cautious.  It isn't until he mentions that he's with Kenobi that she goes with him.  She sees that the rescue is sadly lacking in the "plan" department and takes over, shooting out the garbage chute with cool efficiency.  Inside the garbage dump, she counters Han's impulsive instincts.  Without Leia's decisive action, there is a good chance that none of them would have made it back to the Millennium Falcon.

She is the one that recognizes the Empire allowed them to escape the Death Star.  Although it is not shown, I imagine that she must have argued with Han about going directly back to the Rebellion.  The woman who didn't hesitate to stand toe to toe with Vader and Moff isn't going to balk at confronting a smuggler pilot.  Since Han and Chewie wouldn't have known where to find the Rebellion, she must have eventually told them.  I find myself wondering why.

My theory is that this is a sign of Leia's trauma in this film.  She makes a reckless atypical decision because she needs to get back to the only family she has left: the Rebellion.  The Rebel forces are the only chance she has at avenging her planet's destruction.  So she ignores her instincts and ends up leading the Death Star to the Rebel base on Yavin 4.

During the journey, she takes the time to comfort Luke over the death of Kenobi.  Many people have pointed out that no one seems to even realize that Leia herself would need comfort.  However, I choose to see that as a moment of showing who Leia truly is.  Even though she is in pain, she still reaches out to others.  She is kind and loving, as well as being strong and determined.  She doesn't lose sight of either the big or small scale.

She is curiously absent from the battle.  Again, I would guess that she could well have gone into shock when the Death Star appeared.  I like to think that someone finally realized what she was going through and took care of her.  The next we see of her is when Luke hugs her in celebration at successfully blowing up the Death Star.

At the end of the movie, Leia presides over the medal ceremony in which Luke and Han are awarded medals for their role in the battle of Yavin 4.  (They should have also given one to Chewie.  That's a fact but aside from the point here.)  She takes on the ceremonial role, one she likely did many times as a princess of Alderaan.  She recognizes that the Rebellion cannot survive if all they do is fight.  They need to have moments and symbols of victory or else they would get burned out.  That recognition is what makes her a valuable and potent leader.  Again, I would have liked to have known if she had any moments of doubt about continuing and what got her through them.

Luke is the newcomer to the struggle, which allows him to serve as a stand-in for the audience and have things explained to him.  However, it also would have been narratively possible to explain things from Leia's point of view as someone who suffers incomprehensible personal loss at the hands of the Empire and who chooses to fight back.  Not making her the main character and focus of the series was a choice.

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Empire starts with the rebel base on the ice planet of Hoth.  Leia is clearly a leader, managing hundreds of people.  She and Han are obviously at odds.  He taunts her when she tries to recruit him, saying that she only wants him around because he knows she has feelings for him.  I find it interesting that Han is so clearly intimidated by Leia.  He can be respectful with everyone else, but not with her.  His accusations are classic psychological projection, assuming that she feels the way he does.  He unsettles her because he doesn't fit into her expected categories. He's a good guy, but not a hero.  He's a rogue, but has honor.  But even though he is a major pain, she recognizes his good qualities and value to the Rebellion.

I can't talk about Leia's character arc without mentioning the retro-conned incestuous kiss between her and Luke.  Even in the story, it's a clear moment of defiance against Han's pestering (made evident by the way she glares at him as soon as the kiss is done).  And it works!  We can see that Han is thrown completely off his stride by the gesture.

But what I would have liked to see is what was going on with Leia in that moment.  She has taken refuge in the practical.  She's not allowing herself to feel.  I think that's the other reason why Han unsettles her so much.  He's always going on about her feelings, refusing to see her as the leader she is.  It has to have been a confusing and difficult time for her and she doesn't quite seem to know how to handle it.

When the Empire attacks, she manages the evacuation, staying to make sure everyone gets out.  Her escape is cut off, forcing her to flee with Han on the Falcon.  I'm sure it was the last thing she wanted, to be trapped on a small spaceship with the one guy she's been trying to avoid.  Which brings us to the next most controversial moment with Leia and Han, their first kiss.

There's no denying that Han's actions are predatory.  He traps her against the bulkhead, refusing to release her hand when she asks, and insists he knows what she's thinking despite her protests to the contrary.  She slips away as soon as C3P0 distracts him.

Most women have experienced the emotional challenge of having to come to terms with a guy that she likes pushing things too far.  It's confusing and hurtful, often leading to a lack of confidence and questioning oneself.  We never see Leia go through this process, and it would have been a powerful moment for her character.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it, but when the Falcon lands in Cloud City, Leia's body language is nervous.  She seems to avoid Han's touch while also trying to not look like she's avoiding it.  She is the one who suspects that Lando isn't the ally he claims to be, a concern that Han brushes aside, only to be proven right when Darth Vader shows up at the dinner table.

Once again, she is strangely passive once captured by the Empire.  Or perhaps not that strangely at all, given that the last time she openly defied them, an entire planet paid the price.  But even though she doesn't take direct action, she is watching closely, waiting for an opportunity.

The moment where she breaks free from the stormtroopers to tell Han that she loves him is still a moment that tugs on my heartstrings.  She doesn't quite seem sure about what she feels, but she needs to say it in case this is the last opportunity.  His "I know" in reply leaves her uncertain but also seems to shock her into action.

She resumes her role as leader, guiding Chewie and the droids to escape.  When they run into Lando, it's Leia's decision whether or not to trust him or let Chewie kill him.  The escape is also the first glimmer of Leia being able to use the Force.  She is the one who realizes that Luke is dangling from the antenna and needs them to rescue him.

The movie ends with Leia's determination to fight being renewed.  Unlike the frantic undertone of the initial scenes on Hoth, she moves with calm purpose.  She's become an irresistible force, ready to sweep aside the Empire and rescue Han.

Episode 6: Return of the Jedi

Return is my favourite of the original trilogy, perhaps because it was the one I had a bootleg VHS copy of and thus watched over and over.  It begins with the classic Wookie Gambit, pretending to capture Chewie in order to gain access to Jabba the Hutt's palace.  The bounty hunter uses a thermal detonator to successfully negotiate with Jabba.  In the background, we see Lando Calrissian, undercover as one of Jabba's gang.  Then the bounty hunter thaws Han from the carbonite and reveals herself to be Leia.

As a kid, I loved that reveal.  She had obviously set up a whole plan to rescue Han, getting Lando in place and then pretending to deliver Chewie to Jabba.  I thought she was so badass for threatening to blow everyone up if she didn't get the price she wanted, even though she'd already gotten what she needed.

Of course, it doesn't go well.  It turns out that Jabba knew about the rescue and captures Han and Leia.  This is to set up the plot of having them rescued by Luke, but I want to take a moment to explore what Leia must have gone through in these moments.

As a kid, I was grossed out by Jabba licking Leia's face with his slimy tongue, but didn't really think about what happened beyond that.  As an adult, the sequence takes on a horrifying implication, one further solidified by the fact that when we next see Leia, she is wearing the infamous gold bikini and a chain collar.  It's never covered explicitly, but I find it hard to believe that the extent of Jabba's actions are a leer and dressing her in a highly sexualized outfit.

Leia never mentions being assaulted, which is in keeping with how she often keeps her pain to herself.  (Incidentally, I think this stoicism is because Lucas treated her pain as a plot device, never really seeing it as affecting her as a person or character.)  However, if we assume that being private about her trauma is actually a facet of who she is, then it adds extra weight to the few times she does allow herself to react.  When she strangles Jabba with the chains he put on her, I choose to believe that is her moment of striking back for what he'd done to her.  She blows up the ship, even though it's not strictly necessary for the escape, because she wants to burn the location of her humiliation to the ground.

We don't know what happened between the flight from Jabba's palace and the meeting with Mon Mothma to plan to destroy the second Death Star.  Leia is cheerful at the briefing, whispering sardonic comments to Han and gleefully volunteering to be part of the mission to bring down the shield protecting the incomplete planet killer.  She seems unusually free, as if a weight has been removed from her.  Maybe it's because she finally had a chance to fight back against one of the many injustices done to her.

She is separated from the others on the forest moon of Endor, after chasing down a set of scouting stormtroopers on speeder bikes.  She makes contact with the Ewoks, in a scene that I think really shows Leia's true nature.  She recognizes Wicket's nervousness and takes the time to reassure him.

Contrast that with Han's bluster and Luke's panic when they're caught in an Ewok net.  I can't help but think that the reason why Han and Luke end up as potential dinner while Leia is welcomed into the tribe is because she treated the Ewoks as equals from the beginning.

During the night, as they prepare to attack the shield generator in the morning, Luke takes Leia aside and asks her what she remembers of her mother.  This request has to seem weird and out of place.  Other military specialists would have shut him down, telling him to concentrate on the mission.  Leia tells him what she remembers, even though it isn't much and frankly is none of his business (at least from her perspective at this point).  He then drops the bombshell on her, that she is his sister and Darth Vader is their father.

Leia handles the revelation far more calmly than Luke does at the end of Empire.  She accepts it and immediately focuses on protecting Luke, urging him to leave so that Vader cannot sense him.  Luke tells her that he wants to redeem Vader and bring him back to the light.

I can only imagine what happens in Leia's head at that moment.  Back to the light?  Dude tortured me and blew up my planet.  He's personally killed thousands, maybe tens of thousands of people, including the children at the Jedi temple.  And you want to give him a chance to hurt even more of us?  If anyone has a right to protest Vader's redemption arc, it would be Leia.

But she doesn't.  It's important for Luke to try and thus she supports him, even at a cost to herself and the Rebellion as a whole.

Han confronts her a few moments later, accusing her of favouring Luke over him.  She deflects his anger, eventually telling him what she's just learned.  That she and Luke are twins and Han doesn't need to feel jealous.

It marks a turning point in their relationship.  She is confident and knows what she wants from Han.  He can't unsettle her any longer because she's found peace in herself.  His bluster and attitude become cute instead of irritating.  When she flips the infamous "I love you"/"I know" response on him in front of the blast doors of the shield generator, it's playful.  There's no sense of the desperation from Empire's moment.

That's pretty much the end of Leia's arc for the original trilogy.  She has a few more scenes but they're basically solely plot driven.  The focus is on Luke and his final confrontation with the Emperor and Vader.

No one ever asked Leia if she had second thoughts about killing Vader once she learned that he was her father.  Or if she had any emotional reaction to his death.  Vader sacrificed himself to protect Luke but was willing to kill her without hesitation.  That has to have been difficult to come to terms with.

Leia undergoes as much of a hero arc as Luke, but isn't given the narrative time to react emotionally.  We have to guess at what she's experiencing, using the subtle cues in Fisher's superb performance.

Unfortunately, this is a pattern that continues into the sequel trilogy.

Between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens

We know what must have happened between these two movies.

- Leia begins her Jedi training with Luke.
- She marries Han and has a son with him
- Her son goes to the Dark Side of the Force
- Leia quits the Republic's Senate and goes back to her Rebellion roots, resisting the rise of the First Order
- Han takes off and starts gallivanting around the galaxy with Chewie again

Despite all of this heartache, Leia continues to fight.  Unlike her brother, who goes on permanent Jedi retreat, she digs down and keeps going.  When we first see her in The Force Awakens, she is clearly weary but determined.  She comes to Han's rescue (based on their dialogue and body language, I'd guess it wasn't the first time she'd done it) and organizes the assault on Starkiller base.

The biggest POV injustice is that other than a brief glance, we don't see Leia having to cope with the knowledge that her son kills the love of her life.  Even though she must have been horribly devastated, once again, she pulls it together to offer comfort to someone else, in this case, Rey.

The movie where Leia comes the closest to coming into her own was The Last Jedi.  She gets blasted into space and brings herself back to the ship.  She keeps a close rein on Poe, trying to temper his impulsive instincts toward the grand gesture.  When they're trapped in the crystal caves on Crait, she holds firm to her courage, knowing the others are watching her.

There's a beautiful moment where Luke and Leia talk.  Based on her expression, I think she knows that he's saying goodbye to her.  One more person from her past is gone, and Leia still finds the courage to keep going.

It's no secret that the original plan was for Rise of Skywalker to focus on Leia's goodbye to the franchise.  Unfortunately, Carrie Fisher passed away, forcing the narrative hand.

I think that the original idea was for Leia to be the one who talks Kylo Ren back to the Light on the crashed Death Star.  She would have shown Rey and Kylo that fighting each other isn't what the Force wants.  (Though, full disclosure, I am not a Reylo fan.  The two of them have a brother-sister vibe in my opinion.)

I loved the scenes of Leia training Rey, teaching her to connect to the Jedi of old.  That's the powerful message of the sequel trilogy for me, that we are more powerful when we connect than when we seek to tear each other apart or keep one another down.  Whenever the characters work together, things go much better than when they are fighting each other.

Leia was a Jedi who mastered love, compassion, and protecting those under her care.  She suffered huge, devastating losses, probably more than anyone else in the series.  And she never gave in to darkness or despair.  From what we see, she was never even tempted by the Dark Side.  That makes her a fascinating character to me and one of my favourite Heroine Fixes.

Previous post: Reclaiming My HEA: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

Previous Heroine Fix: Bluffing with Molly Bloom, looking at the differences between the book and movie for Molly's Game.

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