Tuesday, January 12, 2016

I Didn't Want to Be Princess Leia

Spoilers for The Force Awakens.

For me and my little brother, Star Wars was a giant playground for the imagination. As soon as we saw Episode IV, our play became inhabited with lightsabers and broken hyperdrives. An unending stream of faceless badguys chased us through maze-like starships, and our bravery sometimes resulted in lost limbs, replaced with cybernetic enhancements so cool Luke Skywalker would be jealous.

I always dreamed of Force powers. Sometimes I'd stare around my room at night trying to imagine that I had nudged the clock just a little bit to the left.

Luke had everything I wanted: the Force, a lightsaber, and a battle to fight.

Han Solo had the persona I wanted. I wanted to be the independent rogue, sweeping in to save the day and swooping out again before anyone could induct me into the Rebels. I wanted a ship of my own that I could love, live in, and fix with my two hands so I never had to depend on anybody.

I never really wanted to be Princess Leia.

I can't remember the number of times I rescued princesses or distressed damsels and dons in my play, the number of times I recreated Luke's heroic swing across the breach with Leia in my arms. I was always a war hero. Never a princess.

Don't get me wrong, Leia is awesome. I loved the way she has it all together when the boys come to break her out, takes action to rescue frozen Han, and watches out for herself on Endor.

But Leia isn't the hero. We all know that. The protagonist of this story is Luke. In my stories I, like all of us, wanted to be the hero.

The other problem is that Leia is powerful in a certain way. She's good at command and collecting and assimilating information. She's a strong woman who wears her hair in ornate up-dos just because and constantly dresses in skirts even though she always ends up running at some point. She speaks forceful truth with biting elocution, the only politician most of us will ever cheer for.

Leia even takes her power back after being turned into a sex toy, killing the slug who enslaved her without help from anyone.

Leia Organa is totally a feminist icon.

But there are many types of women. The reason we have side characters is because people are different: other characters will think, do, and react differently than our protagonist. There are many different women, and so there need to be many kinds of female characters. We need different kinds of women in stories so that all of us get to see ourselves somewhere.

Yet most sci-fi, even the best stuff, from Star Wars to Stargate SG1, shows a bunch of different personalities and one lone female in the mix. Men can choose from a myriad of heroes like themselves, but women have only one to get behind, like it or not.

Princess Leia is strong and awesome, but she's not me. She's too pretty, doesn't have Force powers or lightsaber skills, and doesn't get down in the dirt enough. Her job is to command a fleet, not fire a weapon.

And then we got Rey.

She's dirty and rough and lives by herself, finding her own way in the world. She knows technology like the back of her hand and figures out how to drive the best ship in the galaxy in the span of a few minutes while being chased by TIE fighters. A halo of frizz surrounds her face, she's smudgy and oil-stained, and she gets visibly sweaty.

And she has the Force. Her don't-mess staff skills translate into some pretty kickass lightsaber moves for a beginner. She's the protagonist and the new Luke Skywalker of this trilogy, and she also slips seamlessly into Han Solo's old chair.

Rey is everything I wanted to be.

Every time I watch her race across the screen, I want to cheer and happy-cry. I so rarely see a mirror of myself in movies. I do rejoice at every strong female character and still love watching male heroes doing the jobs I imagine I would do in their shoes. I grew up thinking that constantly translating male heroism to my female existence was life.

But it's magical to see the heroine you always pictured yourself as waltz across the film.

Of course, Rey might not be your type like she is mine. She might not be the kind of woman you, or your mom, or BFF, or daughter wants to be, or the kind of woman you want to date. That's fine. There's room for both Princess Leia and Rey in this galaxy--room for Padme and every other woman who dreams of being a hero in her own different way. Maybe, in the coming years, room for all of us in movies, too.

If you're a princess, not a scavenger, Star Wars: The Force Awakens still has something important for you. It shows something we almost never see: an unobjectified woman.

Nothing about Rey is meant to be either attractive or unattractive: she's not a sex icon and not an anti-sex-icon. She's a girl who cares about down-and-outers whether human or not, who stays faithful when others don't, and ugly-cries when her friends get hurt. The question of her sexiness isn't something I can even fathom, any more than I could answer the question of whether John McClane of Die Hard was sexy. That's not what it's about. 

It's something I wish I'd seen before the world taught me to view my body through the eyes of others. Maybe that's what makes Rey particularly special to me: she truly is what I wanted to be, back before I understood female bodies are social currency.

Now, who's ready for Episode VIII?

Word count: 967.