Reviewers of Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) all like to relate Klosterman’s theory of Star Wars. The theory goes like this: For male fans, the character they identify with most in childhood is the innocent Luke Skywalker; in adolescence and early adulthood, the roguish Han Solo; and in middle age, the choice-haunted Darth Vader. (Klosterman’s theory evidently ignores the more recently released prequels, as should we all.)
For fans hoping to identify with a female character, there’s only Princess Leia. Token female characters in ensemble casts are nothing new, of course, but what I’ve always loved about Leia is that she isn’t just eye candy, or a way to create vulnerability in a male character to set up a plot twist. In fact, because there are so many one-note male archetypes, and Leia has to interact with all of them, she ends up being the most well-developed character of the bunch. And because movies are a visual medium, Leia’s multitudes show up in her costumes.
I therefore propose the following three stages of Leia for the three ages of female fan.
The Leia of childhood must obviously be the first Leia we see, the princess rushing to upload critical intelligence to R2D2 and get him safely on an escape pod before the Empire boards her ship and captures her. Princess Leia’s flowing, high-necked white gown and cinnamon-bun hairdo is feminine but not remotely sexy—the right note for a fangirl old enough to recognize differences between the sexes but still young enough to want to dress like her mom, not Wonder Woman. The defining pain of childhood is, I think, not being taken seriously by adults, and Leia’s apparent girlishness here makes the fact that the biggest baddie in the galaxy considers her such a threat that he sends an army after her immensely satisfying.
The teenage girl gravitates toward Leia the slave, wearing a skimpy metal bikini as the prisoner of gangster Jabba the Hutt. It’s no coincidence that this is the Leia of a billion wet dreams—but I think what speaks to girls is not the amount of attention she gets so much as the fact that she doesn’t even have to try to attract it. At any age, beauty carries with it the pernicious illusion of security and power; for a teenage girl feeling perilously short on both, Slave Leia’s over-the-top sex appeal seduces with the most exquisite promise of relief.
For a grown woman, finally, I think the most appealing version of Leia is the one who fights in the Rebellion’s final stand on Endor, where she wears the same helmet, pants, and camouflage poncho as the men. Her role as a soldier here is not a particularly overt updending of gender conventions—her big, subversive Girl Power moment came earlier, when she rescued her lover, Han, from his carbon-freeze prison—but its matter-of-factness was pretty radical for 1983, and long after. Like Alien’s Ellen Ripley, Leia’s R-rated film contemporary, she kicks ass alongside the guys because it’s her job, and they trust her to do it. (Unlike Ellen Ripley, Leia was not originally written as a male.) Leia’s experience during the battle of Endor is basically a woman’s workplace fantasy—she even got to spend a little time away from the action with a small, childlike race before returning, as an equal, to the fight.
The seventh installation of Star Wars is due out in two years, and Carrie Fisher is rumored to be reprising the role of Leia. Fisher is 56 years old now, making Leia about the right age to, say, lead the Republic? I see her walking and talking, West Wing-style, through the corridors of the Galactic Senate in some version of the pantsuit she briefly wore on Bespin—which seemed too old and formal for her in that scene, but which would suit Supreme Chancellor Leia Organa quite well. And if trouble did happen to break out on Coruscant, and if Leia did happen to have to pick up a gun again—well, a female president action hero needs some practical trousers, doesn’t she?
A 36-year-old fangirl needs something to look forward to in middle age, after all.