Princess Leia and Old-School Heroines

The great thing about the Internet is you can probably find someone who says what you’ve been thinking, and better than you would. Over at Grim’s Hall, as part of a discussion about Rogue One and other Star Wars things, Douglas said:

”It’s that ‘Mary Sue’ aspect of being exceptionally good at everything, from karate to engineering, in spite of being quite young. It’s an annoying weakness in the storytelling.”
Or it’s that they recycled the new feminist hero(ine) typology from the last film (and about every other action flick with a female lead), which we all know is silly. Watching some of the clips of Leia being shown because of Carrie Fisher’s passing, I realized that female leads used to be able to be both tough and feminine, able to keep up with the men, but not by being one of the men, and attractive instead of a dirty faced girl in guys clothes. Women used to be women. I liked it better that way.

5:05 AM”

He hit on what I’ve been musing about since I heard about Carrie Fisher’s collapse: Princess Leia and the current crop of heroines.

Every girl I knew wanted to be Princess Leia, white dresses, modified butterfly-buns, and all. She was a fairy-tale princess who wasn’t afraid to take charge when needed, and she looked very good doing it. Later, on Hoth, she set aside the dress for something warmer, but still womanly. She was the first among equals in a feminine way, a bit like Mon Mothma (what little we saw of her in the movies, far, far more in the novels that followed).

Leia is a lady. Yes, she’s a fantastic shot, she can be decisive, she cries and leans on others at times, but when everything hangs in the balance, she leads without dominating like so many “role models for girls” seem to. I keep thinking of the scene in Episode IV where they’ve just gotten to the moon of Yavin, and everyone is welcoming her and trying to extend their condolences, and she thanks them but reminds them that they have work that must be done first. On Endor she doesn’t loose her cool until it’s safe to do so. (Poor Han, that wonderful “what-in-the-heck-did-I-say-what-do-I-do-now” expression . . .) She did lose her temper a few times, had a few less-than-graceful moments, but you never, ever thought of her as a guy in a wig and heels. She was Princess Leia and never forgot it. And I think that was as important to the men she led as were her skills and strength. Yes, they all fought for the Rebellion, but looking back, I wonder how many of them also fought for her?

I miss that in the protagonists I’ve been crossing paths with in books and TV series. Women as leads can’t be womanly about it. They have to prove that they are magnificent fighters, able to do kung-fu in 4″ heels and a miniskirt, more expert than the experts, always out-doing the guys and reminding the world who is the boss. They often come across as female but not as ladies. They have Grrrrrrrl Power. I would not want to have to be seated near one at dinner and be asked to carry on a conversation.

Where are our womanly heroines? Honor Harrington can be very womanly at times, at least in the early (first six or so) books. There’s Princess Leia, Mon Mothma in the novels, and Lady Winter (also in the novels). Mary Catelli’s characters are wonderful examples of female characters who are strong and ladylike. But her stories and books are not on TV or on the silver screen (yet.) For all that Feminists deride the Disney Princesses, many of those characters are not exactly weak, meek, or ladylike when things get tense (Belle yes, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty yes, Mulan? the heroine in Tangled? Miranda? Elsa and Anna?) How do they support the people, including men, around them? How do they encourage, inspire, serve as models? Or do they use their tongues and other weapons to tear down people, to show that they are the powerful ones? I keep thinking back to the poem about MZB’s do’s and dont’s for submitting to the Sword and Sorceress series and the bit about “No Beowulf wearing a wig.”

Part of why Princess Leia has been on my mind is that I am in the third book of the RajWorld series. Auriga Bernardi is officially an adult, officially eligible to marry. And she wants to marry and start a family. How do I write her story so “Rigi stays Rigi,” as she puts it? She’s not a warrior. She’s not a leader. She’s just a young lady who is trying to live up to her faith and her culture’s expectations of what to do, while being Rigi, which includes being able to shoot, to draw, to nurse, and to cross species and cultural borders when necessary. And she’s 18, with all the tempests that come with being on the edge of adulthood (like her mother exploding when she discovers that her plans for Rigi’s coming-of-age presentation have been, ahem, shifted, by the Crown Governor. Rigi’s father won’t let Rigi run away unless she takes the rest of the household with her.) She’s a very different character from my usual, and I’m having to fight the impulse to add action or other currently trendy signs of Grrrrlll Power! to the story.

I think we, society in general and those of us with two X chromosomes in particular, need more womanly heroines. Heck, I’d like to see “heroine” instead of “female lead” or “female main character.” And womanly villainesses for that matter – the Dragon Lady in Terry and the Pirates was a heck of a woman and quite a lady in her own way. It’s just that her own way was . . . Yes, well. The evil queen in Snow White is a great example that women can be feminine and still evil, in fact it makes the tension and the evidence of villainy even stronger (Morgana in the Merlin TV series is another case).

Where are the women that men want to help, to protect, to defend, to follow? Not follow as battle leaders perhaps, but as knights following and aiding their ladies? Not put on a pedestal, not keep confined to the solar and audience chamber, but to honor, cherish, and come home to, to admire for their strength, courage, wisdom, and dignity as well as their skill and beauty?

We need more Princess Leia.



8 thoughts on “Princess Leia and Old-School Heroines

  1. Interesting perspective, brought to mind the Lara Croft movie and Jolie’s out manning every man in the movie. I personally think what is going on today is a reaction to the feminist movement and the ‘requirement’ that the female lead be better than everyone, stronger mentally and not needing ANY man for anything… Just my $.02 worth

    • I think you’re right. No one wants to deal with strident protestors decrying their movie/TV show/comic-book, and so we get the current crop of Mighty Wymyn. It will be interesting to see if that changes over the next few years, if more people feel able to say, “Um, no, there are other ways for a woman to be strong besides bench-pressing an elephant.”

      • I concur, because I’ve seen a lot of the ‘this needs more strong female characters’ demand. Apparently essentially defined as critics describe it. One-Punch Man in a wig with the entirely Flanderized version of Edajima Heihachi’s social skills.

  2. I recently started thinking about imitating something I read, except in space with a ninja protagonist. I knew I wanted some sort of ninja cognate, but did not want a seducing or manipulating type female ninja. I knew I needed a reason for her get into the mess, but couldn’t find it. This is one of my missing pieces.

    I don’t know how to do it, but then I don’t really know how to write a ninja either.

  3. I agree. Well balanced women are rare in science fiction and fantasy these days. I especially enjoy stories where the women are doing the things men either can’t or won’t do but still need to be done.

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