Return of the Feminist Role Model

The last time we saw Leia was with Luke Skywalker after Lando and Chewbacca went off in search of Han Solo. This could be interpreted as leaving the damsel to avoid the distress, or Leia could have stayed to make sure Luke was okay. Regardless, Leia was left instead of going to try and rescue the love of her life. But still, Leia returns as our feminist role model.

Return of the Jedi begins in a different way… We see a lot of Jabba’s palace, including the women he has dancing for him and tied up in chains. One of the main problems I have with Star Wars from a feminist perspective is how few women are properly featured within the films. Yes, we have a Leia and they are some women dotted around as extras here and there. However, Jabba’s women are shoved into the spotlight during the scenes at his palace and are essentially objectified. The only purpose they serve is for the male gaze – or Jabba’s gaze in this case – which is hardly encouraging for any women of any age watching this film.

After this disappointing beginning we see that an unidentified bounty hunter has brought in Chewbacca – however it is revealed that night that it is in fact Leia who has come to rescue Han Solo. She frees Han and soothes him when he panics after becoming conscious – explaining to him “I gotta get you out of here”. This is a nice role reversal for women in film. Rather than use the damsel in distress trope, it is Leia who conducts the rescue mission rather than any of the men in the film – and her actions are not questioned. However, this is short-lived when Jabba catches them, imprisons Leia and sentences Han and Luke to death.

The next time we see Leia we can see she is also a subject of the male gaze and objectification, forced to lie by Jabba in a revealing outfit. As the execution is taking place, Leia is seen to be loosening her chains despite Jabba keeping a tight grasp around her. He tells her, “Soon you will learn to appreciate me”. Leia seems to be completely trapped and when you watch this for the first time, you may fear the damsel in distress trope has returned. Of course, Leia never fails to disappoint and as soon as Luke, Han and Chewie are escaping from their fate Leia turns the power off and strangles Jabba to death with the chains he bound her in. Leia then frees herself from her chains using R2D2 and is rescued by Luke to get on board their escape ship. I think Leia killing Jabba is an important moment. Using the chains her freedom was bound by, Leia created a situation to free herself with those same chains. This is an important message for women and girls: don’t let something chain your freedom, and if it does – use what binds you to free yourself.

Once they are all safe Han thanks Luke for coming back for him, despite it being Leia that truly rescued him. However the audience are reminded of Leia’s integral importance through Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. It is here that Leia’s force sensitivity is suggested properly for the first time, that there is another Skywalker. Although this is the last real emphasis that is placed on Leia being force sensitive. It is a shame as it would have been progressive to have a female Jedi featured in the original trilogy. However, Leia’s skills also lie in diplomacy, which is an important role for a woman to have in this seemingly male dominated universe.

When there is a plan to infiltrate the new battle station on Endor, Leia is one of the first to volunteer to help Han, a role that she completely dedicates herself to. Not only do we see her return to action in Stormtrooper chases, but also we see her befriend and help the Ewoks, which provides them with an ally to defeat the Stormtroopers on Endor. This rapport between Leia and the Ewoks is also emphasised when a Stormtrooper captures her. Leia defeats the Stormtrooper thanks to the help of Wicket the Ewok. It is made clear she is very important to the Ewoks when Wicket takes her to meet the rest of the group.

Leia’s importance is also recognised by Luke Skywalker when he informs her they are siblings: “If I don’t make it back you’re the only hope for the alliance”. Although this is slightly big headed of Luke, I can see the sentiment is there. Obviously it is Luke that will ultimately need to bring balance to the force, but Leia’s contributions are invaluable to the cause and should not be held as ‘second place’. He follows on to say that Leia has always been strong, so it is clear that Luke only has kind and honourable intentions. However, Han also notices this moment and seems to interpret it in a different way – thinking that Luke and Leia are in love. Once again this reminds the audience of the love triangle that has been created between the three heroes. If you have read my previous posts you will know how I feel about this unnecessary love triangle. However, this is followed by a moment between Leia and Han where she asks him to hold her after he apologises for his behaviour. There is often a dichotomy between men and women in society, with the former being described as logical and the latter as emotional. I think this scene is an important move away from this stereotypical dichotomy. We can see both Han and Leia can portray both these traits – a progressive step for breaking traditional gender roles.

When the Battle of Endor commences, Leia covers for Han using a blaster whilst he tries to hotwire the bunker, however she is shot and they are caught. Leia uses her good arm to shoot both Stormtroopers so they can escape and gain control of the bunker. This is a pivotal moment in the film as it allows them to disarm the deflector shields in order to enable the rebels to attack the Death Star.

Meanwhile, Luke has been battling with his father Vader, who has eventually seen the light side and sacrifices himself for his son. In Vader’s death scene, Leia is barely mentioned and it seems to be a truly father and son moment. Although in a sense I can appreciate this, Vader has met Leia but not when he was aware of her parentage. Luke is the only child he has ever known, however on the other hand excluding Leia from this moment is unfair on her character. This moment is again emphasised at the end of the film when Vader returns in the form of Anakin’s spirit with Obi-Wan and Yoda – it is only Luke that can see them. This firmly plants the message that despite everything, Leia does not receive the hero’s ending. Unfortunately, the ending that Leia receives is the knowledge that she assisted in defeating the Empire and her reward, which seems to be the love of Han Solo.

These achievements should not be belittled. Leia played a key part in the defeat of the Empire, however I feel her role has not been emphasised enough. The final time we see Leia she is with Han Solo, rather than being able to see her father and the man she asked for help for in the first place, Obi-Wan. Leia is a strong female character and a role model for all, however the ending of the Return of the Jedi did not necessarily do her the justice she deserved.

 

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