For those of you who don’t read my own personal blog (and you’re certainly not obligated to), I recently posted an angry, possibly coherent rant about some people’s belief that Leia appears as a more empowered, feminist character in ‘Empire Strikes Back’ than she does in ‘Star Wars’, despite large amounts of extremely blatant textual evidence to the contrary. (Suffice to say when your reaction to being in a strange, unfamiliar, possibly dangerous situation is, “I’m going to go find a pretty dress and get my hair done, then sit in my room and wait for the menfolk to come back and tell me what’s going on!” …you fail at empowerment.)
And I was discussing the idea with my wife, who is a very smart woman and a feminist, and we were bouncing around the idea of what ‘Empire’ might look like if Leia was actually treated like the strong, fearless, intelligent woman she was in the original ‘Star Wars’, rather than the Ice Princess Who Just Needs A Big Strong Man To Tell Her What To Do in ‘Empire’. And she suggested I blog about it. The rules: Change the actual plot as little as possible, while having Leia do things that an actual well-written, well-developed female character would do as opposed to a whiny damsel in distress.
First off, the sexual banter between Han and Leia would change. Less of the Slap Slap Kiss bullshit that fans have been conditioned to believe is an actual romantic relationship by decades of seeing women suddenly go gooey in films over guys who have been total assholes to them, and more actual, um…banter. Instead of telling Han she doesn’t like him because A Woman Doesn’t Know Her Own Mind and Needs a Man To Show Her Who She’s Interested In By Forcibly Sexing Her Up…(the classic “AWDKHOMANAMTSHWSIIBFSHU” trope…) Leia knows perfectly well that she’s attracted to Han, but she’s also a little annoyed that he knows that she knows and that he’s acting more than a little smug about it. So she flirts with him in a way that puts him just a little off-balance, because Han’s the kind of cocky guy who needs to be put off-balance in at least one area of his life because it tempers his exuberant confidence. Han, for his part, is playing along because he knows Leia is worth it and he’s pretty sure it’s just an act. (Pretty sure.)
From there, we cruise through to the first major “Leia gets to hold the Idiot Ball because she’s a woman” moment, the escape from Hoth. In the film, Han realizes that Leia has stayed too long and is in danger, he informs the Rebel command that he’ll be taking her off planet, and he practically carries her off over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Leia is portrayed as passive, whiny, and naive, while Han gets to demonstrate his superior judgment and discusses with a MAN what to do about this whole “woman” situation while Leia gets no input at all.
In the revised version, Leia stays longer deliberately. She risks her own life to make sure that the Ion Cannon stays operational until the last transport has left, then heads for the Falcon’s hangar. Han is shocked to find her still on-planet, but she explains that she had a plan all along: hitch a ride on the Falcon. “But I told you I was leaving five hours ago!” he said. “You also said you had one last minor repair to the Falcon,” she responds. “I figured you’d still be here when it was time for me to leave.”
At that point, things go roughly the way they do in the film for a while, with one key difference: Leia operates the gun turrets while Han and Chewie fly/fix the ship. Because as we saw in the first movie, there is a turret that can be operated independently of the cockpit, and Leia isn’t the kind of person to sit passively by and watch other people do the rescuing when she can pick up a gun and start shooting. She might not be as good of a shot as Han or Luke, but she can at least make the Imperial pilots nervous. (Oh, and that also means Leia’s primary role during this section of the movie isn’t to sit there whining about each decision Han makes, only to be proved wrong by his manly manliness that manfully mans up at every turn.)
Jump ahead past the kiss (which would still happen, although again, without the “Oh, I don’t like scoundrels like you,” “Sure you do, you just don’t know it yet. Once I commit sexual assault against you, you’ll realize you love me!” “Oh, hey! I guess I do!” bullshit) to Bespin and Lando. Here, instead of spending all her time changing outfits and getting her hair done, Leia decides to ingratiate herself to Lando using her diplomatic skills, and see if she can’t get a few strings pulled to get a message out to the Rebel Alliance (an actual sensible, active thing for a major character to do in that situation.) Instead, she comes back to Han and tells him that Lando is being evasive. There are areas of the city he won’t show them, he avoids letting them use the communications systems, and he won’t give a straight answer as to what’s wrong with the Falcon. She suggests that Han and Chewie keep an eye on the repairs at all times, while she goes looking for Threepio. (Again, note the active decision making, instead of just letting other people do things while she whines.)
Of course, they get captured anyway, they get tortured (and the suggestion Timothy Zahn made would be more explicit here, which is that Leia is actually tougher under torture than Han…after all, she wouldn’t give up the location of the Yavin base despite torture and drugs)…and Han gets frozen in carbonite. From there, things would progress pretty much as normal, because Leia becomes a more active character once Han is out of the picture. (Still not fond of the “Leia gets a flash of
woman’s intuition Jedi insight” sequence, but that’s something that could be handled better if it was foreshadowing for Leia actually using Jedi powers in ‘Return of the Jedi’.)
The point of all this? Only that it is possible to handle Leia as an active, decisive, intelligent, emotionally-mature female character without losing the essential plot of ‘Empire’. The fact that they didn’t do this isn’t a reflection of some insoluble plot conundrum, it’s a reflection of laziness and a reliance on stereotypes of female behavior on the part of the writers. And this is the “best” Star Wars flick?