This Is What 'Star Wars' Taught Me About Feminism

We're just about two weeks from the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and if you listen hard enough, you can hear the collective excitement of nerds around the world. As the latest addition to the franchise, The Force Awakens is predicted to be more feminist than previous offerings, but our only real clues so far from the trailer are more female characters who appear to be less helpless. Which is great, but it doesn't necessarily equate feminism. But I'm about to make the unpopular argument that the original movies were feminist — and they taught me a ton about being a strong, powerful, empowered, and confident woman.

I know what you're thinking: How can a movie franchise with, like, two female characters be feminist? I'm definitely not suggesting we should put a picture of George Lucas next to the word "feminism" in the dictionary. The first six Star Wars movies have some extremely problematic tendencies, which include lack of female representation, as well as lack of representation of people of color and LGBTQIA+ characters. Women are also frequently sexually objectified in the films (hello, gold bikini). But still, I believe the films' feminist legacy, while being most likely unintentional, is also undeniable.

Like many people, I grew up watching the Star Wars movies, playing with my cousin's model death star in his basement, going to the premieres of the prequels at the movie theatre. I was always the only girl; all the cousins my age were boys, and I was one of the youngest, so I always felt the need to prove myself when it came to things like jumping off of stuff and knowing a lot of Simpsons quotes. But unlike some things my boy cousins loved that I just tolerated (video games, Family Guy), I always genuinely loved Star Wars. There was one reason for that, and her name was Leia.

Leia may be a princess, but she's not your typical princess. I've got nothing against femininity, but it just never resonated with me as a kid. Leia was feminine in some ways, but she was also a total badass. She could wield a weapon and fly a spaceship, and she wasn't afraid to stand up for herself in any situation. She'd go toe-to-toe with some pretty nasty dudes and not even bat an eyelash. She was fearless and independent, and her hair was iconic. But the reason why I related to much to Leia (and of course, I didn't figure this out until years later) was because she was the only girl in a sea of dudes, just like I was.

Family was everything to me growing up. There were so many of us, and my cousins were really my only friends. They loved me, but they also left me behind a lot. I just didn't get it; I couldn't make accurate gun noises with my mouth, I didn't know any good swear words, and I was extremely lacking in hand-eye coordination. I was also very timid and had no clue whatsoever how to stand up for myself when my cousins teased me or made me feel left out. Watching Princess Leia, though, and the way she carried herself so surely and powerfully in a world of men who wanted to patronize her and treat her like she didn't know anything, gave me a feeling of deep, calming satisfaction.

Someday, I could learn to stand up for myself the way she could. And I did.

Not only was Leia a positive representation of womanhood (at least, for me), but she was also my ticket into a world that I was normally excluded from by default. My cousins loved wrestling and action movies, where if women had roles, they were completely passive and not a part of the actual plot. Yet another reason to feel like I didn't belong, or I wasn't welcome, or I didn't understand. But with Leia (and later, to a lesser degree, Padme), I was there.

Leia was an important character, and I understood her in a way that my cousins couldn't. It was a wonderful, almost intimate feeling, as if Leia and I were sharing a secret. For once, even if it wasn't for long, she (and therefore, I), were on the inside looking out, instead of the other way around. And yeah, the gold bikini was sexualizing, and spawned the masturbatory fantasies of a generation of young people. But let's not forget that Leia single-handedly killed Jabba the Hut while she was wearing that gold bikini.

That's the part I always remembered.

I'm far from the only woman to grow up idolizing Princess Leia. It's a shame, to say the least, that filmmakers of the time were so completely disinterested in creating characters that would appeal to young girls. Recent movies like Frozen just go to show that young girls have a loud, powerful voice in the market, and they're desperate for representation that isn't just the same old princesses needing to be saved. Frozen is the highest grossing animated movie of all time, and the fifth highest grossing movie of all time. None of the Star Wars movies count themselves in that number, and I would argue that it has everything to do with only targeting your movie towards a male audience and ignoring women and girls almost completely.

Representation of women in media is slowly, painstakingly improving. Based on the trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the filmmakers clearly made an effort to right the wrongs of the past when it comes to roles for women and people of color in the franchise. I personally can't wait until my daughter is old enough to watch the movies with me, and I hope she relates to Leia as much as I always did. I also hope that the new movies will give her even more badass female characters to look up to.

Sure, there were a lot of not-so-feminist things about the original Star Wars movies, but even though I didn't know it at the time, they taught me some of my earliest and most memorable lessons about feminism, and what it means to be a woman in the world. For that reason, they'll always be feminist movies to me.

Images: Star Wars, Giphy (5)