The Forever Princess
by Inga Walton
(re-edited article originally published in Trouble October 2009)
A long time ago, in a ﬁlm franchise not too far away, the Museum of Science in Boston and Lucasﬁlm conjured up an exhibition …
It is fair to say that George Lucas’ Star Wars films revolutionised modern cinema. This despite a virtually unparalleled merchandising juggernaut, with endless spin-offs and tacky tie-ins; the interminable re-packaging and re-issuing of all the films; the widely held view that the prequel Episodes I-III of the saga were too long in coming and ultimately disappointing; the risible, clunky dialogue; and one of the most loathed characters ever to besmirch the screen (wesa hates Jar Jar Binks). The original trilogy received seven Academy Awards, and a further three for Special Achievement. The technological advances developed in order to realise Episodes IV-VI indelibly changed audience expectations, and spawned Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Skywalker Sound, and the high-fidelity sound reproduction standard, THX.
The touring show, Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, was presumably aimed at today’s tech hardened children and teenagers for whom it probably lacked the wonder felt by previous generations who grew up with the original Star Wars films. The exhibition was staged in Melbourne at Scienceworks (2009), and ran for nine years, visiting twenty international venues and receiving over three million visitors before concluding in October, 2014.The painstaking and meticulous work of model-making, animation, creature design and puppetry, the intricacies of sound effects editing, motion control photography, and blue-screen compositing might conceivably be rather a yawn if all you’re interested in is playing computer games (though Disney soooo has that covered too) and watching YouTube.
Amidst the interactive exhibits, audio-visual components, props and costumes in the show was the unassuming white hooded dress, boots, and pewter-finish belt by John Mollo (who won the Oscar for Best Costume Design for the first ﬁlm). In retrospect, it really looks quite dowdy, but just the sight of it shifted me back to the stance of my eight year-old self, riveted to the tv. Sandwiched between Grace Kelly and lady Diana Spencer, there was another iconic Princess who was (thankfully) not blonde, and who had her own distinct impact on the cultural zeitgeist. The Princess-Senator Leia Organa’s status did not rest on having snagged a suitable husband, and she had far more at stake than being on the cover of Vogue (even if she did have the most important hair in the history of cinema).
Lucas ordered his ‘space opera’ to quite accurately reflect events from our own world history – freedom from tyranny and oppression rested on the bravery, persistence, and moxie of one woman who would accept no glass ceiling. Leia’s determination never wavers, no sulking, weeping, or self-pity. The “Help me Obi-wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope!” message is testament to her resourcefulness and networking skills, not her dependence. In a genre not renowned for its emancipated or forceful women, Lucas gave us a science-fantasy, action-adventure anomaly; a woman with courage. He seemed to realise the importance and value of including a strong female role in his saga if it was to appeal to a contemporary audience. Leia was certainly distressed, but no mute decorative damsel, and this was evidently not a ‘Boys Own’ universe. When her ship is captured, and her mission to deliver the stolen plans for the ‘Death Star’ battle station are foiled, Leia is confronted by the steep cheekbones of Grand Moff Tarkin. From the outset we are left in no doubt that civility and manners are of paramount importance to this royal personage, “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash, I recognised your foul stench when I was brought on board”, she sneers pleasantly.
Ah, Darth Vader. Leia’s dastardly Dad, the former Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker now turned Sith Lord 2IC, wheezing throughout the galaxy like a damaged compressor. Not only does he fail to perceive his progeny (the Force was presumably on snooze that day), but gets no satisfaction from our still perfectly coiffed girl. Not content with showing her withering disdain for him, Leia resists torture and emotional blackmail to remain considerably composed as her kingdom of Alderaan is obliterated. Bossy, peevish, sarcastic, more vexed than any Jane Austen heroine, and definitely no shrinking space flower, Leia has not had a good day at the office. With the weight of several worlds on her fragile shoulders, she doesn’t have time for conceited space pirate Han Solo, or to humour wide-eyed farm boy Luke Skywalker. She is neither grateful, nor flattered when they show up, and puts both firmly in their place, “Listen, I don’t know who you are, or where you came from, but from now on you do as I tell you, OK?”
Considering Lucas’ strained relationship with ﬁlmic dialogue, it was often Leia’s irony-laden ﬁts of pique which made us laugh. Whether she was evacuating the Hoth rebel base, taking decisive action at Cloud City, blowing up the bunker on Endor, or extricating herself from some other peril, there was always a pithy one-liner. Who could forget, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”; “Somebody get this big, walking carpet out of my way”; “This is some rescue – you came in here, didn’t you have a plan for getting out?”; “Into the garbage chute Fly-boy”; “I don’t know where you get your delusions, Laser Brain”; “I’d rather kiss a Wookie”; “I am not a committee”. Her exasperated reaction to yet another mechanical malfunction aboard the Millennium Falcon is a personal favourite, the ultimate put-down of boys and their toys, “Would it help if I got out and pushed?”
Then there was the Leia look. No crisis was too overwhelming, or occasion too grand for Leia not to be perfectly clad, with not a hair of those torturous twists and braids out of place (how they were achieved without a staff of hardened professionals is never specified). Aspects of Leia’s wardrobe have been parodied in TV shows such as Blackadder and Friends, most notably by the character of ‘Princess Vespa’ in Mel Brooks’ ﬁlm Space Balls (1987), and also in Fanboys (2009). Her formal clothes were invariably white and virtually interchangeable, presumably to emphasise her status and position; this was somewhat undermined by the distracting spectacle of Leia being marched around the Death Star having apparently burnt her bra. The rest tended to be of a more utilitarian vein, a largely practical wardrobe for a forceful woman with more important things to worry about. The seismic exception was of course the unforgiving ‘metal bikini’, or ‘gold sci-fi swimsuit’, for which Return of the Jedi costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers will be perennially remembered.
After liberating Solo from his carbonite casing, Leia is kept prisoner by Jabba the Hutt, and forced to recline against his repulsive bulk. The skimpy dancing/slave girl outﬁt is meant to convey the humiliation and submission of a captive, but by now Leia is such a forceful personality to the audience that she transcends it. Despite the huge cult following for the flimsy diaphanous get-up, actress Carrie Fisher was more ambivalent about such an obvious concession to the male gaze, “When they took my clothes off, put me in a bikini and shut me up, I thought it was a strong indication of what the third ﬁlm was”. She later reflected, “I remember that iron bikini I wore … what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell”. That considered, nothing fell out, and nothing rode up. Leia strangles Jabba with the very chain tethering her to him, blows up the sail barge, and gives women ‘New Hope’ of finding a dignified solution to life’s unexpected fashion obligations. And the boys? Well, they just stared in gobsmacked gratitude, but (importantly) did so from their seats. Princesses have standards.
Leia was fully fierce. She had sass, she had grace and purpose, she was great with a blaster. I was nine when Jedi came out, and the strength of Leia’s persona even filtered down to my petty interactions. All the boys at school were obsessed with the ﬁlm, and most collected the picture stickers from bubble-gum packets to fill the accompanying theme-book. I soon got the reputation in their clique for being the only person who could get the stickers placed correctly within the borders without mucking it up. That, coupled with my passing resemblance to Fisher (though I was already much taller), and some serious Leia-inspired attitude, garnered me huge kudos. I was the only girl who was ‘cool’, and welcomed to discuss all things Star Wars at the lunch table.
Many years after my first exposure to that winsome white-clad figure, she remains one of the great ﬁlmic exemplars of female determination and wilfulness; one who is never subordinate to the male protagonists. After all this time, I finally have enough hair of my own for those authentic inter-galactic coils. Bugger the Force, may the Princess be with you.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) displays similar qualities to Leia’s original character, while Leia (Carrie Fisher) herself is reduced to a motherly background role. Fisher’s performance is paralysed by a botox-induced lack of expression that fits with the disappointingly lame scripting of her part. As a replacement, Rey shows some promise, but is not Leia’s equal yet.]
Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination, was a traveling exhibition created by the Museum of Science, Boston, developed in collaboration with LucasFilm Ltd., with the support of the National Science Foundation. It featured props and costumes used in the Star Wars films, but focussed primarily on the science behind George Lucas’ science fiction epic. The exhibit premiered in Boston in 2005, and drew nearly 3 million visitors across the United States and Australia and before making its final appearance in San Jose, California. A companion book was released in 2005.
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things. She still has very long hair.