This post is written jointly by sisters, Trelawney and Tallessyn, who have been thinking and discussing together about this.
Contains Spoilers from the movie Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (TLJ).
I was born in 1974. Star Wars IV: A New Hope was perhaps the first movie I saw in a movie theater. Back then, I was too young to understand much more than that there were good guys, bad guys, and, yay – the good guys won. Except, for once, there was also a good gal. There was Leia. In a world of Spidermans, Supermans, Batmans, Lukes, Hans, Obi-Wans, and a deluge of male heroes of every kind…. There was Leia.
It’s hard to overstate how much my sisters and I loved Leia. She was so much cooler than Luke or Han. Luke was whiny and immature. Han was irresponsible and selfish. But Leia – Leia had been fighting for justice long before either Luke or Han entered the picture, and Leia had the smarts, the skills, and the grit to get shit done.
There was just one problem: Leia kept getting shafted. In Episode IV, she didn’t get a medal. In Episode V, she was harassed and assaulted by an increasingly creepy Han, and somehow conditioned/persuaded to normalize and accept his disgusting behavior as romantic. In Episode VI, she was chained up in a sleazy outfit to a giant slug. Note how people always focus on that bikini, and neglect how she then killed the slug with the very chain he had bound her with. And she never got the credit she deserved, both as a warrior and a future Jedi.
Yes, Jedi. Because Leia was clearly a powerful Force-wielder, and she had the maturity and cool head to use her powers much more effectively than Luke did. Yoda’s dying words to Luke were, “The Force runs strong in your family. Pass on what you have learned. There is another Skywalker.” Luke understood Yoda’s message perfectly. Before he left to face Vader, he told Leia she would be a Jedi:
Luke: “If I don’t make it back, you’re the only hope for the alliance.”
Leia: “Luke, don’t talk that way. You have a power I don’t understand, and could never have.”
Luke: “You’re wrong, Leia. You have that power, too. In time, you’ll learn to use it as I have. The Force is strong in my family. My father had it. I have it. My sister has it.”
So, when Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (TFA) was released, I and countless other women who had grown up with the original trilogy were primed and ready to see a Jedi Master Leia. Surely, Luke would have honored his beloved mentor’s dying words. Surely, the alliance/rebellion/resistance would have prioritized the training of someone so powerful in the Force. Surely, it was obvious to everyone that training Leia was strategically the most important next step, by far.
But…no. To its credit, TFA was by far the least sexist Star Wars movie to be made thus far, and Rey is definitely the best female warrior-hero-sage archetype around. I loved the movie. But Luke had betrayed Yoda and disregarded his dying command. Leia was a respected General and a tender mother and mentor, and she can still sense what is happening with people she loves… but her potential Jedi powers remained apparently untrained. What a huge letdown. It seemed that yet again, Luke was acting whiny and immature, and Han was acting irresponsible and selfish. Yet again, like every unthanked mother who quietly cooks, cleans, drives the kids to school, gives them medicine when they’re sick, protects them from bullies, and makes sure their winter coat fits, Leia was using her smarts, her skills, and her grit to get shit done.
Then along came a new director, and another new hope. Like TFA, TLJ avoided many of the sexist traps of previous movies. And this time, we finally see Leia use the Force more actively, for telekinesis. When she is blasted into space, she uses her powerful Force abilities to survive, float herself back to the ship, and open the door. This scene is meant to foreshadow future Leia Jedi prowess: “Director Rian Johnson has said that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was persuasive in suggesting that this was an ideal moment for Leia to reveal her Force powers, especially because Luke had previously mentioned her Force potential as a twin Skywalker herself. And so, the director has said, Leia saving herself became akin to a person finding previously untapped superhuman strength to hoist a car to save a life.” Was Leia actually, secretly, already a trained Jedi? Her controlled use of the Force tantalizingly suggested that the final movie would reveal how a true feminist Jedi would use the Force to transcend the endless cycles of male ego-driven warfare and mentor the next generation.
Leia was going to get her movie. The plan all along was for each of the three main characters, Han, Luke, and Leia, to be the focus of one movie of this new trilogy. And Leia, by far the best of the three, would be the focus of the final movie, in which she at last received the credit she has deserved all along. “Lucasfilm had planned for the next episode, J.J. Abrams’s 2019 release, to be “Leia’s film.” A generation of girls who grew up with Star Wars 4, 5, and 6, has been waiting for decades, waiting our whole lives for this movie. In a context of such pervasive sexism that even disasters such as the recent Wonder Woman are somehow pushed as feminist, we were finally going to have our vindicating, empowering, triumphant moment – the moment Leia gets her due.
But, of course, Carrie Fisher died. The same grinding patriarchal poison that shaped the sexism in the earlier Star Wars movies also took its toll on the actor, herself, as it does so many women. Just like her most beloved character, Fisher continually displayed the smarts, skills, and grit to live authentically in a toxically misogynist culture. And, now, the patriarchy which caused her to die young, is also blithely pronouncing that Fisher will not appear in Episode IX, and that “Episode VIII will stand largely as Leia’s film — and Fisher’s.”
I call bullshit. TLJ was Luke’s movie, not Leia’s. Pretending otherwise is a disgusting slap in the face to Fisher, Leia, and fans everywhere. There are many ways Lucasfilm could still make Episode IX about Leia, and do it beautifully, in a way that properly honors both the actor and the character.
Why does this matter? These are just stories. Mythological stories, which shape a culture by messages of archetypes, ethics, ultimate truths, and definitions of “The Good.” Just stories, like the stories of miraculous births, sacrificial deaths, supernatural resurrections and rebirths, heroes, prophets, sages, teachers, powers, spirits, and redemptions. Stories in which Mary, Elizabeth, Martha, Junia, and Mary Magdalene are insultingly distorted by patriarchal writers and never get the credit they deserve. Just stories. Let Patriarchy go ahead and tell us we don’t matter. Let them try. We have always known better…. Just like Leia.
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. Previously a fellow at the Institute of Culture, Religion, and World Affairs and at the Earhart Foundation, Grenfell-Muir has conducted field research in situations of ongoing conflict in Syria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Her dissertation explores the methodology, constraints, and effectiveness of clergy peacebuilders in Northern Ireland. She has been an invited speaker in community settings and at MIT, Boston University, Tufts, and Boston College on topics of gender violence, economic injustice, and religious or ethnic conflicts and has also moderated panels on genetic engineering, cloning, and other bioethics issues. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.