Monday, July 15, 2024

Portraits of Princess Leia

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What is more Fandomental than Star Wars, especially around Christmas time?

It seems only fitting that in honor of Rogue One coming out, we revisit the character of Princess Leia the most beloved (and for a long time only) prominent female character in the Star Wars film franchise. She may have gotten short shrift in the films, but the Extended Universe (EU) novels have to be better right?

Not so much. There are quite literally hundreds of Star Wars books in Legends, the name for old canon EU. Leia has plot arcs in many of them, but that’s about it. A new canon EU novel Bloodline by Claudia Gray, published earlier this year, is the very first novel entirely centered around the character and perspective of Leia Organa. I wish I were joking.

The paucity of Leia materials in Legends is a travesty, especially when compared to the fact that the new EU not only has Bloodline, there’s also Star Wars: Moving Target a children’s/young adult novel. She also has her own comic book miniseries (Star Wars: Princess Leia) and several prominent arcs in other ongoing comic book series as well.

The only book from old canon EU that comes close in terms of Leia’s centrality is the novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (Courtship) by Dave Wolveton, one of the most notorious of the Legends books. It has Rancor riding Force witches, a love interest based literally on Fabio, and a whole hell of a lot of 90s era anti-feminism. It’s quite different from Bloodline to say the least. Difference in content doesn’t necessarily mean difference in character, though. Given how inconsistent her character has been in the films, what better what to flesh out her portrait than to sit down with two novels purportedly about her and see what we come up with. Just who is EU Leia Organa?

Protagonist vs. Prize

Set roughly 20 years after the end of Return of the Jedi, Bloodline follows Senator Leia Organa as she navigates a gridlocked intergalactic senate seeking to rebuild after the Empire has crumbled. She’s a war hero and a well-respected politician; she takes the lead in investigating a new cartel that has gained power since she killed Jabba (Leia Huttslayer being canon is one of my fave things about this book tbh).

Ransolm Casterfo, a young, handsome and charismatic politician from the other main political party helps her, and together they forge a friendship and working partnership to try and take out the cartel. They uncover a paramilitary organization—and remnant of the Imperial Order—called the Amaxine Warriors in the process. Leia has to deal with assassination attempts, the first stirrings of what will become the New Order, and the backlash once her father’s identity is revealed. It’s undisputedly her story.

Written after the old EU already had canon materials after the Han/Leia marriage, Courtship is a flashback novel to how they got together. An emissary from the matriarchal culture of Hapes has proffered Leia the royal son Isolder as a gift in marriage in exchange for their help fighting the remnants of the Empire. Annoyed at her apparent interest in Isolder, Han kidnaps Leia and takes her to Dathomir (a planet he won gambling) in an attempt to win back her love. Luke and Isolder chase Han and Leia down, and they all have a run in with evil Force witches and a former Imperial warlord Han had previously pissed off with his gloating. Leia falls ‘back’ in love with Han in the end, and he wins marries her. While ostensibly about Leia, it focuses primarily on her men, with her relegated to barely more than a McGuffin. Even Luke has more POV pages than she does. In novel with Leia’s name in the title. Go figure.

Hero vs. Helper

Courtship opens with a promising investigative storyline for Ambassador Princess Leia in the form of an intergalactic dispute between the Barabels and the Verpines. Once she’s gotten the marriage proposal that subplot is dropped like a hot potato as soon as possible. Her marriage is more important than an alien species massacring the other for edible body parts. She takes a backseat in the rest of the novel, existing mostly as a prize for Isolder and Han to fight over. She helps save the day to be sure, but most of the major plot advancements and victories are accomplished by Luke, Han, and Isolder. She’s good at occasionally shooting a blaster and telling her men how much she needs them, though. So that’s something.

In Bloodline, on the other hand, Leia’s investigation into Rinnriven Di’s cartel takes center stage, and it is through her continued efforts that the connection between Di and the Amaxine warriors is uncovered. Where Han and Luke fire the shots that save the day in Courtship, Leia does so in Bloodline. Yes, Han comes to rescue her in one of the most Star Wars-ian moments of the book (an A New Hope head nod), but she gets to be the one who makes the Perfect Shot that destroys the base with the power of the Force. She doesn’t just join the Resistance, she starts it. Because that’s precisely what Leia would do. She’s a woman of action and will not sit on her hands when there’s shit to do. She works with a team, but she’s leading it instead of cheering the men on from the sidelines.

Psychology vs. Presence

Hers is also the primary character point of view in Bloodline. We get time with other characters perspectives—Ransolm Casterfo, Leia’s assistant Greer Sonnel, and the unintentional Luke 2.0 crack pilot Joph Seastriker—but Leia’s is the primary lens. The novel begins and ends with her perspective. Her struggles, her fears, and her aspirations are foregrounded. Her deep seated struggle to reconcile her birth father Vader with her choice to follow the path of politics like her adoptive father Bail Organa is the main theme of her psychology throughout the novel. It’s compelling as shit to read. She has trauma folks! And is bitter and angry with her bio dad for torturing her and destroying her planet! She resents him for his legacy of genocide and violence, and others for assuming she’d go bad just because he’s her father.

She and Vader even share the same tragic flaws (temper, impulsiveness, holding grudges, fierce protectiveness of loved ones), which is the reason she never pursued life as a Jedi. It’s also why she throws herself into her political career. Because she’s a Dutiful Princess. It’s so good you guys. Would I have liked more internal thoughts about her biological and adoptive mothers alongside that of her fathers? Yes, but at least we got a consistent, intimate psychology that makes sense and does justice to her character.

In Courtship, the male characters’ points of view overshadow hers. Her internal characterizations are sketchy at best, inconsistent at worst. Wolverton has his moments of insight into her character—like when he has Han think about how Leia buries her feelings—but they never coalesce into a consistent psychology. Heck, we know more about how Isolder feels about his mother’s political machinations than we do about why Leia is even attracted to him. Remember, this is a book supposedly about Leia choosing between two men vying for her hand. And we don’t really know why she ‘stops’ loving Han. I guess Isolder is that pretty?

And don’t even get me started on how she only mentions her grief about Alderaan twice and never mentions Vader or his torture of her ever. This is supposedly only four years after Return of the Jedi, and yet here we are still not dealing with her trauma. Leia doesn’t even get a perspective until the third chapter. Han’s perspective opens the story and Luke’s closes it. She’s an extension of the (more) important men in her life rather than the main focus. She exists in the story, but less as a true perspective and more as a secondary participant.

Politician vs. Figurehead

Leia Organa in Bloodline is a career statesman. She’s diplomatic when she needs to be, aggressive and fearless when that’s called for. She stands strong in the face of enormous political and personal pressure and is clearly one of the most qualified and intelligent persons in the Senate room. She may not be the suavest public speaker like Casterfo, but she can hold her own. She knows how to use her political position to her advantage, but is dismissive of her royal heritage, calling it an empty title. She wants to make her own mark on the galaxy and be her own person, not rely on her parentage for her status.

While introduced as Ambassador Leia Organa on page 3 of Courtship, Leia is little more than a figurehead. She’s primarily a royal figure, not a political one, especially once her ambassadorial subplot is handed off to Mon Mothma. She prefers to be called Princess Leia (and will remind people of that), which could not be more different from Leia’s preference for her political titles in Bloodline.

She does actively negotiate with the Force witches, but only about her men. Even that is a bit haphazardly done and requires input from Luke at one point. She’s young, yes, so a certain level of inexperience or emotional overriding is understandable.

Then again, this is Leia Organa, so it isn’t. Courtship seems to forget that Leia had been participating in politics all her life. She faced down Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin without blinking until they threaten her planet. She makes mistakes on the battlefield (e.g., taking rebel fighters that were being actively tracked by Imperials back to the rebel base), but not politically. She definitely doesn’t need Luke to tell her to do her job and how to do it.

War Hero vs. Wilting Damsel

Let me back up a bit and say there’s nothing inherently wrong with Leia preferring to go by her royal title. She is, after all, a princess. The best Disney Princess, in my opinion, but I digress. Leia being a princess doesn’t automatically make her a damsel in need of rescue. Even in A New Hope she was far from the stereotypical helpless damsel, preferring to snark at her rescuers rather than fall into their arms weeping with gratitude. I’m not even sure she has working tear ducts.

In Courtship, Leia cries. A lot. And she wilts. When she’s frightened, she shrinks or shrieks. It flies in the face of the visual canon, where Leia is more likely to snark to mask her fear. We all know what Leia would say to herself if she cried when she got scared.

In the original trilogy, Leia knows her way around a blaster, survived excruciating torture, waltzed into Jabba’s palace to save Han, single-handedly killed a notorious crimelord, and is also Force sensitive (quite possibly strongly so). She’s strategic, tactical, pragmatic, and cool under pressure. She’s level headed, decisive, and logical (there’s a reason why she’s labeled the ENTJ of the Star Wars canon). Only Han seems capable of ruffling her pristinely controlled feathers, and this is exactly what you expect from someone who has been leading up the Rebellion for years. As a teenager.

Bloodline Leia feels like more of an organic character development from the visual canon. We see her using similar skills and tactics as in the original trilogy, only they’ve matured. She uses the Force for things other than finding her brother! The Force actually runs strong in her like Luke says in Return of the Jedi! She’s a leader, not a wilter. She’s frustrated by the inefficiencies of the senate and seeks solutions. Her experiences leading the Rebels against the Empire directly play into how she handles her political duties, both for good or ill. Compare this with Courtship, where it would be easy to forget she was ever a military leader at all.

Leia and Han

Bloodline actually goes a long way toward explaining and fleshing out the distance depicted in The Force Awakens, though your mileage may vary. Years of snark have turned into more of a language of love than actual frustration, and their unconventional relationship looks precisely like what I would expect based on what we saw in the original trilogy (and in line with Julia’s interpretation of Empire).

Leia works all the time and Han flits all over the galaxy doing his thing. With this as a baseline, you can understand how it would worsen under stress: Leia throws herself into work and Han into danger and thrill-seeking. Still, they love each other very much and you can tell they’ve had to work through their differences to find a balance. It’s a good marriage, a healthy relationship, but not overly rose colored.

While Courtship depicts Han’s stress behaviors consistently, it does not do justice to Leia’s. She’s more harpy-like and waspish than snide. She tells Han he doesn’t know the Hapans at all instead of making a crack about how far his instincts got him with Lando for example. I expect more along the lines of, “Oh and I’m supposed to trust your instincts about people when the last time it almost got us killed?” than “You don’t know them at all!” *petulant door slam*.

Leia of the original trilogy doesn’t cringe away or sass back weakly, she throws cutting remarks like blaster bolts because it’s how she masks her feelings. We get some of this in Bloodline, but more with Casterfo than with Han since she’s actually had time to work on her marriage with the latter and the former is a political antagonist for the first third of the novel.

The Han and Leia of Bloodline have a partnership of equals with their own lives and careers. This sidelines Han from the main plot (and Luke, who is absent the entire novel), but it is better than Han trying to either dominate her or paternalistically protect her like we get in Courtship. Plus, there’s no uncomfortable kidnapping of Leia against her will using a magic gun that forces the target to do what you want (not even kidding). Han is…problematic in Courtship.

Leia’s Men: Shadows vs. Saviors

Having now read Courtship, Bloodline almost feels like a specific reaction to it. You have similar plot elements—a handsome and charismatic young male politician, a plot important sabacc game, taking on a warlord and criminal element in another galaxy that end up being related, assassination attempts—only Bloodline has given the plot to an older, more experienced Leia who is capable of taking on and handling all the situations without the men in her life to do it for her. Her age in and of itself is groundbreaking, as middle aged women are usually the hero’s mother in science fiction stories, not the hero herself.

Furthermore, the male members of the trio function more as extensions of Leia than she is of them. Han is supportive in Bloodline where he’s questioning and paternalistic in Courtship. Luke is looking for Jedi lore in both, but Leia in Courtship has to rely on Luke to help her to her job (and ultimately save the day), rather than rely on herself and her small circle of friends to support her as the hero. Leia actually struggles with her brother’s legacy and choices in Bloodline. Rather than seeing him as an infallible source of wisdom and strength, she resents his prolonged absence and silence on his Jedi quest. Even more so since it leaves her facing the brunt of the backlash to the revelation of Vader as their father. But she sublimates it because she’s Dutiful.

Despite my overall strong endorsement of Bloodline, my opinion about the absent male characters is actually mixed. On the one hand, I love the focus on Leia as protagonist and hero of her own story. It’s a novel we’ve been in dire need of for decades. On the other, I would have liked a Leia who can interact with her men on her own terms rather than them having to be absent in order for her to come to the fore. Although not the intention, the absence of Han and Luke can at times look suspiciously as if they have to be gone in order for Leia to be the hero.

Leia By Any Other Name

What emerges are two completely different characters that go by the name Leia Organa, one infinitely more complex and compelling. Courtship Leia has much more in common with her scripting in Return of the Jedi; she’s unphased by her trauma from Alderaan and Vader, accepting that the latter is her father without so much as an “oh shit.” She’s more openly emotional, alternately wilting at the sight of danger and bickering with Han for no consistent reason. She’s not even deflecting her feelings so much as harping at him. The male arcs dominate hers, and she takes a backseat to their heroics for the most part. She might be a politician in name only, but at least that fares better than the utter erasure of her military experience and expertise. She’s a 90s action hero love interest who exists to be claimed as a prize once the dust settles.


Bloodline, on the other hand, gives us everything I love about Empire Leia. She’s a Dutiful Princess to a T: self-deprecating, hiding her emotions behind layers of snark and social performance, conflicted about her family and heritage. She’s a deeply compassionate, pragmatic, and frustrated leader who puts the needs of the galaxy above personal desire. She’s hot-headed, flawed, and coping with trauma; a war hero, statesman, and rebel leader. Her relationship with Han is unconventional, but it works. They love each other and the early marriage flashbacks kill me.

It may create a few new issues with her scripting in TFA (and heighten the existing ones), but that’s not a bad thing. Leia has gotten shafted for far too long. If her getting her own novel means that people start to notice she hasn’t been written with care all the time, I approve.

All I can say is I want more of this Leia. If I never see another wilting, weeping, and objectified Leia it will be too soon. Serve me up another portion of my Dutiful Princess stuffing her feelings and saving the day, please. I’m so ready.

Bloodline is the Leia Novel We Deserve

I could end it here, but I won’t. Because this is a portrait, not a pencil sketch and you deserve a landscape to set Leia against.

  • Bloodline gives Leia a cast of female characters to interact with who are not romantic or political rivals where Courtship portrays female relationships primarily as catty and petty.
  • Bloodline has more persons of color and non-human protagonists (though Courtship does a better job with physical descriptions of aliens).
  • Bloodline casually normalizes the gender and sexuality spectrum. New Canon in general is a canon where being a person of color, LGBT, or gender-non-conforming is as normal as being cis, het, and white.
  • Courtship has a strongly 90s anti-feminist streak in its portrayal of women in power: they’re either conniving manipulators who repress male intelligence or seek to enslave men. Bloodline has women of all kinds in power, both positive and negative. The main antagonist of Bloodline is a woman, yet she’s more nuanced in her portrayal than Leia is in Courtship.
  • The same goes for the male characters in Courtship, who all suffer from patriarchal attitudes and varying degrees of toxic masculinity. Basically, Courtship is a time capsule of 90s gender norms and it has not aged well.
  • Thematically, Bloodline’s focus on genetic heritage vs. choice (a theme I think The Force Awakens undercuts, but that’s a different article) is far more compelling a storyline for Leia than that of wearing a woman down via forcible romantic gestures and constant verbal pressure. Then again, I’m a sucker for narratives about found family and overcoming violent or traumatic heritages. And for characters related to a villain that choose to be heroes, even when the whole world is against them.

Basically, Bloodline is everything I wanted in a Leia novel and everything that Courtship isn’t. If you like Leia the Dutiful Princess, and complicated female psychologies, you should read it.

Images courtesy of Lucasfilm and Disney

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