Sexy Princess Leia is bad. Sexy General Leia might be even worse. (If you’ve come across sexy General Leia art, don’t tell me.) Late last year, Carrie Fisher died. She was sixty-one. This week her last on-screen performance, as General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance, hits theatres. The Last Jedi is—not by design, though director Rian Johnson has embraced it—as much a tribute to the actor and that character as it is just another new Star Wars episode. It features a Leia Organa whose confidence and determination is not shaken by all the pain she’s endured. An older Leia, who is in some ways at the height of her power, no matter the position of her Resistance in the scheme of galactic politics.
At just nineteen, Carrie Fisher gave us a lasting icon of science fiction, and at sixty she returned to the role of Leia Organa to give us one of the very few older women of that same genre, a character who had been allowed to age and change and continue being monumentally significant. It’s rare for women in Hollywood to find good roles after their mid-thirties, but the dearth of older, female characters isn’t limited to film. How many SFF series can you think of that focus on cranky old witches, and not grizzled old wizards? Too-old-for-this, long-hardened female warriors, and not craggy fighters slowly aging into dad-bods? That Mad Max: Fury Road featured generations of women resisting is part of what made it so significant. Even stories of aging, visibly, are too often reserved for men. That’s why it’s galling that the Leia Organa of the new Marvel and IDW comics is a young and pretty princess.
The extensive commodification of “slave Leia,” to the point it became her most iconic look for decades, has meant that we girls and women have only recently been able to reclaim the character. The return of Leia to the screen as an older woman, one who’s been married for decades, raised a child, and is now on her third or fourth career, is essential to that reclamation. It puts space between the image of her as perpetual ingenue and the image of her now as accomplished older woman. It makes space for the possibility that we can reclaim all Leias, rescuing them from slave bikini hell. Leia has long been acknowledged as a strong female character—she gets to appear on all those “best of” lists—but admiration for her skills has too often been accompanied by an even greater emphasis on her fuckability. She’s a strong, female character, who can murder giant slugs while looking hot. It’s win-win for a certain set of straight nerd boys, who want to pant after strong female characters who are obviously and absolutely not like other girls.
General Leia, who we finally met in The Force Awakens, is too busy working for freedom to pose dramatically. Princess Leia generally was too, but you wouldn’t know it from the toys, posters and even many of the licensed comics. The Leia of the Star Wars films is a fully realized character, one with flaws and foibles, and a sense of style that reflects both her essential self and how she’s feeling on a given day. From her elaborate Alderaanian braids to her Hoth puffy vest, Leia is a character we come to know in part through her sense of style. Costuming should always be about character, responding to and in turn helping to shape an actor’s performance. Carrie Fisher inhabited those clothes, hairstyles and muted makeup, using them to build on her own work.
We know Leia: she’s practical and calculating, passionate and sentimental; she likes fine things but sacrifices them easily; she’s lovely, but weaponized beauty is not in her repertoire. Form always follows function: she is dressed to impress within the context of whatever work she is currently busy with. You never see Leia in jewelry or gowns when they might impede her. You never see Leia mourning for clothes or comfort. I think that’s important, that Leia is not a vamp. That the bikini was a garment she was forced into by a slave-trading rapist, one that she exchanged for something more comfortable the first chance she had. Young Leia is pretty. Older Leia is strikingly lovely, as only older people can be, warm and resilient. Leia is not, primarily, framed as a sex object. In Return of the Jedi we get a few lingering shots of her bare legs but it’s undercut by Carrie Fisher—Leia isn’t having this, no matter what the camera thinks, and no matter what we think.
But Leia exists outside of the films too, and while Carrie Fisher’s performance defines the character, interpretations of that character can keep close to the mean she established or . . . not. So let’s talk about Star Wars comics. There are a lot of Star Wars comics, spread over decades of publication. Early Star Wars comics were less hung up on likeness than character. This 1980 Carmine Infantino Leia looks nothing like Carrie Fisher, but it does have some of her nature. She’s meant to be gorgeous, of course (fuck you, Carmine), but her bunched, powerful shoulders and frown belong to a woman of action.
This Infantino cover, from the same year, is too busy cramming in stormtroopers, droids and blaster shots to spend much time on Leia’s figure. Infantino just wants you to know she’s ready to kill those Imperial rust buckets. Contemporary comics, though, take a different approach to the character.
Terry Dodson’s Leia looks a lot like Carrie Fisher’s Leia, doesn’t it? But it’s a glammer Leia than we’ve ever seen in the films, weighed down by false eyelashes and sloughed clean of the flaws of real flesh. The look says gala event monitored by the press. The background says battlefield or expedition. No matter, Leia’s shampoo commercial waves are ready to bounce and sway for either occasion. Her lipstick will never smudge. This plastic quality extends to the interiors. His doll Leia always looks her best and even more importantly is always posed her best. Every panel is gorgeous, something you could clip out for your Rebellion scrapbook. She could decorate the sides of X-wings.
Then there’s Elsa Chartier’s Leia for Forces of Destiny. The posture is pure Bruce Timm: chin down, hip cocked, back permanently arched; femme, not always fatale, but certainly dangerous. Bruce Timm, through his work on Batman: The Animated Series and Justice League, so defined my childhood that it took me a long time to see through his tricks. But employed here by Chartier, on another “all ages” adaptation of long-beloved IP, they’re obvious. This is a Leia that’s both “age-appropriate” and sexy, one that kids can enjoy and adults can enjoy too. Chartier doesn’t mean to serve up sex object Leia—with her shoulders back and that firm, determined look on her face, she’s meant to be confident. But calculated for sexual appeal she still is. Hell, even the tauntaun has its lips parted.
Final Cut Order: Coming to a galaxy near you. Order "Star Wars Adventures: Forces of Destiny—Princess Leia" through your local comic shop before December 11th to secure your issue on the day or release! – https://t.co/ZtUCbAtkaK pic.twitter.com/ewMRTCqOPi
— IDW Publishing (@IDWPublishing) December 8, 2017
These are pinups. They are a sort of likeness of a character that by her nature resists objectification even in the face of decades of reduction to the tittiest mean. They are “Leia” because they have braided brown hair, that ski-battle outfit, and are surrounded by Star Wars-y things. They have some small bits of the iconography that help us to recognize the character but do not make up the sum of her. These images tell me nothing about “Leia.” They don’t speak to her character or suggest the content of the books. They are just pretty. Not as sexualized as certain slave Leias, but just as empty. This hurts me.
That the interiors are just as unrelentingly hung up on sexy femininity twists the knife. Can you give her—and us—a fucking break? Sexiness isn’t empowering when it’s compulsory and persistent, even to a character’s most private, quiet moments. Sexiness isn’t empowering when it puts a barrier between us and the character, keeping us from knowing her, keeping her from being anything else.
The Last Jedi is the last time we will see Carrie Fisher in the role of Leia Organa. This is how she looks, now. This is who she is, now. That look is character-defining on its own, but Carrie works it for even more, the Vanity Fair photographer Annie Liebowitz willing assistant. Look at the fall of her cloak. Look at her hands. She is imperfect. She is powerful. She is a person, a character fully realized and long lived in. This image is a cover, both art and a marketing piece, just like any comics cover. But this is a cover that speaks to Leia Organa the character, Carrie Fisher the woman, the richness of both and their place in pop culture.
We will say goodbye to her this week, the screen Leia that Carrie Fisher gave life, but we do get to keep the character. Let us honor Carrie by treasuring this last performance of her, Leia in her late middle years. I don’t want sexy Princess Leia comics. I don’t want a Leia whose defining traits are prettiness and perfection. If we are to have Leia comics, let them be about an older Leia, one whose life includes familial domesticity, galactic politicking, and adventures. Or give us both, the Leia growing into herself and the Leia who has endured too much—and all the Leias in between.