Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Is Leia an action hero or a political hero?

Wow, I'm actually posting something new! I apologize that The Chancellor's Suite hasn't been very active, but such is life as a Ph.D. student (and unfortunately I'm not writing a dissertation about Star Wars).

However, I've recently become involved in a heated discussion over at the comment section and upon further reflection I thought that it would make for a perfect post on The Chancellor's Suite. For those of you who haven't heard, this week Dark Horse released a new comic series simply titled "Star Wars" by Brian Wood. The series is an attempt to attract fans who love the Original Trilogy but don't necessarily follow the entire Star Wars Expanded Universe. The first issue takes place a few months after the events of A New Hope as Luke and Leia look for a site for a new Rebel base.

So where's the controversy? There are several, but to my mind the most interesting is the controversy over Leia's role, particularly her piloting an X-Wing. Some fans have protested that this is out of character for Leia, who never piloted a starfighter in the movies and only rarely in all of the 40+ years of EU comics and books (the most noted example, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, is widely considered marginally canon because, among other things, the book portrays Luke and Leia's relationship as much more flirtatious than proper for a brother and sister). While Leia's clearly not depicted as an ace pilot, it's also clear the comic is attempting to recast her as more of an action hero. She pretty brutally shoots a downed TIE Fighter pilot even after its apparent he's dead. The last scene of the issue shows her wearing a black flight suit in a heroic pose.

Other fans are more excited about Leia taking on more of an action role. The article at, pointedly titled "What's the fuss with Star Wars #1?", takes critics to task for saying Leia doesn't belong in an X-Wing cockpit. The article goes so far as to suggest some critics think she doesn't belong there "because she's a girl" (or, more appropriately, a woman). Moreover, the article and some commentators suggest that as a Rebel leader and member of the royal family of Alderaan, Leia probably would have received some flight instruction.

So how does this relate to politics? For me, Leia has - or at least had been - the quintessential political character in a Galaxy Far, Far Away. Leia was the only major character who was directly involved in elite politics. Before she was 30, she was a member of the New Republic Provisional Council, similar to the inner cabinet. She served as the New Republic Chief of State during 11-17 ABY, 17-18 ABY, and 21-23 ABY. As she was our window into the upper workings of politics, she was also the only guarantee that fans would get stories about politics in the post-Return of the Jedi era.

During the Bantam era of Star Wars novels, I think Leia started to fulfill that role. During the Heir to the Empire novels, we see at the lead of efforts to rebuild the galaxy after civil war, often serving as the lead diplomat (kind of like our Secretary of State). Zahn uses Leia brilliantly when she confronts the Noghri on Honoghr. She uses her negotiating skills, powerful rhetoric, and empathy to convinces the Noghri to abandon the Empire. And guess what? It turns out that Leia's diplomacy saved the day because Thrawn was only defeated by a Noghri bodyguard during the Battle of Bilbringi. Also, in what I thought was some great character development, we see her as genuinely torn between her political duties and her Jedi training.

Leia's role as Chief of State of the New Republic received only sporadic attention in the novels, but she had a few great moments - arguably, the greatest of the Bantam era of publishing. While many fans despise the Black Fleet Crisis novels, I personally have always enjoyed them because of their gripping political intrigue. In the trilogy, Leia's political coalition begins to fall apart over a conflict with the xenophobic Yevetha. The Yevethan Dushkan League wanted to annex several star systems in the Koornacht Cluster. The New Republic was split over whether to negotiate with the Yevetha - and gain a potential ally against the Imperials - or defend the inhabitants of the Koornacht Cluster. Yevethan Viceroy Nil Spaar often deliberately provoked and embarrassed Leia, going so far as to capture and torture Han Solo.

The Black Fleet Crisis still provides some of the best political storytelling in the entire Star Wars EU primarily because it forced Leia to struggle with hard political decisions. Initially, Leia is caught flatfooted and is overwhelmed by the crisis. However, that happens to almost any politician who reaches high office so young (remember Bill Clinton's first term?). Ultimately, Leia regains her footing when she makes the gutsy decision to declare war on the Dushkan League, even though put Han's life at risk. Leia shows more bravery and intelligence in making these decisions than most X-Wing pilots ever do.

Unfortunately, this was the height of political storytelling for Star Wars. After the Black Fleet Crisis, Star Wars fans received few thoughtful, gripping political stories. When the EU did focus on politics, the attitude of most works was that all politicians are corrupt or inept - "a pox on both houses", so to speak. There was no political figure to root for (with the partial exception of Cal Omas during NJO). More importantly, from a storytelling perspective, because Leia was no longer serving as a senior leader in politics, fans lost their window into galactic politics.

So what was Leia doing? This is where I think her characterization began to fail. Early in the New Jedi Order novels, we learn Leia grew disenchanted by the Senate and soon abandoned politics as a vocation. (Granted, it was probably easy to become disillusioned with Borsk Fey'lya as chief of state). Unfortunately, we never see this character change occur on the page - it happens off screen. The New Jedi Order made decent use of her character in these circumstances, often making her a political advocate for refugees and administrator of refugee settlements. If Leia can't be a politician, I think the next most interesting role for her is as humanitarian. "Leia as humanitarian" adds a new perspective to the Star Wars saga and could have led to great storytelling about how "the other half lives".

In Star by Star, Leia comes out of retirement briefly to broadcast a Churchillian speech urging Republic forces to fight against the Vong. It's a stirring moment, but unfortunately, it's only a moment. Leia never returns to politics full-time and afterwards her character becomes - at least in my opinion - more amorphous and less interesting. She begins training as a Jedi and gets caught up in all sorts of adventures. But Leia loses some of what made her unique as a character and storytelling device, namely a window into elite politics. If Leia hadn't been a major character in the Original Trilogy, would we really care about her character after the NJO era? Does she provide interesting or unique character developments or or storytelling opportunities? (granted, the same could be said for Han in this era as well) At this point, we're stuck with buffoons like Admiral Daala in senior political positions while Leia is just hanging out on the sidelines. The Star Wars saga also loses some much-needed variety in its main characters.

Why did authors not decide to build upon Leia's role as a politician? Why didn't we see Leia as a senior statesman in later novels? There might be other reasons to which I am not privy, but I suspect there were three problems. First, from a storytelling perspective, keeping Leia in politics would have meant that authors would have to split her off from the other main characters. Even during the Bantam era, authors contrived all sorts of excuses for the chief of state to take a "leave" from her job and go on adventures with Luke and Han. Eventually, this proved untenable and NJO decided to sever the ties completely in order to make the character more mobile.

More importantly, the Prequel Trilogy contains a very different depiction of politics in Star Wars. The Original Trilogy was optimistic with a fight against evil totalitarianism. Even the earlier novels seemed to confirm that democracy, if flawed, was far better than the evil Empire. For better or worse, the prequels portray all politics as banal and corrupt. As Obi-Wan says in Attack of the Clones, you can't trust any politician in this era. Generally, the difference between politicians is whether they simply take bribes, like Orn Free Taa, or secretly plot to gain "ultimate power", like Palpatine. Padmé Amidala provides a third perspective of pacifist idealism, but has she sadly been underutilized both in the movies and the EU.* Moreover, in the prequels, viewers probably saw a bit too much banality in galactic politics, with simplistic debates about trade and taxes filling the screens. Given the negative response to the prequels amongst some fans, it's not surprising that the Star Wars EU decided to avoid traditional political thrillers (with exceptions, like the excellent Darth Plagueis).

Finally, Leia peaked at a very young age, politically speaking. Her last year as chief of state was 23 ABY, during which she was approximately 42. To put that in perspective, America's youngest president, Theodore Roosevelt, only ascended to the presidency when he was 42. So, having reached the heights of politics so young, where was the character to go from there? Any other political office might seem too small for such a large character. Even in the United States, most ex-presidents don't attempt to serve in government after leaving office (only John Quincy Adams did so, in the House of Representatives). From this perspective, I can understand why NJO decided to get Leia out of politics. However, in retrospect, I wish the EU had slowed Leia's political ascent, perhaps waiting until she was in her mid-40s. I would have loved more political thrillers during her time in the Provisional Council.

So, the real reason I'm so bothered by the new Star Wars comic's portrayal of Leia is because it seems like it risks pigeonholing Leia into the role of "action hero" and ignoring her unique political skills. I'm less concerned that Leia flies an X-Wing (who knows, maybe Bail hired Captain Antilles to teach her?) than I am that this represents a diminishment of her character. I want more stories of Leia as a political leader. There are already enough action heroes in the GFFA, but Leia's the only major character who is regularly involved in politics. I caught a small glimmer of hope during Leia's scene with Mon Mothma, during which the two talk about finding a new Rebel base. Unfortunately, my hopes were dashed when Leia appears on the last page wearing a black flight suit. It's clear she's not going on any diplomatic mission.

Hopefully, Brian Wood and other authors in the EU will take advantage of the more interesting aspects of Leia's character and send her on a mission that requires her to use her political skills. In the EU, Leia is still alive and only in her late 60s/early 70s. There's no reason she couldn't return as a senior statesman, perhaps struggling to clean up the mess Daala left. Or, maybe we could get a Leia-focused novel showing how she deals with a political crisis during her tenure as New Republic chief of state. Or perhaps even a novel about a young Leia in the Galactic Senate before A New Hope, revealing how she organized senators behind the scenes. One can only hope.

Incidentally, the book Star Wars and History, which I recently reviewed, dedicates several chapters to female leaders. It's pretty clear nobody thinks any less of Queen Elizabeth or Cleopatra because they didn't - and probably couldn't - captain a naval vessel or fight with a sword. As a student of politics, I think that kind of character is far more interesting than most action heroes. And biographies of female political leaders, including Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Cleopatra sell very well. Maybe Del Rey will take the hint.

* I'd love a Padmé-centered novel, but I doubt it will happen. Unfortunately, Padmé doesn't seem to have as much of a fan base as her daughter.

UPDATE (1/12/12): For ease of reading, I'm moving the parts of this op-ed that don't directly address Leia's role as a politician to the bottom of this page. I think there are many other reasons why Leia's flying an X-Wing doesn't make sense, but ultimately they're less interesting and reveal less about Leia's character:

Piloting a starfigher is a special skill. While we of course don't really know how hard it would be to pilot an X-Wing in real life, the best analogy would probably be a modern jet fighter. An F-18 is an advanced piece of technology. Pilots go through rigorous training. In the X-Wing novels, we get a glimpse into X-Wing combat and see that it is pretty involved. After all, if just anybody could fly an X-Wing, why are X-Wing squadrons seen as so elite?

Moreover, just as in the real world, I'd imagine not all Star Wars piloting is the same. Just because somebody can pilot a small propellor plane doesn't mean I'd trust them to fly the 787 I take during my next trip to Asia. Likewise, a commercial airline pilot would probably struggle with a jetfighter. So, while we see Leia piloting the Millennium Falcon in The Empire Strikes Back, that doesn't necessarily mean she can pilot anything. (For the record, I always thought it odd that Han Solo was also such a good starfighter pilot in Brian Daley's Han Solo Adventures as I'd never associated him with that type of piloting).

During the Battle of Yavin, the Rebel Alliance was fighting for its life. It was so desperate that it recruited Luke to fly an X-Wing - his first time doing so - solely on the recommendation of Biggs Darklighter. If Leia was such a crack X-Wing pilot, wouldn't she have also flown an X-Wing (or Y-Wing) during the battle rather than just stand around the command center? That to me seems like a pretty clear indication that she either did not know how to fly a starfighter at that point or was not particularly experienced. So much for the argument that Bail Organa had her trained on Alderaan.

For the record, it should be obvious that this controversy isn't and shouldn't be about gender - it's about character development. Arguing that Leia belongs in the corridors of political power isn't anything like saying she "belongs in a kitchen". Many male fans love Mara Jade and Jaina Solo. Mara is very much an action oriented character who is tough, intelligent, and has real depth. Jaina is an X-Wing pilot and easily the primary starfighter pilot character in the NJO/LOTF era. (Notably, in NJO, Leia tried to convince Jaina not to join Rogue Squadron but never thought to mention her own X-Wing piloting days!) But Leia's a different character. While Leia certainly knows how to use a gun (I suspect many members of royal families, even on Earth, receive some basic firearms and self-defense training), her main skills have always been as a politician, diplomat, and operative. In the movies, it often seemed Leia had a monopoly on both the brains and the balls, even if she was flying shotgun.

For their part, the main male characters have different skills. Luke Skywalker is a Jedi and starfighter pilot, but hardly a confident politician. He's often unsure of himself in much of the EU and isn't able to exert leadership over large groups. In the early NJO novels, Luke fails to unify the Jedi in the face of the Yuuzhan Vong invasion. Han is a brilliant pilot, sharpshooter, and smuggler, but he's an even worse diplomat and wears his emotions on his sleeves. I always thought putting Han in charge of a refugee settlement in Balance Point was a bad idea and contrary to his character - the real Han would never be able to abide by the rules for so long.

The comic could have made Leia's piloting an X-Wing consistent with her character in several ways. First, the comic could have used exposition or dialogue to explain how Leia became an X-Wing pilot. For example, Wedge could have asked, "So Princess, since when did you become an Ace?" and Leia could have responded with some quip about how Bail Organa thought piloting a starfighter might be useful. Second, the comic could have developed a plot that necessitates Leia, thereby having Leia fly an X-Wing despite the fact that it might be out of character. For example, Mon Mothma could have stated the mission requires diplomatic skills or that she trusts Leia - and only Leia - for the job.

In the X-Wing novel Starfighters of Adumar, Araron Allston resolves a similar tension with Wedge's character when the New Republic sends him to the planet Adumar on a diplomatic mission. When Wedge objects that he is not a diplomat, it is explained that the Adumar respect starfighter pilots and would respond favorably to the Republic's best fighter pilot as head negotiator. It's a simple and somewhat effective means of allowing Wedge to take on a new role whilst remaining consistent with his character. When negotiations fail, readers don't wonder why the Republic hadn't sent Leia instead. If the Star Wars comic had taken a moment to explain why we needed Leia to be the X-Wing pilot/action hero, it might have helped Leia's character and forestalled the controversy.

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