It started when I was about 7 years old. I sat on a beige carpet between my friend Sam and his little brother, eyes glued to the TV screen in front of us, watching a woman in a gold bikini strangle Jabba the Hutt. We’d already made our way through the first and second films in the Star Wars trilogy, and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia had us enraptured as she vanquished her slug-like captor. When the film ended, we went into the garden and soaked each other with water pistols (although we’d have preferred them to be lightsabers). I twisted my wet hair into bunches to stop it dripping over my clothes, and that’s when Sam said to me: “You remind me of Princess Leia.” OK, so he was probably just talking about the way I’d twisted up my hair but, even as a child, to me it meant so much more; that I was just as tough as the boys. I can see now that Leia was my first feminist role model, and when I rewatch the films I always enjoy how, the first time you hear Leia speak, she’s arguing with Darth Vader and refusing to tell him what she’s done with his precious Death Star plans, despite being surrounded by gun-toting Stormtroopers. She’s statuesque in her trademark white robe and self-assured in her mission to save her planet. There are other moments in the films when her character’s frustration with stereotypical male bravado is subtly highlighted; when she meets Han Solo, it isn’t love at first sight, and when Leia, Han and Luke Skywalker are attempting to escape from the Death Star, she chides Han for “not having a plan for getting out”, before rolling her eyes, grabbing Luke’s gun and shooting them a new escape route. Carrie Fisher pulled this off perfectly. Her audition tape for the part of Princess Leia shows she knew from the off how she wanted to enact the character. She delivered her lines with that delicious hint of exasperation that defined Leia, that hung off every word in one of her most famous rebuttals to Han Solo: “Why, you stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking, nerf herder!”
My passion for Star Wars was still going strong when Episode One: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999. I was only 10 at the time, but I remember questioning why The Phantom Menace’s female lead, Queen Amidala, seemed so much more fragile than Leia. There are many things George Lucas did with the prequel trilogy that can, and have, been extensively criticised – not least his bizarre juxtaposition of then cutting-edge CGI and a hammy, retro-style script. Giving Natalie Portman’s Amidala the damsel-in-distress quality is one of them. I was especially frustrated because most of the films I was consuming at the time seemed to peddle the idea that a woman’s happiness is dependent on a man’s actions. Kat seemed pretty badass for about two thirds of 10 Things I Hate About You, until her facade shattered at the end by means of a mushy poem. The first Bridget Jones came out when I was 12, and although there were many elements of it that went over my head, I knew I was perturbed by the fact that this woman’s only real concern in life was finding a man. From then on, I knew that something didn’t tally with how I felt fictional – and real – women should be, thanks to Leia being the first on-screen heroine I encountered. She is treated like she is just as competent as the boys, not dependent on them. It takes her two whole films to tell Han Solo she loves him, and even then, she only says it because he’s being frozen in carbonite and she thinks she might never see him again.
At 21, I was old enough to make a conscious decision to reject the norms and ideals the media told me existed for women. I didn’t always wear makeup on dates, I listened to metal and collected Lego (Star Wars Lego, mainly). But then at 22 I found myself in a relationship with a man two decades older than me, who questioned everything I did, thought and believed. “Women don’t have casual sex,” he’d rage, “Unless they’ve been abused or have low self-esteem.” In the next breath, he’d talk about how he’d fuck – but not date – a girl who wore hot pants on nights out. His misogyny was subtle at first but grew more vicious and disturbing as the relationship progressed, until I ended it. But one thing I always knew was that his double standard was insidious. Thankfully his comments never made me doubt myself or my own identity; rather, they made that rebellious streak that Leia ignited burn brighter, and spurred me to challenge him and move on. I know that I would have discovered feminism eventually, even if I had never seen Star Wars. But I can pinpoint that day I twisted my hair into Princess Leia bunches as the moment I first realised women can do anything men can do, and needn’t be dependent on them. She was the female protagonist I needed to teach me this young. “Not even girls want to be girls so long as our feminine archetype lacks force, strength, and power” wrote Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston in 1943, years ahead of his time. It was Leia who made sure that that force was with me.