How Princess Leia helped me claim my own womanhood

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May 25, 2017, 12:15 PM EDT

I first discovered Star Wars on a family road trip to Florida when I was seven years old. My parents had bought the entire trilogy for me to watch in a recently released VHS box set. That first viewing was not on a big screen in a dark theater; it was seatbelted in the back of a family van that had a wobbly TV/VCR combo nestled in between the front seats where my parents sat, the height of luxury for a Midwestern middle-class kid in the late '80s.

The first major era of Star Wars had ended, Return of the Jedi was a few years old, and my brother had even sold off most of his massive collection of toys at garage sales (a decision that would in later years cause him to visibly wince whenever it was mentioned), but it didn't matter because these were my first steps into the Galaxy Far Far Away. That long road trip was the day everything was new.

I was caught by it all: lightsabers, Jedi, giant toothy worms that lived in asteroids, evil slugs who ordered men frozen in carbonite, primitive teddy bears who could take down an army. On a tiny TV in the back of a van heading down I-77 south I discovered that Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker's father, and then shortly after, Leia's too.

That trip was when I first met Leia Organa.

Like most other action movie franchises at the time, Leia was the only major female character. Despite that, there was something different about her. At first glance In A New Hope she's presented as the damsel in distress that needs to be saved, but when you look closer she's also someone who will grab a blaster when she needs to and mess up some stormtroopers, and her mission remains her primary concern. As the movies progress, she only gets placed more and more in charge. She has unquestioned authority and commands respect from the fellow soldiers in the Rebel base on Hoth (except for Han, of course), and while much ink has been spent on the gold bikini in Jabba's palace, she's also someone that marches into that palace carrying a thermal detonator in order to gain access to Han in the first place. Later she dons a camouflage poncho and leads the charge against the shield generators on the forest moon of Endor. Not to mention that she doesn't throw away her shot at bookending the "I love you," "I know" exchanges.

But maybe the most important thing that I noticed about Leia Organa as Star Wars became entrenched in my developing brain was that she stuck around. That's something that felt unheard of in the women of action movie franchises in those days. Marion Ravenwood was replaced by Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (I was too young to understand what a prequel was) and then again by Elsa in The Last Crusade. (And then there was never another Indiana Jones movie made ever again. NONE.) Batman Returns replaced Vicky Vale with Catwoman, James Bond movies were actively known for bringing in a different woman every single time, and while Back to the Future does keep Jennifer around, they still replaced the actress and she spends most of the movies asleep anyway.

But Leia is there. She matters. Leia is just as important to the story as Luke and Han, it's her story too. She's not only a Skywalker by blood, she's the audience's entry point character into the Rebel Alliance. Because she sticks around, because she's there, one message began to take hold. She belongs here.

I was the lone geek in my family. My brother had outgrown the Star Wars movies around the time I'd gotten into them, so I'd be alone in my bedroom, reading expanded universe novels, playing the video games or watching the original trilogy again and again on my TV while he and my parents watched football in the other room. If it wasn't Star Wars, it was Star Trek or something else just like it. Like many kids of my generation who didn't feel like they belonged, sci-fi and fantasy were my escape hatches. But the codes of what was okay for boys and girls felt so very rigid in those days, and so many times I felt like the very places I was escaping to seemed to broadcast notes of "Boys Only," a message that was hard to be inundated with when even before I had discovered the vocabulary to express it, I knew deep down in me that I was not, in fact, a boy.

The Ninja Turtles were all boys, Spider-Man was a boy, the Super Mario Brothers were boys, even in Legend of Zelda, a game named after another princess, the main character was Link, a boy! Things made for girls didn't seem as exciting as things made for boys, but all of the for boys stuff would give women the back seat at best. I would sit awake staring at the ceiling at night, wondering how I could ever reconcile my love of nerdy things with the fact that I so firmly knew that I was supposed to be a girl.

Leia showed me how.

Leia showed me by being there. By refusing to take a back seat, sometimes literally, Leia helped me get it. By kicking ass and taking names, by being the rebel leader that she was, and by sticking around, Leia showed me that Star Wars -- and, by extension, all of geekdom -- was somewhere that I belonged, just like her. Star Wars has expanded its female ranks with the likes of Padme Amidala, Ahsoka Tano, Jyn Erso, Rey and Captain Phasma (and desperately needs some women of color outside of delightful but CGI entries like Maz Kanata). Slowly the "only one woman" reality is fading, and there'll be more and more characters for people to relate to as the rogues gallery expands, but for me it all comes back to Leia.

The best part about this history that I have with Leia is that in no way am I alone. So many of my fellow lady nerds can cite Princess Leia as one of the reasons they too became locked into geeky fandom at such an early age. There's something very comforting to a woman like me to know that as different as my experiences can feel sometimes, as much as an outsider as I liken myself to be, there are connections of girlhood that can transcend the circumstances of our births. We all belong here.

We came to the altar of General Leia Organa together and we stayed for the word of Carrie Fisher for as long as she was able to give it to us. Thanks to Leia, and Carrie, I know that not only is a woman's place in the resistance, but in the fandom, in the world, and anywhere else she wants to be.

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