The Star Wars franchise has always been a story about legacy and inheritance and family. Luke says, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” Kylo Ren worships at the ruined altar of his grandfather, Darth Vader.
But it’s Leia’s legacy that matters most.
In Return of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker tells Leia that she has the same power that he does and that in time she will learn to use it. When she asks for clarification, he says, “The Force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. And… my sister has it. Yes. It’s you, Leia.”
Leia’s response is not disbelief. It is not even surprise. It is calm, simple knowing. In that moment, in Leia’s heart, the future of the Star Wars universe was born.
Leia was never a damsel in distress, as Carrie Fisher liked to point out, but almost all of her genre ancestors were. Leia comes from a long line of kidnapped princesses made to cling to muscular heroes on the cover of the adventure. She isn’t the first to pick up a blaster, strangle her captor, or earn the title of General. But she did it in such a highly visible way that every heroine who follows her can count her in their line.
Jyn Erso, who paradoxically exists in the timeline before Leia, is her figurative descendant. Erso’s heritage from her father connects her to the Empire, to the Death Star, and puts her in danger. Erso’s grim determination and terrible sacrifice prefigure Leia’s dogged pursuit of her own father and the destruction of her home planet in the narrative. In the films, Erso echoes Organa. They are heroic recursion; a paradox of feminine power guiding the Rebellion.
Regardless of her non-Jedi parentage, for us the viewer Rey is still a descendant of Leia. Her appearance and demeanor in The Force Awakens are a mixed heritage from both Leia and Luke, living out Luke’s origins with Leia’s looks and attitude. Rey is also the individual in whom the titular awakening of the Force takes place. She can detect it and harness it in herself without any instruction. She is the first to do this, despite her membership among the last of the Jedi.
It is Leia who set this story in motion. Leia, who doesn’t get fridged like Shmi and Padme so that the men around her can have feelings. Leia, who carries the Force inside her and is not once tempted by the Dark Side. Leia, who receives the labor of Jyn Erso, so that her death and those of her team are not in vain. Leia, leader of the Rebel Alliance and foremother to Rey, who will be the one to fulfill the prophecy laid on the weak shoulders of Anakin Skywalker and finally bring balance to the Force.
It is through Leia’s legacy that Rey and so many other female characters in science fiction and fantasy are whole people, with their own plans and dreams and walks through the stars. She did not have to be nice to be a princess. She did not have to be polite to govern or apologize to men so that she could lead. She did not have to get anyone’s permission to fall in love. She is the reason that Rey is the future and not the future’s girlfriend.
Leia’s legacy is Rey standing alone on the poster for The Last Jedi, her inherited lightsaber in her hand. She is a Rebel like her people before her. The Force runs strong in her family. Rey stands alone because Princess Leia stands behind her.