Han and Leia’s Love Story Through a MeToo Lens
Princess Leia doesn’t like Han Solo when she first meets him. If his rugged good looks attract her, she hides it well. To George Lucas’ credit, Princess Leia is a badass. She may be the only femme in his entire Universe for the first two films, but she can fire a blaster, come up with good ideas, and take care of herself. But she doesn’t like Han. She accuses him of cutting off their escape route, and rebukes and insults him constantly. She’s more than a little classist, but since she’s a princess, that’s not shocking.
Han has conflicting thoughts about Leia: “Either I’m going to kill her or I’m starting to like her.” Murderous intentions or affection? What’s the message there? If you want to throttle someone, that’s a sign that you’re attracted to them? This sounds like a recipe for domestic violence. But we’re not supposed to worry that Han is serious. We’re supposed to laugh off this suggestion of violence against women, to be invested in his burgeoning feelings. And we are. The trope goes, “Man wants woman, man wins woman over.” We’re not supposed to care what the woman wants, or even trust her to know what she wants. It’s high time we think about it.
The original Star Wars trilogy is part of Generation X’s social DNA. It’s arguably shaped our generation more than any other films. But given our ongoing shift in consent culture, I was curious to look back at the messaging in the defining trilogy for Generation X.
We grew up watching Leia and Han fall in love. How did that affect the way we think about love and courtship? And what do those scenes look like through the lens of the MeToo Movement?
A Man-Centered Galaxy Far, Far Away
Han and Leia hug when they don’t die in the garbage compactor. But Han quickly undercuts that with, “If we can avoid any more female advice.” Leia reverts to her imperious attitude, telling Han, “You do what I tell you,” and calling Chewbacca a walking carpet. “No reward is worth this,” says Han. Nowhere does she reciprocate Han’s interest. She continues to hold him in disdain. But because Lucas shot the film from the male point of view, he asks the audience to judge that disdain and root for Han.
When Han and Leia get to the Millennium Falcon, Han finally gets to show off a bit. Standard courtship posturing: show the girl how talented/ strong/ smart you are. Leia responds with, “You captain this thing? You’re braver than I thought.” and “He certainly has courage.” But his mercenary attitude doesn’t impress her. She says, “If money’s all you love then that’s what you’ll receive,” and, “I wonder if he really cares about anything or anybody.”
These are the first hints that Leia is invested in who Han is, not just what he can do for the resistance. It’s a far cry from a declaration of love, though. Han does save their lives several time. The overriding messages are “showing off for girls makes them like you,” and “recklessness has rewards.”
Then the film sets up the classic love triangle between the girl, the good boy, and the bad boy. Luke asks, “What do you think of her?” “Trying not to, kid.” Then Han suggests, “You think a princess and a guy like me…?” Luke comes back with a flat out, “No.”
At this moment, in 1977 many of us took sides and began rooting for one of these men to win Leia’s affections. There’s a three-way hug among them after the final battle, reinforcing the love-fest-triangle. During the medal ceremony, they stand in a literal and figurative triangle on the steps. Leia smiles at both men. When she gives Han his medal he winks at her as if to say, “You’re the real prize.” Our culture, in general, has used entertainment to position women as prizes instead of people, and this moment reinforces that pernicious idea.
Han Solo, Sexual Harasser?
In The Empire Strikes Back, the messaging gets really alarming regarding consent. At the top of the film, the hostility between Han and Leia has been rekindled. Han is outta there. He’s got debts to pay, enough with this resisting. Leia feels angry and disappointed. He tells her that this is because she has feelings for him, not because she wants his help to beat the Empire. She’s cold and only cares about the cause.
Never mind that she might be preoccupied with how the Empire destroyed her planet and all its people. No, according to Han, she must be using the deaths of her people to subvert her feelings for him. Then he tells her, “You could use a good kiss,” a PG way of saying she needs a good fuck. She responds by revenge-kissing Luke, playing into the love triangle again.
Shortly thereafter, Han literally manhandles Leia off of Hoth and onto the Millennium Falcon, directing her around by her upper arm which is both aggressive and intimate. This is how headstrong women leaders must be dealt with: force. While on the Falcon she tells him to let go of her twice and he doesn’t listen. When she gives herself a minor injury and Han massages her hand, she says, “Stop that,” twice. He doesn’t.
She pulls away. He says, “You’re trembling.” She insists she’s not, but she’s being cornered by a much larger human. He asks her why she’s afraid. So he can tell she’s afraid, but does he back off? No, he pins her against a wall and kisses her. The music swells telling us, This is a good kiss, not a rapey kiss. I watch that moment and think, “That’s where all those frat boys learned that move.” C3P0 interrupts them and Leia dashes away the moment Han turns his back. The scene plays like a how-to manual for sexual harassment.
In this male-helmed fantasy, of course Leia falls for Han once he forces himself on her. An excellent message to be sending to boys and girls alike. People can convince themselves that she really loved him all along, but seriously, NOWHERE does she indicate any affection for him. All of her hugs and gratitude can logically stem from Han helping to save them and the galaxy. When he has her pinned against the wall, right before the kiss, she protests with, “I happen to like nice men.” He says, “I am a nice man,” and then plants one on her as she tells him he’s not.
Newsflash, Han, nice men don’t pin unwilling women against a wall and force kisses on them. Thanks, George Lucas, for telling us all that this is what romance looks like. No wonder women get into situations where they think they’re supposed to be turned on by being cornered and coerced, but somehow they’re not. We’ve been force-fed this fantasy since before puberty.
Throughout the rest of The Empire Strikes Back there are various chaste kisses on the cheek and forehead, going both ways, until the consensual kiss before the carbon freezing, accented with the classic. “I love you”–“I know,” repartee. Lucas and his team redeem themselves a bit by flipping that obnoxious exchange in The Return of the Jedi.
The Placating Princess
In Return of the Jedi, Han and Leia act lovey-dovey throughout, the non-consensual, non-cue-reading courtship having worked out 100% for Han. There’s a brief flare up of love-triangle jealousy when Luke and Leia sneak off so Luke can tell her he’s her brother. It’s the perfect way to save face: You don’t have to friend-zone me for that bad boy, I’m your brother! And then Leia has to soothe Han’s jealousy with the revelation. Because men deserve to be placated. Their feelings are paramount. Who cares that you just learned Darth Vader is your father and you have Jedi potential? It’s a woman’s duty to make that man feel like a man.
Jabba’s den contains a few more female characters thus relieving us of the notion that Leia is the only woman in the galaxy. Unfortunately, all the femme characters are entertainment or concubines or both. And poor Carrie Fisher felt incredibly uncomfortable in that ridiculous costume.
I’m not trying to ruin the films for everyone. Really, I’m not. I still love them and their cheesy goodness. And I don’t blame George Lucas for every non-consensual sexual encounter of a generation. But I do think it’s essential that we look at the messaging we internalized here and in the other films of our youth.
My husband, on the other hand, was happy to ruin Return of the Jedi for me. When Han and Leia were embracing at the end of the film, he gave a dismissive wave to the TV and said, “Ok, you two run off and make Adam Driver now.”