If you’re a young girl watching Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as I once was a long time ago in a state far, far away, you might not know that you’re watching something unusual. You might not know that, over three movies, George Lucas and company didn’t just create the ultimate fanboy surrogate in Luke Skywalker, but they also told a story about the rarest of action movie creatures: a woman with a job and political principles, who was more competent and important than either of the two men who showed up to rescue her, and who fell in love with a guy who changed to be with her, rather than the other way around.
Princess Leia is one of the original Star Wars trilogy’s strongest legacies. And as Disney reboots the franchise, starting with Episode VII, it should recognize that women, as much as farmboys from Tatooine with a penchant for bullseying womp rats, are Star Wars’ secret weapon.
The Star Wars Expanded Universe—the umbrella name given to the licensed novels, games, graphic novels, and comics that followed the movies and are generally treated as if they are an official part of the story’s continuity—has pulled off a feat that’s unusual in science fiction franchises: It’s built a rich lineup of female characters that all fans, not just women, are heavily invested in. Pride of place in that universe goes to Mara Jade. Introduced in 1991 in Heir To The Empire, the first in a trilogy by Timothy Zahn, Mara got to occupy roles that had previously belonged to men in the original Star Wars trilogy. Like Darth Vader, she was a lethal agent of the late Emperor Palpatine, and like Han Solo, we meet her as a cynical smuggler. But unlike Vader, Mara got to redeem herself of the Emperor’s influence without dying in the process. And even though she became a formidable Jedi warrior, she also got to be the leading lady in one of the Expanded Universe’s most epic love stories, her romance with and eventual marriage to Luke Skywalker.
Mara is only the beginning. The Rogue Squadron quartet, a series of fighter pilot novels by Michael A. Stackpole, may have had a male main character, Corran Horn. But, unlike in the original Star Wars movies, Stackpole’s lineup featured lots of female pilots who came from backgrounds as diverse as a prison planet, an alien race with a particular talent for spying, and the spoiled scion of a powerful industrial family. It’s a world where, unlike action stories in which women are supposed to be able to shoot guns and crush throats in high heels, a woman’s ability to rock an evening dress or willingness to date an alien lawyer had no impact on her performance when she hopped into an orange jumpsuit and climbed into the cockpit of an X-Wing.
Women don’t just get to be impressive stand-alone characters. In fact, one of the strengths of the Expanded Universe is that it tells so many stories about relationships between men and women who are equally competent and equally complex. In the Rogue Squadron novels, the big romance is between ace pilot Corran and Mirax Terrik, the daughter of a smuggler Corran once sent to prison, who turned her father’s business legitimate and is a pretty hot hand in a spaceship herself. There’s also Jaina Solo, Princess Leia’s daughter with Han Solo, who becomes not just a Jedi Knight, but takes pride of place as the best of the order. She ends up married, after the standard amount of Star Wars tsuris, to Jagged Fel, a pilot and eventual head of a revived Empire.
It’s striking to compare the Expanded Universe to Disney’s adaptations of Marvel comics, in which women are secretary-girlfriend hybrids (like Pepper Potts), adjuncts to the men who are really in charge (like Maria Hill is to Nick Fury), or ass-kicking spies, but not actual superheroines (like Black Widow). And unlike Wonder Woman, a character that’s increasingly treated like she’s unadaptable for reasons ranging from her lack of good enemies to her bondage origins, the Star Wars women are just begging for screen adaptations (or to inspire new characters). They could provide rich roles for a rising generation of young female action stars like Chloe Grace Moretz, Olivia Thirlby, Saoirse Ronan, and Hailee Steinfeld. It would be a delight to see Disney use one of the oldest action franchise chestnuts to show the shiny toys of today’s science fiction and fantasy landscape what it looks like when you let women do as much work and have as much fun as the men.