I should explain…
This is one of those vivid childhood memories that made such an impression I remember it so well even thirty years later.
I’m about six or seven years old, I suppose, on a scorching hot day at the house of friends of my older brother’s. They’re playing with Star Wars toys in the dust in the back yard, and for once I’m being allowed to join in for lack of other entertainment for me.
I pick up a particular toy – a rough looking bounty hunter type with a helmet and a big staff. I pull at the helmet, it comes off, and to my little girl surprise, underneath are feminine features. I ask one of the boys who it is, and they tell me it is Princess Leia, dressed as Boushh the bounty hunter.
A girl dressed as a boy? Doing boy things?! My young little mind is blown.
And after that when we saw Return of the Jedi on TV, I was always utterly fascinated by that scene – the Princess, not being rescued, but being the rescuer (even if, OK, it did go wrong). The girl doing everything a boy can do.
How much of an impact that little toy made on me really says something – that thirty years later I still remember it vividly. That already at that young age societies ‘norms’ for female behaviour were so ingrained in me that her existence was a shock. That somehow that simple toy, those short scenes in a film, gave me permission to be the tom boy I always was, to look at the world and think ‘I can do anything a boy can.’ A simple but powerful message I’ve carried with me the rest of my life.*
And this is why decent, meaningful female characters in films matter. Why we need Princess Leia, Mara Jade, Padme Amidala, Jaina Solo, Winter, Mirax and all the others. This is why we need Princess Leia dolls in Disney stores (and not just Slave Leia!) and far, far more than that. It’s important because yes, a silly little thing like a toy can spark possibilities in a child’s mind that can change their world for ever.**
*although as I grew up, I of course discovered that it’s not ‘I can do anything a boy can’ but that ‘I should be able to do anything a boy can, but there are a hell of a lot of social barriers in the way’.
**and that’s why we also need more people of colour, both male and female in our franchise and in our toy shops.