Star Wars Celebration: Princess Leia fans praise her strength and femininity

April 20, 2015 | 7:04 a.m.

The love for Princess Leia Organa was strong among the “Star Wars” professionals, fans and professional fans attending the “What Princess Leia Means to Me” panel on Sunday at the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim. Panelists and audience members took the occasion to share the many ways the iconic character has influenced their lives.

The panel, moderated by Jennifer Heddie, a senior editor at Lucasfilm, featured actress Catherine Taber, artists Cat Staggs and Katie Cook, author Christie Golden and Lucasfilm creative executive Rayne Roberts.

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For the Record
April 21, 1:37 p.m.:
  This story lists the “What Princess Leia Means to Me” panel moderator as Lucasfilm senior editor Jennifer Heddie. Her name is Jennifer Heddle.

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Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. (Lucasfilm)

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. (Lucasfilm)

For a number of the panelists Princess Leia was the first example they encountered in media that showed women could have agency.

Princess Leia was “the first female character I remember that wasn’t the one that needed to be saved,” said Staggs, a comic book artist whose “Star Wars” related work includes illustrating trading cards and art for StarWars.com. What stood out to her about Leia was the fact that “she took charge.”

For Taber, the actress who voices Padme Amidala in the animated “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” TV series, Leia’s significance is that she sent the messages to girls watching the films that “you need to be the masters of your own life.” A message, she added, that girls even now need to hear.

Panelists discussed how the existence of Princess Leia also affected the roles available to them while they were growing up playing with boys during their formative years.

When playing “Star Wars” with other children, because of Princess Leia, “I wasn’t stuck in the closet waiting to be saved,” said Golden, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose resume includes a few “Star Wars” novels.

Staggs agreed, adding that “it was fun to play a character and not be pigeonholed as the damsel in distress.”

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"Star Wars" fans Sharon Jackson, left, dressed as Mission Vao, of Las Vegas, and Kyle Jackson, dressed as a Wookiee, pose for pictures during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Star Wars" fans from the 501st Legion costume organization show off their Stormtrooper gear during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Costumed "Star Wars" fans Corin Zinninger as Darth Reuan, Sharon Jackson as Mission Vao, Kyle Jackson as a Wookiee, and Brennan Zinninger as Carth Onasi, all of Las Vegas, pose for pictures during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Costumed "Star Wars" fans pose with toy lightsabers during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration held at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Dressed as "Star Wars" character Oola, Moe Hunt of Chicago poses with Roxy the Rancor during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A "Star Wars" fan dressed as Darth Vader leads a parade of characters from the 501st Legion costume organization as they make a dramatic entrance into the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Star Wars" fans from the 501st Legion costume organization show off their Stormtrooper gear as they make a dramatic entrance into the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Star Wars" fans from the 501st Legion costume organization show off their Stormtrooper gear as they make a dramatic entrance into the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A security guard inspects "Star Wars" fan and Modesto resident Steve Gwin, a member of the worldwide 501st Legion costume organization, during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Star Wars characters from the 501st Legion costume organization parade through the halls of the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Charlotte Davis, 2, of San Diego, plays with bubbles from a bubble-making R2-D2 during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Danielle Young of Salem, Mass., is dressed as Princess Leia during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Molly Ingham of South Carolina shows off her costume -- "Frozen's" Queen Elsa as a Sith -- during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Molly Ingham, right, of South Carolina shows off her costume -- "Frozen's" Queen Elsa as a Sith -- during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Star Wars" fans Anthony Lopez, left, of Sacramento and Torri Robbins, right, of Denver show off their Shadow Trooper costumes during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Star Wars" fan Anthony Lopez of Sacramento shows off his Shadow Trooper costume during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Jovan C. of Norco checks his phone while dressed as Luke Skywalker during the 2015 Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center on April 16. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A man who goes by the name of "Hyper" poses as a beach-ready stormtrooper. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Actor, stuntman and performer Lucky McQueede of Santa Clarita performs as Darth Maul cyborg, right. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Youngsters learn how to use light sabers during a Jedi training seminar. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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The Hodge family: Kelly, Milo, 6, and Dave, of Nashville sport their homemade biker scouts outfits from "Return of the Jedi." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A Star Wars Celebration attendee enjoys an exhibit at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Star Wars" fans view the Hot Wheels' Life-Size, 150-mph Darth Vader car, based on a C5 Chevrolet Corvette. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Dylan Stalker of Long Beach, dressed as a combination of a spartan and Boba Fett, stands next to a giant Jabba the Hutt model. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Stryder Brown of Los Angeles is the Hip Hop Trooper, whose pumping music gets him dancing at the Star Wars Celebration. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Retired Sidious," otherwise known as Delyn Murie, 74, of Riverside, uses his imperial walker to get around at Star Wars Celebration. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Excitement rises among fans waiting for "Date With The Princess: Carrie Fisher." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Participants in a Princess Leia look-alike contest compete before Carrie Fisher took the stage. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Contestants parade across the stage during the Princess Leia look-alike contest. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Carrie Fisher and her dog, Gary, onstage during the "Date With The Princess: Carrie Fisher" event. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Carrie Fisher onstage during the "Date With The Princess: Carrie Fisher" event. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A youngster is prepared for a lightsaber fight as he walks through the dark shadows at the Star Wars Celebration. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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"Star Wars" fans travel to their next destination at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Jessica Odell of Lisburn, Ireland, is dressed as Maris Broud from "The Force Unleashed" video game. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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William Teague of Austin, Texas. views dozens of Star Wars figures lined up in a display by the Kotobukiya company. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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In tattoo alley, artist Damian Cain of Britain shows off his Luke Skywalker tattoo. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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In tattoo alley, Vinny Romanelli of New York City gives Angela Byrd of Modesto an angelic R2D2 tattoo. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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In tattoo alley, David James of Arcadia shows off his Darth Nihilus work-in-progress tattoo. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Malcolm McNeil of Ventura takes part in the X-Wing Experience Star Wars Battlefront. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Robert Gomes of Walnut, Calif., is Darth Tannos in the Millennium Falcon scene. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Eric Cajiuat, of Fullerton, is Jedi Elvis in the Millennium Falcon scene. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Chandra Chang of Los Angeles poses as R2D2 Hello Kitty -- or R2Kitty -- in front of "The 20th Century Space Opera" oil on canvas by Robert Xavier Burden. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A fan takes photos of some of the extensive collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the Rancho Obi-Wan Star Wars collection booth. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Jennifer Hobart, of Fullerton, creates her own Star Wars character with special contact lenses. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans dress in character and recreate the Mos Eisley Cantina from "Star Wars." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans dress in character and recreate the Mos Eisley Cantina from "Star Wars." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans dress in character and recreate the Mos Eisley Cantina from "Star Wars." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Fans dress in character and recreate the Mos Eisley Cantina from "Star Wars." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Calvin Heins, 12, of Los Angeles, wears a Jawa costume in front of a replica of the Mos Eisley Cantina from "Star Wars." (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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A young girl readies her lightsaber as she walks though the shadows at the Star Wars Celebration at the Anaheim Convention Center. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Members of the 1st Imperial Stormtrooper Detachment of the 501st Legion march in formation through the crowd during Star Wars Celebration. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Members of the 1st Imperial Stormtrooper Detachment of the 501st Legion march in formation through the crowd during Star Wars Celebration. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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Members of the 1st Imperial Stormtrooper Detachment of the 501st Legion march in formation through the crowd during Star Wars Celebration. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In addition to her attitude and story line, Princess Leia’s physical appearance and stature also had an impact on the panelists.

Heddie and Golden remarked how it was significant to see a female character who was not only short, but a “take no prisoners brunette.”

Princess Leia’s influence is not only personal, but professional for the panelists.

Roberts, whose position at Lucasfilm includes involvement in the production of “Star Wars Rebels,” revealed that Leia is significant because she is more than just a character, she is an archetype.

Because Princess Leia embodies so many characteristics, including being feisty, friendly, feminine and strong, “Star Wars” as a franchise is able to establish more female characters, such as Sabine Wren and Hera Syndulla in “Star Wars Rebels,” who are equally complex, said Roberts. She said that the precedent George Lucas set with Princess Leia establishes the “Star Wars” universe as a place where more fully developed women like her can exist.

As Princess Leia fans, the panelists were also eager to discuss their hopes for her role in the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which will see actress Carrie Fisher reprise her iconic role.

A consensus among the panel was the hope that in the new film, Leia will be more than just “the old lady” who appears in the film for a couple of minutes.

“Without Leia, we would not have [characters like] Ripley [from the ‘Alien’ franchise], the women of ‘Firefly,’” said Staggs, who hopes that the new film will do justice to the fact that Leia is now “coming full circle.”

Golden agreed, adding that she hopes the Leia in “The Force Awakens” can serve as a figure whom young girls can “look forward to something to become” as they grow older.

Although Cook, an artist whose “Star Wars” credentials include contributing art to StarWars.com, also echoed her fellow panelists in her hopes that Leia will have a more significant role in “The Force Awakens,” she was quick to add that she would gladly accept seeing Leia as “the old lady” using the Force while living with her cats, which earned her some laughter from the audience.

Of course, not all panelists are in the dark about the story in “The Force Awakens.”

Roberts, who admitted to knowing what role Leia plays in the film, was tight-lipped about plot points from “The Force Awakens.” She did, however, share her excitement and that she is looking forward to seeing how the audience responds to Leia in the film.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, left, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.  (Lucasfilm)

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, left, and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. (Lucasfilm)

When the panel opened to audience questions, it was clear that Princess Leia influenced more than just the female fans of the franchise.

Many of the fans who lined up were men who shared how seeing Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films and becoming fans allowed them to understand and “accept women as equals.”

Another male fan shared how he showed “Star Wars” to his sisters when they were young so they could see Princess Leia and understand that even as girls, anything is possible with a little bit of courage. He credits their strength, and that of his daughters, to the strength of the character embodied by Princess Leia.

A number of fans took to the microphone to lament the lack of Leia action figures available. A female fan was adamant that merchandising teams were wrong to think girls don’t play with action figures, while a male fan added that the belief that boys won’t play with female action figures is also misguided.

The panel also delved into more serious topics.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the 1997 special edition of "Return of the Jedi." (Lucasfilm)

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the 1997 special edition of “Return of the Jedi.” (Lucasfilm)

An audience member expressed her concern about the prominent use of the “Slave Leia” imagery that is taken out of context in order to objectify the princess. The “Slave Leia” outfit refers to the metal bikini Princess Leia is forced to wear while she was held captive by Jabba the Hutt in “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” after her failed attempt to rescue the carbonite-sealed Han Solo.

The convention goer found it problematic that when the “Slave Leia” image is taken out of context in order to sell merchandise as merely titillating imagery, it undermines the reality that Leia is forced to wear the bikini as punishment and sexualizes the degradation of Princess Leia.

Signs that proclaimed cosplay is not consent on one side with Star Wars Celebration's anti-harassment policy on the other were visible throughout the Anaheim Convention Center. (Tracy Brown / Los Angeles Times)

Signs that proclaimed cosplay is not consent on one side with Star Wars Celebration’s anti-harassment policy on the other were visible throughout the Anaheim Convention Center. (Tracy Brown / Los Angeles Times)

In response to this, Heddie shared an anecdote about a business dinner that lead her to realize how there was a fundamental difference in how men and women understand the Slave Leia outfit and what it symbolizes.

While she made no excuses for this problematic reality, Heddie also took the occasion to praise the organizers of the convention for Star Wars Celebration’s anti-harassment policy and the many prominent signs throughout the Anaheim Convention Center proclaiming that cosplay is not consent. She said it was important that all women (and men) who attend as Slave Leia feel safe.

The other panelists were quick to respond, suggesting that the Slave Leia imagery is a good teaching moment. They suggested that discussions about the scene could be used to propel conversations in which girls are taught they have value and the power to say “no” and boys are taught to treat girls equally and with respect.

It is important for girls to understand that they have the power to “stand up for yourself [and] stand up for what’s right,” said Taber.

– Tracy Brown | @tracycbrown |@LATHeroComplex

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