When I was growing up my childhood devotion was split between two women: Princess Leia and Laura Ingalls.
At first glance these may seem like divergent idols: One a fictional, intergalactic princess, the other a real-life 19th century pioneer girl. But to my mind they were two sides of the same coin, sharing the most important qualities a woman could possess: fierce independence, a deep sense of adventure, and really fantastic hair.
That last bit is important, by the way. I was not a tomboy growing up. I was an energetic, active, often bossy, athletic girl who loved adventure and books and clothes and hair, all at the same time (I have a different definition of adventure these days, but otherwise this mostly still holds true). Finding a figure who embodied all these qualities in the books or films that were available to me was not all that easy. Women in action movies were either beautiful and useless (much like my beloved Barbie dolls, who did nothing but go to the hair salon to get their hair done up in Leia and or Laura-like styles), or adventurous tomboys who didn’t have much time for or interest in appearance. I could go on and on about the genius of Harriet M. Welsch but as much as I loved her as a child (and arguably even more as an adult) she didn’t quite fit. I wanted more. And I got it.
Presumably my enduring devotion to all things Princess Leia was fueled in part by how easy it was to incorporate her into my life. This was the early eighties when seeing a Star Wars film meant actually going to the movie theatre. Instead we had Star Wars toys. So. Many. Toys. Much has been written about the marketing and franchise genius of George Lucas (Carrie Fisher likes to joke-ish that every time she looks in the mirror she has to send him a check) and I was the prime target. To my everlasting joy. Each week I’d save my allowance and when I had enough money I’d march down to the grocery store and purchase a new Princess Leia figure.
Bespin Leia was my favorite style-wise and only came out for special occasions; Hoth Leia was more practical (especially when it came to recreating Planet Hoth in the snowbanks at the end of our driveway) and traveled everywhere with me. Endor Leia looked like a man. And I was eternally resentful they never created an Ewok Village Leia with hair I could brush, though to paraphrase the Rolling Stones sometimes you get the Leia Star Wars figure you need. I got all of them. I also had the trading cards (leading me to the lifelong belief that Oct. 21 was Princess Leia’s birthday — in fact, along with Carrie Fisher’s likeness, it seems Kenner and Lucas also absconded with her birthdate), the novelizations, the note books, the fan club application, a lunch box, and the Pez dispenser. We had the bed sheets, the beach towel (which I found in my parent’s closet last time I was home), the Millenium Falcon, the Ewok Village, Jabba’s band, and because our next door neighbor’s father worked for the local paper, some glossy black & white publicity stills I thought were the next best thing to having Carrie Fisher walk into my house herself. Every day after school we would “play” Star Wars: I would create original storylines, mostly starring Princess Leia, and then direct them. (As much as I tried to convince my sister Mon Mothma was cool, too, she never bought it and spent most of our childhood playing Chewbacca or Wicket.) On Halloween I’d wrap brown yarn around a pair of ear muffs and nearly explode with happiness. Once, in my only foray into the world of fan fiction, I wrote the first chapter of the sequel to Return of the Jedi, which naturally starred an eight-year-old girl.
I think it’s safe to say that while my love of Princess Leia may have been on the more extreme side it was not all that unusual for girls my age at the time. And as far as girlhood obsessions that turn into grown-up life lessons go it was hard to beat: Take charge, be brave, be loyal, have nice hair, and strangle to death the monster who forces you to wear an inappropriate bikini.
Last month I spent two weeks living with my sister and her children. My sister had just given birth to my nephew (on Oct. 21, no less) and I’d gone home to help take care of the other two: my nephew age five, and my niece age three-and-a-half. As you can imagine (those of you with children probably don’t need your imagination) three children under the age of five is a lot. A lot. Oh my God a lot lot. One night, early on, in a somewhat desperate effort to calm them down and give my sister a break, I loaded Star Wars onto my computer. My nephew is obsessed with Star Wars. He has a Darth Vader backpack, Luke Skywalker underwear, some sort of Star Wars lego movie starring Yoda he can quote to me by heart, a lego X-Wing Fighter, a life-size toy lightsaber, a Star Wars sandwich container, and that’s just the stuff I can remember seeing. My niece likes Frozen. Obviously.
Despite all this neither of them had actually seen the original movies and very quickly a half hour of Star Wars before bed became our nightly routine. I would explain and answer questions as we went. By the end of the two weeks we’d made it through the entire trilogy. It was the absolutely the greatest. Also it turns out Star Wars makes complete sense to the five-and-under set: unlike The Wizard of Oz, parts of which terrified me as a child and parts of which my niece and nephew require me to fast-forward through (the monkey scene is a definite no-go), no parts of Star Wars alarmed them (though I did create a mild distraction during the Aunt Beru skeleton scene). They loved it and understood it immediately. The next day my nephew came racing off the bus with a Star Wars book brandished over his head. My auntdom work was done.
Perhaps buoyed in part by my own obsession (Me: Princess Leia is one million times better than Anna and Elsa. My niece: Her name is AH-nna!!) my niece quickly followed suit. She wanted her hair pinned in buns, she ate all her broccoli one night because I told her it was Princess Leia’s favorite food (this worked exactly once, but still), she would only wear her Princess Leia underwear.
Except she had no Princess Leia underwear.
In the Great Bartering Exchange known as trying to get a three-year-old dressed for nursery school I would spend not a small amount of time trying to convince her various pairs of underwear were in fact Princess Leia underwear. Some days I was more successful than others. Many days there were tears. Some days there were tantrums. Once or twice my nephew missed the bus as a result of our debates and had to be driven (by me, still in my pajamas, coffee mug wedged between my legs). Tired of the exchange and thinking she did in fact deserve her own Princess Leia underwear, or paraphanelia in general, I went to the local Walmart. Somewhere in the pink ghetto otherwise known as their girls toys section I figured I would find something.
Not a thing.
The boys section had an entire row devoted to Star Wars. The girls: Nothing. Princesses yes. So many goddam pink princesses. The un-pink, kick ass, Princess of my childhood? Nope. Not even a Halloween costume.
Maybe it’s just this outlet, I thought. Princess Leia seemed like a given to me when it came to toys. There are new Star Wars movies in the works, after all. The cultural conversation has been pinned to women for more than six years now. Every month it seems like some video of a girl complaining about pink girls toys goes viral. Princess Leia, tried and true and so freaking awesome — perfect for an age where we are all about empowering girls, about not defining them based on the men they marry (cf. Frozen) — seemed like a no-brainer. Don’t get me wrong, I love Anna and Elsa, too, but puhlease. There are princesses and then there is Leia.
More to the point, or at least the point toy execs are presumably interested in: Doesn’t Disney stand to make about a gazillion more dollars by putting Leia’s face on things? I assumed yes. Star Wars is the biggest movie franchise in the history of the world, and girls make up one half of the population. I assumed it was probably that she’d just sold out where I was looking. So I began to look harder. I looked on the official Star Wars sites. I looked on toy store sites. I looked on eBay. I looked on Etsy. I found a lot of adult Leia slave costumes, a bunch of infant hats knit to look like Leia buns, and an alarming amount of t-shirts with her likeness above the phrase “Daddy’s Little Girl.” Gross. But not much else.
Then I got mad. Where the fuck was Princess Leia?
I am not the first to notice this, I know. Earlier this year Disney faced a backlash when a British mother couldn’t find a Princess Leia toy at the Disney store and tweeted at them about her absence causing a hashtag storm. Disney realized its, er, mistake and apparently Leia dolls are now on the way. But I want more than dolls. I want all of it. I want all the stuff I was able to get when I was a kid, that my five-year old nephew is still able to get thirty years later, and if not I want the person(s) in charge to come over to my sister’s house and explain to me and my niece the thinking behind this bullshit decision. And while they are there perhaps they can pick up the twenty pairs of princesses who are not Princess Leia underwear my niece has angrily discarded on the floor. There are only so many hours in a day after all.
I’m not kidding, I want to know: why can’t I have her? I loved Princess Leia as a child because she gave me hope that grown-up life could be as exciting and powerful and independent for a woman as it could be for a man. And what a relief to discover it often is. But doesn’t Leia in many ways also embody exactly the sort of woman we are encouraging our girls to grow up to be? Maybe even more importantly, doesn’t she, in her fierceness and her drive and her take-no-prisoners attitude, and her knack for wearing fashionable but functional looking clothes, also embody the sort of women we see every day?
And I’m not just talking Hillary Clinton, or even Malala, though I am talking about them,too. My sister is raising three children on her own and still manages to get up in the morning, dress the kids, load the car, run the house, feed the kids, fix the toys, take charge of every single one of the encounters they witness every day, read bedtime stories, be kind, be a disciplinarian and brush her hair and look nice (which is a helluva lot more than I managed in the two weeks I was responsible for breakfast and school runs). She is one of many women doing this. Where is the princess that embodies all that? I know where she’s not! She’s not in the toy store and she’s not in my niece’s underwear drawer. And she should be. Don’t we want kids — and it’s worth noting that by the time I left my nephew was nearly as devoted to Princess Leia as my niece — to have female figures (literally in this case) to idolize who have even tenuous connections to the amazing, strong, complicated women they will grow up to be, and/or work with and for, and/or maybe marry?
The answer is yes, Disney, we do. We want it now, and we are willing to pay for it. Literally. There is, to paraphrase the wondrous Cindy Gallop, a lot of money to be made by taking Princess Leia seriously. Hurry the fuck up.