So begins The Return of the Jedi. This sentence seems to explain the meaning of the title, but there are definitely other circumstances in the movie which apply. Not only does Luke return home, but he also returns (briefly) to the Dagobah system as he promised Yoda. Later, he returns to face Darth Vader. Furthermore, at the end of the film, Vader returns to being a Jedi. The Return of the Jedi could refer to any of these situations, and since “Jedi” can be either singular of plural, both Luke and Vader could be in view.
At some point, the title of Episode VI was going to be The Revenge of the Jedi. There was even a teaser trailer released in 1982 which used that title. However, the theme of “revenge” does not fit what actually happens in the movie. Jedi are not supposed to be motivated by revenge. Revenge contributed to why Anakin Skywalker was drawn to the Dark Side and became Darth Vader. It is fitting that the word did not headline any of the movies in the Saga until The Revenge of the Sith.
When Luke comes to liberate Han, he gives Jabba several opportunities to solve the conflict peacefully. It was about rescue, not revenge. And, despite the advice of his mentors Obi-Wan and Yoda, Luke refuses to exact revenge on Vader, but seeks to rescue him, too. Obi-Wan was certain Luke’s refusal to kill Vader meant “the Emperor has already won.” But Luke was able to “feel the good” in him, convinced his father could be “turned back to the good side.”
And, as Vader acknowledges as he lies dying, Luke was right. Luke was not able to rescue his father physically, but his spiritual rescue had already been accomplished. Luke’s compassion for his friends and his father, instead of causing the Emperor to win, paved a path of deliverance even sage Jedi were unable to see.
The Other Hope: An Undauntable Princess Gets a Makeover
Luke was right, but what if he hadn’t been? Obi-Wan opines Luke is the “only hope.” But, as Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back, “There is another.” In Return, we finally understand what Yoda means. With his dying breath, he tells Luke, “There is another Skywalker.” Obi-Wan seems to have discounted this other hope—this other Skywalker.
Of course, the other Skywalker is Leia. And it would be unwise to discount her.
When Luke rejoins the Alliance, he has a conversation with his sister, letting her in on the secret Obi-Wan had been keeping from them. He tells her she is the “only hope for the Alliance” if he does not return from facing Vader. He reminds her she has “always been strong.”
Hollywood has always had a hard time portraying strong women. They are usually angry and bitter, needing the influence of the “right man” to mellow them. Of course, that particular story line is older than the movies. Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew comes to mind. Even in the 21st century it is hard to find a modern movie with a strong female role which isn’t skewed this way. The shrew must be tamed.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1983, Carrie Fisher, who portrayed Leia in the original trilogy, spoke to this.
“There are a lot of people who don’t like my character in these movies; they think I’m some kind of space bitch. She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds—along with her hairdresser—so all she has is a cause. From the first film, she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry. In Return of the Jedi, she gets to be more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate. But let’s not forget that these movies are basically boys’ fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes.”
Wow. Fisher speaks with a bluntness few actresses match even three decades later. Unfortunately, too many even middle-aged and older men* today still view women this way, and those with “boys’ fantasies” too often are being pandered to by the industry. In a 2013 article on McMillan’s TOR.com, Emily Asher-Perrin argues,
“…plenty of us ladies would argue about Star Wars being strictly a boy’s fantasy, but Fisher is correct in context; at the time that Star Wars originally came out, the population certainly agreed that these films were made primarily for kids and teenage boys, and they were marketed as such. So her point about being in the bikini is even more valid—it is hard to suggest that costume change is there for anything but male gaze.”
To be fair, the bikini scenes do end with Leia getting the upper hand, giving her a chance to show her strength again as she turns her chain of subjugation into a weapon of freedom. However, in later scenes in the Ewok village, where she for the first time quite literally “lets her hair down,” she is impotent to persuade the indigenous creatures to free her friends, and has to rely on Luke’s trickery.
Whatever the criticism, it is noteworthy that George Lucas did endeavor to create a strong female character, and the legacy of Princess Leia is, at least in part, a good one. As Asher-Perrin concludes,
“Carrie Fisher always understood why Leia was going to be an important figure to women and fans the world over. Why she was needed when she hit the stage. Even if Hollywood did need to ‘soften’ her, no one has ever been able to soften her impact—real heroes have a tendency to shine no matter how you dress them.”
So, what is the solution? Where does Hollywood find the right balance without catering to the crowd who want to see women tamed?
In her 2014 San Diego ComicCon interview, Evangeline Lilly, who portrayed the elf Tauriel in the Hobbit movies, argued female heroes should be both strong and compassionate.
“…there has been this pendulum swing… Women went from being this helpless heroine to trying to pretend to be men. …how is that gender equality? …it was my mission to represent true female strength. …our strength, as women, comes from our compassion, our selflessness, our instincts to help—to protect, to put others first. … Look what I can do. I can protect, and I can have compassion and be selfless, and I can care and be gentle… be feminine and graceful – while slaughtering orcs.”
Most of the above should apply to male heroes, too. Compassion and selflessness certainly apply to Luke Skywalker. Compassion and strength do not have to be mutually exclusive—in women, or in men. In fact, we see the perfect combination of the two in Jesus Christ.
*Donald Trumps’ misogynistic conduct with women is the elephant (pun intended) in the room right now. His reaction to Megyn Kelly in the Republican presidential debates underscores how women too often are treated. His accusation Kelly was not “playing nice” is an example of the double standard often used for women in business. In a blog post on HuffingtonPost.com, Karen Frankola addresses this kind of gender bias: “The next time you’re about to criticize a female colleague for a lack of niceness, ask yourself if you would criticize a man for the same behavior. Can you shift your perspective to focus on competence rather than personality? I don’t think Steve Jobs ever worried about being called nice.”