Editor’s Note: There are a few light spoilers in here. You’ve been warned!
I was lucky to grow up in a household where imagination and creativity were encouraged. As a teenager, my parents initiated me in to the wonderful world of sci-fi and comic books, and I vividly remember feeling very grown up as I sat down with them to watch their beloved Star Wars trilogy for the first time (they had seen the first one on their honeymoon in the seventies, so it always held a special place in their hearts).
At the time, I was more focused on the coolness of all the galactic otherworldliness, less so on subliminal messages the characters were delivering into my young mind. But having recently re-watched the original trilogy I suddenly realized what a great role model Princess Leia was for a young teenage girl like myself—if not in matters of the heart (she falls for the scoundrel with a heart of gold—a bro, by today's standards—Han Solo) then certainly in terms of character and attitude. Sure, she might be shooting blasters and fighting the Dark Side, but Leia exudes surprisingly applicable traits relevant to every young woman navigating her way through the real world.
Not only was I relieved to see that Star Wars is back in top form with The Force Awakens, but it also made me really happy to see that a new generation of young women will have another awesome female lead character to look up to in the form of Rey. Here are a few lessons from Leia and Rey that apply to every woman, whatever universe you live in.
01. Plan, But Think on Your Feet
What sets Leia apart as a leader is that she makes plans whenever she can, but she is also ready and willing to think quickly without overanalyzing her actions. (Think dressing up as a bounty hunter to save Han Solo in Return of the Jedi and getting caught and chained to the foul Jabba the Hutt, before seizing the opportunity to strangle him with her chains.)
As real-life astronaut Chris Hadfield explains in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, to survive you have to be incredibly detail-oriented, imagine all the possible scenarios, and plan for every conceivable eventuality: “An astronaut who doesn’t sweat the small stuff is a dead astronaut.”
While most of us won’t be in a life-or-death situation in the workplace or at home on a regular basis, the same attitude applies. Plan, over-prepare, sweat the details, and be ready to let all those plans go and think outside of the box if it comes to it. Hadfield cites multiple incidents when he was on board the International Space Station and things didn’t go according to plan, requiring him to use his knowledge and skills in inventive ways to quickly come up with a new solution. As Julia Hogan recently wrote for Verily, “Don’t overanalyze. Just go for it. Relinquish the quest for perfection, and you’ll have the freedom to try new things and expand your horizons.” Which leads me to my next point.
02. Don’t Be Afraid to Try New Things
You have to push yourself outside of your comfort zone on a regular basis if you want to learn new skills and get things done.
Leia doesn’t hesitate to jump on a stormtrooper’s speeder bike in Return of the Jedi. Rey wields a blaster when she faces a stormtrooper, even though she’s never used one before. Whether piloting an unfamiliar spaceship or sneaking around an Imperial enemy base, they don’t stop to say, “But I don’t know how this works!” They just give it their best shot with what they’ve got.
In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg points out, “It is hard to visualize someone as a leader if she is always waiting to be told what to do.” An openness to learn and try new things coupled with a firm belief that you can master new skills is the mark of a true leader. Interestingly, the studies that Sandberg quotes show that women consistently underestimate themselves in contrast with men. When asked to evaluate themselves, for example, “female students gave themselves lower scores than the male students despite faculty evaluations that showed the women outperformed the men.” It’s high time we start trusting our own abilities, including (and perhaps especially) our ability to learn as we go.
03. Intuition and Empathy Make You Stronger
In The Empire Strikes Back, Leia senses that Luke needs help. So she turns around the Millennium Falcon and goes back to find him. In The Force Awakens, Rey’s intuition and empathy help her to survive and save the lives of others.
The Star Wars universe is (arguably) a female-friendly place; a mysterious energy called The Force binds everything and everyone together. One can tap into the Light Side or the Dark Side. The Jedi use it to protect and uphold freedom and justice, whereas the power-hungry Sith use it to control and force others to submit to their will. In the real world, being in touch with our feelings and the feelings of others seems a characteristically and often demeaned “feminine” trait. In Star Wars, it is simply being in touch with The Force. And the people who do it best are the heroic Jedi Knights.
As Meghan Barylak wrote for Verily earlier this year, the idea “that emotions [equal] logical impairment—that feelings [are] girlie, weakening, and unnecessary” is a cultural myth. It’s also unfounded, scientifically speaking. Barylak points out that studies “have indicated that the lack of emotional insight severely inhibits decision-making and problem solving. Emotion serves as a primal guide that, when integrated with rational thought, helps bring us to fully developed and logical conclusions.” Experts have even claimed that the recent banking crisis wouldn’t have been as bad if there had been more women in high-powered positions in the banks. Studies show that the female brain is ideally wired when it comes to making major decisions wisely.
Women bring something unique and important to the table in whatever profession they work, meaning that it’s not only women but also men who suffer from a lack of female leaders in every walk of life. A mere 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women as of June 2015, to cite just one example. As Sandberg writes, “The laws of economics and many studies of diversity tell us that if we tapped the entire pool of human resources and talent, our collective performance would improve.”
04. No (Wo)man Is an Island
There are two attitudes you can take in the Star Wars universe, and there are two attitudes you can take in life: (1) It’s a dog-eat-dog world, kid; every man and woman is out for themselves or (2) We’re in this together, so give a brother/sister/droid a helping hand. Leia and Rey both take the latter approach, forging friendships wherever they go and remaining loyal and committed to helping others. In The Force Awakens—(spoiler alert!)—when faced with the tempting proposition of food in exchange for the droid BB-8, Rey refuses, preferring to protect her new friend rather than sell it out. They—like all the “good guys” (even Han Solo in the end)—are community-minded. They don’t see community as an option that sometimes gets in the way of their survival. It’s a necessary part of surviving and thriving, and it’s ultimately what they’re all fighting for.
05. Do Your Thing
Rewatching The Empire Strikes Back, I was struck by Leia’s quiet and unshakable confidence. It’s the confidence of someone truly comfortable in her own skin. Whether she’s in a rebel base under attack on the ice planet of Hoth or escaping a sticky situation in Cloud City, she makes commands and takes charge with a firm and unassuming authority. Here is a woman who doesn’t have anything to prove. She’s not thinking about how people will respond. She’s just doing what needs to be done.
This reminds me of Tina Fey’s response to the question of what to do when you encounter sexism in the workplace: “Don’t waste your energy trying to educate or change opinions; go over, under, through, and opinions will change organically when you’re the boss. Or they won’t. Who cares? Do your thing, and don’t care if they like it.”
What would our careers, or our whole lives, look like if we acted as if sexism didn’t exist, as if there were nothing holding us back, nothing we had to prove, and we just focused on what we want to do and how to do our jobs to the best of our abilities? Just look to characters like Leia and Rey for an answer.
The wonderful thing about fantasy is that you are free to imagine what you like, including a world where men don’t question someone’s competence just because she’s a woman, no matter which rung of the ladder she’s on. A world where women don’t suffer from the “confidence gap.” And, ladies, if we can imagine characters who aren’t riddled with self-doubt, we can certainly learn to be more like them ourselves.
Photo Credit: Lucas Film