This article contains major The Rise of Skywalker spoilers. You can read a spoiler free review here instead.
In The Rise of Skywalker, General Leia Organa takes on another title: Jedi Master. For the many who have long hoped to see women receive equal narrative focus in the franchise and the same status in its revered Jedi Order, it comes as a long overdue recognition of the character’s own fortitude as well as female fans’ hard-won place in the fandom, even if it’s also a reminder that there’s still a long way left to go when it comes to gender inclusivity in the Star Wars universe.
Leia has long shown evidence of some level of Force abilities. She communicated with Luke across long distances in the Original Trilogy. However, her powers never went beyond that on the big screen… until recently. In The Last Jedi, Leia used her Force powers to keep herself alive in the vacuum of space and to propel herself back to the safety of her ship. Some saw it as over the top, derisively calling it a “Mary Poppins” moment, suggesting her powers are a minor party trick or a mere accident of birth that simply reflects the more powerful men (her father and twin brother). But for many fans, it finally confirmed what has long been suspected: Leia is just as powerful as Luke.
The Rise of Skywalker revisits and expands General Leia Organa’s Force abilities, giving her a Jedi past, present, and Force ghost, rectifying a shortcoming of the Original Trilogy while making the films more modern and relevant to the next generation of fans. It doesn’t make Star Wars a galaxy with gender parity, but it’s a big step nonetheless.
Early in The Rise of Skywalker, we see Rey training on Ajan Kloss under Leia’s guidance. Rey refers to the Resistance general as “master,” recalling the high rank for Jedi. For Star Wars fans who only watch the films, it’s the first time we’ve seen a woman main character depicted as a Jedi Master. Given her connection with Rey and her leadership abilities, Leia is a natural fit for the role of Rey’s teacher now that Luke has passed on, but it wouldn’t necessarily follow that Leia is a Jedi herself—The Rise of Skywalker chooses to make this explicit. When you’re used to getting scraps from the franchises you love, you get used to not expecting more than you’re given, so this reveal alone feels big.
There’s another sequence later on, however, that makes Leia’s status as a Jedi even more clear. A brief flashback, one of the relatively few across the 11 films, shows Luke training Leia years in the past, thanks to some ILM movie magic. Leia wears the helmet that blocks her field of vision entirely, just like Luke had once worn in A New Hope. She and Luke train on a forested location not entirely unlike Endor or Ajan Kloss.
Some time after the events of the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi, Luke and Leia did what many fans had long deemed a natural course of action: training Leia to properly channel her connection to the Force so she too could be a Jedi. Leia built her own lightsaber, a physical symbol of the culmination of her training to become a Jedi Knight, just like Luke’s.
It might seem strange to be so excited for a movie to show two characters taking a logical course of action, but for so long, Star Wars has gone out of its way to exclude women as well as people of color. What other way is there to explain a world where women make up far less than the roughly 50% of the population we represent in real life? Like with far too many other franchises, women and girls who love Star Wars have largely had to create our own narratives if we want to be part of the story, whether writing fanfiction, gender-swapping cosplays, or renaming “slave Leia” to “Hutt-slayer Leia,” recognizing her accomplishments instead of centering and fetishizing an outfit she was forced to wear in literal bondage.
As a kid playing Star Wars, I was told repeatedly that girls simply can’t be Jedi. Even though Leia was a cool character, she didn’t have powers and, if I wanted to be a girl, she was the only main character I could be. If one of the other girls on my street came to play, we were stuck. While it turns out all those boys were wrong, I can’t exactly blame them. After all, they were only giving a voice to what they saw on the screen. Once the prequels came out, there was some evidence to the contrary, but those women Jedi were mostly nameless and in the background, unless you bought the visual dictionaries, video games, and novelizations—something not every family can afford.
For women and girls who love Star Wars, for far too long there’s been few characters to whom we could relate. In the Original Trilogy, it’s a laughably small showing for women characters, and even worse if you narrow the field to those with names and lines. Aunt Beru dies early, with little characterization, and most of the rest of the women characters are a parade of slaves for Jabba, a woman reading a map in Echo Base, or the occasional extra. Mon Mothma and Leia are two of the only named women characters of substance and while they’re great, it conveys a clear message that women are not a priority in the world of this story, if they’re in it at all.
By making Leia a full-on Jedi Master, The Rise of Skywalker turns back the clock, taking a small step to correct some of the errors of the Original Trilogy – and even the prequels. This doesn’t undo the harm of writing women and people of color out of the story for so long – because make no mistake, reducing the world’s population so drastically is a choice, even if it’s an unconscious one – but it does restore some of what should have been Leia’s and, by extension, ours, a long time ago.
While Leia’s Jedi training was an exciting reveal, for those who enjoy the extended universe material, it’s likely not a surprising one. In the Legends timeline, Leia eventually becomes a Jedi Knight under Luke’s guidance. She is also a Jedi in the non-canon Infinities comics, published in the early 2000s. There, Leia wields a purple lightsaber – the color Carrie Fisher once said she would like to have, if Leia were a Jedi.
The fact of the matter is, the best place to see interesting Star Wars stories about Leia and other women isn’t the 11 films of the main franchise – it’s in the expanded universe material, most notably the animated shows The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. While it’s great to have those stories and characters like Ahsoka Tano and Jaina Solo, it’s frustrating that Star Wars continues to keep its biggest, most visible properties more regressive. Why is it left to the material that many fans skip or don’t know about to incorporate women more fully into a galaxy far, far away?
For fans who have held onto the blurry screengrabs of wordless women Jedi in group scenes, Leia becoming a Jedi Master is a huge statement. In the world of Star Wars, men and boys can be anything from a lovable rogue smuggler or a budding Jedi to the most powerful Sith or a doomed bounty hunter. The options are still more narrow for women and girls, and narrower still if we rely only on characters who get lines and names in the main 11 films.
Seeing Leia rise to the level of a Jedi Master is both less than we deserve, and still far less than male characters and fans get. But for every little girl who wants to play Jedi with the neighborhood kids, and every adult fan who has spent years marginalized by the more toxic factions of the fandom, a victory for our General is a victory for us all.