Princess Leia is a general now. But why isn’t she in more toy stores?

Children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia.

 By Rebecca Hains for the Washington Post

Princess Leia is a cultural icon. When “Star Wars” debuted in 1977, Leia’s leadership, bravery and heroism were traits rarely found in women on the silver screen. By defying stereotypes, she became an instant role model for girls.

But Leia is a princess no longer. Last week, director J.J. Abrams revealedthat the newest film in the saga, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” drops her “princess” honorific. She’s General Leia now, crystallizing what fans have long known: She’s a strong leader, not the damsel in distress princesses often represent in pop culture.

To many 21st-century viewers, Leia’s evolution from “princess” to “general” marks progress. As I explain in my book “The Princess Problem,” modern princess culture implies that physical beauty is a girl’s greatest asset — not intelligence, strength or courage. This wasn’t always what the title signified, however, including when Leia first appeared.

“In the 1970s, ‘princess’ was just one among many fantasy feminine roles,” explains University of California at Davis sociologist and lecturer Elizabeth Sweet, “and it was far more loosely defined than it is today. Leia’s role as princess didn’t preclude her from being a strong, capable leader. The ‘princess’ role that dominates today is far more narrow.”

Given this context, Leia’s reemergence after nearly 40 years with an earned military title is garnering praise from princess-culture critics.

“Leia’s status as a general shows girls that there is life beyond princess,” says Michele Yulo, president of Princess Free Zone. Women are nowgraduating from Army Ranger School, after all. “Boys need to continue to see girls and women as much more than princesses.”

Margot Magowan, a movie critic and the founder of the Reel Girl blog, agrees. “Princesses don’t threaten the sexist power structure. Not yet a queen, a princess is usually a young person who hasn’t claimed her power,” Magowan says. “I’m much more excited about Leia’s role in the narrative because of the potential the label ‘general’ implies. ‘General’ denotes agency, power and command, and it’s a label we traditionally associate with male characters.”

Many parents share Magowan’s excitement. “Any erasing of princess is a win in my eyes,” says Elisabeth Nash Wrenn, the mother of a 4-year-old girl in Salem, Mass. “Girls don’t need strong princesses. They need non-princesses, in my opinion.”

Even with the title change, though, “Star Wars” licensees aren’t featuring Leia very prominently in their new merchandise. Unfortunately, children’s products still underrepresent heroic women like Leia, especially when such characters stem from brands whose merchandise typically targets boys. In franchises such as “Star Wars” and the films and comic books by Marvel and DC Comics, toy licensees typically exclude important female characters from the toys and T-shirts that play pivotal roles in children’s play and identities. […]

Read more at The Washington Post.

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