In the Original Trilogy we find that our main and only love story is between Han and Leia. There are definitely improvements from the Prequels, but I still feel frustrated by how it’s portrayed.
I think my main frustration is with Leia. I do believe that Leia is a strong female lead character, don’t get me wrong. She is one of the top leaders in the rebellion, but it does not translate well into how she is portrayed in her relationship with Han. They (whoever “they” is…Lucas, script writers, etc) mistakenly think that someone who is arguing/bickering all the time equates female empowerment.
I believe this has a lot to do with the time period that the movies were made. (I want to preface my next observation by saying that I am completely, wildly guessing here.) Through my travels of reading novels, I noticed that in the early 1970’s through to the early ‘80’s, whenever a female protagonist was in love, she would often argue with her main male love interest. This was especially a problem with Romance Novels as the whole plot revolved around the love between two characters. I believe that our culture at that time was trying to reverse the damage on how they portrayed women for a long time by making it seem like they can stick up for themselves. But while their intentions were good, if you read between the lines (pun intended! Ha), instead you came away with this illusion that a relationship should be one of constant bickering.
And that is my main problem. We see it consistently through A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back. Han and Leia have witty one liners and zingers to each other, but if you take a step back and look at this relationship by itself, it becomes a relationship of never agreeing with each other, never talking with each other, and you cannot see where the love came from. While funny and it leads to great lines from both characters, because their love is shown through two movies as an uneasy fighting relationship, I don’t think it’s a good representation.
Unlike the prequels where the love story was a main part of the movies and a catalyst for the plot, Han and Leia’s relationship is more of a subplot. I love that it’s part of the movies and brings a great sense of levity to them, don’t get me wrong. What makes me feel better about this relationship as a whole is that you see it change for the better. While in the prequels, I thought it got worse, in the OT I find it getting better. Towards the end of ESB, you see both Han and Leia working together to figure out what to do and where to go. The changing point seems to be their kiss in the Falcon and it’s like an acknowledgment that they feel for each other and agree to work together. Return of the Jedi redeems itself completely as you see Han and Leia work as a team together and the bickering is pushed to the side or used as an inside joke.
The only other problem I have is minor, but it seems like there are similarities to the Prequels in the sense that Leia is more apt to show her love than Han is. Padmé uses the actual phrase “I love you” more than Leia (perhaps also because her and Anakin are further along in their relationship), but Leia is still the more open one between both her and Han. When rescuing Han from the carbonite, she says she is “someone who loves” him and she asks Han to hold her after finding out about her real family. However, the reason this does not bother me as much is mainly because of the way their characters have grown throughout the movies and when the final moments of ROTJ reveal to Han that Leia and Luke are siblings, the comprehension and relief on his face are pretty open and revealing.
Though Han may not express affection in a standard way, I do not think it’s like Anakin, with whom the lack of affection seems to be related to possession and control. I believe Han is honestly just a bad boy smuggler who cannot express his love easily, but his actions speak for themselves. When being put into carbonite, his first thought is for Leia and asks Chewie to help protect her. You don’t do that with someone who is a casual fling. His anger at Leia’s (supposed) not caring if he leaves Hoth is based on affection for her and hope that she feels the same.
Overall, this relationship is presented much better than the Prequels, but my major issue is with the first two movies and the constant bickering. The need to show a strong woman standing up for herself as someone who always argues is a poor representation of female empowerment and a healthy relationship. It leads to both characters continuously arguing, but you’re supposed to believe that amidst all this, they somehow fell in love. There were no serious conversations, no connections that made you think, “Ah ha! I see why this worked.” However, as I said earlier, it does not bother me as much as the Prequels since a) this is a sub plot and b) they manage to form a real, solid relationship by ROTJ.