Education

Move Over, ‘Princess’ — Leia Organa, Ph.D., Is Here

by Liz Dwyer

August 7, 2017
Image via Star Wars/YouTube.

Princess Leia Organa. Senator Leia Organa. General Leia Organa. Now we might be able to add Doctor Leia Organa to the numerous titles and achievements of the legendary “Star Wars” character because it turns out that she earned her doctorate degree by the time she was 19.

Girls are often discouraged from higher education.

Say what? Apparently, George Lucas revealed that Leia had a Ph.D. back in 2004 on the DVD commentary for “A New Hope.” But it wasn’t until Becca Harrison, a lecturer at the University of Glasgow who earned her own Ph.D. in film studies in 2014 from University College London, tweeted this tidbit of information on Friday that the rest of us caught up to what a genius Leia really was — and she says it’s news that could inspire more girls to pursue higher education.

Harrison was reading author Carolyn Cocca’s 2016 book “Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation” when she came across a passage where Cocca quotes Lucas talking about Leia. 

“She’s like a very sophisticated, urbanized ruler, a senator, so she’s a politician,” Lucas said of Leia. “She’s accomplished, graduated, got her Ph.D. at 19, and she rules people.” Harrison tweeted a photo of the passage from Cocca’s book expressing her surprise. 

"Hang on wait what... Leia had a PhD in Star Wars? Christ can you imagine having everyone call you Princess when you were actually Dr Organa,” wrote Harrison. The tweet quickly went viral, racking up more than 6,000 retweets and more than 12,000 likes over the weekend.

In an email to GOOD, Harrison says Leia having a Ph.D. matters because it’s a huge academic achievement that requires “passion, determination and creativity, which I think Leia has in spades.” It’s also critical for people to know that a woman can blast her way past a bunch of stormtroopers and use her academically trained mind to strategize and lead. 

Leia — basically the coolest woman in the Star Wars galaxy — might persuade more women to take that path.

“It’s so important that young women see that on screen and know that it’s something they can aspire to and hopefully attain for themselves,” says Harrison. “Girls are often discouraged from higher education and academic roles because of cultural pressures, so I’m really glad that Leia — basically the coolest woman in the Star Wars galaxy — might persuade more women to take that path.”

Harrison knows a little something about that, too. “I’m the first person in my family to go to university, so I didn’t even know doing a PhD was an option open to me — I was persuaded into it by successive women mentors!” she writes. “Had I realised Leia, one of my icons from about age 6, had a PhD, it might have seemed a more natural route for me to take. I hope it makes a difference to all the 6-year-old girls that love Star Wars now.”

A report released in 2015 from the Council of Graduate Schools showed that women earned 52.2% of all doctoral degrees awarded by universities in the United States in 2014. But women are still significantly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math fields. According to data collected by the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, of the 601,883 science and engineering graduate students in 2014, only 253,493 — about 42% — were women.

Given how viral the tweet went, it seems people really want to see the character have an academic layer. Harrison says she has “actually been overwhelmed by the positive response” to her tweet.

“Women and men have been sharing the news and seem really excited by it,” she says. “I think it was the scale of interest that was most surprising — although with hindsight people’s love for Carrie Fisher, and for all things Star Wars, was always going to make this revelation big news!”

Many people took the information about Leia as an explanation of Leia’s frustration at being mansplained to throughout the “Star Wars” films.

“Every gif of Leia rolling her eyes takes on new meaning now I know she had a sodding PhD,” wrote cultural historian Fern Riddell, who earned her Ph.D. in history from King’s College London in 2016.

There are also folks pointing out that while men dominate the film, Leia is by far the most brilliant of them all. 

But some folks are saying that this news about Leia is not as official as it might appear, even though Lucas is on video saying it. In particular, Claudia Gray, the author of the upcoming young adult novel, “Leia, Princess of Alderaan” from Disney-Lucasfilm Press tweeted that the beloved character having a Ph.D. was “news to me.”

“It’s difficult to tell from Lucas’s comment whether this was an official bit of Star Wars canon or something he said in passing – maybe he imagined Leia having a PhD but that detail didn’t make it into the films or novels,” acknowledges Harrison. But there’s probably no harm in folks believing that Leia earned a doctorate degree — and Carrie Fisher might agree.

As Fisher told Rolling Stone in 1983, “The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry.” Perhaps that could be remedied by a prequel movie about how the brilliant princess who helped take down the evil Galactic Empire earned her doctorate at such a young age. 

Share image by Star Wars/YouTube.

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