From Leia to Shuri: How Black Panther provides a new iconic princess


Princesses Leia and Shuri aren’t the main characters of Star Wars or Black Panther, but they are both hugely important and share more than you might think.

Princess Leia Organa has never been the main character of a Star Wars movie. We might like to think she is, but the original trilogy technically is about Luke Skywalker most of all. No disrespect, but it’s clear that women in particular have held up Leia for now almost 40 years as one of the most iconic princesses — and heroines — in pop culture. That’s nothing new. We here at Culturess have talked often about how much Leia inspires us. But then came Black Panther this month, and the parallels between Leia and Shuri practically draw themselves.

In fact, Ryan Coogler and Letitia Wright helped draw them for us. As ScreenRant reports, Shuri’s double-bun look early on is a shout-out to Carrie Fisher’s most famous character. But it goes beyond the hair.

Both Leia and Shuri enjoy roles that pay no mind to their age. Both women, when we meet them, are teens who are leaders. For Leia, it’s a spot in the Imperial Senate and a leadership role in the Rebel Alliance. For Shuri, as we’ve previously noted, it’s improving the use of Wakanda’s vibranium and developing new technologies. If she had an official title other than Princess of Wakanda, it probably would have been Minister of Science (or, probably, something way less stuffy).

However, Shuri faces something that we don’t really see of Leia: being questioned specifically due to her age, not her gender. Leia has proven herself over and over again, and she’s clearly earned respect from others. Shuri has done the same, but it doesn’t stop some characters from asking if she’s really responsible enough (or if T’Challa is making the right choice in allowing her to work so much). But not dissimilar to Leia, Shuri knows she has something to offer. It’s her technology that allows T’Challa to beat Killmonger, after all.

They also have the opportunity to evolve over their time on screen. While Leia often stays behind in command centers, she’s also more than willing to pick up a blaster and get into things, like the mission on Endor or even subduing a mutiny. Shuri jumps in with her panther blasters to duel Killmonger and buy T’Challa time. It’s not their primary role — nowhere near it — but they know that sometimes, they have to do what’s necessary to keep their causes going. They’re both involved in something bigger than themselves, and they’re both meaningful parts of that something.

But while both women have their strength, that doesn’t prevent them from having important emotional relationships, too, particularly with their brothers. Leia and Luke don’t know they’re related at first, but between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi, they share the kinds of tender moments of affection that let you know their bond is strong. Whether it’s Leia urging her brother to save himself or Luke returning Han’s golden dice to Leia, the two of them deeply care for and will protect the other … and sometimes give each other grief (“Into the garbage chute, flyboy!” or comments about how Leia changed her hair are just two of the most obvious examples). And it’s the same for Shuri and T’Challa. She filmed him getting owned by his own suit, after all.

That emotional complexity — being more than just the stereotypical strong woman who doesn’t need a man for anything — is part of the reason both of these women resonate with female fans. Their stories allow them to be both powerful and emotional beings. Neither Shuri nor Leia have just one side to them. They’re not just a kid sister or a love interest, respectively. They’re a genius and a general, too.

Next: Black Panther and the idea of fantasy

So where does that leave Leia? Has she been replaced by Shuri? Absolutely not. There’s not some “great female character” competition going on here. There should be room in our pantheon or our lists of favorite characters for two women — and more than two women, really. But it’s hard not to see how Leia and Shuri share some qualities that make them hugely important in not just genre fiction, but in the world of pop culture as a whole.