Carrie Fisher at the Venice International Film Festival in 2013 | Photo: © Riccardo Ghilardi, used with permission.
It’s hard to put into words what Carrie Fisher meant/means to feminist fandom, and what she meant/means to me. It’s even harder to make those words coherent, especially since the keyboard keeps deciding to be all fuzzy (I’m not crying, you’re crying). But I’ll do my best.
Carrie Fisher was so, so much more than Princess Leia. But that’s where all of this has to start. Star Wars is, hands down, one of the biggest, if not the biggest, cornerstones of geek fandom. Walk into a comic con, pick a random person, and I almost guarantee that if you ask them, they will have a “the first time I saw Star Wars story.” For me, that’s a “the first time I saw Princess Leia” story.
George Lucas is wonderful at many things, but “including women in his work” is not one of those things. Apparently, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, people figured out how to reproduce asexually, because lord knows there aren’t a lot of women running around the galaxy in Lucas’s worldbuilding. Non-Leia characters get a total of 63 seconds of talking time in the original trilogy (out of a total of 23,160 seconds). So as a young girl, your Star Wars idol was probably Leia. And what an idol she was. I first saw Star Wars when I was eight, and the films were re-released for the 20th anniversary special. I adored Leia. Even as a prisoner, she was snappy. If I’m ever kidnapped, the first thing I’m going to ask my kidnappers is hopefully going to be, “Aren’t you a little short for storm trooper?” because sometimes risking death is worth it if yo get to repeat one of the best one-liners in history. In the third grade, we got to do a Star Wars day, and my mother patiently wound my nearly waist length hair into massive buns on the sides of my head. Many bobby pins died to bring me that hairstyle. And yeah, the thing where she almost sexes up her own brother was weird, and yeah, she and Han do the tried and true “she’s legit mad at him until he kisses her better” thing, but overall? She’s a goddamn kickass princess. She crosses enemy territory, helps destroy the Death Star, rescues her boyfriend’s frozen ass, and even when she’s imprisoned and sexualized, she takes the literal chains of her oppression and chokes out the motherfucking asshole who imprisoned her/the patriarchy.
For little girls watching Star Wars, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia had to represent basically all of the women in the galaxy. That’s a tall order for any character, and any actress. But Fisher pulls it off. Her Princess Leia is both practical and romantic, idealistic and pragmatic, sarcastic and caring. She’s not a perfect person (she has a fondness for handsome rogues who probably do not make good political consorts, for starters) but that makes her even better. For almost forty years we only really had one big-screen female character in Star Wars, and she carried the effing mail for almost four decades.
The fact that Fisher performed so well becomes even more astounding when you realize that behind the scenes, Fisher was having to deal with some grade A sexist bullshit. She was only 19 when filming started, which makes it even creepier that Lucas tried to convince her that she shouldn’t wear a bra because there is no underwear in space. Because it’s totally normal to try to convince a teenager not to wear a bra in your space opera. Fisher felt incredibly uncomfortable in the gold bikini that fed spank bank material for a generation of nerds, and Lucas was even very rigid about how she sat in it, because God forbid her body have lines on it. She even encouraged Daisy Ridley to push back against any attempts to make the character of Rey into a sex symbol like Leia was made into. Fisher was very blunt about the fact that the metal bikini was not her idea, and while she was always fairly gracious to Star Wars fans, she was also clear about the points at which their sexual attention made her uncomfortable. Fisher grew from a teenager who didn’t feel as if she could say no to her male director’s attempts to sexualize her to a protective figure, trying to make sure the same thing didn’t happen to the next generation of lady badasses.
But Fisher was also so, so much more than Star Wars, and it is all of the facets of her life that made her fantastic, and made her an idol to women like me. Like the fact that she was an amazing script doctor, and had a hand in improving basically every movie in the 90s, from Hook to Lethal Weapon 3. (She was also a script doctor for the three prequels, but she’s a feminist badass, not a miracle worker). In a move that is symbolic of many of women’s contributions to the arts throughout history, Fisher was never credited in any of the films that she worked on. (Because why acknowledge the writer as well as the person who actually makes the writing not suck?) AND she stopped doing script doctor work at the precise point that the industry tried to make it into unpaid labor (the practice now is to submit all of your notes and ideas ahead of time, and then someone might hire you. But they get to keep your notes even if they don’t.) Fisher refused to do what she called “free work.” Anyone who has ever been an intern, an artist, a writer, an adjunct, or any other occupation that demanded more work than it offered in pay and asked for marketable “work samples” before pay was even offered should cheer, and imagine Fisher moonwalking backwards out of the occupation.
In a move that was very, very important to me and my struggles with OCD and depression, Fisher was honest about her own struggles with bipolar disorder, and made it a personal mission to remove the stigma from mental illnesses. You can’t imagine the confidence boost you get as a young adult trying to work up the courage to disclose your mental illness to friends when you know that Princess Leia has done the same. Even more importantly she advocated getting help and treatment, which a lot of individuals with mental illness are reluctant to do. (Yay, stigmas!)
Carrie Fisher also did the impossible for a woman in Hollywood and aged like a goddamn human instead of a wax figurine. She was blunt and amazing about her hatred of discussions of her appearance in The Force Awakens, leading to fantastic quotes like “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well. Unfortunately it hurts all three of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.” And, “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments.” Not to mention when an interviewer started to ask her about her weight loss for the film and she turned it around on the interviewer in the most amazing Jedi mind trick since “these are not the droids you’re looking for.” Seeing General Organa up on the screen was amazing, but it was even more amazing because General Organa genuinely looked like an older, wiser Princess Leia, one who had seen her victory over an empire crumble into continued fighting against what my friends call the “alt-Empire.”
And through absolutely everything, Carrie Fisher was smart and funny as hell. Do you want to know what the best two minutes of Scream 3 are? (Did you even know there were such a thing?) They’re the two minutes where Fisher performs as “Bianca Burnett,” an embittered almost-was actress who was “this close” to getting the part of Princess Leia and lost to Carrie Fisher (who slept with the director, obvi). She throws shade at herself and it is believable. That is how fantastic Carrie Fisher was.
It seems like the height of cruelty for the universe to take Carrie Fisher just as we were finally getting to know and love her all over again. She was back in Star Wars, back in print, her daughter Billie Lourde was rocking earmuffs in every episode of Scream Queens as an homage to her mom, and her emotional support dog Gary was winning Twitter. There was a whole new generation of little girls who were going to get to see her as a role model, and a whole new generation of Star Wars ladies who would help her fill in the female half of the galaxy. But if 2016 has taught us anything, it is that bad things will happen to good people just for the hell of it, and there’s no such thing as fairness and barely such thing as justice. But Carrie Fisher’s legacy lives on in generations of geeky feminists (or feministy-geeks), in the roles that would have been impossible to imagine before her, and in dozens of films that would have sucked so badly without her.
So, in accordance with her wishes, I present an obituary for Carrie Fisher, leading lady extraordinaire:
Carrie Fisher drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra. Thank you, Ms. Fisher, for all that you have done.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not just gutted by the deaths of her heroes, she studies gender in popular culture.
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