I had a whole different Fangirl Friday planned out, but as you know, events kicked that to the curb and instead I wanted to pay a bit of homage to Carrie Fisher, who died Tuesday at the age of 60 following a heart attack on a Friday flight from London to LA. And in a cruel twist of fate, Fisher’s mother, actress Debbie Reynolds, died at 84 of a stroke the day after losing Carrie.
I wanted to spend some time talking about Carrie.
I just saw Star Wars: Rogue One a couple of weeks ago, and it serves as a prequel to Star Wars: A New Hope (episode IV, for you fanfolk), which debuted on the big screen in 1977, and introduced us to one of the most iconic characters in fandom, Princess Leia Organa, as portrayed by Carrie Fisher. Rogue One had me jonesing to see New Hope again because it answers all the questions you might’ve had about how the rebels acquired the plans to the Death Star, and the origin of this weakness that we find out about. It also leaves off right before New Hope starts, basically, so it’s almost a seamless transition in the story.
So I did. I watched New Hope again (I seriously cannot count how many times I’ve seen this movie), which means I was already thinking about Carrie Fisher when I heard the news about her heart attack.
She had just released her latest book, The Princess Diarist, which is based on the journals she kept while working on the set of New Hope, and from reports, she had been working on some projects in London and was about to announce another project. Those of us who have followed her career know that she was much more than an actress. She was also a writer/screenwriter and sought-after script doctor. Those are the people who go through a movie script and tighten it, punch up dialogue, polish a character, and add elements that serve to strengthen the story. She may have started doing this with the original Star Wars movies when she was in her early 20s, because she had an ear for dialogue.
She also had a knack for capturing the pathos and foibles of humanity with a sharp wit tempered with genuine warmth, and for honesty in discussing her battles with addiction, depression, and a bipolar diagnosis. Fisher was talking openly about her struggles decades ago, when the stigma associated with them was stronger than it is now, and because of her willingness to be that person to do it, many national dialogues started and I don’t think I’m remiss in saying that her willingness to be open about her own issues gave a lot of people the courage to be open, too, and to demand appropriate care, and to push caregivers and doctors to really start incorporating better ways of addressing mental health in their practices.
So as an adult, I knew Carrie and her work within those parameters, though the formative infrastructure of my thoughts of her turned on the rebel princess kicking ass and taking names. It’s to that Carrie I now turn.
I was a ‘tween when New Hope debuted in theaters in late May of 1977, and within days of its release, it was apparent that something special — something amazing — was happening. The lines were incredible. People went to see it once then went several times more (I was one of them), dressing in costumes from the film. The fandom expanded until there was nobody in the country, it seemed, who didn’t know about Star Wars or Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or Darth Vader. And it played a significant role in the childhoods of millions of American youth. To this day, I vividly remember the theater in which I first saw New Hope, and the crowds, and the then-amazing special effects on the big screen.
To those of us of the generation that saw it when it debuted on the big screen, there’s a special kind of camaraderie, and many of us point to that as the movie that intrinsically changed something within us. Especially those of us who are geeks, outsiders, and nerds; those of us who read sci fi by the truckload, and dreamed of adventuring in other galaxies. That’s the soil in which fandom takes root — the imaginations of kids who look beyond the world around them and instead of asking “why,” they ask, “why not?”
But there’s another layer, here.
For those of us who grew up as little girls, steeped in a gendered culture in which we were (and still are) expected to fall in line and do what we’re told, Princess Leia flipped a switch in a lot of us. That character (Fisher was 19 when she auditioned; here’s her audition tape) was a princess, yes, but she was full of fire, full of piss and vinegar. She snarked, stood her ground, handled a blaster, and took on the mission of saving the rebellion. She owned the screen every time she was on it, tapping into the veins of thousands of young women like me aching for media representation beyond the strict gendered binary that we knew was bullshit but we didn’t quite understand how to dismantle.
I think I may have developed my lifelong crush on Princess Leia when she was brought to Governor Tarkin after Vader and his forces board her cruiser in a search for the stolen plans of the Death Star. She’s captured and brought to him and acknowledges Tarkin, saying, “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.”
Oh, SNAP. OMG. I was in her minions for life at that point. But it only got better.
In this scene of New Hope, Luke, Han, and Chewie have infiltrated the Death Star and located Princess Leia in one of the detention areas. Unfortunately, things don’t go as Luke and Solo wanted, and under fire from stormtroopers, Leia snarks, “some rescue” then commandeers Luke’s blaster and shoots a hole in the wall. “What are you doing?” Solo demands and Leia just looks at him and says, “Somebody’s gotta save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy.” ::mic drop::
That dialogue part starts about about 4.30:
Leia took control of the situation, without fanfare, without fuss, in the midst of a firefight, and joined Luke, Chewie, and Han in the garbage chute they dove into after she blasted a hole in the wall. She worked with them to stop the walls from closing in. “Don’t just stand there,” she orders. “Try and brace it with something.” And she starts to pick up some of the debris then orders Solo to help her (starts about 3 minutes in):
Later on, she and Luke are seemingly trapped at an uncrossable gap in the Death Star. It’s Leia who closes the door to block off one entrance and give them some time. And if you watch, even though she sounds worried, she’s looking around, trying to find a way out. Luke then gets his little rope thingie ready so they can swing to the other side, and he hands his blaster to Leia and says, “Here. Hold this.” And as he fiddles with his tool belt, she starts blasting stormtroopers on the opposite side. And she’s a pretty good shot.
This was 1977, friends. Princess Leia was something nobody really saw much in media then. A strong woman with a take-no-shit attitude who put her money where her mouth was. It was transformative, to watch a woman on the screen doing those things.
Star Wars entered the cultural zeitgeist at a time when this country needed heroes, I suppose. Post-Vietnam, searching for a national identity, it seemed that Star Wars may have filled part of the quest. It’s an obvious space opera — that is, it’s apparent who the bad guys are and who the good ones are. You’ve got the scrappy rebels triumphing over the creeping, scary evil of the Empire. At least temporarily. Good overcomes evil. It’s a timeless story, and in this case, it captured the hearts and souls of thousands of people.
And right in the middle of it was this scrappy, snarky young woman who did, in fact, give new hope to thousands of young girls like me — the ones who didn’t quite fit, who didn’t believe what society told us about what girls and women could and couldn’t do, who were hungry for representation indicative of that.
Princess Leia gave that to us.
I don’t think Carrie realized it at the time, the impact that kind of representation can have.
Later on, I came to see Carrie Fisher outside the Leia-sphere, and as I got older, I came to appreciate all the other things that she was engaged in. She was, in a weird way, a long-distance mentor of sorts, unafraid to bare her soul, unafraid to be kind, unafraid to share her observations of the world and herself and in some ways, that, too, entered the cultural zeitgeist and though I may not have made the connection directly to Fisher during my own struggles with depression, I know that it felt right to be open about them, and that it was okay to have those struggles and it was okay to talk about them. I think Fisher made it okay for a lot of people to do that, and that she helped shift the national mindset on how we think about and deal with mental health issues.
I got the news that she didn’t survive the heart attack she’d had a few days prior when the plane I was on landed after a long flight. Someone had texted me with the news, because they knew I would want to know. I remember standing in the plane’s aisle, getting ready to exit. I stared at the text and said “damn it” loud enough that several people turned to look at me, concerned. I didn’t say anything else, but the people in front of me were talking to their kids, roughly aged 8 and 11, and one — the girl — said, “Princess Leia died?” and she had this expression of confusion and disbelief because what the hell, Princess Leia doesn’t do things like that. She saves rebellions. She becomes a general. She takes down Death Stars. She doesn’t freaking die.
I got off the plane, numb in some ways, trying to process. I had known there was probably a good chance Carrie wouldn’t live, but I still had hope, and I had been holding on to it. I walked through several concourses to catch a connecting flight and I had some time. I sat down at one of those bland airport tables set out near a few chain food franchises and I stared at the article on my phone about Fisher’s death and the life she had lived and I cried. I grieved the young woman who portrayed a badass princess during my childhood and I mourned the woman she became and the things she had managed to change.
But as I boarded my next flight, I thought about what that ‘tween girl had said on the plane and I realized that no, Princess Leia does not die. She never will, because I carry her within, as do thousands of other women from my generation and those after who watched her and realized that they, too, could rescue themselves, could be their own advocates, and could damn well lead a rebellion and take down a Death Star.
That will always be part of Carrie Fisher’s legacy, as much as her sarcastic wit tempered with kindness, her unapologetic brashness, her quick turns of phrase, her staunch advocacy for myriad causes.
I thank her for all of it. And may The Force be with her and with all of us.
Other thoughts about Fisher’s legacy:
63 female Star Wars fans on what Carrie Fisher meant to them
Carrie Fisher and the amazing role model of Leia Organa
For Carrie (My Favorite Princess)
Thank you, Carrie Fisher…
What Carrie Fisher meant to me as a mental health advocate
What Carrie Fisher meant to us
And how could I not include this light saber vigil?
And please do share your thoughts about Carrie in the comments if you’re so inclined.