It grieves me deeply to learn of the death of Carrie Fisher, whose humour, cleverness and bravery have been an inspiration in my life. Carrie Fisher’s legacy includes bravely sharing some of the most intimate details of her lowest points, from her struggles with drug addiction and bipolar disorder to the objectification that she was subjected to as an actress, to nasty, petty remarks from an entitled media whom, it seems, were angry that she didn’t just stay perfect in her gold bikini forever and had the audacity to get old. She faced it all with courage and a cynical and sarcastic wit that I, who have had some considerable struggles in my life, find both inspiring and smugly satisfying. She was an accomplished writer, penning memoirs, script band-aids, and her bestselling novel Postcards from the Edge, which was later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Shirley McLaine. But of course, she remains best known for her portrayal of Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars Saga, and this is, of course, why I know about her.
I hear a lot of younger women tisk tisking at Star Wars. They complain about how sexist it is. But they don’t remember what it was like then. Try watching some 1970s or early 1980s science fiction movies. Watch Logan’s Run, or Blade Runner, or Soylent Green. Even try watching some old episodes of Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. Dare to compare. There were exactly two female badasses in science fiction from that time period, and they were Ripley and Princess Leia.
The approach of Alien and the approach of Star Wars could not have been more different. Alien chose to ignore tropes based on gender right from the beginning; which perhaps, in the long run, has turned out to be the more accepted approach. Star Wars flipped the tropes, like Game of Thrones. Rescue the Princess? Nope; the Princess rescues you. From the Death Star. From the trash compactor. From a future as a doorstop for a gangster. From falling to your death in a city of clouds. From being executed by the same gangster.
Leia Organa is a leader. When we meet her in what is now known as Episode IV, she is an Imperial Senator who has been aiding the Rebellion. This makes her a military commander, a political leader and diplomat, and an activist all at once. She cleverly sends a secret message with her droids when she is captured, knowing that Imperial troops will not bother to pursue anything that doesn’t register a pulse; and thus she trusts the lowliest people of the Empire with the most significant task possible.
And I don’t know if you noticed, but unlike everyone else in the films (if we include the prequels as well as the original trilogy; otherwise one could argue that Obi-Wan Kenobi is also noteworthy for this,) she never once treats the droids like toasters. She speaks to them like people and asks for their help, only commanding them once they have agreed to be commanded by her.
She is clearly tortured for information by Darth Vader while imprisoned on the Death Star, but not only does she not break, she doesn’t seem that worse for wear when Luke and Han show up. Instead she quips, “Aren’t you a little short to be a Stormtrooper?” Leia only seems to break when Admiral Tarkin threatens to blow up her planet if she doesn’t give in, and even then she lies to his face.
Leia Organa fights with a blaster as well as with words (words being the preferred method) and she is willing to go down with the ship. Just like Mel Gibson’s character in We Were Soldiers, she’s the first on the field and the last to leave it, and that’s how she ends up fleeing across the galaxy with Han Solo. And even in that relationship, despite Han’s lip, if anyone’s calling the shots, it’s her.
Even in a gold bikini she’s a badass. She allows herself to be taken prisoner by the gangster slug Jabba the Hutt, who shows her off like a pretty playtoy. Unlike the generations of fan art that follow (because given a chance, some people will objectify and sexualize anything) this is portrayed as a horrifying situation. But she patiently awaits her opportunity, and then when it comes, she wraps the chains of her “enslavement” around Jabba’s neck and pulls until she crushes his windpipe (and yes, that’s what happens, because strangling someone otherwise requires a full ten minutes for it to be lethal.) All of which is done to save the man she loves.
When it’s time for the final battle, she volunteers for the dangerous, crucial sabotage mission, now agreeing to take orders from the man she has commanded and with whom she’s having a relationship (a different kind of courage, and one not to be underestimated, I assure you!) but she’s still the one who takes the time to try to befriend the deadly little teddy bears with the sharp spears, rather than ignore them or clear them out of her way.
I was two when Star Wars came out; I was four or five when I saw The Empire Strikes Back. I knew immediately who I wanted to be when I grew up.
Not that Ripley isn’t also a major badass.
There’s a whole backstory for Leia Organa that most of the rest of the world, save the major geeks like me, will never know about. How in the series of (formerly official canon, handwaved away by Disney) she and Han married and had two children who were among the most powerful Force students the galaxy had ever seen, one of whom became a Jedi, the other what we would call a Sith Lord. How she continued to lead as a senator in the New Republic and how she continued to fight the Imperial Remnant (the ghost of which has become the First Order in the new films.) How in The Force Unleashed video game, should the character you’re playing succeed at killing Luke Skywalker, an alternate history is created in which she takes up her brother’s lightsaber. But none of that is official now, because Hollywood saw a cash opportunity and wanted to exploit it. However, if you want to know about it, I recommend a great site called Wookiepedia.
Carrie Fisher said she wanted Leia to get a lightsaber of her own, and felt a little ripped off that she didn’t, but in a way, I think that Leia not taking up the lightsaber was a greater example of her independent spirit. Submit to some ancient religion? Not her style. Respect the people who have, most certainly, but give up the world, and all of the passion that drives her and makes her what she is? No thanks.
But even in this new Disneyfied chapter, in which I just can’t take the bad guy seriously because he looks like a pimply thirteen year old emo kid to me, and in which the laws of astrophysics are apparently so completely suspended that you can have five planets in immediate visual range of each other all at once without having a skyful of asteroids, Leia goes right on being a feminist icon. Now she has become the founding General of the Resistance against the First Order, and in utter defiance of Hollywood convention, she looks like what she is; a beautiful, intelligent woman in her late fifties. She’s still in charge, though clearly the years of arguing against fools in the Republic Senate, fighting wars, being in a tumultuous relationship with the likes of Han Solo, and somehow trying to bring up a crazy Force sensitive child in this chaos (and obviously not entirely succeeding) have taken their toll. She doesn’t look like a glamour magazine shrine to plastic surgery; she looks like the rest of us, a little wrinkled, a little worn, and still just as tough and as beautiful. As she put it, “Oh, we still look the same; we’ve just melted a bit, Harrison and Mark and I.” This woman, like many who choose a life of adventure, has seen some shit. A little bit like me.
Maybe you don’t understand. But if you’re a woman, you will when you’re forty. See, Hollywood wants us women to believe that all we’re good for when we’re older than I am now is bitching, knitting and cooking. Every year the lead actresses get younger and younger; or, as Fisher herself put it, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but women my age aren’t working much in Hollywood right now. It’s all 65 year old men and their 25 year old girlfriends.” Since women often don’t come into their power in the world until they’re at least my age or older, this is more than trying to erase older women and delegate them to stereotypes (the Bitter Bitch, the Kindly Grandmother, the Block Mom, and the Mutton Still Trying to Dress as Lamb appear to be the big ones). This makes us question the idea of women having power (aside from the sexual power we’re not supposed to use if we’re Morally Upright) at all.
Consider it. If women had power in the fictional worlds of Hollywood, why do they always disappear when they wrinkle? Personally, since I’m likely to live to my mid-eighties as a Canadian woman, I would hate to think that for literally half of my life I would be relegated to taking care of the grandchildren I don’t have or whining about how my life is over and how I hate all the younger women around me for being young!
I don’t have time for that shit. I have better things to do. So did Leia Organa, and so did Carrie Fisher. So if I could speak to her, I would like to say thank you. Thank you so much, that one of the last things that you did in your exceptional life was to reprise a role that meant so much to me growing up. Thank you for playing a role that helped to shape the person I am today. Thank you for giving us permission to get older, and to be whole women with a whole spectrum of feelings in addition to being badasses. And thank you for reminding us that our greying hair and our wrinkles do not stop us from doing any of that; not one little bit.
I still want to be Princess Leia – or maybe Carrie Fisher – when I grow up.
(Originally published on my new blog, Diane Morrison: Speculative Fiction Writer, earlier today).