On October 21st, the late Carrie Fisher would have turned 62 years old
The first princess I ever wanted to be was not created by Disney. She did wear a long dress, have spectacular hair, and get locked up by a villain in a cape, but the moment her handsome rescuers arrived, she started calling the shots. Literally. She grabbed a blaster and improvised an escape plan that involved diving into a garbage disposal.
Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, was the first character who showed me that women can be action heroes. From the moment I watched her stand up to fearsome Darth Vader and take over her own rescue mission, she became my go-to heroine. Leia is courageous, defiant, smart, resourceful, combat-trained, and not about to let a man tell her what to do. Like all kids, I had no concept that things existed before I was born, so when I watched the original Star Wars movies in the ‘90s, I didn’t realize they were over a decade old. To me, Leia fit perfectly into my world of “Girl Power,” which told us that being a girl was an honor, not a hindrance. We could achieve what the boys do and more, and we could do it wearing lipstick and a complicated hairdo if we wanted.
I clung so tightly to Leia as child because she was the only major female character in those movies. And in the action film genre, she certainly felt like one of the only female characters to possess the guts and smarts to match the men.
Leia became such an icon that directors seemed to believe that they only had to dump one “strong female character” in a movie for it to be a hit with girls as well as boys (non-binary characters weren’t even on the agenda). In most of the scenes from that first Star Wars film, Leia is the lone female warrior surrounded by men. Her tenacity, heroism, and willingness to fight make her an exception among women, not the rule. And of course, she had to be stunningly beautiful and painfully thin so that heterosexual men would not be turned off by her boldness.
Yet I never thought about Leia as being the object of someone else’s lust. That’s partly because I was young, but mostly because Carrie Fisher made sure that Leia was never just eye candy.
When Luke bursts into Leia’s cell in A New Hope, she’s lying on her side—a position that could be read as come-hither (and was probably meant to be, judging by Luke’s “whoooa”). But Fisher’s raised eyebrow and cool delivery of the line, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” reminds us that Leia is no damsel in distress.
And when Leia—and Fisher—were forced to wear that gold bikini as Jabba’s slave, you can see her discomfort (if you are not one of the audience members drooling over her body). Very-old-spoiler alert: Leia uses her chains to strangle Jabba, thereby reminding us that she’s still the tough fighter we know and love. But the fact that filmmakers chose to put her in a bikini in the first place shows that for all of Leia’s rebellion and courage, Hollywood could still try to reduce her to an object of lust.
Carrie Fisher was not shy about expressing her resentment of this costume.
While roasting director George Lucas before he received the 2005 AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, she sardonically referred to herself as “an abused child wearing a metal bikini while chained to a giant slug.”
Leia simultaneously broke the mold of the typical action heroine and revealed that action movies still need to improve their representation of women.
Likewise, Carrie Fisher not only refused to play the expected role of a starlet, she took every opportunity to challenge the ridiculousness of Hollywood’s standards for actresses.
Fisher may have achieved a newfound sex symbol status, but she relied on her intelligence, mainly taking supporting roles and preferring to work behind the scenes. She was often an uncredited script doctor on films like Sister Act, Hook, and The Wedding Singer. She wrote four novels, two screenplays, and three brutally honest memoirs. While most celebrities desperately try to hide their troubles behind a glossy facade, Fisher wrote candidly and with razor-sharp wit about her struggles with bipolar disorder, addiction, and Hollywood’s treatment of women. She criticized the pressure put on her and other actresses to lose weight, which came up again when she was asked to reprise her role as Leia for 2015’s The Force Awakens.
In that 2005 roast of Lucas, she called attention to the so-called casting couch culture, whereby actresses have been unofficially expected to sleep with powerful men to get roles.
Like Leia, she refused to be reduced to the role of a well-behaved sex goddess. And if she was forced to comply with this image, she made sure people knew her displeasure about it.
Leia will always hold a special place in film history, but for too long she was one of the only options for a young girl at the movies. Her lonely presence implied that heroic women are rarer than a stormtrooper who can actually shoot straight.
The new Star Wars movies are in some way making up for that: We have women in main roles, like Daisy Ridley’s super-powered Jedi Rey, Felicity Jones’s troubled Jyn Erso, Kelly Marie Tran’s gutsy Rose, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, and Leia herself, now General Organa. Moreover, if you look at John Boyega as Finn and the supporting cast and background actors, you’ll find resistance fighters who aren’t white dudes, reminding the next generation of fans that courage is a universal trait.
Meanwhile, back in our own galaxy, we still mourn the loss of Carrie Fisher, who passed away on December 27th, 2016.
But the Time’s Up movement is channeling her feminist fighter spirit, calling out Hollywood’s systematic abuse of women. It’s been a long time coming, but maybe change in Hollywood isn’t so far, far away. We owe some of that to the original rebel princess and the woman who played her.