Carrie Fisher and Princess Leia: an Action Hero For All of Us
You might have to be a woman of a certain age to understand why Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia mattered. I was nearly 10 years old in the summer of 1977 when “Star Wars” (AKA “Episode IV: A New Hope”) arrived in my hometown. I knew nothing about “Star Wars” when my dad announced we were going to see it. Honestly, I thought it was a movie about celebrities like TV’s “The Love Boat” or “Battle of the Network Stars.” It sounded boring, and I wasn’t particularly interested, but off we went. As my family and I waited in a long line in front of a single-screen theater, I continued to voice my reluctance, preferring to stop in Shakey’s Pizza instead of seeing this “star” movie. But somewhere between the theme song, the opening crawl and the destruction of the Death Star, I was hooked.
The rest of my summer was spent engrossed in everything “Star Wars.” As my neighborhood friends and I played our “Star Wars” games, the girls had to take turns pretending to be Princess Leia. The boys had Luke, Obi Wan, Han, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2D2. Leia was, after all, the only female action hero.
For girls my age, Princess Leia represented a departure from the typical 1970s female lead. Sure, TV brought us Mary Richards from “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a 30-year-old, so-called “career woman” who was an unmarried associate news producer—a TV role that was nearly unheard of at the time. “Groundbreaking” though it might have been, if you’re under 45, try to imagine the ruckus over a single woman employed full-time in a professional capacity.
Even “All in the Family” with its upfront depictions of the sociocultural issues of the time cast its female leads as homemakers. Edith Bunker began as a homemaker. Although Gloria Stivic was the “breadwinner” in her marriage prior to having a child, she gave up her job and became a homemaker after her son’s arrival and her husband’s subsequent employment. We had “Little House on the Prairie,” which largely represented women’s traditional roles of the period. Carol Brady of “The Brady Bunch?” Homemaker. Marion Cunningham on “Happy Days?” Homemaker. “Laverne and Shirley” were single women looking for husbands while working as bottlecappers at a brewery. “Alice” was a waitress. “Charlie’s Angels?” Ha! My mother was a homemaker. Her mother was a homemaker. My friends’ moms were mostly homemakers. We’d heard about Women’s Lib and the ERA, but girls my age were awash in women performing the stereotypical women’s work as secretaries, nurses, homemakers and teachers.
Remember, it was still 1977. “Norma Rae” and Ripley in “Alien” hadn’t happened yet. And while it’s true that some strong female leads were present prior to 1977, bear in mind that the preteen girls of that time probably weren’t seeing them. Most of us weren’t watching “Maude,” and we might not have understood the irony of Betty White’s portrayal of Sue Ann Nivens. We wanted moms like Carol Brady or Marion Cunningham. For many of us, women (including princesses) were represented by what we saw on TV and in Disney movies: Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
Enter Leia, a new kind of princess: a tough-as-nails young woman who could wield a blaster and hold her own in a garbage compactor. She wasn’t soft and genteel. She was empowered; she was intense; and she had an edge. Her entire world had been blown to smithereens, but she soldiered on, leading the Rebel Alliance. She bravely recorded her message for Obi Wan Kenobi while captured by the Empire. Leia exploited the weakness in the Death Star that ultimately destroyed it. She wasn’t sitting around waiting for a prince to save her. And when Luke did arrive in Episode IV, Leia was utterly nonplussed: “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” she asked him. She wasn’t looking for a rescue; she was impatient to get on with her mission. Leia was no Disney princess, and her role was central to the action.
Ask yourself what would have happened without Leia’s recording? How would Luke have made the connection between “Obi Wan” and “Old Ben Kenobi”? None of the action that followed would have happened had it not been for Leia and her attempt to find Obi Wan. Let’s repeat: a woman was leading the Rebel Alliance. Saddled with her cinnamon bun hairdo and pure white robes, Leia fought shoulder to shoulder with her compadres. Then, after taking down the Death Star, Leia honored Luke and Han with medals for their bravery. Despite all her efforts, she never got her own lightsaber. As Fisher said in a 2016 interview with Stephen Colbert, “Even in space, there’s a double standard for women.”
Fisher brought a fierceness to the Star Wars films in her portrayal of Leia. She wasn’t the first movie heroine by a long shot, but she was the first female action hero—a strong individual for girls to admire and emulate. And we did admire and emulate her. She wasn’t Catwoman in a skintight leotard or Wonder Woman in hot pants. Both Leia and her cause were real. They were personal.
When George Lucas put Fisher in that gold metal bikini in “Return of the Jedi,” he instantly catapulted Leia from an innocent in a pure white robe to a mature woman. Only Fisher could adequately explain the significance of the gold bikini. It was not Leia or Fisher who chose the gold bikini. She wasn’t choosing to become a sex symbol. It was Jabba the Hutt (and Lucas) who dressed her, Fisher pointed out. “It wasn’t a style choice for me,” Fisher said in a 1983 interview with People magazine. We feel for her in the scenes with Jabba the Hutt because she is being forced to play outside her type: a slave under a man’s control. Leia uses the gold bikini to her advantage, ultimately killing Jabba with the same chains he used to confine her.
In the years that followed the first three releases in the Star Wars trilogy, I continued to appreciate Carrie Fisher’s sense of humor, her unabashed humanity, her insight about her substance abuse history and her advocacy for mental health. “Postcards from the Edge” and “Surrender the Pink” remain on my bookshelves today. Two of her non-Star Wars films are among my favorites: Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” and Rob Reiner’s “When Harry Met Sally.” Both films would not have been what they were without Fisher’s supporting performances.
Seeing Fisher in 2015’s “The Force Awakens” brought back the memories and images of Leia as action hero. Now she is a mother and a general. This time, she might serve as the mentor for a new generation of women action heroes. “Rogue One” connects the dots and solidifies Leia’s role as both rebel and hero.
When I heard last week that Carrie Fisher had a heart attack on a plane, I had a bad feeling—yes, as if there were a disturbance in the Force. Fisher’s mother, Debbie Reynolds*, provided a statement from the family, but it was too quiet after that. I felt guarded for days, checking the trending stories on Facebook for updates. Maybe I felt guarded because an old high school friend died a little over a year ago after a massive heart attack. At 49, he had to be too young to have a heart attack and was certainly too young to die. I know too well how his life ended in the ICU, so I imagined Fisher in similar straits. And 2016 was a long, sad, sickening year for deaths of cultural icons and other celebrities. Too many remarkable people died too young.
Now 2016 has claimed Carrie Fisher. Her voice, her activism and her role as a feminist hero and icon are gone too soon but won’t be forgotten.
*RIP Debbie Reynolds, who passed away one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher.