This year seems to be unprecedented for celebrity deaths. It started, as I recall with David Bowie right around my birthday and continued on with the likes of Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, and of course, Prince. All of these deaths have touched me on some level as I have been moved by the art of these people in some form or fashion. The arts touch our lives at a deep primal level and we rightfully esteem those who can move us to laugh, cry sing, dance, and contemplate. I have had a level of appreciation for many artists that has brought me to a place of mourning on more than one occasion.
Today is different. Today Carrie Fisher passed away. She had a massive heart attack on a plane coming from the UK to Los Angeles a couple of days ago. Yesterday it was said that she was stable, but today we lost her at the far too young age of 60.
Yes, she had memorable performances in films like The Blues Brothers, When Harry Met Sally, and Austin Powers. Yes, she was a phenomenal author who wrote with rare insight and wit. And yes, she was incredibly outspoken about her struggles with addiction and mental illness. Her candor in speaking about her bipolar disorder has been one of the key inspirations for my being so open about my clinical depression. By all accounts, she was witty, charming, generous, funny, and a true artist. And yet for me she will always be Princess Leia and I say that unapologetically. And to quote Lor Sen Tekka at the beginning of The Force Awakens “To me she is royalty”.
There’s truly no sense in my recapping how important Star Wars has been in my life. I can’t imagine you would be here if you didn’t know that tidbit about me. When the original trilogy was made, the three leads were treated as equal parts of the story. The credits showed Harrison Ford’s, Mark Hamill’s and Carrie Fisher’s names simultaneously, a move that has not been replicated in the later films. They were equal parts of the story, equal parts of the mythos, and to me, equal in importance. I can’t tell you how important this image was to me. My first heroine was no damsel in distress. She traded verbal jabs with Han Solo. She took charge and was respected for her leadership and bravery. She was no bit player to Han and Luke’s story. It was her story too. She was strong and competent and those things were never sacrificed in those moments when she was also tender and compassionate.
The Leia we see in The Force Awakens, General Leia, is just as rich a character if not more so. More than any other character, it can be argued, Leia has experienced massive loss. In her early years it was the loss of her planet and consequently her adopted family. In Return of the Jedi, it is her loss of identity. She discovers that she is the daughter of a monster and the sister of a Jedi. By episode 7, her husband, son, and brother have all left her. All that she has left is her fight. She tells Han that they both went back to doing what they do best, which for her was rallying people to fight against tyranny. Leia is the character who never runs away from the fight. She never surrenders. She never loses hope. She is the stalwart. She is the heart of both the Rebellion and the Resistance.
It seems that more and more we are having the conversation that representation in media matters. This is a worthwhile conversation as it is leading to greater numbers of marginalized people getting to see themselves on both big and small screens. What’s often missed in the conversation about representation though, is how important it is for shaping the ideas and ideals of those who already have it. For better or for worse (I would argue mostly for better) Princess Leia shaped much of my adolescent thinking about women. Of course she was a standard of beauty, but she was also a model of strength and leadership. I believe she is the reason why I’ve always been attracted to women who could spar with me verbally and stand up for what they believed. She is the kind of woman I would want with me in the trenches when life gets hard. While I know it is important for young girls to have such role models, it is equally important for young boys to have them as well.
Leia also paved the way for the current direction the Star Wars franchise is going. Very subtly, the world’s largest and most successful franchise has become a platform for female leadership. The two most recent films have had strong, no nonsense female leads who were unencumbered by romantic relationships. Even Lucasfilm has transitioned to being lead by a woman with the transfer of power from George Lucas to Kathleen Kennedy. While there is still some work to do on the representation of women of color, Star Wars has become one of the few tentpole franchises to be carried by the strength of female leads and Princess Leia paved the way for the series’ current direction.
Leia doesn’t work without Fisher’s portrayal. I imagine that for any actor or actress it is difficult to be pigeonholed into one role, even one as iconic as Leia. She spoke of how she struggled under the weight of fans’ expectations of her. I can imagine that she wanted to be seen as more than the girl with the hairbuns and the gold bikini. I’m sure it was tough to be Leia. But I hope she knew how much that character meant to the world. I hope that she could stand back, watch her own work, and realize the soul that she infused into what could have easily been a caricature. I hope she recognized that the strength and goodness that is so central to Leia’s character was her own strength and goodness. And I hope she recognized that when she returned to her role in episodes 7 and the upcoming episode 8 that it inspired all of us to see that not only had Leia never stopped fighting, Carrie never stopped fighting either. She encourages all of us to fight on.
I am incredibly sad. I suppose it is a natural part of life to watch the people who shaped you slip away. And we never fully appreciate a person’s impact on our lives until they are gone. This is true of those we watch from a distance and those in our immediate circumference. It seems silly to be so moved by the death of someone I didn’t know, but then again, she shared much of her life and struggles with the world, so maybe I knew her more than I realize. In any event, this is a huge loss. My words feel inadequate. The world is better for having had Carrie Fisher in it. I’m better for having watched her ply her craft on screen and on the page. Even in the midst of a hard and tragic year, she still inspires me to hope.