Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia
What are the big take-aways?
I am surprised by how affected I’ve been by the passing of the complex, hilarious and courageous actor Carrie Fisher last week on December 27th, a few days after she suffered an apparent heart attack. She was only 60.
While controversy rages (appropriately, in my opinion) about whether Carrie Fisher’s career-defining portrayal of Princess Leia in the Star Wars space opera series is a feminist icon or quite the opposite, I can speak for myself that Leia was a certainly a powerful female role model for me. Perhaps because I was about 11 years old when “Star Wars” came out in 1977, an early teen when “The Empire Strikes Back” hit the screens in 1980, and a sophomore in high school for the release of the final flick in the original trilogy – “Return of the Jedi” – in the spring of 1983, Leia’s evolution over those six years influenced my own development as a young woman leader.
Why do I like it?
Carrie Fisher was just 19 when she first played the astute, battle-tested and dedicated spy for the Rebel Alliance against the Empire. In retrospect, I realize now that I looked up to Leia like a fantasy big sister with revolutionary political convictions, who knew how to get shit done under pressure and against the odds.
Leia was the only female hero in the mass-media culture of my youth for whom leadership, in service of a (literally) galactic cause, was the defining characteristic. She embodied numerous potent and appealing paradoxes: Princess Leia is both royalty and a scrappy fighter for justice in the trenches; her rebel movement is predicated on the long-term possibility of peace but she does not shy away from taking deadly shots with her blaster when it is morally justified. She gives a lot of orders, yet never hesitates to plunge into dirty work herself; she’s a straightforward boss who plays a hard-core man’s game without undermining other women or succumbing to stereotypes. Although Leia’s title and passion alone earn her male colleagues’ respect, Leia repeatedly demonstrates her equality and credibility with disarming nonchalance, such as when she oh-by-the-way pilots the Millennium Falcon in a pinch. She is both affectionate toward her compatriots and tough enough to withstand Darth-Vader-level torture. Leia is pretty but it always seems more important (and attractive) that the Force is strong with her. Romance is way down her list of priorities in life, but when Leia reluctantly falls in love with Han it is in large part because she’s so compelling she’s managed to captivate a swashbuckling maverick whose very name is Solo.
Throughout the original trilogy not much was really ever made of the fact that Leia is a woman until the quasi-scandalous scene in “Return of the Jedi” when she appears in a gold metal space bikini, as a slave chained to Jabba the Hutt. That stupid outfit is so understandably distracting – to both men and women of all sexual orientations, for a variety of reasons – that nearly everyone forgets (1) Leia was actually captured in the process of rescuing her boyfriend, and (2) the escape sequence ends with Leia ruthlessly dispatching her monstrous tormentor by single-handedly strangling him with the chain that had been her leash.
In what situations would this be useful?
Well, what’s interesting is that the latest trilogy in the Star Wars saga kicked off last year with a blockbuster hit, “The Force Awakens,” just a few months before my twin nieces turned 11 years old. The kids loved it.
The rebooted story takes place in the same far-far-away galaxy, 32 years after the events depicted in the three original films, and introduces a new female powerhouse character named Rey. An unlikely hero, Rey is a self-sufficient scavenger of mysterious lineage who – circumstances reveal – possesses mighty and unmistakable Jedi traits. She becomes a confident, charismatic and decisive agent of her own destiny, and by the end of the movie Rey seems to consider both Han Solo and now-General Leia to be mentors of sorts. (Perhaps we will find out in the next episode – which Carrie Fisher recently finished filming, due out in December 2017 – exactly why Rey is astonishingly adept at wielding Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber!)
Anyway, my twin nieces are among the next generation of Star Wars fans who will, I hope, be encouraged and inspired by a gender-transcending female leader. Judging by my own experience, the timing is perfect.
What other resources might “pair” well with it?
I highly recommend the New York Times obituary of Carrie Fisher. It is thorough, enlightening and richly sprinkled with fascinating hyperlinks worth exploring. If you like, you can play John Williams’ composition “Princess Leia’s Theme” in the background while you read it.
The passing of Carrie Fisher also seems like a poignant moment to reflect on the meaning of the Force, especially if you are not a geek like me who is inclined to habitually contemplate it. It’s interesting and potentially revelatory that, according to Wikipedia, George Lucas’s first draft of “Star Wars” makes two references to "the Force of Others" and does not explain the phenomenon; in the movie, it is just “the Force” and Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi describes it as "an energy field created by all living things [that] surrounds us, penetrates us, [and] binds the galaxy together.” The Force has a light side that can be used for beneficent purposes and a dark side that can be harnessed for malevolent ends. Yoda describes the Force in these terms in my favorite Star Wars installment, “The Empire Strikes Back”: “Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you; here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere, yes.”