My first memory of Carrie Fisher is the same as a lot of people my age: Princess Leia — or, as her fans have come to affectionately(?) refer to her — Slave Leia, clad in nothing nothing but a red and gold bikini and a strip of fabric between her legs, lounging on Jabba the Hutt’s slime encrusted belly, waiting for the boys to get their act together and save the day. It’s iconic, repulsive and what Tumblr would call “problematic.” And while it’s pretty representative of the plight of all women in Hollywood, it would prove to be particularly emblematic of Fisher’s career, both in the indignities to which she was subjected and the bold ways she found to subvert them. Princess Leia set my pre-teen hormones sparking like fireworks, but Carrie Fisher taught me about the boxes pop culture tried to squeeze women into, and and how women could fight back. It was important for girls to see. Representation is always important. But it had a profound effect on me too.
For those who’ve been hiding under a rock for the past year (and who could blame you?) there’s been a Twitter egg backlash to the recent entries in the Star Wars canon. Most of the complaints come from thin-skinned nerf herders who break out into feverish sweats at the thought of a woman being the star of a Star Wars movie. They were mad when a woman was the star of Mad Max: Fury Road. They were mad when they thought a woman was going to be in charge of the White House. But there was a special amount of nervousness reserved for Rogue One, spurring calls for a boycott among a certain cross section of the MAGA/Gamergate crowd.
This sounds a little ridiculous, but I remember being little and taking it for granted that Star Wars was the domain of boys. Boys flew spaceships, juggled lightsabers, learned to use the Force and did most of the important work in the movies. I suppose, at the time, I figured most girls more or less liked it that way.
Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong, and the proof of that was staring me right in the face every time I watched Star Wars. Carrie Fisher elevated a thin role by virtue of her tremendous wit and famed intelligence. We’re introduced to her getting captured by Darth Vader, but instead of cowering at the mere sight of him — something most men in the movie spend an inordinate amount of time doing — she sniffs at him dismissively: “Only you could be so bold.”
Later, she rolls her eyes through her entire rescue. When she, Han, Luke and Chewie are pinned down by enemy fire, she mutters “this is some rescue”, grabs Luke’s blaster, and shoots a hole in the floor for the group to escape. It’s awesome.
Stories would later surface about the things Fisher had to endure on set. Lucas forbid her from wearing a bra under her dress, reasoning that it would be scientifically inaccurate. “You go into space, and become weightless,” he explained to her. “Then your body expands but your bra doesn’t, so you get strangled by your own underwear.” (“I think that this would make for a fantastic obituary,” Fisher later wrote.) She also recently confirmed a long-rumored dalliance with a then-married Harrison Ford on the set of A New Hope, one she eventually ended.
Fisher handled all this and more, and she did it while upending expectations about what a woman’s role sci-fi cinema could look like. She hugely improved the dialog in The Empire Strikes Back, hinting at her later career as a successful, often anonymous script doctor. In that, as in most everything she ever did in her life, she was painfully disinterested in bullshit.
She would go on to speak openly about her struggles with addiction and mental health. She talked about living with bipolar disorder at a time when few could. She recently wrote about it in The Guardian, telling a fan who’d written her seeking advice to “Think of it as an opportunity to be heroic — not ‘I survived living in Mosul during an attack’ heroic, but an emotional survival. An opportunity to be a good example to others who might share our disorder.”
And she would address the controversy surrounding “Slave Leia” again and again throughout her life, as chained to the character as surely as the character was chained to Jabba. When a father made news in 2015 for asking what he’s supposed to tell his children about Leia’s bikini, Fisher responded, via The Wall Street Journal: “Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it.”
All this speaks to Fisher’s inventiveness about the unique place she found herself in pop culture. She was a princess who rescued her own rescuers, a woman famous for having it all who freely admitted that she didn’t and, of course, a sci-fi POW who didn’t let her metal bikini get in the way of choking her captor to death with his own chain.
So I’m surprised when people decry Rogue One’s Jynn Erso or The Force Awakens’ Rey as part of some newfangled plot from those danged SJWs to supplant men as Star Wars’ dominant gender. To anyone paying attention, Princess Leia had always been the most competent member of the original cast, and Carrie Fisher had been making sure the galaxy was a place of equality since before many of Brietbart’s commenters were born.
Her place in Star Wars gave girls a necessary and rare chance to see themselves leading rebellions, but it also gave boys a necessary and rare chance to see girls leading rebellions. Maybe if more of the guys fuming about all the women in the Star Wars reboot had actually paid attention to the original trilogy, they wouldn’t be pitching such a fit today. Anyone today who feels like female representation in pop culture is getting a little out of control has Fisher’s legacy to reckon with.
Good luck with that.