It’s 1977 in our galaxy when “Star Wars” hits the screens, and simultaneously, in a galaxy far, far away, Luke arrives on the Death Star and determinedly proclaims, “I’m Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you.” But as the camera shifts to Princess Leia, she, in a reclining position, frowns and asks, “You’re who?”
It’s a small moment, but an incredibly significant one. Because, with it – with that one line, with one defiant arch of eyebrow, Leia completely flips the script. She makes it abundantly clear that she may be in distress, but she’s no weak ‘damsel’ – especially not one that needs a male saviour. As the story progresses, we see her leading the rebellion against a fascist regime, fighting on the front lines for her rights and the rights of her people, and doing it all on her own terms, rather than take orders from the men around her. And that isn’t just Leia’s legacy, it’s Carrie Fisher’s too.
The actress, writer and activist who passed away on Wednesday at just the age of 60, was more than just Princess Leia – she was a feminist icon for the ages, and, for sc-fi loving girls like me, an immensely powerful female role model in a form of media where those don’t come by easily.
The “Star Wars” franchise essentially started out as a male fantasy, and everything about Princess Leia was at first, constructed in a way to pander to the heterosexual male gaze. But Carrie Fisher took back the narrative – she chose to portray Leia as a woman who was in charge (often superior to the men around her), who was unapologetic, and who was unflinching and brave in the face of adversity. She made rewrites and added her own notes to the original scripts to achieve all of this, quite literally taking the responsibility of positive female representation into her own hands.
And for someone like me – a female “Star Wars” fan in a geek culture that’s largely male-oriented and discredits and trivializes us female fans – that was momentous. Carrie Fisher made me, a teenage girl halfway across the world from her, believe that I could, too, be the princess of my own destiny. That I could lead my own rebel alliance against the Star Wars “bros” who constantly questioned my devotion to a piece of popular culture just because of my gender. Carrie Fisher made it okay for girls to be strong, and for girls to fantasize about being strong; and to never have to disavow one’s femininity for it.
Her politics were far ahead of her time. In the late 70s and 80s, when women weren’t being given enough of a voice, Fisher’s rang out boldly and loudly against Hollywood sexism. She spoke at length about being sexually objectified (and was heavily critical of those who fetishized Leia’s ‘gold bikini’ scene), about women being stereotyped, about the condescension of her male peers, about the unfair standards of female beauty, and later, about ageism in the industry. She was also vocal about her struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction – breaking the stigma around these conversations way before they even began being debated.
I have always felt a deep, abiding connection with her despite living in a completely different cultural context than what she inhabited, and that’s because her struggles always seemed relatable, and relevant. Just last year, she was busy promoting the seventh installment of “Star Wars”, and in every single interview, she absolutely decimated patriarchy. In one of the most memorable interviews, she said, “even in space, there’s a double standard for women.” Of course, she was talking about the ridiculous demands the makers of “Star Wars” had thrust upon her to alter her body for the role, but the words also felt more universal. Our society, however progressive it may seem at a given point, still has double standards imposed upon women at every interval; and Carrie Fisher encouraged us to keep calling it out.
As a brilliant Twitter thread pointed out, General Leia Organa taught us to continue to stand up for what’s right even when everything else is lost, she taught us not to bow down in the face of misogyny, to continue to work hard, and to be a leader, in every way. That’s what Fisher symbolized. And, like my adolescent self, I still aspire to be as fierce and unapologetic as her.
In one of the anecdotes she recounts in her memoir, “Wishful Drinking”, she talks about how George Lucas (the writer-director of “Star Wars”), had asked her to not wear a bra in a scene (a clear attempt to objectify her). When Fisher had refused, and asked him to explain, he had justified it by saying that due to the presence of anti-gravity in space, one’s body expands and one can get strangled by their underwear. Responding to the ridiculousness of this claim, she had said: “now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”
But oh, Fisher left us so much more gloriously. She went down not strangled by her bra, but by strangling the patriarchy with it. May the force always be with her.