Friday, December 30, 2016
Force in Focus: Carrie Fisher
Originally, I was going to return to reviews of Marvel's Star Wars this week, but then Carrie Fisher died on Tuesday.
To say 2016 has been a rough year in terms of celebrity deaths is nothing new; there's memes aplenty saying as much, and it's become a familiar refrain whenever yet another death hits the news. There's some truth to that notion (it does seem like an awful lot of big name celebrities with a knack for establishing personal connections with their audiences died this year), but at the same time, celebrities die every year, and once "2016 is the worst!" entered the zeitgeist, every subsequent death suffered from confirmation bias in a way that didn't necessarily happen in earlier years (and, of course, there's no guarantee 2017, and 2018, etc. won't be as bad or worse; modern pop culture is getting older, and the human parts of it older with it, and that means more and more deaths of people whose work we love). But Carrie Fisher's death hit me harder than most, simply because she's been, as Princess Leia, a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
As a heterosexual male, the easy comment to make is that my first celebrity crush has died, and there's some truth to that; I couldn't tell you exactly when my sexual awakening occurred, but Princess Leia was definitely one of the first characters to which my young mind said "I find her attractive", even if I didn't fully understand entirely what that meant, yet. But that's also doing the character (and Fisher) a great disservice, because Leia was so much more than a sex symbol.
I'd say Princess Leia is the character who taught me that women can stand side-by-side with men and kick just as much ass, but because of Leia, that wasn't ever really something I needed to be taught; it was just a fact of reality from the get-go, like water being wet and air being breathed. Leia is the first of the central trio of characters we meet in A New Hope, and her earliest moments involve her getting Artoo off her ship with the MacGuffin plans, blasting some Stormtroopers, and dishing out sass to an intense & ominous Darth Vader.
She proceeds to stand up to Imperial torture, and when Luke & Han show up to rescue her, she does most of the rescuing, grabbing Luke's blaster from him, firing off a few shots, and finding a way out of the detention cell. Star Wars is famously built on the structure of stories of old, but from the very beginning, Leia is upending and re-contextualizing those stories. She's the archetypal damsel in distress, the princess the hero needs to rescue from the castle of the evil monster to prove his worth, but in this story, when the hero arrives, the princess quickly takes charge, grabs his weapon, and rescues herself.
That's an incredibly strong statement for the film to make, and at a time when the modern action genre was about to be born from the steroid-enhanced musculature of male actors like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, there was Carrie Fisher, leading the Rebellion and firing guns right alongside every other character in the Star Wars films (all of whom were, for the most part, men). Only Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley can stand up to Leia in terms of offering a female counterpart to the male action stars of 80s, and while Ripley is an incredibly strong character in '79's Alien, she doesn't really become an action hero until Aliens, a few years after Fisher's first bow as Leia.
As Leia, Carrie Fisher taught at least two generations of men and women that women can stand shoulder to shoulder with men in science fiction and action-adventure stories, that princesses can rescue themselves, that femininity and toughness are not mutually exclusive. On top of that, she was a tremendously talented writer and mental health advocate, working tirelessly to shine a light on a disease that works so hard to stay in the dark. But for me, her most lasting impact will always be that of Princess Leia, a character that means so much to so many.
Gone, like so many, too soon, she is one with the Force now, a princess and icon forever. Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher, and thank you.