The world doesn’t need another article today memorializing Carrie Fisher by focusing on her role as Leia Organa in the Star Wars saga, so I apologize that this post adds to the seemingly endless recollections of Fisher’s most famous role. She should be, and thankfully has been, celebrated worldwide today as much for her abilities as a novelist and screenwriter, particularly her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge along with the film it was based on and the countless scripts she worked on and improved throughout her career, as for her performance as Leia. She should be remembered for her biting sense of humor, her eagerness to call out bullshit wherever she saw it, especially in the world of movies and celebrities, and her bravery in openly discussing her battles with addiction and bipolar disorder, giving a voice to struggles that are all too common yet which we frequently pretend don’t exist. And of course her career as an actress was far more diverse and expansive than just Star Wars, with supporting roles in classics like When Harry Met Sally…, Hannah and Her Sisters, and The Blues Brothers to countless appearances on television. Carrie Fisher was far, far more than Leia, and yet the role that she so expertly defined will be the one that will forever define her, just as the character of Leia helped to define my views of what a hero should look like. Through Leia, Carrie Fisher taught me to be a feminist, long before I even knew what a feminist was.
The Star Wars trilogy was the main story of my youth. It’s what got me interested in storytelling and the way a narrative can craft a compelling tale that can make us feel and think filled with characters we can relate to or aspire to be. But I actually watched it out of order. The first Star Wars movie I ever watched was Return of the Jedi, owing to quality issues on the VHS version of Star Wars which my parents had copied from a Blockbuster rental using their video camera. And I loved it, of course, despite having no idea what was going on. The action was amazing, the stakes were epic, and the characters immediately became my friends. I skipped all of the introductions to these heroes and villains, missed the twists and turns along the way, and jumped straight to the resolution. Luke was a Jedi, Han was a rebel hero, but it was Leia who changed things for me, even if I wouldn’t realize it until I became an adult. And a large part of her impact on me came because I viewed the films out of order.
In Return of the Jedi we first see Leia disguised as the “fearless and inventive” bounty hunter Boussh, threatening to blow up Jabba’s palace if he doesn’t pay what she thinks she’s owed for bringing Chewie to him. Of course, she’s only revealed when she rescues Han from the carbonite, the princess rescuing the scoundrel. Of course, she’s then “enslaved” by Jabba, only to strangle him to death with the very chain he used to keep her prisoner, going on to help Luke destroy Jabba’s barge. Once the team gets to Endor, Leia repeatedly gets moments where she’s the hero. She rushes off in pursuit of scouts on speeder bikes even as Luke yells for her to wait, after surviving the explosion of her bike she takes out a Stormtrooper with a log, steals his blaster and shoots another out of the air, and then befriends an entire tribe of native creatures who will eventually become crucial allies. (All while, Luke, Han, and Chewie are trapped by the Ewoks.) She deals with the revelation that Vader is her father with much more composure than Luke did. Then there’s the great moment where she’s wounded in the battle on Endor and saves Han’s ass with some quick blaster work, all while answering his “I love you” with “I know.” I wouldn’t realize until later that she was repeating his earlier words to her from the previous film, all I knew is that she was cool, with a swagger and attitude that were more than a match for Han.
I eventually watched Empire Strikes Back and Star Wars, working my way backwards to the beginning. I got to watch Leia barking orders on Hoth, staying with her troops until the last possible moment when she had to be literally dragged away from her post. I watched her spar with Han as their antagonism turned to romance, a relationship between equals. I saw her bravery in the face of losing Han, her determination to save him before it’s too late, and her willingness to let Chewie choke Lando to death after they’ve been freed. And in the end she even uses the Force to save Luke after he loses his battle with Vader. Only when I got to Star Wars did I finally see a Leia who needed rescuing, but who nevertheless was a key member of the rebellion and one with a fierce tongue and a fiery spirit. We heard her challenge the bravery of a man who sentenced her to die, saw her withstand interrogation without giving up the rebellion’s secrets, and watched her deceive the Empire even in the face of losing everyone and everything she’s ever cared about as her home planet is destroyed. She goes through all of that in the first half of the film, and once she’s finally freed from her cell she has plenty of sarcastic, biting comments for her rescuers, saves the day by leading them into the garbage chute, and punctures holes in Han’s ego when she realizes they were allowed to escape.
Carrie Fisher’s performance as Leia taught me what heroines were supposed to be. She was smart, tough, capable, a fighter, a leader, and 100% an equal to the men she fought beside. Because of Leia the term “princess” always had an element of warrior to it. What I didn’t realize until later was that my disappointment in the roles for women in action movies was because I was holding every female main character up to Leia, and so many of them came up wanting. It bothered me when women had to be rescued by men, but that they never got their chance to return the favor and then some the way that Leia did. I never enjoyed a movie as much if the people giving orders were all men, and if the women didn’t get to pick up a gun and show they can do just as much as any man. Others might see Leia as the woman in the metal bikini, or with the cinnamon bun hairdo, or who fell in love with Han or kissed her brother, but to me she was a leader of the Rebellion, a soldier, a diplomat, and a force to be reckoned with. I wanted, and still want, every movie to have a female character like her.
Of course, Star Wars has continued to be defined by strong women characters, even as the internet complains that Rogue One and The Force Awakens featured female protagonists. Padme defended and recaptured her home planet, fought alongside her future husband, stood up for freedom and democracy in the Senate, and eventually founded the Rebel Alliance. Mon Mothma led the Rebellion, and in the EU eventually led the New Republic, and now Rey carries on the tradition (with new heroine Jyn Erso standing alongside). But when the first trailer for The Force Awakens debuted, it wasn’t Luke or Han I wanted to see, it was Leia. She was the character with the most still to give, with the ability to shape the way the Star Wars universe evolved following Return of the Jedi. And while her story in Episode VII was smaller than I would have liked, it was much more fulfilling to me than was Han’s. General Leia was battle hardened, had lost her son to the dark side, a leader, a badass, but still with hope. Hope for the Resistance, hope for Rey, hope for Luke, hope for her son.
It wouldn’t be fair to my feminist role models to proclaim that Leia is the greatest feminist character in the history of storytelling, just as it’s not fair to solely define Carrie Fisher’s spectacular life and varied career by this one role. But to the young boy I once was, Leia was a key figure in shaping my views. As an adult, I came to appreciate the way Carrie Fisher, not Leia, helped to reinforce the feminist views she helped create in me as a child. At every turn she refused to bow to what society demanded of her, refused to keep quiet about the uncomfortable subjects that were important to her, and refused to play the standard role that was laid out for her of the well-behaved older actress. In every moment of her life and her art she challenged our preconceptions, of what it meant to be famous, to be a woman, to be an actress, and to be a princess.