Carrie Fisher was long done with Star Wars when I came into this world. When I was born, she’d already established Princess Leia as an icon. Still fresh enough to be relevant, but solidified as an untouchable American monolith. Princess Leia was simply a thing that had always been there.
Return of the Jedi was my first “adult” movie to memory. I had no idea what was going on, but I was in love with the spectacle and magic of it. The Ewoks were everything. I lived for the Ewoks, and I wanted nothing more than to be with Leia as they ushered her away to their tree village.
We couldn’t afford to buy movies at the time, so my parents would buy blank VHS tapes and catch movies as they aired on cable for recording. Jedi was the only Star Wars film we had for a long time, but it was my favorite thing to watch and I wore that tape out.
I worked my way backward through the trilogy. The Empire Strikes Back aired, and we recorded that. This film endeared me completely to Leia. Her frustration and short temper had me in stitches. I would rewind the tape, cackling on the floor as I watched her yell at Han over and over. I had to have more!
At last, A New Hope was scheduled to air. We cleared our schedules, bought a fresh tape, and finally completed my Star Wars experience. It was some of the best Leia I had ever seen. To this day, her reaction to being rescued is a standard I hold all my women in film to.
Being a boy, I knew that Luke Skywalker was supposed to be my favorite character. Even having a Princess Leia figurine was taboo, so I had to ensure I had an impressive collection of action figures to make it acceptable. I would dutifully display Luke in the forefront, with Leia discretely hidden in the back so I wouldn’t get made fun of.
But when I played with my action figures, Leia was the hero. She always knew exactly what to do, declared the boys the fools they are, and saved the day. In my world, she knew the Force and bested even the fiercest of toys.
A part of me knew that Leia would never be afraid of what other people would say about what toys she chose to play with, or if her favorite character was a boy or a girl. She would call them a nerfherder and continue about her day. It was something I admired her for, and wished I could find the strength to do myself.
Of course, before I knew anything about Leia, I knew my mother. My mother, whose outspokenness and sharp honesty will cut people down until she draws laughter or blood. Either way, she’s not sorry.
I remember looking through her old photo albums. She delighted in telling everyone about how long her hair was, “all the way down to my butt!” No one wanted to tell her that, at 5’1″, that’s not a whole lot of hair. You would be destroyed.
But I never saw this long hair she boasted about. In all of her school photos, that golden hair of hers was twisted up and pinned to the sides of her head, or braided around the back in intricate ways. She looked like… well. A blond Princess Leia. For the longest time, I just assumed this was the way women did their hair in the 70’s/80’s.
Just as I assumed that all women would be feisty, honest, and tough. My mom had always been that way. Leia was that way. Is this not the way women are supposed to be?
As I grew older and my access to the world of media at large expanded, I found myself astounded at the lack of strong female characters. Why are all they always in trouble? Why are commercials selling women dish soap and baking products? Where are all the Princess Leias? Female empowerment is a movement?
I was perplexed. Nothing about Leia struck me as out of the ordinary, but there was no one else like her. Nothing about my mother seemed unusual, but people at church avoided her. It baffled me in the 90’s when Girl Power became a thing, because it was always something I just thought was. Girls are tough. Right?
It never occurred to me, looking at those pictures of my teenage mother in Leia hair, that Carrie Fisher was a serious role model for my mother growing up. It never occurred to me that my vision of what a woman should be – strong, courageous, never a damsel and not taking any of your damn shit – came from the only two women I spent any time with as a child. My mother, and Princess Leia.
This isn’t just the case with my mother. Star Wars rocked the world, and Carrie Fisher was key in empowering so many girls at the time who desperately needed to see that they don’t have to just sit there and take it. After Star Wars, she went on to be a serious advocate for mental health. She refused to be sorry for growing older, and sent the world a clear message that it’s okay to be imperfect. In fact, embrace your flaws. They make you who you are.
The people touched by Carrie Fisher grew up to be part of things like Buffy, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, you name it. They’re your mothers, your sisters, your bosses, and your best friends. You may not have been lucky enough to have Carrie Fisher as a role model, but I guarantee you admire someone who has. She lives on in every strong female lead out there, and there are so many.
I am so lucky to have grown up believing that’s just the way it should be.
Thank you, Carrie Fisher.