One day you’ll lose someone who’s important to you. You’ll see. It’s very painful.
—Jane Holloway, Mad Men
When I heard about Carrie Fisher’s heart attack, I was shocked–and very hopeful that she would survive despite the desperate circumstances around it. But instead, the news reported shortly afterward that she had in fact passed away. She joins a constellation of amazing, talented people that we have lost this year.
For those who are maybe a bit young for her iconic starring turn in Star Wars, it’s hard to put into words just what she means for my generation–and what her role as Princess Leia Organa gave the world.
She wasn’t the standard damsel in distress, for a start. She wasn’t a princess at the end of a video game who was supposed to be rescued. She was in serious trouble, but she did whatever she could to impact her own fate and handle her own crises. She could give a rousing speech and look pretty, but she could also handle a blaster with decent aim. Even under torture, she gave nothing to her captors; even when faced with the destruction of her entire homeworld, she lied to protect what she knew was even more important than a billion people’s lives. She taught us how to respond to tyranny and why it was so important to do so as quickly as possible.
I saw Star Wars in the theaters when I was a little bitty tyke. I remember the lines going literally around the sugarbox of the theater, and once finally inside, that opening scene with the spaceship cruising silently past, but most of all I remember how Leia shot some guards before getting caught, how she mocked her captors constantly and needled them at every chance, that she even teased her rescuers for not having an escape plan, and yes, who could forget that iconic “for luck” kiss to the rescuer nobody knew would turn out to be her own brother (not even the movie’s creators). That kiss seemed far less romantic to me and far more like her last-ditch effort to try to have some influence over what happened to her in a situation where her life would be, for one brief but terrifying stretch of time, completely dependent on someone she barely even knew.
In later movies, she’d turn out to be a decent mechanic and have a variety of other skills. Her role as a leader in the Rebellion was expanded and explained a bit. Her skills at negotiation came to the fore in the last movie when dealing with the primitive Ewoks–as silly as they were and are now (they did not age very well in later viewings, for me at least), there were enough of them with pointy enough sticks to be a problem for a person; she even managed to bluff her way into the palace of a gangster to rescue one of her onetime rescuers.
She was, in short, pretty damned self-sufficient. Put her in a stupid bikini with a chain around her neck and give her a little time, and she’d find a way to strangle her captor with it.
And her weird relationship with Han Solo got fleshed out in ways that I found memorable in the extreme. They weren’t normal. You knew there’d be no white-picket fence for them in the suburbs, no glorious wedding with oodles of guests and a dress that made Leia look like a cupcake, but that was the only acceptable way for a romance to turn out for young-adult and kids’ movies at the time and for many years afterward–even today. Han and Leia spent more time apart than together, but they were still a legitimate couple and obviously very much in love from almost the instant they met. As different as they were, they both discovered in the other a counterpart who completed them. They probably argued like a pair of cats in a sack once the reunion hormones wore off, but the message still came through loud and clear: there is more than one way to have a great romance–more than one way it can end and still be wildly successful.
Without Princess Leia, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a Marion Ravenwood, an Ellen Ripley, a Sarah Connor, even perhaps a Katniss Everdeen. She paved the way for unconventional heroines who were capable in their own right.
It turned out later that her incredible chemistry onscreen with Harrison Ford’s character extended offscreen as well, but that revelation was an afterthought by the time I heard it. Yes, of course Carrie Fisher had been in love with the guy who played Han Solo. Who wouldn’t be? We were all Luke girls or Han girls when I was a kid, the same way that girls divide themselves up over today’s heroes–and Han girls had the same scorn for Luke girls then that Team Jacob has for Team Edward now. I heard years later that Calista Flockhart, Mr. Ford’s partner of many years, announced her relationship to her mother by saying she was dating Han Solo. I’d have done exactly the same thing. (Mr. Captain reminds me here that Leia was one of his first loves–and formed in him a liking for women who were both sexy and tough. I’m sure a lot of guys have similar fond memories of the character.)
Some years ago, I knew I was starting to hit that age when I’d see a lot of this kind of news. This is what it means to get older, I told myself. You start seeing the people you love and admire pass away. One by one, they leave. Nobody lives forever, and people in the spotlight have particular vices and personal struggles that lead them to make choices that shorten their lives considerably more than those who admire them from afar would endure. Carrie Fisher was no different, and nor was George Michael, the celebrity who passed away right before her. But these two deaths are hitting me harder than the others. George Michael defined my adolescence in a way that few other celebrities could. I danced to his music, greedily devoured his videos, wished I could find a velvet-voiced lover with that kind of sensitivity and verve.
By contrast, Carrie Fisher defined my life. Star Wars was one of my first memories of childhood. I played at being her a thousand times; I still even have (somewhere around here) the piece of wood I found that looked just like a silhouetted blaster that I held while cavorting in the forest pretending to be Leia in the Rebellion fighting Stormtroopers. I grew up on her three turns as Princess Leia. I read spinoff books starring the character. Carrie Fisher’s interpretation of Leia became a part of me. And now she is gone. There will be no more Princess Leia–not hers, anyway. Like all characters, she’ll live on in the hearts of those who loved her. (I thought that line was corny once, but time has shown me how true it is.)
She leaves us in desperate times. Tyranny threatens once again to overtake our democracy, and our leaders are helpless to stop it. But we can take heart in what Leia knew:
It astonishes me that there are people today who have never seen Star Wars or either of the other movies in its trilogy. They’re allowed–I know there are even people who dislike those movies for various reasons. But they’re as essential to me as breathing. And I’m very, very sorry to hear that Carrie Fisher has passed away. She takes with her a piece of many of us. My deepest condolences to her family and friends.