Well, what do I say here that hasn’t been said better by what must by now be hundreds of thousands of fans, friends, family and even distant commentators on the death of Carrie Fisher? She passed away far, far too young, as great celebrities seem to do more often than not.
I woke up this morning to the news having broken just earlier, and what I threw up on my facebook wall was something very unsteady and raw that tried to sum up how I felt.
It isn’t easy. There are some celeb deaths that hit me harder than others. I felt some real sadness when Robin Williams passed away, knowing a little bit about his struggles. A brief pang when Leonard Cohen died, knowing that if he didn’t, he’d be making very good music for however many years he might have had left. On the other side of the coin you have deaths like Leonard Nimoy, one of my childhood idols. Terry Pratchett, after whose death I was inconsolable for weeks and pretty much sealed myself away to re-read the entire Discworld series as if grasping at his ghost. David Bowie at the start of this year, when I received more condolences than I did when all my grandparents passed away combined.
Carrie Fisher is on that side of the coin, the side that hurts when it comes up.
It’s actually extremely weird, now that I think about it. When Bowie died I was already booked for a tattoo mashing up Star Wars and Rebel Rebel, and when news of his death broke just days before I was due to come in I talked with my artist briefly and she said I could back out and get something else if it felt too morbid. I told her to double down and throw a Ziggy Stardust bolt in somewhere, because if I was going to end up with a memorial piece I’d play it to the hilt.
So my first tattoo of 2016 ended up bookending the year in the strangest way. David Bowie and the Rebel Alliance logo. The year started and ended with deaths intimately related to that mashup.
If I was a superstitious man I’d probably hold off on getting any more tattoos.
But I digress.
I talked quickly with a good friend of mine earlier today where he pointed out the sheer number of people beginning their Leia stories talking about how sexy she was or mentioning a dogeared poster of the slave costume adorning some bedroom wall through teenhood.
I never got that out of Princess Leia.
She was a practical heroine. Her garb was functional most of the time. She didn’t try to win through sexual wiles. That costume didn’t look sexy to me, it looked demeaning, like she deserved better as both a character and a person. When people only equate her to that particular costume, I do get a little flash of comparing them to Jabba the Hutt in my head. She was way more than the galactic sexpot, and it saddens me immensely that this was really only coming to light in recent years.
Outside of Star Wars, Fisher was a tireless advocate for removing the stigma of mental illness and its treatments, talking candidly and frankly about her struggles with bipolar disorder and how much of her drug addiction was unconsciously rooted in attempts to self-medicate when her problems were not taken seriously by people who could – should – have helped her.
She was the punchline of jokes about Hollywood drug addiction, and not only did she roll with those punches but she often turned them back on whoever threw them. She was subject to the worst kind of sexism and ageism, sneered at while the male actors she worked with were continually applauded and swooned over. I think she took it a hell of a lot better than I would have in her place. She found the help she needed, got some solid footing and tried to fix her life up.
She wrote a lot. Her memoirs came out recently, and while most of the buzz is about her torrid affair with Harrison Ford, there’s way more in there worth reading. She was a skilled hand with narrative prose, which should come as no surprise: the woman was one of Hollywood’s greatest script doctors, the short notice editors that they bring in to save ailing movies over a weekend or maybe a week if they’re lucky, with just a handful of money and no credit in exchange. By all accounts, and keep in mind that these are typically bound by NDAs, she is responsible for hundreds of amazing films making it to the screen over the decades.
In Star Wars, and this is one thing that makes me forgive all of The Force Awakens’s flaws, she got to step back in and make Leia into an amazing character, even more amazing than she was. In the original trilogy Leia was good because Carrie Fisher made her so in spite of the writing, took the role and made it her own, created a badass hero in an environment where the director told her to stop wearing bras because there would be no bras in space and he needed to titillate the audience more than he was.
When she came back as an older woman, she was the only member of the original cast who had not punked out. Surrounded by trauma and tragedy, Leia Organa is the strongest character. Mother killed by father. Adoptive father killed by fascists. Biological father killed by last second martyrdom. Brother and husband in self-imposed exile after feeling like they had failed, leaving her to step up and lead the last pocket of resistance against a resurgence of the people they had tried to put down for good a generation prior.
I love Han Solo. I love Luke Skywalker. General Leia is better than both of them in the sense that she did not eschew her responsibilities or give up even in the face of overwhelming odds or tragedy, and I think that fits Fisher to a T.
She was coming back incredibly strong and that makes her passing at 60 (which, let’s face it, is just too young in this era) all the more tragic. I ache for all the great stories that are going to go untold both in and out of Star Wars because she isn’t there to push the boundaries.
Leia was one of my first loves, not in a crush or a sexual way, but a character I truly admired and trusted without hesitation, and who as an adult I have seen as a perfect action woman. She forms a bit of a holy trinity with Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley in my head, as kickass ladies who do not have to present themselves as sex objects to kick said ass, and who also are comfortable being women; they don’t try to take on traditionally “manly” traits or infect themselves with toxic masculinity in order to be considered cool. They’re cool enough on their own, and she was the best of them. When I’m writing a female protagonist, I often step back and think “would Carrie Fisher call me an asshole if I asked her to play this role in a movie?”
So. You know. Goodbye, Carrie. I’m glad your last book has been so well received and I hope everyone reads it, and that they they go back and read all the other brilliant stuff you’ve written. I’m really glad that you got a movie where you got to be a general instead of a princess without changing how the character acts at all. I’m still clinging to my fervent hope that Terry Pratchett ascended to the throne of creation, kicked whoever was there out after the mess s/he had been making, and has since been selectively snatching the best of us to populate his new and improved universe. I’m glad you sat down with Daisy Ridley and told her to never let the people in charge of Star Wars pull a Slave Leia again, because science fiction in general deserves better.