I wrote this essay shortly after Carrie Fisher passed away in 2016 and have been trying to find a home for it ever since. In honor of what will be her final appearance as General Leia in The Last Jedi, I’ve decided to just post it here. Please come back tomorrow for part 2 and on Friday for the thrilling conclusion.
“If my life wasn’t funny, it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”- Carrie Fisher
This is a story in three parts. It is about Princess Leia, and Carrie Fisher, and me.
To participate, you must put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist. So now imagine yourself as a nine-year old girl named Amy. Your real name is Harmony, of course. Amy is a nickname given to you in an effort to curtail playground mockery. This effort is unsuccessful. Whatever your name is, you’re still a pudgy little scab of a girl with coke-bottle glasses and fleece Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle pants from Odd Lots that you will not remove from your legs on pain of death. You cannot find the right games to play with other kids, because the “things for girls” are clearly not the things for you.
Later you will realize that your childhood was mottled by the Smurfette Principle. Once a girl has outgrown Pippi Longstocking and Harriet the Spy, secondary sex characteristics are the only things about female heroes that anybody notices. If it was only you who noticed these things, you could ignore it, but the boys and girls you play pretend with enforce gendered norms like they are the unspoken bedrock rules of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. If you want to play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, you are always April, and April is always kidnapped and has to wait in the covered slide to be rescued. If you want to play Smurfs, you are always Smurfette, and you have to feign interest in the broken plastic play mirror some misguided/hopeful relative gave you for Christmas while everyone else hunts for treasure. If you’re playing with dolls, you’re playing house, and your job is to stay home and endlessly mix an empty plastic bowl until your husband comes home for imaginary dinner. It is terrible and boring and you do not make friends easily, if you make them at all.
Your mother knows how miserable you are, and makes a point of seeking out role models for you that are not governed by gendered expectations. One weekend, she takes you to the video store by the house, and it is your turn to pick the video. She picks STAR WARS off the shelf and presses it into your hands, assures you that it’s an adult movie but you will like it. The Muppets are in it! Kind of, anyway.
You watch the movie and it’s like someone took your dreams of adventure and cast them far and wide on a movie screen. Fantastical creatures! Robots! Space swords and blasters! The movie is a technicolor kaleidoscope of imagination and fun, and right in the middle of it is your first-ever real adult female hero: Princess Leia Organa, rebel leader and total badass. Leia doesn’t take a knee while the clueless dudes around her do all the cool stuff. She’s in the middle of it, kicking butt and taking names alongside the male heroes you’d normally be compelled to cheer for. You watch the first movie and you’re struck by her total heroism in the face of all adversity. The princess orphan, cool and cunning, leading a rebel alliance in defiance of the scariest villain you have ever seen in your young life. You watch the next movie and thrill to her adventurer’s spirit, her stoicism, her bravery in the face of losing her friends and her true love to an unbelievable betrayal. You watch the final movie and your heart sinks to see her kidnapped and imprisoned, just like every other Smurfette who’s ever disappointed you, until she busts her own ass free and STRANGLES THAT BLOBBY MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE CHAINS THAT BOUND HER! HELL YES SHE DID.
You watch the movies over and over. You don’t tell people how much you like them, because even at that age you kinda know that it’s lame to love Star Wars and double lame for girls to love Star Wars. But that does not stop you from filling an entire sixty-page spiral bound notebook with what you later will understand is fanfiction. The Adventures of Layla Skywalker probably will not be considered for the Star Wars expanded universe anytime soon, but it is still your proudest achievement. Layla lives with Yoda on Dagobah, and she’s the hired gun that jedi call when shit gets too real with Darth Vader. Her mother Leia always has good advice on dealing with dorks and nerds in the galactic senate. (Also, for some reason, Darth Vader is alive and Leia and Luke are married? The author may not have been paying a ton of attention to continuity.)
In the end, Lando Calrissian pledges his eternal love and devotion to Layla, and begs her to settle on Cloud City for an eternity of playing house together. But Layla knows the galaxy needs her more than Lando does, and she departs for adventures unknown.
Literally unknown, actually- I ran out of paper, so I don’t know what happened next.
That was the first time Carrie Fisher saved my life. Leia gave me permission to dream of fantastic stories where women get to be heroes for once. My love of her opened me to other female heroes- Batgirl, Storm, and even later Sailor Moon. It also gave me a valuable early warning as to how toxic dude nerds can be, as none of them were ever willing to acknowledge that the metal bikini they loved to jerk off to was being worn by an intergalactically-trafficked sex slave. It was educational, is what I am saying, and affirming at a time when I really needed it.
But that is not the only time Carrie Fisher saved my life.
(Part 2 tomorrow.)