Carrie Fisher: Goodnight, Princess
As the world learned of the death of Carrie Fisher two days after Christmas, 2016, social and legacy media were (of course) swamped with saccharine platitudes and cringeworthy clichés. The most nauseating were the endless kudos to Carrie for being a "strong" woman and for playing a "strong" female character.
Allow me, as I mourn her passing over multiple pints, to make a counter argument. There was strength in Carrie, to be sure, a strength that she brought to her portrayal of Leia Organa of Alderaan.
But more importantly, Carrie Fisher was a deeply vulnerable person, brimming with weaknesses and anxieties. These, too, she brought to her portrayal of Leia. Allow me to suggest that it was this vulnerability that made Carrie Fisher a relentlessly endearing person, and Leia such an enduring and beloved character.
As it happens, I received for Christmas, and finished the night before she died, Carrie's latest memoir, The Princess Diarist. The book has been billed as a confessional in which she lays bare at last her torrid affair with (the much older and then-married) Harrison Ford while filming the first Star Wars in 1976.
And it is that, in part. But is also much more than that. More accurate to say that the book is a thorough examination of her inner state as she auditioned for, filmed and suffered the aftermath of Star Wars. It is a meditation on the cruelties of celebrity, a dive inside the fishbowl of fame as well as the trap and trappings of wealth.
In the opening chapters she writes openly about her struggles with body image, even from a young age. It turns out that the gorgeous, vibrant teenager the world saw in 1977 was inside prone to self-loathing and self doubt. She admits she was desperate for people to like her, then shocked if they somehow did. She writes about seeing the lines that formed 'round the block to see Star Wars "in disbelief, wondering how anything that popular could include me."
So was she the scrappy, gorgeous dame the world saw, or the frightened, unstable child she felt herself to be? Why, both, of course. It's precisely what made her so interesting and (dare I say) sexy.
Whatever else she was, Carrie Fisher was also a wonderful writer. In The Princess Diarist, she looks upon her younger self with the perspective that age brings, but without the casual dismissal that often comes with it. It's a lovely read, and you should read it. As a woman approaching 60, she looks at the 19 year-old girl with the buns in her hair and a blaster in her hand with amusement, chagrin, and, yes, affection and admiration. The book is filled with achingly beautiful passages, brave admissions and a deep, thoroughly earned wisdom.
Earned. Let's talk about that word for a minute. For in movies, as in life, it makes all the difference. Let's compare Princess Leia, the heroine of the first Star Wars, to Rey, the heroine of 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Over Christmas I also purchased and watched The Force Awakens on Blu-ray, including the bonus features included as a DVD extra. Over and over again in the commentary and behind the scenes footage we are told that Rey is a "strong female character." And so she appears: Though an orphan with no training in combat or the Force, she easily defeats a stormtrooper in close combat with a mere staff and bests Sith lord (or at least Sith wannabe) Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel.
There's more. Though not a pilot, Rey flies the Millennium Falcon perfectly the first time she sits in the cockpit; she even knows how to fix it better than its longtime owner Han Solo. And though it took Luke Skywalker years of training and practice -- including instruction from Obi-Wan Kenobi -- to be able to use the Force to pull his lightsaber to his hand from a distance (remember when he first used that power to free himself from that ice cave on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back?), Rey knows how to do that within a few hours of our meeting her with no training whatsoever.
In short, there is nothing Rey does not know how to do, and seemingly, do perfectly. As a result, there is zero tension in her adventure, and her victory at the conclusion of the film feels completely unearned. The movie and the character are thus complete bores.
Now consider Leia. In the first film, she is captured, imprisoned, and tortured. She puts on a game face through it all, treating her captors Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin with open disdain. But when they power up the Death Star to destroy her home planet of Alderaan, that mask falls away and her face betrays the terror and desperation that we know was always lurking just beneath the surface.
Then she watches her home - including presumably everyone she knows and loves -- become a Roman candle in the black of space. Her captors have inflicted upon her the deepest suffering, and she returns to her cell knowing that her participation in the Rebellion has cost her family their lives.
In the ensuing escape from the Death Star, she proves more than capable with a blaster, but her and Han and Luke bicker the entire time; not one of them really knows what they're doing. When they do escape, she alone realizes it's only because her captors allowed it so that she may lead them to the Rebel base (how wonderful that moment where she casually dismisses Han's bragging about facilitating their escape; she hasn't the time to soothe his male ego or to explain to this clueless guy what is so obvious to her -- sound familiar ladies?).
Now, the astonishing part: Knowing that Vader and Tarkin are right on their heels, she leads them to the Rebel base anyway, hoping that the stolen plans in R2-D2 can unlock the secret of victory before the Death Star blows them all to smithereens. In other words, even having just witnessed her planet's destruction, she's willing to risk another world and the survival of the Alliance on one last chance.
During the final assault on the Death Star, Leia watches helpless from the control center on Yavin 4 while Luke and the rest of the Alliance attack fleet embark on their kamikaze mission. She's done all she can by that point and and can only watch and hope like everyone else who's not a fighter pilot. The look on Carrie Fisher's face in these scenes -- as she listens to X-wing after X-wing meet its maker -- betrays resignation and...what? Regret? Guilt? Shame?
Yes, all of those things, and more.
Of course, Luke, with the help of Obi-Wan and the Millennium Falcon, triumphs and the Death Star is destroyed, but only a few pilots of the many who began the mission survive. When Luke lands, Leia rushes to him and her cold, royal demeanor evaporates in a euphoric cry and embrace. Her gamble has paid off, but just barely. She knows how lucky they all are.
It's an ending -- and a victory -- that is joyous because it feels earned. Leia struggled, she suffered. We see her fail as often as she succeeds. She is good at some things (blaster fights with stormtroopers) and useless in others (piloting ships, showing patience for walking carpets in her path). She does her part with nerve and moxie, but also must let others do their part.
Goddamn, Leia feels like a real person. Rey? Comparatively, a paper-thin plot device, and nothing more.
There's something else about Leia, something that gets revealed in Star Wars' immediate sequels that must be addressed. In The Empire Strikes Back, she allows herself to fall in love with Han Solo. In spite of all the suffering and loss she's experienced, and knowing that Han could be dead or gone (as could they all) at any time, she opens herself up to him.
She allows that great kiss to happen in that darkened Falcon hallway, in spite of her visible fears and reservations. Leia is fearless before Vader, but trembles in Han's embrace.
What could be riskier, braver than that? Falling in love is the worst thing for her (for anyone) to do, intellectually. She does it anyway. She's not just a military leader, after all. She's a woman. She's human.
And then there's Return of the Jedi and that infamous gold bikini. Feminists have long decried the scene for all the usual reasons, and as usual only betray their ignorance of both reality and film context. In reality, women are desired sexually by men. In reality, there are terrible men who seek to exploit that sexuality. This is just a true in this galaxy as it is in a galaxy far, far away.
Return of the Jedi acknowledges that Leia is a sexual being, whose desirability opens her up to exploitation. But let us not forget that Leia in the end uses the very chains that Jabba bound her in to choke the shit out of that fat bastard. And the ease with which she does it suggest she could have done it anytime. She chose to lure Jabba into a false sense of security, chose to let him believe she had been subjugated.
It was all part of the plan, and when the trap was sprung as Luke exploded on the skiff above the Sarlaac pit, she launched into action and killed her captor. And it wasn't easy -- she has to use all her strength, and it takes what seems like an eternity, but at last Jabba expires at her hand.
Though the actress behind Leia hated wearing that bikini costume, she understood the point. Consider this excerpt from a December 2015 Wall Street Journal interview with Fisher:
WSJ: There’s been some debate recently about whether there should be no more merchandise with you in the “Return of the Jedi” bikini.
Fisher: I think that’s stupid.
WSJ: To stop making the merchandise?
Fisher: The father who flipped out about it, “What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?” Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off.
The Leia that emerges over the course of the three original Star Wars films is that of a woman who succeeds in spite of -- and sometimes -- because of -- her vulnerabilities. She is a military and political leader who is also a loving and sexual human.
Leia is strong, but what the writers of The Force Awakens and Leia's feminist critics fail to understand is that strength does not exist in a vacuum. To be strong is to by definition overcome a vulnerability. Bravery is only brave if it involves overcoming fear.
Carrie Fisher gave us a heroine that was both vulnerable and strong, both weak and brave, both certain and fearful, because Fisher herself was all of these things and more. It's why we love both the character and the person. It's why audiences at the Rogue One showing I saw the day after her death erupted in applause and cheers at Leia's appearance onscreen, buns and all.
I admit, I got choked up.
Goodnight, princess. We'll miss you.
Matt Patterson is executive director of the Center for Worker Freedom and president of 1st Amendment First. Mpatterson.firstname.lastname@example.org.