The Legacy of Princess Carrie
The sudden death of Carrie Fisher came as a shock to many people, including her close family and friends, as well as worldwide fans of the beloved actress and writer. Born into a family of Hollywood royalty, Fisher lived her entire life in the entertainment industry. Her mother was actress and singer Debbie Reynolds and her father was singer Eddie Fisher, who both were hugely successful and famous back in the day and embodied the Hollywood power couple. Carrie and her brother Todd grew up in the spotlight surrounded by stars, from time to time sharing the stage with their famous mother. Reynolds divorced Fisher in 1959, after he had started an affair with Elizabeth Taylor. The divorce caused a public scandal, and the event is now often cited as being the Brangelina of the time.
Carrie Fisher wrote about her tumultuous upbringing in her 2008 autobiographical work Wishful Drinking, which portrayed the surreal and illusive life in Hollywood she grew up in. It also featured her lifelong struggle with mental illness, being diagnosed as bipolar and undergoing several treatments, including electroshock therapy. Fisher also wrote a number of novels, screenplays, and plays, most notably the semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge (1987), which was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, in addition to being a script doctor on several Hollywood screenplays. Her literary work stood out for its humorous take on life with a mental disorder, growing up to celebrity parents, and its eloquent and ingenious writing. Needless to say Carrie Fisher was a gifted writer, actress, and a Hollywood child, who found its way through this world with compassion and wit, that made her work recognizable and critically well acclaimed.
“Who’s more famous than Debbie [Reynolds] and Eddie [Fisher]? C-3PO and Darth Vader.”
To the wider public Fisher was first and foremost known in connection to the Star Wars films and its huge franchise, which featured her as Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, a sassy, and smart princess, who stood up against the Empire. Captured by the troops of the dictatorship of the Galactic Empire for being a spy for the Rebel Alliance, she manages to hide the plans for the destruction of the Death Star, the Empire’s most deadly weapon, and appears to be fearless of the imperial dark lord Darth Vader. She first emerges on screen in Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) with her iconic hairdo and a white dress, fighting back incoming stormtroopers and upon being captured talking pertly back to Vader, seemingly unimpressed by his robotic appearance. The success of the first Star Wars movie led to two more movies in the original trilogy named Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi (1983), as well as three prequels from 1999 – 2005, and the current sequels starting in 2015. Carrie Fisher reprised her role of Leia, now General Organa, in the 2015 film The Force Awakens, and was scheduled to appear in the two upcoming films Episode VIII (2017) and Episode IX (2019).
While the 1960s science fictions classics like Planet of the Apes (1968) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), heralded the heyday of science fiction blockbusters in the 1970s and 1980s, it was George Lucas’ Star Wars, which kicked off the genre for mainstream audiences and paved the way for big budget productions in the upcoming years. The major success of the franchise catapulted the main stars, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford (Han Solo) and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) to instant fame. Given the huge success of A New Hope the commercial interest in the Star Wars franchise was immense, and resulted in a grand variety of merchandise, which featured Princess Leia embodied in various products. Amongst the most notable being a pez dispenser that allowed for candy to come out of her neck, and a shampoo bottle that worked by twisting her head off and pulling liquid out of her body, items the actress often referred to jokingly in interviews. The accomplishments of the movie and the commercialization of the characters added to the fusion of the real life actress and the fictional princess. Ever since Carrie Fisher stepped onto the screen in her white dress and with the iconic hair earmuffs as Princess Leia, the two became one, inseparable from each other.
“I am Princess Leia, no matter what. … Princess Leia will be on my tombstone.”
Princess Leia was much more than the typical damsel in distress. Even though captured by the evil Darth Vader, and locked in a cell in the Death Star, she didn’t need rescue. Sure, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca helped, but the rescuing was not alone their job. The first words Luke ever said to Princess Leia might have been “I am here to rescue you”, but he sure messed up the rest of the so-called rescue mission, as well as Han and Chewie, who very unwisely blocked the only way out of the Death Star prison by revealing themselves to incoming stormtroopers. In fact, in these still early moments of the Star Wars universe Leia made it clear that she could very well fend for herself. Essentially shooting her way out of the Death Star and coming up with a plan to get out of the prison, while along the way schooling the two male heroes on how to do so. Meeting her rescuers with a rather demanding attitude, much to their surprise, separated the character from earlier portrayals of women as being unable to defend or speak for themselves, usually portrayed in rather static and compliant roles.
Of course there were other earlier examples of popular female characters out there, that broke with convention of being in a usually passive role. In Gone with the Wind (novel: 1936, film:1939) the teenage daughter Scarlett O’Hara presented herself as rather unique, and in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (novel: 1958, film: 1962) Holly Golightly who decides for herself whom she will spend her life with, are some of the early examples of slightly unusual female leads. The early 1960s then marked the beginning of second-wave feminism and with it a rise in the popularity of feminist literature. A number of theoretical approaches like The Feminine Mystique (1963), were published during this time, as well as praised literary writings such as Revolutionary Road (1961), which critically addressed the topic of separate sphere for men and women.
While these and other publications in the feminist movement certainly left their mark, it was Fisher’s role of the headstrong and ingenious Princess in combination with the extravaganza of the Star Wars universe that left an impact for the mainstream audience. Princess Leia was a distinctively tough person, her actions were not carried by the desire to find romance, and she did not wait around for things to change by themselves, but she rather continued to take matters into her own hands by leading the Rebel Alliance and not letting anybody tell her what she ought to do, throughout the story. Other strong Sci-Fi female characters followed in the coming years, most notably Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in the Alien franchise (1979-1997), who single-handedly took out the alien who had infested her spaceship. Likewise the Princess, Ripley was a strong-minded fighter, who was able to handle things herself when it got messy. The introduction of such characters, and especially Leia marked the entry of badass women, unseen before into the mind of the mainstream.
“I like Princess Leia. I like how she handles things. I like how she treats people. She tells the truth. She, you know, gets what she wants done.”
Unlike some of the earlier strong female characters Princess Leia showed that she could be strong and independent without becoming a genderless persona. She personified a figure of female empowerment, that managed to stay relevant in the long run, and a character that depicted female characteristics in a manner unseen before. She was sassy but clever, strong and independent, and she showed compassion without being a mother-figure to the other characters. She was fierce, and fearless single-handedly killing Jabba the Hutt, while simultaneously becoming a sex symbol wearing a metal bikini, which did not force her into becoming a passive damsel in distress. Instead she took matters in her own hands, again likewise managing her own rescue out of the Death Star, refusing to be forced into the long list of passive women in movies. It was Leia who passionately talked Luke and Han into supporting the Rebel Alliance, a cause she had strong beliefs in and which she has dedicated her life for, as seen in her reprised role in The Force Awakens.
Fisher herself might have been the biggest fan of her own character, finding strength and inspiration in the Princess. It was Fisher’s clever and humorous take on life that made her and the Princess a dream team for the feminist cause. Bluntly stating that she (Fisher) “wasn’t some babe running through the galaxy with my tits bouncing around”, but rather a strong character that “bossed” the others around, while saving the galaxy. Dealing with the legacy of Princess Leia has not always been an easy task for Fisher, who also had to deal with substance abuse and mental illness over the years, while being constantly reminded that she essentially is a personification of Star Wars. In 2015 Fisher explained: “I’ve always been in Star Wars, I’ve never not been in Star Wars!”, repeating what she narrated in Wishful Drinking and had talked about many times before, often saying that she “signed away [her] likeness” to George Lucas.
“You have owned my likeness, all these years, so that every time I look in the mirror I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks.”
The unfortunate passing of the wonderfully witty Carrie Fisher and thus the simultaneous death of one of the most beloved female Sci-Fi characters, Princess Leia, leaves an empty place not only in Hollywood, but also in the commanding seat of the Rebel Alliance in the Star Wars franchise. Her iconic status asks for a proper tribute, in real life, as well as in Star Wars. Fisher’s accomplishments as an author, an actress, and an advocate for mental illness left a lasting impact on generations. Her role as Princess Leia inspired and serves as a leading figure in feminist popular culture, while Fisher’s way of dealing with her own rather unusual life serves as an example for many facing struggles in their own lives. Fisher and Leia were passionate advocates for their causes, inseparable from each other, they demanded recognition and respect in their own opinionated, and often unconventional way. Both provided inspiration – A New Hope – for an exceptional fight under remarkable circumstances. Resistance and an unforgettable sense of humor might be the strongest assets in both Leia and Carrie, in space and in real life. While it was announced by Lucasfilm that she will not be digitally recreated for the last movie, Episode IX, she will appear in the upcoming Episode VIII, which already finished the filming process. Paying tribute to and respectfully continuing the legacy will be the most difficult task for the Star Wars universe. May the force be with her.
“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”
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