Here's what Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia taught us about female action heroes
Carrie Fisher will forever be inextricable from Princess Leia, and Princess Leia, the heroine at the heart of the Star Wars films, will forever be bonded to the actress who played her.
Perhaps there were times when Fisher wished she'd gotten more recognition for her books, Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking, or for their respective screen adaptations and plays. Maybe she wished more people knew that she was one of Hollywood's top script doctors, helping the writers of films like Sister Act, Hook and The Wedding Singer, among about a dozen others.
But for better or worse, Fisher will continue to be known best for her portrayal of Princess Leia, the character she created based on her feminist vision of how women could lead, fight and exist, both here on Earth and in a galaxy far, far away.
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 1983, just after the release of that year's Return of the Jedi, Fisher provided readers with her own kind of thesis for Princess Leia.
"There are a lot of people who don't like my character in these movies; they think I'm some kind of space bitch," she told the magazine. "She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds — along with her hairdresser — so all she has is a cause."
"There are a lot of people who don't like my character in these movies; they think I'm some kind of space bitch."
This series of events gave us Princess Leia, whose iconic buns kept her hair out of her face as she defeated Darth Vader, risked her life to destroy the Death Star, fought Storm Troopers and rescued Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt (not the other way around). If Princess Leia is seen as a "space bitch," it's because she's neither a sex icon nor is she completely sexless; she's no damsel in distress, but she can't always evade being captured; she's far more than a "love interest," but she ends up falling in love with her partner anyway.
Consider one of the character's most memorable and controversial moments: when Jabba the Hutt chains up Princess Leia — infamously outfitted in a gold bikini — and keeps her as his slave in Return of the Jedi. Bustle writer Olivia Truffaut-Wong, who called the scene a must-watch for Fisher fans, wondered, "Is it sexist or feminist? Objectifying and gross, or sexy and empowering? Thirty years later, it's impossible to tell."
As fraught as the scene may be, she points out that it offers some objective truths that provide the answers to those questions. In the end, Princess Leia saves herself, killing Jabba the Hutt in a win for both the character and Fisher herself (who, by the way, hated the bikini).
"I really relished that because I hated wearing that outfit and sitting there rigid and straight, and I couldn't wait to kill him," Fisher told NPR in November.
Such was just one of Fisher's feminist victories as Princess Leia, a character whose every facet Fisher explored.
"You can play Leia as capable, independent, sensible, a soldier, a fighter, a woman in control – control being, of course, a lesser word than master," Fisher told Rolling Stone. "But you can portray a woman who's a master and get through all the female prejudice if you have her travel in time, if you add a magical quality, if you're dealing in fairy-tale terms."
The world of Star Wars allowed Fisher to give us a whole person when she played Princess Leia, which is what feminism is all about: seeing women as people.
"It's not that there were no female superheroes before, but Princess Leia was the one who mesmerized everyone," Kathy Merlock Jackson, a professor of communications at Virginia Wesleyan College said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
Jackson, who co-authored the essay "Lightsabers, Political Arenas and Marriages for Princess Leia and Queen Amidala," sees Princess Leia as a bridge between older female action heroes, like Wonder Woman, and new ones, like Mulan.
"The basic idea you have in mind when you think of a princess is of dominant Disney princesses like Sleeping Beauty or Snow White — they're dressed in pastels, they sing," Jackson said. "But Princess Leia was this new kind of princess; she's a bolt of energy, she's just as strong as everyone around her, she controlled her own destiny and she was independent. That was such an important image."
According to Jackson, Princess Leia came along at just the right time. For starters, the first Star Wars movie was released in 1977, at the peak of the feminist movement's second wave. Amid overwhelming concern about women's sexual freedom and role in society, Fisher's character suggested women could be powerful in a man's world. Meanwhile, books like From Reverence to Rape were being published, questioning the treatment and portrayal of women in Hollywood. 1977 was also the year Jackson herself began graduate school and started attending conferences about women in her field and seriously studying female scholarship.
"Princess Leia fit into a larger consciousness," Jackson said. "She represented the possibilities for what women could be."
But Princess Leia transcended the character George Lucas wrote because she bore Fisher's indelible feminist touch.
Born to singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds, Fisher was already veritable Hollywood royalty, so she slipped into the "princess" role easily. However, having made it clear that she intended to be her own person, Fisher stepped out in a role she made uniquely hers, playing up the sass and defiance of a new generation of women.
"Princess Leia — and Star Wars, with its technology and modernness — really suggested a new way of looking at things," Jackson said.
In Jackson's essay, she recalls a line from Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince in which Hermione calls Harry "thick," insulting him for thinking that he, the male protagonist, could find Voldemort's horcruxes without any help.
Hermione's wit, sass, sarcasm, smarts — these, Jackson says, are in part thanks to Princess Leia. So too do the heroines from TV shows like like Xena: Warrior Princess and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even, Jackson said on Wednesday, real-life women like Hillary Clinton, owe a debt to Fisher's iconic character.
Now, we see echoes of that iconic character everywhere — a character we may even see in ourselves.
"Princess Leia embodied everything a modern woman wanted to be," Jackson said. "She changed things in such a way that we can never go back."