As news spread a couple days ago about the death of Carrie Fisher, like so many other folks I found myself thinking of Fisher in connection with her role as Leia in the Star Wars films. I’ve read a number of statements and accounts by heterosexual men relating how they had a crush on Fisher/Leia during the time period of the original Star Wars trilogy. I probably did, too. I was of the right age, sexual orientation, etc. to do so, and I certainly was a Star Wars fan. Yet, if I did, I don’t remember it, so it must not have been a particularly strong crush like the ones I do remember, such as Kim Richards in Escape to Witch Mountain or Nancy McKeon as Jo in The Facts of Life.
At the same time, I’ve read a number of statements and accounts that frame Fisher and Leia in terms of being a princess. Yet, while I called Fisher’s character Princess Leia without thinking about it, out of a sort of rote consciousness because that’s what Leia was called so often, I didn’t really think of her in terms of being a princess. Sure, I knew she was a princess, and there were times in the films that highlighted that. But as I’ve thought back on it the past couple days, that’s not what Leia signified to me.
Rather, the more I reflect on it, the more I think I saw Leia – and by association Carrie Fisher – as tough. Sure, she was the damsel in distress in the first film, but her interaction with Luke Skywalker begins with the sarcastic “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” and Leia was the one who blew a hole in the garbage chute so that she and her “rescuers” could escape the detention level. Additionally, the first time we see her in the film, she’s quite willing to stand up to Darth Vader. In The Empire Strikes Back, she’s in a leadership role from the beginning of the film, one she maintains through the next film and then, of course, decades later with The Force Awakens. Much has been written over the past four decades about the complexities of gender representation in Leia’s character, and I’m not going to rehash it all here but to summarize that it’s generally considered a mixed bag of reinforcing traditional images of women as an object of sexual/romantic desire for heterosexual men, yet also challenging those images through her leadership, strength, and courage.
In my life I’ve thought a lot about Star Wars, engaged with plenty of texts and artifacts from the Star Wars phenomenon, written about Star Wars, and even taught a class on Star Wars, but I had never really reflected so deeply on my own perceptions of Leia until now. After doing so, my most prevalent thought is to admire her toughness. Carrie Fisher has a tremendous legacy that includes advocating for mental health awareness and opening spaces for honest discussion about stardom. Her portrayal of toughness in the character of Leia Organa in one of the most significant phenomena in popular culture history should be considered a vital part of that legacy as well.