She was a princess, a senator and a general, and her unflinching competence inspired rebel soldiers, starry-eyed dreamers and scruffy-looking smugglers to trust her with their lives. Swashbuckling Jedi did her bidding.
When captured by the most terrifying creature in the galaxy, she scolded him like a child: “Darth Vader, only you could be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit still for this.” And no one, not once, ever looked down at her – very young and almost fragile – and asked, “Who do you think you are?”
Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan always knew exactly who she was. As we pay our respects to the woman who created her, we can’t allow ourselves to confuse the two women, one real and one not, but perhaps we can be excused for occasionally allowing that line to blur.
Carrie Fisher gave Leia’s voice its grit. She carried off the costume, flawlessly designed for a rebel princess on the move with its high and tight neckline, easy-to-move-in flowing skirt, and sensibly flat-heeled boots. She convinced us that this was a princess who fought on the front lines and fomented espionage. And she did this at a time when the women watching her on the big screen lived lives that were limited in ways that are hard to grasp today, even for those of us who remember 1977.
There were no women in the U.S. Senate when “Star Wars” brought us Imperial Sen. Organa. In fact, no woman had ever been elected to a full term in the Senate without her husband having previously served in Congress. Nancy Kassebaum achieved that milestone a year later. There had never been a female general in the United States Marine Corps and the swearing-in of the first female Army general was only seven years in the past.
How did Fisher, living in that world, make us believe that she was a critical leader in a galactic rebellion? I have no idea, but I’m glad she did. I was a 15-year-old girl sitting in the audience watching “Star Wars” in 1977, imagining my own exciting future, and I had no idea that Harvard was only then preparing to begrudgingly admit its first women. My world was doing its best to throttle any dreams I might have, but I was blissfully unaware of it because I was watching Princess Leia save the galaxy. She was the princess I was looking for, and I can’t move along without saying so.
I cannot tell you how many times my sister, Suzanne, and I have watched the original “Star Wars” movie, but every time Princess Leia picked up a blaster and announced to her clueless rescuers that, “Somebody has to save our skins,” Suzanne said, “I want to go to the princess school that she went to!”
So did I. Don’t you?
Heck. The woman didn’t just wield a blaster. When the spaceship standing between her body and the heartless vacuum of space got damaged, she didn’t get flustered or fall apart. She picked up a welder and she fixed it.
It’s not just our imaginations that blur the line between Fisher the actress and the iconic character who dominated her life but whom she never came to resent. Fisher’s surviving “Star Wars” script shows that she edited her own dialogue, helping create a smart, sharp-tongued, articulate character who had more than a little in common with the woman who has kept company with Leia for all these years.
Because she was open about her troubles, we know that Fisher struggled for the rest of her life with mental health issues that would have floored most of us. She was Hollywood royalty, so she could have traded on her fame for the rest of her life. Instead, she acted and wrote and spoke out about important causes. She lived her life. She played the cards she was dealt.
In the end, isn’t that what Leia did? When a fascist empire threatened, she fought back. When it destroyed her home, her family, her entire planet, she picked herself up and went on. She lived her life. She played the cards she was dealt. We could all learn a lot from Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher.
Rest in peace, Your Worshipfulness.
Mary Anna Evans is an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she teaches writing. She wrote this for the Dallas Morning News.