In the third grade, when “Star Wars” ruled my schoolyard, when 9-year-olds swapped cards and action figures like penny stocks, I quietly nursed my first crush: Princess Leia Organa, space heroine with a white robe and majestic brown buns.
My proudest piece of movie merchandise – more precious than the model TIE fighter with wings that popped off – was a red Princess Leia T-shirt featuring the object of my infatuation holding the barrel of a blaster to her cheek.
I wore it to school, proud to own such a unique souvenir. None of my friends had a Princess Leia shirt. They might sport Wookiees and droids on their chests, but nobody else could show off the “Star Wars” character who had all the best lines – the zingers that stayed funny on the 15th viewing.
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“Will somebody get this big walking carpet out of my way?”
But as soon as class let out for recess, I discovered why I owned such a rarity. Wearing a girl’s picture on your shirt, as a boy, was extremely uncool. Laughable, even. I defended Princess Leia with all the valiance I could summon from my 9-year-old heart. She had the coolest blaster. She talked smack to Darth Vader. She swung on a grappling hook. She kissed Luke Skywalker on the lips.
But I was outnumbered as a third-grade progressive. For about half an hour, I wore my shirt inside-out, hiding my true love’s face. But the power of Leia burned too fiercely, and I switched it back – an unapologetic martyr for sci-fi girl power.
In a year that has claimed David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Harper Lee and Prince – not to mention George Michael, who undoubtedly died while “Last Christmas” was playing on someone’s holiday Spotify channel – tributes to stars gone-too-soon have grown wearisome.
But with Carrie Fisher dying Tuesday at 60, I imagine millions of middle-age men recalling their introduction to female action heroes who were bolder and more brash than the men. Luke may have blown up the Death Star, but Leia blasted them out of the stormtrooper ambush and into the safety – however short-lived – of the trash compactor.
“Somebody has to save our skins! Into the garbage chute, flyboy!”
But the richness of Leia’s character, for me, emerges through her brain power, even though she was physically strong enough to strangle Jabba the Hutt while wearing a golden bikini. In character and in real life, Fisher delivered her lines with the sting of a space-age Dorothy Parker, her wit just as deadly as her blasters. Who else could disarm Han Solo, the swaggering space pirate, with only words for weapons?
“You stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking Nerf herder!”
As a 9-year-old, I wished I could summon such a biting playground insult.
This time last year, I showed up for a 4 a.m. showing of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” anxious to see how the vagaries of space life had treated my old crush. The experience is as close as I’ve come to attending a class reunion.
“You changed your hair,” Han Solo said in my place.
“Same jacket,” Leia quipped, poking at Solo’s wardrobe, wit sharper than ever.
I don’t have the shirt anymore. But I’m proud to have worn it in the face of third-grade ridicule. In a small way, we took a shot at the dark side.