Writing for the New York Times after news broke of Carrie Fisher’s death, A. O. Scott described her iconic role as Princess Leia as
“...the foremother of Hermione Granger and Katniss Everdeen and of countless latter day Disney princesses.”
Though it is doubtless that the character of Leia pandered in some ways to male fantasy (George Lucas famously told Fisher she couldn’t wear a bra with the white dress from the first of the Star Wars films because “there’s no underwear in space”), she and her successors make up a unique pantheon of cinematic representations of women. They are plot drivers rather than plot devices, and their beauty is incidental rather than essential.
It is probably not coincidental that the women who have portrayed these roles seem to possess all the verve of their characters. Both Emma Watson and Jennifer Lawrence have spoken out about gender inequality in the film industry, in which they are also Fisher’s heirs. Fisher was unflinching in her criticism of the infamous metal bikini she was forced to wear in Return of the Jedi and the sexual objectification that she was subject to as a result of her appearance in the Star Wars trilogy.
Fisher’s candor also extended to everything from her Hollywood upbringing and her decades long struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction, chronicled in her memoirs and fictionalized in the novel and screenplay Postcards from the Edge. As a writer, she had a talent for uncovering the paradoxical quality of life. Born to famous parents—her mother, the actress Debbie Reynolds, passed away just one day after her daughter; her father, the singer Eddie Fisher, died in 2010—Fisher wrote of an upbringing that was privileged but unstable.
Her own fame, the result of the international success of the Star Wars trilogy, was dampened by her first hand knowledge of the ephemeral and elusive nature of celebrity. Her relationship with her largely absent father, who left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor, was repaired finally at the end of his life, when she provided him with the care and attention she had craved from him as a child.
She injected humor into the bleakest personal experiences, including the death of a friend in her own home and the intractable depression she fell into following the event, which would eventually lead her to seek electroconvulsive therapy. In the first chapter of Wishful Drinking, she sums up her irreverent approach to heavy subject matter:
“If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”
The story of Fisher’s life has a degree of inevitability to it, as if she were set on the path to fame by birth and on the path to addiction by fame. This is itself a paradox, because logically the privilege of choice should proceed from the privilege of wealth, but she was perhaps as unlikely to break out of Hollywood as the average person is to break into it.
She wrote in Shockaholic that when she was offered the role of Leia as a nineteen year old, she assumed that after filming completed she’d be able to return to her life and make a decision about what she wanted to do with her life. Instead she was swept up in the success of the movie and in the fame that she always insisted belonged to Princess Leia rather than herself.
Yet as much as Fisher’s life might have been curated by circumstance rather than choice, her openness about her struggles with addiction and mental illness is entirely to the credit of the person she was. Her celebrity gave her a platform that she was brave enough to use. She was recognized for her contribution to the public discourse on addiction, mental illness, and agnosticism (she described herself as an “enthusiastic agnostic”) by the Humanist Hub in partnership with Harvard College, who gave her an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award.
The passing of an icon naturally provokes reflection of their artistic contributions, and Fisher gave us plenty of those. But her personal contributions may have been even more significant. Her choice to share her private struggles in a humorous and honest way provides a lesson in the paradox of strength, which emerges not when we try hide our perceived weaknesses, but when we face them.
This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.