Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Carrie Fisher has died. Princess Leia lives on.

Carrie Fisher passed away today. She was depressingly young--only 60 years old. She had more wit, more snark, more acerbic takedowns of Hollywood culture to give to us. We will never get to hear them.

Many people have spoken at length about Carrie's most important traits. Unapologetic. Intelligent. Hilarious. Unashamed to speak about her mental illness and substance abuse. And of course, her status as the sole woman in the boys' club of Star Wars, at least as it was originally conceived.

It may seem crass to write about Fisher's most iconic role so soon after her death. As others have pointed out, she was far more than Princess Leia. She was a renowned novelist, sought-after script doctor, mother, daughter, and champion for the lives of so many living with invisible ailments. And after all, she didn't create the character which brought her so much fame. She wasn't responsible for her continued portrayal in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, where many (like me) grew to love her even more than in the films. She was not the primary author of Princess Leia.

That last point, though, could be argued. There's a degree to which any actor informs their character, of course. Jodi Foster or Cindy Williams may have done the role justice, but it would not have been the Leia we knew. "I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board" would have been imbued with a far different meaning if delivered by anything other than Fisher's sardonic, strangely accented voice.

Beyond that, Fisher was responsible for at least some of Leia's dialogue in the later films. While not limited to that character specifically, her work on Return of the Jedi served as one of Fisher's first opportunities to punch up a script, condensing lines of dialogue to be snappier and less ... well, Lucasian. Fisher was not simply Leia's actress; Leia, in many ways, was Carrie Fisher.

And Leia is important. Many women have expressed how much it meant to see such a powerful woman represented on screen. For me, Princess Leia was not only one of the first female characters I felt encouraged to root for, she was one of the first female characters I felt comfortable identifying with. It may sound strange, but that's an incredibly powerful--and freeing--feeling for a young boy. Leia was a gate through the fence of gender segregation, a pathway to the realization that there are no boy toys or girl toys, no limitation on playacting certain characters because of their gender identities. Princess Leia was my proto-feminism. The significance of that ideology to my identity speaks volumes about how important a character she has been in my life.

It is Princess Leia who wisecracks to Tarkin and Vader--not Han, not Luke, not Lando, who bends over backwards in fear of the Empire's retribution. It's Leia who stands up, fierce and sarcastic, to fascism personified, and who continues to mislead her captors even as her beloved homeland sits in the crosshairs of the Death Star. It is this false information which leads to the sole moment in the film where Tarkin recognizes he has been outplayed. "She lied. She lied to us!" His first underestimation of Leia and her band of rebels is an embarrassment; his second, fatal.

To be sure, Leia hasn't always been handled well by writers and directors. While she was one of the original Wisecracking Princesses Who Can Save Themselves, her storyline in Return of the Jedi was much closer to a standard damsel-in-distress. And the Expanded Universe often had trouble using her effectively, afraid that political storylines would be far too boring and that Force-heavy storylines would be some sort of betrayal of her character. At the end of the Legends universe that preceded the current canon, however, Leia did receive Jedi training, and watching her navigate abilities the films foreshadowed and face her foes with humor, ferocity and a glowy lightsaber was one of the most genuine joys of those novels.

I hope the writers of future Star Wars tales don't kill Leia offscreen. I hope they don't kill her at all, though I'm also apprehensive about recasting the role or using a CGI double (as well as I think it worked in Rogue One). My preference would be to let Leia live on, even if this means awkwardly shuffling her into the background of the story in Episode IX. Unlike Han, whose story arc was completed by a heroic (or tragic) sacrifice, Leia deserves a chance to continue the fight. Or to retire to the life of consultant for the next generation of freedom fighters. Especially in this era of resurgent fascism, we need Leia. We need her stories. We need characters who have been in the fight before, who can show us how to resist.

I do not know what direction Leia will take. But I do know that even if she joins Carrie in leaving our galaxy for one far, far away, neither the princess and general, nor the comedian and advocate, will ever be forgotten.

(Correction: The original post mentioned Fisher's work on The Empire Strikes Back, along with a marked-up script. The script was actually marked up by the director, Irvin Kershner. Fisher's first script work for Star Wars was actually on the third film).

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