What Happens When Your Feminist Superheroes Die?

May the Fourth be With You

Compact Bannercarrie fisher in the ocean

When I was a kid, there were three women who, through a combination of magic, ingenuity, and sheer badass feminist willpower, permanently seared themselves into my brain (and life). We were immediate, intimate BFFs, automatically on a first-name basis only: Scully, Roseanne, and, most powerfully, Leia. As I aged, I added more women to this collective, and eventually grew to imagine this fierce, wild-hearted group as a kind of bubble of feminism and hope that floated around my head and who could be called upon whenever I needed them. So while our home life was often tumultuous, TV was one rallying point my family could all get behind (besides Six Flags Over Georgia). Specifically, it was SNICK if the kids were in charge, and whatever our parents were watching otherwise. Frequently, these choices were The X-Files, Roseanne, and Star Wars.

In the late 1980s, there were few women available to me in pop culture who were written as giving a big middle finger to the patriarchy and establishment as their default, and who did so effectively, intelligently, and in such a fucking cool way. Scully spoke to the part of me who was nerdy and into aliens, who liked science and reading, who was already learning that a dude will tell you to do it one way, which nearly always means you should trust your gut and do it the way you wanted to in the first place (even if he gets the credit and/or has great hair). Roseanne was snarky and sassy, a legit spitfire of a woman who taught me that it’s possible for women to be in relationships with men who actually respect and listen to them.

But Leia? Guys. From the second she talks to Vader like she could care less who he is or what he’s capable of, to the last glimpse we get of her in Episode VI with her long flowy hair and gleeful resignation to willingly dealing with a lifetime of Han Solo, she has been one of my truest and bluest, one of my closest personifications of how it feels when you know that you’re doing the thing, doing it well, and doing it as a woman. She was unapologetically badass in a way that I aspire to be daily. She was intelligent as all get out. She was compassionate. She had killer hair and cool space clothes. She didn’t get too distracted by Han Solo and his shit, and she led the Resistance like the boss she was (and didn’t care what anyone thought about her while she did it). She’s my everything.

I can’t remember a time in which Princess Leia wasn’t the pinnacle of everything that I thought was cool and badass and worthy of aspiring to be. Leia has been my homegirl since before I knew the term. She’s my soul sister. She’s my ride or die. And Scully and Roseanne? They’re like the angel and devil on her shoulders.

why do celebrities matter to us?

I found out that Carrie Fisher died while driving down an interstate in Arkansas, in the process of moving from one home to the next. I didn’t quite know what to do with the information. Because as much as Leia has been the sun my earth revolves around for most of my life, Carrie Fisher and I have had a different relationship. While I poured myself deeply in Leia, and allowed her to be poured deeply into me, I can’t truthfully say that I did the same with Carrie. I knew about her books, but didn’t order my first one until December 2016. I loved her in When Harry Met Sally (which is also the move that—along with Say Anything—dictated how I approached relationships for a few years), but beyond that, I hadn’t seen or read much of her work.

So I felt people, hard when they insisted on celebrating Carrie Fisher online as Princess Leia/General Organa. I equally felt people who raged at Twitter about how we all just remembered her as one character, and she was so much more—a multi-faceted woman, one who weathered addiction and pain and loss in the public eye, unapologetically. Once I took it upon myself to dive into the wondrous, feisty spirit that is and was, Carrie Fisher, I realized that there was a reason she was the one chosen to play Leia in the first place (and it’s not her illustrious parentage or the ability to rock white robes without a bra). Carrie Fisher was able to seamlessly become Leia because she is, was, inherently all that Leia represents: smart, kind, patient, badass, a leader. Also, flawed, dangerous, snarky, and more than a little obstinate.

People love celebrities for different reasons, and mourn their passing in a myriad of complicated, terribly sad ways. I loved David Bowie because he spoke to the part of me that is into all that is weird and conceptual, authentic and bare. I loved George Harrison because he seemed like the Beatle who just kind of made the most sense, and his solo work is the best. I cried when Prince died, because he helped me believe in magic in real life, and he opened my mind to a world where the surreal and real play at the same park. I mourned the loss of Alan Rickman, because Harry Potter is a universe that I emphatically hold to be true.

I loved Carrie Fisher because of who she was, and who she pretended to be, and because I identify with both of those people. I loved her because at the most base level, she was a giant part of Star Wars (her journey is central to the story if you ask me—possibly even more than Luke’s or Vader’s, depending on how Episodes VIII and IX play out). I loved her at the highest level because every time I saw her face or read something new about her, I learned something. I still do.

(almost) five months later

I can’t think of another celebrity who is likely to move me as much with his or her death (though when the world finds itself short of a Head of Gryffindor or the greatest Headmaster that Hogwarts has ever had, I will certainly be bedridden for a few days). It’s been months since Carrie Fisher died, and I still flat-out sob the second she walks out of that ship when I watch Episode VII, and I’m looking forward to Episode VIII with a sick mixture of sadness (because I will cry) and excitement (because holy cow, release).

On one hand, I (kind of) calmly understand when people shake their heads and remind me that she’s “only a character” or was “only an actress.” But on the other… is it ever really true? Had no one ever sat down at a cafe and come up with an idea about a boy in too-big clothing, lop-sided glasses, and messy hair who received an owl with a letter, would we have the key to a world that has single-handedly saved lives? If a man hadn’t been told the story of how his parents met so often it was seared into his brain, would we have missed out on a violinist who loved to do nothing more than play outside the window of the woman he loved, and all that is inherent in magical surrealism? Had a young adult, almost still a kid, never come up with the idea of a princess who decided to ignore the plight of her people and of the galaxy itself, had she opted to live a life that didn’t serve others, had she not been willing to put herself on the line, over and over again, would a blueprint for how to resist and mobilize in the face of extremist forces exist? However they come to us, the characters and the stories we choose to let in are what shape us.

I could possibly still be the same person I am without the influence of Leia and Carrie, sure. But I wouldn’t want to be. For better or worse, for all that is messy and all that is neatly trimmed, for every moment that was uncalled for and every moment that was perfection, the force that is, was, Carrie Fisher existed in my life (and the lives of so many), and I am better, stronger, and more fierce for it. It’s been weird to know that she’s not physically still here. It’s painful to know that we don’t get more years with her.

can’t stop won’t stop

A few weeks ago, I read a quote from Carrie’s brother who put it like this: “She belongs to the people.” And while part of me recoils from the idea of a woman belonging to anyone, another part (maybe even a bigger one), celebrates the idea that Leia is one with us, and we are one with her. It’s often hard for me to explain to people who have never seen Star Wars (they exist!) or who have seen it but never formed personal connections with any of the characters (how?) how deep General Organa is inside me. That’s one reason why I enjoy hanging with others of the fandom so much: there’s never a need to explain. I can happily discuss my favorite character with an eight-year-old, and eighteen-year-old, and a fifty-eight-year-old in the same way, with the same enthusiasm, and more or less the same degree of analysis. Star Wars is, first and foremost, a gift to anyone who ever pretended to fire a laser gun, or to travel to distant planets, or to lead a rebellion. We, the collective community and fandom, are all better people for having lived these journeys with the characters, and hopefully those characters are better for having known us.

I’m sure one day there will come a time when I don’t sob throughout the second half of Episode VII, or I can make it through the Episode VIII sneak peek trailer without audibly sighing when I see the back of Leia’s head. I believe there will be a time when I can put on Episode IV again and watch it, as opposed to starting it and turning it off within three seconds, only to start and fail at watching it again (over and over). These things will all happen, because that’s how life passes: you have heroes, you cling to them, those heroes eventually depart, but can still keep them close by.

But as for this happening anytime soon… I’d just as soon kiss a Wookie, you know? In other words: I’m in no rush to put a pause on mourning. Not yet, anyway.

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