28 Dec I never wanted to be Princess Leia
I never wanted to be Princess Leia when I was eight. I even resented her a little. I used to play Star Wars with my brother and a male cousin, who always wanted me to be Leia. To be fair, it was kind of understandable. She was literally the only girl in the galaxy. I wanted to be Han Solo—but he wasn’t quite right either. I wanted to be a girl Han Solo, a character type that didn’t exist as far as I’d ever seen in either TV or books. I was never into princesses.
I grew up on Star Wars in the late eighties, which was a Dark Time to grow up on Star Wars. There was no internet. Our copies of the movies were VHS cassettes taped from television airings. We used to see pictures of amazing Star Wars toys in the backs of old comics and marvel at them—such things were long gone, only to be discovered occasionally in a cardboard box at a garage sale.
I don’t remember exactly when I became aware of Carrie Fisher as a person distinct from Leia, but I knew she was a writer, a sarcastic edgy writer, who didn’t really like Star Wars. To me as a kid that felt like blasphemy. How could she not love it? How could she make jokes about it? Star Wars was a sacred thing.
I never wanted to be Princess Leia in 1991, when the Timothy Zahn novels came out, triggering a resurgence in Star Wars interest. Eleven year old me was so disappointed that Leia chose a political career over Jedi training. I dove into the Star Wars expanded universe, devouring series after series. Suddenly there were other women in the Star Wars galaxy, women like Mara Jade who were cooler than Leia. Here, finally, were the female characters I’d always been one hundred percent convinced existed in my Star Wars galaxy, an indistinct background tapestry illuminated and painted in one by one.
I never wanted to be Princess Leia when I was seventeen and the prequels started coming out. The internet finally existed, and I was sitting up late on TheForce.net, frantically reading everything I could find about The Phantom Menace. And then I learned what it was like to not love something about your FAVORITE THING. The guilt and the squirming embarrassment. The way, deep down and in secret, you still loved it, but you wondered if you’d ever really loved it—or if you’d just loved what you wanted it to be.
I never wanted to be Princess Leia when I was in college, a burgeoning feminist. I was mortified by the metal bikini. I’d hated Attack of the Clones even more than I’d come to dislike The Phantom Menace. I hated Padme. I hated George Lucas’s weird-ass ideas about women. Between classes, in my dorm room, I scribbled down the scenes of my first novel, a space opera about four girls who help start a rebellion. Struck with nostalgia for the old days, I searched the internet for a retro Star Wars t-shirt, but they only made them in men’s and little boy’s sizes.
I never wanted to be Princess Leia, until suddenly I did. After watching yet another Marvel blockbuster where the women never get to be as quippy as the men, I put in Star Wars and thought, “Wow, this was 1977? 1977!” Leia sparkles on the screen, all snappy lines and eye rolls and grabbing guns to blow holes in garbage chutes. I don’t think George Lucas has ever been that good at characters, so I suspect most of that attitude is Carrie Fisher. Here I was sitting in darkened movie theaters, grumbling feminist rants under my breath, while Leia was right there the whole time. She’d always been there. I’d just been so busy searching the corners of the screen for that elusive something else that I hadn’t been paying attention. Maybe she would never be what I wanted her to be, but I could appreciate her for what she was.
At first when it was announced that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and would be making more movies, I refused to be excited. I’d come to terms with not liking the prequels, with the fact that the Star Wars that existed in my head wasn’t the Star Wars on the screen. Maybe it would be better to keep it that way. And then, as time went by, I couldn’t help but get swept up in it all. Star Wars was everywhere, and it was cool again. Even all the kids in middle school and high school who’d made fun of me for being into it were posting about it on Facebook, while I tried not to explode in righteous nerd rage. I went from having never owned a Star Wars t-shirt to having a whole drawer full, except now they were all made to fit my body. And not just t-shirts—skirts and dresses and leggings and jewelry. I bought it up by the boxes and boxes, as if part of me was scared this would all go away again.
Back in the spotlight, cheerfully giving the finger to the world, Carrie Fisher made the talk show circuit. Only this time I loved everything that came out of her mouth. When people made fun of her weight and she tweeted that it hurt “all 3” of her feelings, I laughed, because that was so something I would say. I understood her better now. I’d had my own struggles with creativity and mental health. I too had battled to make sense of things, trying to bash the pieces of my life into their own little boxes, and then given up and said, “Fuck it!”
How awful to be stuck for the rest of your life with something you did when you were nineteen. To exist in a bubble, at the whims of asshole kids like me who wanted you to be someone you were not. To have people react with surprise and resentment when you didn’t look the same in 2015 as you did in 1983. And yet it seemed like, as she’d gotten older, she’d finally come to terms with Princess Leia.
When Leia finally walked on screen in The Force Awakens, looking older and wiser, with that scratchier wry voice, I thought, “Oh, it’s good to see you again.” But I didn’t cry in that movie, not even when Han Solo died, until the moment the lightsaber flew into Rey’s hands. It felt like I’d been waiting nearly thirty years for that moment.
It’s funny, isn’t it? After Lucasfilm threw out the entire expanded universe, all those stories I’d sucked down as a teen—after they hit the Do-Over switch on Star Wars—they ended up writing pretty much the same story for Princess Leia. Strong with the Force, but never a Jedi. True, they’d made her a General. But when Rey picked up the lightsaber, part of me couldn’t help thinking of Leia and whispering, “It should have been you.”
It’s difficult now, trying to puzzle through my conflicting feelings about Leia. So many women are citing her as an inspiration, while I never really got over my childhood dissatisfaction, the vague feeling that she wasn’t enough. I feel like she should’ve been my favorite character, but she wasn’t. I understand now why Carrie Fisher was sarcastic about Star Wars, about being inextricably tied to something that had never done right by her.
I never wanted to be Princess Leia, but now I think I’d rather be Carrie Fisher. Embracing my own weirdness. Rolling with the nonsensical things life throws at me in my own way. Being an advocate for women’s mental health and women’s real bodies. Fighting the men who want to put you in a metal bikini and stick a pretty bow on you. Celebrities are never exactly who you want them to be, are never who you think they are. Even now, I’m perfectly aware this whole essay is all about me. Not about Carrie Fisher, because I didn’t know her, not really. I only knew this character, who could never be what either of us wanted.
Yesterday after I found out she died, I took a Dramamine and got on a plane. I didn’t wake up until the wheels hit the ground. I like to think that’s what happened to Carrie Fisher—that she flew up and up, above the clouds and maybe even into space, where none of the bullshit could touch her and none of the baggage could drag her down.
She flew up, and never touched back down.