This year has already robbed us of too many icons–Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Mohammed Ali. It was also a year that robbed us of a dignified presidency and in which I had my own close brush with mortality. Enough already.
But Carrie Fisher? Really? Princess Leia? This one hurts.
Now, I’m hardly thin-skinned about celebrity deaths. I’d usually feel some sadness for the ones who meant something to me, post some thoughts on social media, forward some articles that articulated what I felt better than I could, get a little choked up during the “In Remembrance” sequence at the Oscars. This one’s different.
The sudden loss of Carrie Fisher strikes me in the gut. And at this moment the media is overflowing with tweets and hashtags and remembrances, all heartfelt and true and beautifully expressed. And although it feels like shouting into a gale, I will mix metaphors and add my voice to the chorus to explain what Ms. Fisher has meant to me.
I was 14 in May 1977, finishing my freshman year in high school, when Star Wars hit the theaters. I remember being in art class, Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” filtering out of the radio, when our teacher came in and called us in for a huddle. He began telling us about this new movie we had to see, and let us flip through the souvenir program he brought in. I had already seen the commercials, but Star Wars set the hook in me as I soaked in the images in that program. A few weeks later, when I finally got to see the film, I bought a copy myself. I still have it.
Enough has been written about the culture-shaping alchemy of the first Star Wars movie, and I’m not here to write about that. Suffice to say that Star Wars wrote itself into my 14-year-old DNA and completely altered the course of my personal development. In Luke, Han, and Leia, I saw what I so badly wanted to be the better angels of my own nature. Luke’s wide-eyed idealism, Han’s brash recklessness–and Princess Leia’s sly, level-headed directness. That the erstwhile damsel-in-distress could kick more ass than her two rescuers combined was a revelation. It was a game-changer for women in film in general, and for women in science fiction in particular.
I will freely admit to having had a major fanboy crush on Princess Leia Organa. One glance at the Star Wars board on my Pinterest page will show you that I still do. Not on Carrie Fisher–but on the character she so powerfully embodied. On screen, when she picked up a blaster and let loose, I was both intimidated and enthralled. And when she looked with admiration and love at Luke and Han variously–I felt her looking at me, and instilling in me the aspiration for heroism worthy of such a gaze. It wasn’t until later that I saw that her vitality and intelligence, her vulnerability and strength wasn’t something that resided only in her Star Wars character, but something within Fisher herself. This was a major realization for a feckless youth from the ’70s.
The first post-Star Wars role I saw Fisher in was as the obsessed and jilted ex-girlfriend of John Belushi in the Blues Brothers movie. Her ability to channel her onboard intensity and singularity of purpose from the heroic Leia to the gun-toting and revenge-driven hair stylist from the Curl Up and Dye salon was only my first taste of Fisher’s impressive versatility.
Since then, Carrie Fisher has reprised the role of Leia Organa three times, played a constellation of other characters, and broke new ground (again) as a writer, sharing her own struggles with addiction and mental illness with honesty and humor. Like Leia, she showed herself to be strong, outspoken and unflappable. And, also like Leia, she became a role model and an inspiration for women in an industry and a genre that historically objectified women.
When the news hit that Fisher had suffered a heart attack, I found myself over the weekend repeatedly hitting refresh on the “Carrie Fisher status” search on my phone. And when the news of her passing flashed on my CNN feed, the 14-year-old part of me, the one who had Star Wars in his DNA–well, he felt a part of him go with her.
Like I said, I’m not a super sloppy celebrity mourner. But a few really hit home. The Beatles are part of my DNA as well, so I will always remember just where I was when I learned of the assassination of John Lennon. Not many others have hit me like that. Not until this week.
Fisher wasn’t much older than me, but that isn’t the only reason I feel she left us too early. We all could have used many more years of her wit, humor, honesty, and influence. The world already has a Carrie Fisher-sized hole in it. She will be missed.
So thank you, Carrie, wherever you are. Thank you for breaking down walls, for speaking your own truth, for kicking ass and taking names.
And for being my princess–our princess.
May the Force be with you.
UPDATE: saddened and mindblown over the additional news of the passing of Debbie Reynolds. My sincere condolences to the entire Fisher/Reynolds family.