I was devastated by the news of Carrie Fisher’s passing. Fisher was so many things: a writer, an actor, a script doctor, an author and one of the funniest women out there. She spoke frankly about her struggle with drugs and mental illness, letting people know it was OK to have flaws. She laughed at her own struggles, tweeting in 2011, “If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true and that is unacceptable.” Part of what she laughed at was the fame she earned playing Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” films. It was not all she was, but the role she played changed everything for me, and for millions of little girls around the world.
Back in the 1970s, girls didn’t have a lot of strong role models in mainstream entertainment. The women we saw in films and on TV were waiting to be rescued or draped artistically over the hero. They were decoration, or prizes to be won. We read books and fairy tales where the only accomplishment of the lead female was to be lovely enough to catch someone’s eye. Even the smart ones were smart only until they found a man.
Little girls in the 1970s were lucky enough to find something different in Princess Leia. I was almost 4 when the film came out, and I saw it in the theater in 1977.
“Star Wars” did something new with their lead. Leia wasn’t just a princess to be won; Leia was a fighter in the Rebellion against the evil Empire. She stood up to Darth Vader despite seeing her entire planet blown to bits in front of her – she barely even flinched when it happened. Leia survived Vader’s torture, and when Luke Skywalker and Han Solo came to rescue her, she took over and saved all of their skins. She ran the Rebel outpost on Hoth and, after trying to save Han, she strangled her captor, Jabba the Hutt, with her own slave chains. She later became a general in the fight for freedom. If you read any of the new canon books about her, you know just how vital she was to the Rebellion for her entire life.
You cannot imagine what a revelation that was for me and for girls everywhere. Many of us were sick of waiting for our prince to come or of playing in a toy kitchen or with plastic shopping carts. Many of us weren’t OK with dolls in pink dresses and Barbie dream houses. We wanted to be part of the action. We wanted our actions to mean something. We wanted to fight.
When I was a girl on the playground, I wasn’t sitting on top of the monkey bars waiting to be rescued, or standing by politely with my hands folded like a good little princess. I took up my stick/blaster and fought the Stormtroopers and Darth Vader. When I saw something that was wrong, I did something about it. And why not? Leia didn’t back down from anyone. She didn’t always succeed, but she always tried, despite all the odds. Being in love was great, but it wasn’t the only thing in her life. She risked her life to save the galaxy. Her friends mattered. Her cause mattered. She was certainly a better shot than those Stormtroopers.
Once I saw Leia, I was never going to sit quietly again. Leia inspired me to hold my head high and tell the world when something was wrong with the way women are portrayed. Because of Leia, I fight for equality. Because of Leia, I started my site, Legion of Leia, to tell the world that women love geek culture. I did it to shine a light on the things that were wrong in the world and to celebrate them when they’re right.
I’m hardly alone. So many women of my generation can point to a picture of themselves dressed as Princess Leia as a kid. If you walk around any comic book convention, you see dozens of little girls with those iconic cinnamon-roll buns in their hair. It stirs my heart every time I see it.
Carrie Fisher wasn’t just Leia, of course. Her career encompassed so many parts of the entertainment industry. Her contribution to erasing the stigma around mental illness was enormous. Her humor kept us laughing with her through her struggles and her triumphs. She was a role model as Leia, but she was one as Carrie as well: Her positive attitude and raw honesty were a guiding example to me in my own career.
Leia was (almost) the only woman in a group of men, and Fisher was one of the few female stars in the sci-fi world; that was something I could relate to, being one of the only women covering geekdom early on. She seemed to be able to find the ridiculous in the diciest of situations. If she could laugh at herself through it all, so could I. Her ability to do so much – write books, act, pen advice columns and more – encouraged me to keep taking on different projects until I found what I wanted to do. Leia was brave. So was Carrie.
Rest in peace, general. May the Force be with you.
Jenna Busch is the founder and editor-in-chief of LegionofLeia.com. She wrote this for the Washington Post.