On my first watch through of A New Hope at 22 (shameful, I know) I felt something was missing from my response to Princess Leia. Witty, daring, someone who stood her ground even opposite Peter Cushing as the slimy overlord who’d soon vaporise her home world – I got all that, and saw through the miasma of pop culture that she was an empowering figure. But her saviour’s signal was blocked off somewhere between the screen and me. Who am I kidding, I was the jammer, sending out waves of inferiority so all I could see was the hero I’d never be.
But I didn’t know then what I know now. That for Carrie Fisher, the girl who would be Princess and later General, being Leia was a game of pretend. On set, she’d transform from the plain, insecure celebrity-daughter to the woman who rescued the boys, the rebel who kept her head no matter the crisis.
Though Fisher was open, even articulate and funny when she talked about her own mental illness, I’d assumed her confidence and ability to laugh at herself came from inherent strength. Who could ever tell, envious and ogling her flippant view to her own dysfunction, that she too had been a serial sentimentalist, cannibalising the opinions of others for her self-worth. Yet there it all was, in my copy of her “sort of memoir”, The Princess Diarist.
Inside were the muddled public and personal identities, the ecstatic loves and crushing lows of a young woman rifling through every experience of life for some definition of herself. If she could be a princess for a few months, hell, she’d give it a shot and see how it fit. Perhaps she could somehow assimilate that born leader, the feisty beauty who nonetheless managed to keep her dress on, even in Hollywood. Maybe, at last, she could find some self-respect by becoming Leia.
There came the realisation. The Rebellion had long since begun in Fisher’s own mind. She’d found a way to make her own longing for a braver way of living fire in her character’s eyes as she pulled the trigger. “Somebody’s got to save our skins.” Carrie Fisher had been Princess Leia long before she’d entered the room for her first awkward audition with George Lucas. Still a little naïve and obnoxious, but more than capable of being a leader to girls all across the galactic divides. It’s just that she was finding the courage to admit that to herself. As am I. As is every woman and girl yet to find her ability to save herself, then teach from her shame, failures and regrets as much as her determination to become more than the sum of her own suffering.
It’s only now, after her death, that I see so much of this hidden truth to Princess Leia. That knowing Leia is knowing Carrie Fisher, the reverse equally true. To begin to rebel, we have to accept all of our half-baked diary poetry as she did, published as proof of a clumsiness in the cleverness, rough edges displayed as proof of authenticity, even when the writer is uncertain of herself. “Love has made me what I am today”, she writes, “But as to what that is I really couldn’t say”.
There’s conditioning that makes us believe that when we feel weakened by the loss of ourselves, especially in love for a man, we’re dissolving into nothing. But all those unrequited loves are part of our lives’ wisdom, as she teaches through the wild, numbing abandon, then abandonment of her affair with Harrison Ford. “I am totally at his mercy,” she wrote of his strong, stoic presence, the honour of winning his rare, real smile. “I’m frightened of the power I have given him over me and of how he will almost certainly abuse it.” But in going back to face another strained week of being Han and Leia, later to consummate their well-practiced romance on screen in The Empire Strikes Back, she demonstrates one thing better than any Jedi; that we are strongest when we are compassionate, in the throes of learning to love and let go.
I’m certain that, on reading her diaries, any woman could see some of her times of doubt and self-flagellation over stupid mistakes. As she did with Ford, I felt defined by anyone who showed me the slightest interest, and in love I was the most pathetic of all. They would become my everything, even if to them I was but a fraction’s interest in the logbook of their lives. Our loves were the one thing that gave us power and beauty, the power to make them laugh and the beauty of forgetting ourselves in the moments we felt they could care. Little were we to know that the times giving in to such passive power would come to define our strength.
The romance of A New Hope, a pulp fiction dreamland with the engine of a lust triangle starting to steam between its three main characters, is still remarkable because it refuses to give in to the force of men. At least, until it lets itself down in the third act with that innuendo-stuffed sausage-fest of a trench run. She would let herself be saved from grief for her home, everyone she’d known and loved, by her enjoyment of being swept along with Luke and Han. On the way, though, she would make damn sure they knew they were beholden to her shrewd guidance. Their rescue was just the ticket out of her Death Star cell, by no means a moment that would define her life or sense of self. She would let herself love, but never in sacrifice of her wherewithal to lead.
Whether or not she knew it at the time, Leia was teaching her actress host how easy it could be to step out of being the princess in distress, in part from her star daddy’s tyranny and in part from a lack of bras in space. The illusory threat of being strangled by her underwear versus getting her tits gaffer-taped by male crew, then running from her torture moon half-cocked and half-supported, made no difference to how she fought, or what she was fighting. Objectified beauty, but not quite princess-class. Using charm to see her through in a man’s world, but feeling more forged than poised. Even as plain old insecure Carrie, she was the rebel that made the Rebellion. She had the courage to imagine herself courageous, and will go on teaching us to do the same.