When it comes to progressive depictions of female characters, genre fiction has long led the charge as the home of complex and compelling women, be it on the page or on the screen. Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Buffy Summers, Clarice Starling, Dana Scully, Hermione Granger, Jessica Jones; the list is long and proud and it grows by the day. But arguably the most iconic, even among such a fine lineup, is the revolutionary character who preceded them all: Carrie Fisher‘s Leia Organa, the bun and gun-toting action hero who smirked her way into the hearts of audiences 40 years ago in George Lucas‘ Star Wars.
She’s a soldier and a warrior, and a damn fine shot while we’re at it. She’s royalty, born and bred. An ally-winning ambassador in times of crisis and a fearless rebel leader. She’s a true friend, a lover so loyal she’ll travel worlds over to stage a rescue. The roles that tend to be associated with female characters – sister, mother, wife – those came later, long after we already learned to love Leia on the basis her own merits. Fisher and Lucas created a female character that’s impossible to reduce to a societal label. Whether she’s a princess or a general, a scrappy love interest or a weary mother, Leia has always been defined, above all, by her core characteristics: wit, warmth, acumen, endurance, righteousness, and unflinching political conviction.
Think about how she was introduced to us in that first Star Wars film, how she bucked convention at every turn. Leia was regal without being haughty, but she knew her value and suffered no fools. She endured torture at the hands of Darth Vader, she watched Tarkin annihilate her home planet, but never faltered. She never betrayed her cause. Luke is certainly the hero of Star Wars in the Campbellian sense of the word, but Leia was always the true believer, a consummate fighter, and it was her steely moral direction that encouraged Luke and Han to become more than a farm boy and a scoundrel.
Fittingly, it’s also Leia who ultimately fought the hardest and the longest. When we meet our heroes again in The Force Awakens, Luke has absconded to solitude and Han is off galavanting around the galaxy with Chewie. Leia is right where she needs to be, at the head of a rebel strategy table where she’s still fighting the good fight, just like she always has. J.J. Abrams said that he and Fisher decided that it wasn’t that the force-strong Leia wasn’t powerful enough to become a Jedi, it’s that she chose to become a leader instead. That sounds right.
And of course, Leia’s legacy is inextricably linked with that of Carrie Fisher, the actress who brought the princess to life in the original trilogy and returned to the franchise some thirty-five years later as General Organa. We lost her, too soon, last year. A devastating blow, not just for fandom, not just for cinema, for anyone who values unique, inspiring voices of honesty and self-reflection. Or anyone who likes a good laugh. In addition to being a gifted performer, Fisher was a prodigious author, humorist, memoirist, script doctor, and mental health advocate who punched up everything she touched with her signature zeal and candor. If aliens invaded earth in 2016, I might have pointed them to Fisher as an example of all the wild, fabulous intricacies of the human condition and a fine demonstration of why we deserve to be here at all. I have no doubt she would have charmed them beyond any hostile action.
That honesty also translated to her experiences bringing her most beloved character to life. Fisher was never shy to express her feelings about her time as the leading lady of the Star Wars universe, no doubt to the chagrin of some of her colleagues. Just last year, Fisher released a collection of her diaries, titled The Princess Diarist with trademark her flair for wordplay, which chronicled the years she came of age on the Star Wars sets. Tea was spilled, my friends, but told with searing frankness and insight into the experience of a teenage girl and Fisher’s gift for language, which is evident even in her decades-old writing. Among the subjects Fisher has addressed candidly over the years, there’s the affair with Harrison Ford (detailed in The Princess Diarist), her contentious relationship with Return of the Jedi director Richard Marquand, and her well-documented hatred for Leia’s itsy witsy teeny weeny brass bikini.
When looking at Leia’s legacy, you have to confront the matter of that damn metal bikini, crudely coined “Slave Leia,” which pretty much says it all as to why this is the least auspicious moment in Leia’s history. Though it’s only a blip in the on-screen representation of the character (less than 3 minutes of screen time), it has unfortunately proved one of the franchise’s most enduring images and transformed into a piece of pop culture fetishism over the years. Unfortunate because it’s an image that fundamentally undervalues what makes Leia such an extraordinary, immutable character. It wasn’t her rockin’ bod (rockin’ though it was), it was her universal appeal to both men and women, rooted in the integrity and charm of the character. It was clearly a tactical move to up the sex factor of the franchise, and Fisher confirmed as much in a 1983 interview with Rolling Stone, where she explained the softer side of Leia was a reaction to a certain set of audience members who saw her as “some kind of space bitch.”
“From the first film, she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry,” Fisher said. “In Return of the Jedi, she gets to be more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate. But let’s not forget that these movies are basically boys’ fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes.” Later, she would describe the bikini as “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell,” and during the Force Awakens press tour, she encouraged Daisy Ridley to stand up for her on-screen image. “You should fight for your outfit,” she advised the new Star Wars ingenue. “Don’t be a slave like I was.” Fisher never pulled her punches, and she always landed them eloquently.
That openness and ongoing dialogue is the crux of where the legacy of Leia and the genius of Carrie Fisher have always bled into each other in beautiful, complementary ways. Whenever the conversation veered intofetishistic territory, Fisher would bring things back to reality, a constant reminder of the humanity and hilarity behind her character. The inspirational qualities of Leia can’t be undersold, but ultimately, she is a fantasy and Fisher has always been blisteringly real. Fisher’s career was always defined by Leia, and Leia was always defined by Fisher’s spirit. The nature of Lucas’ script and character concept dictated that Leia was always going to be something special, but Fisher breathed fire into her and transformed the character into an icon.
The legacy of the wise-cracking, blaster-toting princess-turned-general has not only endured in the decades since she first appeared, it’s grown and evolved. It manifests in the new generation of Star Wars leading ladies, who have taken center stage as the central protagonists in their films, claiming spots that used to belong to men alone. Leia may not have single-handedly paved the road that led Lucasfilm to take that risk, but she was a crucial component; an extraordinary element of the franchise DNA that allowed it to evolve into an even more progressive form. On a broader scale, Leia’s legacy is evident in the way that female characters, especially those aboard a spaceship, have been treated ever since she picked up a blaster and got her boys out of trouble.
We lost Carrie, but Leia’s legacy is not yet complete. Another chapter in her story remains to be told. As the latest installment in a generational series, the new trilogy is naturally focused primarily on the adventures of the younger generation, but Leia is said to have a larger role in The Last Jedi than she did in The Force Awakens (which is a mercy because she had less than four minutes of screen time), and her story is ripe to deliver a crucial chapter in that legacy. Han is dead, murdered by her son who has fallen to the dark side, and she must stand to fight against him. If Han’s death was hard to take, Leia’s departure from the franchise will be devastating because it also marks the loss of the awe-inspiring whirlwind woman who made her a phenomenon. This is a critical moment in her story, and it is also the last moment in her story. Fortunately, her legacy is in the hands of a director and storyteller as talented as Rian Johnson.
Regarless of how we say goodbye to our princess and general, Leia’s legacy and that of the woman who brought her to life are carved in stone. Many have tried, but there will never be another character like Leia, and there sure as hell isn’t another Carrie Fisher, so on the occasion of Star Wars’ 40th anniversary, let’s take a minute to celebrate the beauty of both.