Carrie Fisher was a witty memoirist, a sardonic comedian and a blunt interviewee. But most people will remember her as a princess. And with good reason: her Princess Leia in Star Wars will always hold a place in film history as the first kickass princess.
There were princesses before Leia, of course. Written by the likes of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm and later rewritten by Disney, most were the kind of princesses who cleaned or idled or napped until a prince showed up to save them. But Leia Organa was the first pop-culture princess to take matters into her own hands, to boss up, to tell the male heroes what to do, and, literally, to save the galaxy. For that, she became instantly iconic.
She took the stage, like the princesses that preceded her, as a damsel in distress. In 1977’s Star Wars Episode IV — A New Hope, Darth Vader kidnaps her, and she must await a rescue mission led by a love-struck Luke Skywalker and a reluctant Han Solo. As it usually goes in the movies, she falls for one of her rescuers (Han, the rapscallion, not Luke, her secret twin). But she soon was ordering them around — down the garbage shoot, through space, toward danger. (Fisher who, among her many other talents, was a reliable script fixer in Hollywood notably helped director George Lucas give Leia much-needed dimension.)
Leia grew into something wholly new. She got her hands on a blaster and fired it as well as anybody else. She led troops on Hoth, like Washington over the Delaware. She was a talented welder, patching up Rebel starships in her down time. Her outfits — with one ignominious, gilded exception — rendered her not so much a sex object as an action hero. Her flowy robes and unisex battle-ready gear were more realistic than the leather and spandex of a character like Black Widow or the quasi-bathing suit of a Wonder Woman.
The character had flaws, and Fisher was the first to admit it. “The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry,” she said in an interview with Rolling Stone shortly before Return of the Jedi premiered in 1983. “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.”
Fisher was of course referring to the infamous scene in which the lugubrious slug gangster Jabba the Hutt chains Leia up and dresses her in a gold bikini. The outfit has since taken on a life of its own — Friends, The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy and even Amy Schumer have all lampooned the costume. For some, the scene undermined the whole notion of Leia as a feminist icon. Fisher spoke frankly about hating the bikini and even trying to ad-lib some snark into the scene. Ahead of last year’s Force Awakens, she advised actress Daisy Ridley not to let herself be subjected to similar objectification.
But Fisher played Leia as an undeniable force and refused to let the character’s legacy be tarnished by one costume. Leia, it’s worth remembering, murders Jabba by choking him with the very chains that were supposed to keep her submissive. The glee shows on Fisher’s face.
By playing Leia the way she did and by speaking openly about the troubled trope, Fisher upended notions of what a princess could or should be. Studios began to figure out that there could be other types of female protagonists, especially in sci-fi, like Alien’s Ellen Ripley or Terminator’s Sarah Connor. Disney princesses, meanwhile, slowly gained more agency, beginning with Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas and more recently in Frozen and Moana.
Leia did eventually become a Disney princess when Disney acquired Lucasfilm and invited Fisher to reprise her role. But in a sign of the progress she helped usher in, this time she came on stage as General Organa.
Without Carrie Fisher’s Leia there may have never been a Xena, an Elsa, or a Daenerys Targaryen. Luckily none of those princesses — or the many princesses to come — have had to wait for a man to come along to save them. They know they can save themselves.
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Write to Eliana Dockterman at firstname.lastname@example.org