Carrie Fisher Taught Me That I Can Be (And Say) Anything I Want

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Carrie Fisher Taught Me That Female Superheroes Exist

I loved Carrie Fisher from as early a time as I can possibly remember.

Star Wars (now known as Star Wars: Episode IV - The New Hope) came out in 1977 when I was just 3 years old, and it is the first movie I have a memory of going to see in a theater. My aunt took me, which adds to the deep significance of what that experience imprinted on me.

My aunt was still a single, working woman at the age of 24 — practically Old-Maidsville back in those days — but it wasn't something my aunt saw as a problem. She had a career she was passionate about and fantastic friends she loved and a full life, and I thought she was the cat's meow.

As young as I was, I was already frustrated by the lack of female superheroes for me to watch and admire.

My brother was a fan of The All-New Super Friends Hour (oh my gosh, that HOUR felt like a year!), which may have included Wonder Woman and Wendy in the logo, but rarely showed them in any significant amount of the action.

There was The New Adventures of Wonder Woman with Lynda Carter, and she had a cool outfit and great lasso, but it was an evening program for adults that felt a bit too much like Starsky and Hutch with better hair for my taste. 

And even as a preschooler, I could see that Charlie's Angels were stuck in the shadow of the man who controlled them by voice as though they were remote-control Barbie dolls I coveted but could never relate to. 

Then suddenly there was Princess Leia, chilling in her prison cell and handling it all like a boss.

I was smitten. Completely transfixed. 

Princess Leia didn't just fall for the man who saved her. She took her time getting to know the men on hand and made up her own mind. Technically, they didn't even save her. They found her because she had proactively taken great pains to put security measures in place, and she played a major a role in every single aspect of ALL of the characters escape from the Dark Side and victory over the Death Star. She was chief strategist, warrior, friend, sovereign, goddess, and more.

At school, the other girls and I loved her so much that we would fight over who got to "be" Princess Leia when we played.

That's me on the left, channeling my inner Carrie Fisher.

To make the difficult battle somewhat easier, we agreed to divvy her up by pronouncing her name in multiple ways. One girl would be Princess 'Lee-uh', another Princess 'Lay-uh,' someone else Princess 'Lie-uh,' and so on — and, of course, we would switch them out because 'Lay-uh' was always most desired. (So you could credit her with being our first memorable experience with conflict resolution.)

It was also as Princess Leia that I had my first kiss — or rather, that I took my first kiss — with the one and only Luke Skywalker.

A little boy I was close friends with loved Star Wars as I did and would regularly play Luke to my Leia. I had a crazy crush on him, and emboldened by the strength of my Princess Leia garb (handmade for me by my mom), after everyone sang 'Happy Birthday' to him at his party, I chose to chase him around the room, pin him against a wall, and kiss him full on the lips. (I now know better regarding consent, and he and I are still cool, so no serious foul.)

If I only thought of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, perhaps her untimely death would simply fall into the far too large pile of lost celebrities for me today, but her impact on me, and I am sure on millions and millions of others, extends far beyond one role she played.

I vividly remember my excitement when she showed up on an episode of Laverne & Shirley in 1982.

Penny Marshall (as Laverne) and Fisher (as Cathy) share a classic moment of dialogue as two women competing for a prestigious and highly sought-after spot as a waitress at the infamous Playboy Bunny Club:

Laverne: You know something? You've got a real nice singing voice there. 

Cathy: It's what I really wanna do. See, I figure if I get to be a Bunny, I might be able to sing in one of the clubs and then I'll get a big break in my career.

Laverne: That sounds great. I bet your folks are gonna be real happy to have a singer in the family, huh?

Cathy: Nah. They'd rather I married a doctor, had a couple kids and settled down. 

Laverne: Are you Italian? 

Cathy: Jewish. 

Laverne: Same thing.

Not only did this joke strike a personal chord for me because my Bronx-born mother often said the same thing, but more powerfully, it showed me a new side of the iconic Playboy Bunny in relationship to my pre-teen notions of both feminism and sexuality.

I grew up in a household where Playboy's depictions of the naked female body were seen as beautiful and naturally attractive. I never saw the women who posed for the magazine as dirty, slutty, or negative in any way. They were just beautiful.

I was also old enough to have heard others speak of nude models far differently and to have experienced the maddeningly difficult level of bitterness and competition that arises far too often between women who could be so much more powerful in partnership supporting each other. 

Here were Fisher and Marshall, two bright, powerful, and successful women, modeling both a respectful relationship of female friendship as well as showing a clear and realistic example of the way in which women sometimes have to — or may even WANT to — use their sexuality as a means to achieve their professional goals, not through manipulation, but through honest work in the avenues made available to them.

Just three years later, Gloria Steinem's 1963 article, "A Bunny's Tale," was released as a made-for-TV movie (still one of my all-time favorites). And while Steinem "concludes that being a sex object, even a chaste one, is depressingly demeaning," I remembered Fisher in that emerald green bunny costume, and understood for myself that while being considered a 'sex object' may feel demeaning for some, it can feel empowering for others, and in either case, a woman should never feel ashamed for it.

Then along came Fisher in When Harry Met Sally in 1989 as the best friend of the main female lead.

Again, Fisher turned feminist notions on their head with a sarcastic and intelligent wink and a nod.

As the man-crazy and adulterous Marie, her character could easily have been one of the most easily hated of all time. Marie speaks with no shame whatsoever about her wish that her married boyfriend would leave his wife. She unabashedly spouts unsolicited relationship advice to Sally in scene after scene. She barely takes a breath before "asking" Sally's permission to swap out guys on their double date. And she cuts no corners when telling future hubby Jess, "Everyone thinks they have good taste and a sense of humor, but they couldn't possibly ALL have good taste."

We loved her for it, though, because she delivered it all in the same way she delivered statements about her personal life to the press — with relatable humor, honest self-reflection, ownership of her own faults, admitted responsibility for her actions, and love in her heart for others.

We couldn't hate her because she was truth personified. Every single one of us could use a friend like Marie in our lives.

Later when I was married and suffering through all kinds of painful emotional issues, I picked up a copy of her autobiography, Wishful Drinking.

At first glance, Fisher could have been the kind of woman all other women love to hate. 

She was the daughter of two legendary celebrities, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, and stepdaughter of both the one and only Elizabeth Taylor and sex-symbol extraordinaire Connie Stevens. She landed her world famous role in Star Wars at just 19 years of age, married music legend Paul Simon, and had relationships with both Harrison Ford and Dan Akroyd.

You would think a woman born on such a seeming cloud of luck would be impossible to relate to and even harder still to like.

Yet in reading her book, I felt profound respect for her ability to find the humor in her pain. As someone being told constantly that sharing information related to mental health struggles, emotional abuse, and the basic shit we all go through daily with anyone outside of the nuclear family unit was wrong and disrespectful, her candor offered an endearing perspective.

No. Don't hold it inside. That's what kills you. Letting others in is where true strength is found.

One review of the memoir by Rebecca Traister in Salon said that "instead of pushing aside the twinkling craziness of her outside life to meaningfully reveal the crazy on the inside, as she has always done so well, Fisher is now gathering all the starry stuff around her for comfort and reassurance about who she is and what she means."

I disagree. That is projection. Fisher's life contained a lot of starry stuff. That's just a fact. Accidents of birth don't counteract the meaningful nature of revealing ourselves. And also yes, she probably did need some comfort and reassurance about who she is and what she means. That's part of the human condition. I know I could use it sometimes. Couldn't you?

This time last year, my personal love story with Carrie Fisher came full circle when I took my then 7-year-old son to his first Star Wars feature in a movie theater. Over the course of the press tour for The Force Awakens, Fisher was the same honest, funny, serious, self-reflective, vulnerable, and strong as nails woman she'd always been, only even better.

Her interview on Good Morning America particularly solidified my life-long girl crush.

She spoke with — again — humor, integrity, honesty, and depth, qualifying it all with the statement, "I think in my mouth, so I don't lie."

And when asked if, at the time she took on the role of Princess Leia, she realized the impact her character would have, she replied casually, "I didn't know I was paving, but I'm glad to hear it now. I thought I was doing other stuff."

For me, the combination of those two statements says it all.

Fisher was beautiful in a disarmingly relatable way. Her work conveyed honesty to the very core. Her life was riddled with difficulties, but she was well-aware she was magically blessed in ways others could only wish to be. She was the woman you wanted to be — or who you wanted to have as your best friend. 

My son, who typically couldn't care less about the female superheroes and characters in the movies and TV shows he likes, surprised me by responding to the news of her death with sincere sadness. 

Carrie Fisher was anything but typical.

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She was a true human superhero. A shining star. Her light will be deeply missed, even as it shines on forever.