It’s always a little weird reacting to celebrity deaths. After all, these are strangers who (with few exceptions) we have never met. It can seem trite and disingenuous to mourn them as we would family or friends. Yet, we do mourn, because they are both. Who hasn’t heard a song and been pulled from the brink of utter despair? Who hasn’t read a poem and found in the words the purest distillation of your own soul? Who hasn’t watched a movie that is more than a movie—that is a portal to times past and the people there? Only in art can we find our true selves. So the artist becomes more than creator—she becomes a part of our life. She becomes family. She becomes a friend.
The past twelve months have seen no shortage of celebrities gone too soon, but I can think of no more personally tragic note upon which to end this surreal year (…assuming that it is the end. Please, may it be the end…) than today’s news that Carrie Fisher has taken her place among the stars. There have already been numerous tributes to the woman best known for her portrayal of Princes Leia Organa (including a particularly poignant one from unashamed Star Wars devotee Kevin Smith, who eulogized Fisher with his usual, pitch-perfect mix of humor and heart). I don’t know that my words will add anything to the conversation, but they are words that I need to share. For me, Leia was a connection to family, an inspiration, and an education. And Carrie Fisher herself was a reminder that we’re all a little broken, but that doesn’t have to mean we’re beaten.
My earliest memory—Ever. Period.—is laying on a blanket and watching Star Wars with my uncle, Robert. I missed the original film by a few years, but have seen every other entry in the series sitting next to him in the theater. To say that Star Wars defined my childhood would be a cliché—who from my generation can’t claim as much? But my connection has always gone a little deeper. To me, Star Wars is synonymous with “family.” And Princess Leia is a part of that family. We spoke of her as if she were real. She, her friends, and their adventures are part of the common language we still share, and knowing that I can always watch those films and feel a connection to my loved ones—long after they have become one with The Force—brings me great comfort. Leia’s story is my story.
Star Wars may have been the first, but it was far from the last movie I watched with Robert. He remains a rabid cinefile, and passed that love down to me. As I grew, I realized it wasn’t just flickering images that I had fallen in love with—it was stories. From the first moment that I saw Princess Leia hunched over R2-D2, I knew the power of storytelling. Who is she? What’s happening? And then what…? My hunger for stories has become so insatiable that I even play at telling them myself. Every time I sit down before a blank screen and begin typing out my latest, half-baked idea, I can trace it back to that image of Leia in a dark, smoky hallway, slipping a secret file into an unassuming droid. If I ever create a scene half as inspiring, I will have accomplished more than I ever hoped.
Just as I wasn’t the only kid whose childhood revolved around Star Wars, it wouldn’t be terribly original to admit I had a crush on Princess Leia. As first-loves go, a kid could do far worse. Yes, Leia happened to be beautiful, but she didn’t have time to be admired—she had a rebellion to lead. And if some slug was stupid enough to dress her in a bikini and treat her like an object, you could bet he’d live to regret it. Despite being captured in the opening moments of Episode IV, she was no damsel. And when the rogue and the farmboy managed to bungle her rescue, Leia just rolled her eyes, grabbed a blaster and rescued them instead. Born into the most powerful Jedi family in history, she had no interest in being “the other Skywalker.” She chose her own path—that of leader. But she also taught me that “tough” and “vulnerable” are not mutually exclusive. She looked tyranny in the eye without blinking. She mourned a dead planet. She fell in love with a scoundrel. She fought tirelessly for an ideal. She commanded with compassion. She was a friend to furry, woodland creatures. And, before you start harping on that ill-advised, fraternal kiss—hey, don’t blame the character for a writer’s poor planning (yeah, I said it). Leia is one of the richest, most complex characters in all of fiction. She’s an inspiration to women, but she was an illustration to me—an example to be admired, and a lesson in respect. It is through this lens that I look at the “fans” complaining about girl-power in the recent Star Wars films and have to ask “Are you all half-witted Nerf-herders?!” Leia Organa paved the way for Rey, Jyn Urso, and a host of others. She is the blueprint for a strong, female character, and her influence can be felt both within fiction and without.
But what helps Leia transcend fiction is that the woman behind her was just as complex, just as inspirational as the character herself. Carrie Fisher was born a princess—Hollywood royalty, and heir to the pressures that came with her station. She struggled with bipolar disorder and addiction for most of her life. But Carrie never ran from the drama, nor did she hide behind it. She embraced her demons with humor and aplomb. Through writing and interviews, she showed us that, hey, we’ve all got problems, but that’s okay. She didn’t make excuses, but she wasn’t ashamed, either. She laughed at herself without becoming a joke. As someone who struggles with depression, anxiety, and a dozen minor tics I can’t even put to name, Carrie was a shining example that nobody’s perfect, but those imperfections don’t have to define you.
This has been a rough year for many, and there is an uncertain year looming on the horizon. This latest blow has been especially hard. As I struggled to process this loss, nothing helped so much as this potent rallying cry from author K O’Shea, who reminded us that both Carrie and Leia were fighters.
Fight on the front lines. Strangle fascists with the chains they would have you wear. Be a motherfuckin' general.
I started to title this post "A Great Disturbance in the Force." But that's just me mourning Carrie Fisher the person. The truth is that she leaves behind a legacy, and her spirit will be with us. Always.
Goodbye, Your Worship. May the Force be with you.