I remember catching scenes from A New Hope at an early age, even if I didn’t see the entire movie or the rest of the Star Wars trilogy until years later. The images of a defiant Leia in her prison cell, impervious to threats from the scary, asthmatic man in the black helmet, and then a bold Leia taking over her own bungled rescue, are among my earliest cinematic memories that don’t involve Disney animation or Care Bears.
There weren’t that many female badasses (or females, period) for little girls to look up to in the 1980s. She-Ra was great in theory, but compared to He-Man, she was downright lame. The Bionic Woman aired in syndication, but not half as much as The Six Million Dollar Man. There were only token female characters in the shows I really liked, such as Thundercats and Voltron. Knight Rider aired in syndication after school, and I was a devoted fan, but the only women on the show appeared intermittently as love interests for David Hasselhoff. As a budding eight-year-old feminist, this was not the kind of female character with whom I identified.But that image of Leia grabbing Luke’s blaster and taking charge stayed in the back of my mind.
My boys are five and three, and there are female characters in all of their favorite shows. The playing field still isn’t level (“Dinotrux” has just a token female in Skya; the female characters in “Octonauts” are a photojournalist and an engineer, but Dashi and Tweak are rarely directly involved in rescues; Sky from “PAW Patrol” was the lone female until Everest was thrown in as a second string pup), and I have had to correct some ideas about gender roles that my oldest brought home from preschool (“girls can’t drive trucks”). However, the fact that a show about an African American girl whose mom is a doctor and whose dad makes her lunch (a) exists and (b) is something they enjoy watching is something that gives me a great deal of hope for their generation. And that’s just one example that hits me right in the intersectional feels; preschoolers also have “Sheriff Cali” and “Dora the Explorer” that feature female lead characters in roles that would have been considered “masculine” a couple of generations ago. “Peg + Cat” and “Sarah & Duck” also feature female title characters, and these four, plus the obvious “Doc McStuffins” are just shows my kids have watched in the past week.
As my boys grow up, I look forward to introducing them to series like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games that feature strong female characters that I embraced so enthusiastically as an adult. However, their first encounter with Hermione and Katniss is likely to be far less surprising and life-altering for them – not because they are boys, but because they have grown up in a different world where kickass female characters are an expected part of the media they are exposed to – not an exception. Frozen is one of our favorite movies, and it features two princesses who don’t wait around for princes to save them. Big Hero Six is another favorite, and that features not one but two female engineering students-turned-superheroes. My boys can recognize the theme song from Star Trek: Voyager because I’m working my way through the series, and they know who the captain is on the ship, even if they don’t know her name is Janeway.
They have only recently started to get into Star Wars, thanks to a shared interest in robots and the heavy marketing of BB-8 and R2-D2 last year with the release of The Force Awakens. They watched the beginning of the aforementioned movie with their father and saw Rey fight off Storm Troopers and pilot a decrepit Millennium Falcon to safety. We watched A New Hope together for the first time last night, in honor of Carrie Fisher, and I was struck not only by the fresh perspective of seeing a movie I have seen well over a dozen times through their eyes, but also by the fact that Princess Leia, while undeniably awesome, is not a novel character to them. They have already seen Elsa, Anna, Merida, Honey Lemon, Go Go, Officer Hopps, and Astrid. Leia will never be the revelation for this generation that she was for my generation. She’s an outdated Rey who (unfortunately) never really got to handle a lightsaber on-screen. And while the idea that my boys won’t ever appreciate her as an original badass the way I do makes me a little sad, the idea that she will be just one of a pantheon of Hermiones and Janeways also makes me really excited about the conversations we will have regarding these characters and the ones we haven’t yet encountered because my boys’ generation will invent them.
And yet, Carrie Fisher wasn’t just Princess Leia. She had other roles in Hollywood movies, but she was also an extremely talented writer of not just novels and memoirs (most of which, last I checked, were sold out on Amazon). She was also a well-known script doctor. We have her to thank for Hook and Sister Act being as good as they were, among others. And her wit was razor sharp – largely because she wasn’t afraid to talk about hard things, like bipolar disorder, which she suffered from for most of her life, and drug abuse, which came about in an attempt to self-medicate. She talked about her difficulties so that others wouldn’t feel they had to suffer in silence. One of the best soundbites from her that’s been playing on NPR in the last 36 hours is this:
“I think I do overshare,” Fisher says. “It’s my way of trying to understand myself. … It creates community when you talk about private things.”
So thank you, Carrie Fisher, for playing (and being) the smart, powerful princess who captured the imagination of a generation. Thank you for wearing the metal bikini and then speaking out against objectification and body-shaming. Thank you for playing your pivotal character again, nearly forty years later, in the body and with the attitude that came from living an eventful life in the spotlight. Thank you for being open and honest about mental illness so that others who suffer from it can feel a little less stigmatized and so that those of us who don’t can understand some of our friends a little bit better. Rest in peace, and may the force be with you.