I had just finished a med-check psych appointment when I heard the news about Carrie Fisher.
These appointments are mostly tedious–I have to go every few months since I need paper prescriptions for a controlled substance–but they’re also kind of a general mental-health check-in, and given how fucked up things have been lately–both in a global and personal sense–I did take the opportunity to vent.
In the course of doing so, I also told my doc about how I’ve been coping: trying not to give in to fear and shame and the pressure to ignore my own well-being because I’m supposedly not valuable enough to the world to take care of. I explained how I feel freer now that I’ve finally told some toxic people to shove off. I explained that even though it’s been hard in some ways, the holidays this year have been a good experience for me, because I’m shaping them around my own little family and my own life, instead of trying to cobble together something traditional and satisfying from carefully edited childhood memories.
My driving spirit of late has first been to try to let go of the things I have no control over, but also to finally accept the Mama Bear role that life has kept trying to nudge me toward for years. Not just an actual mother–though that role is one I’m enjoying, even as hard as it is with a four-year-old on the autism spectrum–but also the kind of cantankerous, take-no-shit battle axe that makes insecure sexists angry. A caretaker, but also a protector. A teacher, but also a fighter. A face and voice that says “fuck with me or my loved ones at the risk of being reduced to your component molecules.” While also, y’know, baking cookies and singing Mama Cass and Karen Carpenter to my son, and trying to admit when I need help myself.
One of the things that helped me accept this role, even if it may sound a little cheesy, was General Leia.
I saw her first when I was six, sitting in a crappy van at a crappy drive-in while my mom was downing smuggled-in rum and Coke and my dad was giving sarcastic, profanity-laden running commentary. Leia was mind-blowing for me at the time: sassy, assertive, fighting with the boys. A pretty princess, yes, but one that got dirty and told people to fuck off. She was me–the mouthy tomboy I was growing into, not the doll my mom wanted me to be. Though to be honest, Lucas wasn’t really all that great about the role or how he treated her, in the context of the era, she, along with a few of the other badass women heroes that cropped up then was an amazing breath of fresh air. I could, for the first time, see a life beyond the limited roles my sexism-poisoned mother was trying to prepare me for.
Almost 40 years later, Leia did it for me again. There are of course a fair number of older women in pop culture, but they tend to be limited to a few different types: matrons, kindly grandmothers, silver foxes, villains, shrews. The occasional queen, yes, but generally one-dimensional. We rarely see older women in pop culture in positions of heroic authority–positions that they undoubtedly earned through decades of experience. (One of the few I can recall in recent years was Judi Dench’s M in the early Craig Bond movies.) TFA’s General Leia, therefore, was remarkable, and even more so for the fact that she gave us a continuity that other roles often lack: an understanding that women don’t just exist in static forms and roles defined by whom and how they serve at a given moment, but age and grow and have their own long histories and complex lives.
We saw her at 19, leading the rebellion. We saw her again decades later, leading yet another fight. In both cases, she wasn’t a stern, emotionless icon or a cold-blooded warrior. In both cases, she was acknowledged as a person with desires for love and friendship as well as earned respect and leadership. She was clearly troubled by her son going astray. Clearly gutted by the loss of her beloved, even as estranged as they had been. Clearly still affected by the tragedy of her family of origin, and by the sudden, brutal loss of her family and other loved ones on Alderaan. Troubled even more recently by her brother’s disappearance. Her hard life was written on her face. And yet even with all of that, she was still a leader. She was still a decision maker. She was still an icon, looked up to by all who served: Idolized by the best pilot in the Resistance, who had grown up with her as a personal hero. Sought out as a mentor by a young woman who had herself been through hell and was bravely taking up the mantle of hero that had been dropped in her lap.
Sitting in the theater as a 44-year-old with my own scars—albeit somewhat less fantastical ones—that mattered to me. It really, really mattered. It mattered even more when I rediscovered Carrie herself in all her fearless, low-bullshit glory. Unfiltered in interviews. Unperturbed by speaking truth to a budding demagogue. Brave enough to show her weaknesses and talk about them. Brave enough to tell people to bring it the fuck on anyway.
This woman—this force of nature—should have been with us for so much longer. Like Molly Ivins, another hero of mine in the same vein, she is gone way, way too soon. But even in such horribly short years, she has proven that there is life and purpose and honor in persevering even when much of the world wants you to believe you’re too flawed to be allowed to go on. I can’t begin to express how much that resonates with me and how much I need it in my own life—especially now when I and millions more marginalized people are so at risk of brutal oppression.
I don’t mean to reduce Carrie to this one role—she was so much more than this, of course–but I also have to be honest about exactly how deeply she touched so many of us, at many different ages, because of her tenacity and courage. She may not be with us in this life now, but the voice she gave me and many others is still speaking, and will be for years and years to come.