17-year-old student living in Jakarta
Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in "Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back." (Lucasfilm/File)
Young girls around the world can remember the first time they saw Carrie Fisher on screen, her hair curled into those iconic ear-muff buns. Leia was a princess, the likes of which none of us had ever seen. She was a princess capable of saving herself, and others.
For me, our first encounter was at a kindergarten in Santiago through "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope". I could barely remember the plot; all I could grasp were impressions of characters. There was a man dressed all in black, a confused blonde boy with a lightsaber, a roguish smuggler, and then there was Princess Leia. In a movie filled with men dressed in shades of black and grey, she was a strong woman. A diplomat in white.
Luke and Han Solo, as brave and intrepid as they thought they were, were dragged around by Princess Leia, calling the shots. Where many of our princesses were dainty and soft, Leia was strong-willed and independent but still beautiful. We met her as we meet many women in action movies: with red lipstick and iconic hair. But then she did something we hadn’t seen: she took up a blaster and fired shots off at incoming attackers.
The fact is, Luke and Han Solo may eventually have been the heroes of the Star Wars saga, but they didn’t start out calling the shots. It was Leia—beautiful and strong—who was a key player in the resistance, long before Luke ever stepped foot in outer space. It was she—not Luke or Han Solo—who was accustomed to war. She may have seemed like the damsel in distress, with her iconic, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope." But her need for help did not define her. No, what defined her was a love for her people and a steadfast determination to act for the greater good, even if it meant watching her entire planet—her family, her friends—be destroyed right in front of her.
"A New Hope" was an apt title for the first Star Wars movie—for Leia’s entrance into pop culture, and the hearts and minds of young girls everywhere. Leia offered young girls a new hope for who they were and who they could be. They could be girls and strong; diplomatic and capable of wielding a blaster. When young girls flooded costume stores on Halloween and demanded they look like Princess Leia, they did so not because they wanted to be saved, but because they wanted to be the ones doing the saving.
As a young girl, Princess Leia gave a leg to stand on when playing in the playgrounds. Rather than being typecast as the victim, I could be the hero. If anyone questioned me, if anyone dared claim that women could not be heroes, I could point to Princess Leia. She was not a secondary character, she was no minor role, she was not in the movie just to be a love interest. She was a hero, and none of my friends ever said otherwise. She gave girls a foothold in the male-dominated genre of sci-fi.
Carrie Fisher was not an inter-galactic general or princess. She was an actress and an advocate, and in many ways it was her honesty—not a role she played—that revealed her true strength. Carrie was a role model in her own right.
Though in her later years she may not have been typical princess material, she never stopped standing up for herself and women everywhere. She spoke openly about her mental illness, and in doing so taught all of us yet another lesson: strong women may not be perfect, but that doesn't make them any less strong. By speaking out about her mental illness, being open about her struggle with drug use, and being unapologetically herself, she showed that strength does not have to come at the expense of raw honesty.
It has been years since I've seen a Star Wars film, but I've always kept track of Carrie. When she reemerged onto the pop-culture scene with "The Force Awakens", I was thrilled. How proud must she have been to see Rey star in the film?
Stories of how she addressed her mental illness while on set, of her dedication to ending stigma, and her continued steadfastness filled the web. Some chose to focus on her altered appearance. Leia got old! They screamed. But they missed the point. Leia got old, yes, but her determination was ageless. There she was, still fighting the Dark Side. Still strong.
What we learn from Carrie Fisher is that strong women need help; strong women get sick; strong women grow old; and strong women die. Their legacies, on the other hand, never do.
As I continue through life, I will remember Leia. But more importantly, I will remember Carrie. She was an inspiration to all strong women, and to all of the girls—myself included—who hope to one day be strong and uncompromising ourselves.
Allison Graham is a 17-year-old student living in Jakarta. She’s an Irish-American triplet born just across the water in Singapore, but since then has lived in Mexico, China, Australia, Chile, Oman, and the United States. She loves stories—spoken or written—wildlife, as well as unicycling and juggling (though not at the same time).
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