One weekend in the winter or spring of 1986, when I was a senior at Andrews University, my college boyfriend Rob spoke the words that college boyfriends have been saying to their girlfriends ever since:
“What? You’ve never seen any of the Star Wars movies?”
I had not. I didn’t think of myself as liking science fiction, back then. I liked fantasy — Narnia and Lord of the Rings — but I wouldn’t have gone to see a movie with spaceships and blasters and explosions in the outer reaches of the galaxy. However, when he proposed watching the videos to remedy this gap in my education, I was up for it.
This was 1986, and catching up with movies you hadn’t seen (apart from just randomly catching them when they aired on TV years later) was only beginning to be possible. It wasn’t yet easy. We had to find a friend (my cousin Jennifer) with an apartment and a TV, lug a borrowed or rented VCR over from someplace (actually, it may have been Rob’s own Betamax, brought over from his dorm — yes, I think I originally watched Star Wars on a Betamax; how’s that for ancient?) We had to hook it all up and watch the movies, one casette at a time over three nights, if I recall correctly. And that was how I met Carrie Fisher, the iconic Princess Leia, who died today at age 60.
I loved her and I loved the movies. Yes, Luke Skywalker set off to “save the princess,” and along the way joined up with the roguish Han Solo (she loved him because he was a scoundrel) who became her love interest, but Princess Leia never passively sat around waiting for rescue. She was an active participant — in the Rebellion, in her own rescue, in every conflict that played out over those three movies. For many female movie-goers like me, unlike our boyfriends and brothers, the important thing was not that Return of the Jedi showed Leia in chains in a gold bikini; it was that while wearing that outfit, SHE FRICKIN’ STRANGLED JABBA THE HUTT.
As everybody has noticed by now, 2016 has been a bad year for celebrity deaths, and given that every year the stars of our youth get a year older, this trend may well continue into 2017. I was unpleasantly startled when I heard that Alan Rickman had died, having enjoyed many of his film roles. I wasn’t particularly moved by the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, or George Michael, as I wasn’t a fan of any of their music, though I recognized the impact they had on the culture and on the people who did love them. I loved Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, but at 82 I felt he had had a good long life and career. The 2016 celebrity death that actually hit me, that brought tears to my eyes, was the death of Carrie Fisher, just as the year is drawing to a close.
In the summer of 1977 — the same year the first Star Wars movie came out and I didn’t see it — I remember coming in from playing out on the street on a summer day and my mother saying, “Elvis Presley is dead.” I was only vaguely aware of who Elvis was, and I wouldn’t have considered my mother a fan of his — I’d never heard an Elvis record played in our house, and she didn’t really like pop music generally. But she was knocked back by Elvis’s untimely death, because they were the same age — forty-two that summer, which seems so young to me now. The celebrities of your own generation, especially those exactly your age (for me it’s Brooke Shields, a child star when I was just an ordinary child), hold up a weird mirror to your own life, and their deaths are a shock — I guess that’s why my mother grieved for Elvis.
The things is, celebrities, like ordinary people, are always dying. In 2016 and in every other year. Why do some celebrity deaths grab our attention, interrupt our own lives, so far distant from their star-studded sphere? Because something in them echoes our own lives, or shines a light on those lives. Poets and spiritual seekers recognized a kindred spirit in Leonard Cohen. People who refused to be crammed into the narrow boxes of gender norms celebrated the same refusal in Prince and Bowie. If a musician’s songs were playing, or an actor’s movie dominated the screen, at the crucial moments of your own life, you feel you’ve lost a piece of yourself, of your own history, when they go. We still have the music, the movies, the books, though there’s the loss of knowing they won’t make any more. But what makes us grieve is that kinship, that sense that their lives were somehow being lived parallel to, commenting on and illuminating, our own.
Young Carrie Fisher was Leia, the princess who didn’t need the guys to come rescue her, who wielded a blaster and weird hair-buns instead of a tiara and a sparkly dress. Post-Star-Wars Carrie was kind of a mess, with the drinking and drug use and failed relationships, along with real and good work — Postcards from the Edge, all the script doctoring we never knew about. And then middle-aged Carrie was mouthy and honest and real, talking about addiction and mental illness and the impossible, crazy demands that the entertainment industry makes on women. She was on stage and page playing her pain for laughs in Wishful Drinking, and then there she was doing the talk show circuit for The Force Awakens with her dog tucked under her arm and her hilarious willingness to say anything, especially the unvarnished truth. Then there she was as General Leia Organa on screen again, older and graying and luminous and beautiful, grieving in Han Solo’s arms for all they’d lost, and still a tough, no-nonsense, revolutionary leader.
There are a lot of things wrong with our culture’s obsession with entertainers-as-celebrities, but at their best we relate to them because they tell us something about our own lives. Women, particularly geeky women, I think, of my generation — we loved young Leia for her strength, and we loved aging Carrie for her vulnerability. Both touched and changed us; both are gone now.
May the Force be with her, and may she rest in peace. And may we all have a little of Leia’s courage and Carrie’s relentless honesty as we journey through this galaxy not so long ago, and not so far away.