Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Princess Who Became a General

Today, I feel old.

Maybe it’s because my back and joints are hurting more than usual and Aleve just isn’t cutting it.  But I’ve had rheumatoid arthritis since I was 29, so I don’t usually associate the pain with age.

Maybe it’s a function of the post-holiday blahs.  The tree is empty, the fridge is full of left-overs, and days are short while nights are long.

Or maybe it’s because my son is leaving home in less than two weeks.  He starts college at UNL this spring and is moving into the dorms.  That’s exciting, and he’ll be back in the summer—but soon, my nest will be empty part-time.

Yet I think the real reason I feel old today owes to the first news to hit me in the face when I woke up this morning.

Carrie Fisher is dead.

Remember that line Han Solo delivered in the garbage compactor?  “I have a bad feeling about this.”  That was my reaction when news broke of her heart attack.  2016 has been an especially shitty year for pop-icons, from David Bowie to Alan Rickman to Prince.  My thought was, “2016, you can’t have HER.”  Then news came she was improving.  The Christmas-day death of George Michaels, whose music—along with Prince’s—I danced to in college and grad school made me hope he’d be the last one 2016 claimed.  According to family reports, Carrie Fisher was stable.  Princess Leia would live to fight another day.

Except she didn’t.  The damn 2016 garbage compactor got her.

I admired Carrie Fisher a lot: her honesty, her courage, her wit, her talent.  I read Postcards from the Edge not long after it came out and thought, “Wow, unlike a lot of celeb authors, this woman can actually write.”  But I didn’t actively follow her career.

The author, 13th birthday, Sept. 23, 1977
Also, in the eternal “Star Trek vs. Star Wars?” comparisons, I always wind up on the Trek side.  Make no mistake, I loved Star Wars and saved my allowance to watch it four times in the theatre when it first came out in 1977, plus I managed to sneak in a tape recorder to tape the dialogue.  (This was well before VCRs.)  Yet watching Star Wars four times wasn’t really a lot, even for a 12-year-old with limited allowance.  Of more importance were the elaborate recreations of portions of the film that I did that summer with two male friends, one of whom had a film camera and visions of making movies himself one day.  The recreations required costumes, including a white dress and attempts to get my hair into double buns that were never quite BIG enough.

But my chest was big enough.  With a pre-teen’s delicious, slightly scandalized attention to detail, I’d noticed that Leia didn’t seem to be wearing a bra under her virginally white princess dress.  I’d matured on the early side, so if I didn’t have enough hair, I did have enough breast.  I decided that if Princess Leia could go braless, so I could I.  My mother disagreed.  Even if most of her attitudes were advanced for a woman born in 1924—she’d marched for ERA—letting her almost-teen daughter out of the house without a bra was not something she could condone.  So I wore my bra out of the house…then took it off for the filming of our amateur effort.  I might not have Princess Leia hair but I had Princess Leia boobs.

That Fisher wasn’t wearing a bra* might seem like a funny thing to remember about the first movie—but not really.  Princess Leia represented a fundamental seismic shift in the portrayal of women onscreen, so it seems perfectly in line that she went braless.

As mentioned above, I’m really more of a Star Trek fan than Star Wars, and I was cast as the lone female character in childhood make-believe games long before our pre-teen attempts to refilm parts of Star Wars.  In fact, as a young girl playing with the boys down the block, Star Trek was our go-to.  Bobby was Captain Kirk, Kevin was Mr. Spock, and I, of course, was Lt. Uhura.  I didn’t get to do much because Uhura didn’t either.  Nichelle Nichols broke a lot of barriers with her role, but 1960s Uhura wasn’t Uhura of the reboot.  Back then, it was, “Hailing frequencies open captain.”  Or getting captured by Klingons or Romulans so the boys could rescue me.

Occasionally, I complained about this, and might get “upgraded” to Chekov or Sulu (not McCoy, he was too old).  But mostly I was Uhura, and also—as noted—I didn’t do much unless I needed to be rescued because that’s what happened to women in the TV shows we grew up on, although in Star Trek that honor was typically reserved for the pretty, blond, (white) love-interests of Kirk.  It’s of note that we (children) just transferred that role to Uhura without much thought for the racial divide.  For our youthful disconcern we can thank Roddenberry when he insisted a black woman could sit on the bridge.  To us, that she was a woman mattered more than that she was black.  That’s a good thing.

But it’s also worth noting that the boys found it easier for a white girl to play a black woman than for a white girl to play a white (or even Asian) man.  That’s not so good a thing.  The gender divide became more significant than the racial divide.  (And I don’t think it an accident this country elected a black man as president before a white woman.)

The advent of Princess Leia, however, changed the dynamics yet again.  Even if Lucas&Co did put her in that stupid gold bikini.

So let me clarify that if I wasn’t necessarily a Star Wars fan over Star Trek, I was a huge fan of Princess Leia.

1979-80, Drum Major

When I first saw Leia grab Luke’s blaster to defend herself?  I wanted to stand up and cheer.  Instead, I think I sat in my seat in the theatre with my mouth open.  Then she told Luke, “Into the shoot, flyboy!” and Chewy, “Get this big, walking carpet out of my way.”  And that scolding she gave both Han and Luke?  “I don’t know who you are, or where you come from, but I’m grateful.  But from now on, you do as I tell you.”

See?  I can still recite her lines (without looking) all these years later because I recited them to myself so MANY damn times then.

So yes, I loved Star Wars (if not as much as Star Trek).  But Princess Leia became a HERO for my 12-year-old self.  She was competent.  And the sassy I wasn’t (and never would be).  She was also (apparently) smart, like Meg from A Wrinkle in Time.  The era in which I grew up warned girls: “Let the boys win,” and “Don’t be smarter than the boys; they won’t want to date you.”  Unfortunately, that’s still true.  Smart girls might be sexy now, but not if they’re smarter than the boys.  That, however, is the topic of another post.

What I want to focus on is just how different Leia was, as an icon for girls my age.  Yes, there were other powerful, strong, smart women—not least the Meg I mentioned above from Madeline L’Engle’s work.  Female SF/F authors from L’Engle to LeGuin had been blazing trails for women well before Star Wars hit theaters.  But such female icons weren’t found in mainstream film and books—never mind an international blockbuster.  It didn’t hurt that Princess Leia was able to do all this and still be considered attractive.  Yes, the stupid gold bikini helped, but long before Return of the Jedi, teen boys and young men saw Carrie Fisher in her white dress and hair buns and blaster and saucy remarks, and they fell in love.  They also watched her tame cocky Han Solo, who followed her lead (at least sometimes).  So it became more acceptable for a woman to be in charge.  Young boys who grew up on Princess Leia never questioned that a woman couldn’t handle a blaster or run a rebellion.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia kicked down the damn door.  Nichelle Nichols cracked it, but Fisher blew it down.  After Leia, it became increasingly acceptable to see women onscreen take their fate into their own hands.  She made possible Ripley from Alien, Sarah Conner from Terminator, and Xena, the Warrior Princess.  A space princess with a blaster had gone before one with a sword and chakram.  The Grrl-Power Genie was out of the bottle and she wasn’t going back in.

So today I feel old, but also oddly buoyed.  I was witness to a revolution.  I got to see Princess Leia explode onto the screen at an extremely formative time for me.  Princess Leia gave my 12-year-old self a wholly new idea not only of a woman as a hero, but of what “princess” might mean outside Disney.

I won’t say I am who I am—a university professor—due to Princess Leia.  Waaaay too many streams fed that river.  But Princess Leia was part of it because a young girl on the cusp of womanhood saw another young woman grab a blaster from her “rescuer” and rescue herself (and him, too).  So I never went to college for an “MRS.” degree.  I went to school for my degree, and I pursued my career.  Yes, I got married and had a kid, because being one’s own person doesn’t mean one has to do it alone.  But when, many years later, I got a divorce, I still had my career, and eventually, I bought the house I wanted with a mortgage in my name alone.  So just as Princess Leia went on to become General Organa (without Han Solo), I went on to become a tenured professor, grad chair, and to start our Ancient Mediterranean Studies Program as its director.  If I’ve not published as much as I’d like, family reasons (divorce and raising a kid not least) got in the way.

But I think Princess Jeanne did okay on her way to Dr. Reames.

The Author in 2016.
Now Princess Leia has returned to the Force, at least in any physical embodiment beyond film already in the can.  Those of us who had our eyes opened when she grabbed that blaster will have to go on without her.  It’s our turn to be a model for the girls (and boys) who come after us.

Are we there yet?  Hell no.  We just elected a president who bragged about grabbing pussy without consent, and that didn't, apparently, disqualify him for a significant voting block.  Only about 63% of women report sexual assault and notably fewer of those cases ever see the perp convicted.  Women still make only 80 cents on average for every man's dollar.  We're a looooong way from there yet.

But young princesses do turn into generals, and young or old, we’re bad-asses who can save ourselves—and you, too.

Peace, Carrie Fisher.

(*For the record, it turns out she actually had gaffer tape on her breasts, but I didn’t know that then.)