When I was five years old, my parents took me to see Return of the Jedi in the theater. It is the first movie I vividly remember going to see. If memory serves, they took me right after my kindergarten graduation. It was June of 1983, I was five years old and a true STAR WARS fanatic. My Halloween costume a year before had been Princess Leia; complete with the cinnamon bun hairstyle. Although the first movie came out the year I was born, I had been lucky enough, so I am told, to be taken to a re-release of it by my uncle when I was 4 years old. My father remembers me telling my dolls “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” I am sure my brothers and cousins have fond memories of playing Star Wars outside when we had family get-togethers. Two of my cousins, lucky guys, had light sabers that really lit up! What a galaxy George Lucas and his cast created for all of us children back then!
Last Christmas, just a year ago, I took my daughter to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Together, we then watched the other Star Wars films on DVD. Just a week ago, she and I were driving to visit family, when I learned of the death of Carrie Fisher. Not one to become visibly upset over celebrity deaths, I did, once we reached our destination, give her some toys to play with and sit quietly for more than a few minutes in sadness and contemplation. For, if Han Solo was my very first crush, then Princess Leia was for certain, my very first heroine, role model and idol.
And so she was for many young women in the years spanning 1977 until today. She was an icon for girls; a truly empowered princess. She did not lay in a glass box, waiting for a prince to wake her. She did not need to talk to birds and deer, to sing by fountains or whistle while she worked. Not Leia; she did not wait for men to fight against the Empire; she joined the Rebellion, smuggled information at risk to her own life, and fought bravely for the cause. Later films had her not just fighting, but leading the Rebellion; mastering her own strength and standing equal to all the men who fought bravely against the Empire. Never once was she portrayed as unequal to men by the filmmakers; not even when they dressed her in that gold bikini. She was wearing that very outfit when she took down Jabba the Hut! Her dialogue was as witty as any male characters, her bravery was as well known and her legacy in both that galaxy and in ours, has been preserved for 40 years.
As an English teacher, I often look at fictional characters and who is chosen to portray them when they are onscreen. Carrie Fisher became Princess Leia; at 19 years old, she held her own with her male cast mates, the only woman of any significance in that first film and in those that followed. To step into that spotlight and become an icon at such a young age must have been truly overwhelming, a challenge that may have seemed, at times in her life, insurmountable. Just as her onscreen persona was, Carrie Fisher was no wilting flower, but instead a vocal force, speaking out about mental illness and the struggles she managed to overcome to be successful. She continually sent the message that strength in life is always needed, recovery is ongoing, and that support is essential if we women are to not only survive, but thrive and become all we have ever dreamed of being.
At 19, I wonder if she dreamed that fans the world over would pay tribute to her on a cold December day. I wonder if she dreamed of being an on screen heroine for girls for years to come and an outspoken and impassioned advocate for mental health awareness. Or, at 19, was she just a young girl, filled with the same excitement and love for life that fills the hearts of teenage girls today, looking forward to what is over the horizon, or perhaps even in the next galaxy.
Our young ladies at SDA may not know for sure what the future holds; however, we teach them daily that no matter what lies in store for them, they are the heroines of their own life story, women who do not wait to be rescued, but who do the rescuing. Women who do not wait for men to lead the battles against the evils of the world, but who take on the battles themselves, ready and willing to face new challenges. We create daily a group of empowered young heroines, who will inspire change, improve the world, and become icons themselves for the next generation of young women to emulate. As I mourn the loss of my childhood heroine, I take comfort in her words from The Force Awakens. Hope is not lost today…it is found. Wherever each of us women finds inspiration to empower us to succeed, we carry it with us and touch lives forever.