Back in October, when glass ceilings seemed shatter-able and not steeled, I was a judge for a Halloween costume contest. There was the expected assortment of ghouls and zombies, mummies and small, adorable witches in black, pointed hats. What was lacking were multitudes of frilly princesses in confectionary gowns all a-sparkle. I admit, I was surprised.
Way back in the 1970s, as a girl gearing up for the glory of a New England Halloween, there weren’t a lot of female icons to choose from. Come October 31, your choices fell somewhere between gypsy and witch. If you were lucky, Wonder Woman in a bullet-proof brassiere and sweaty, plastic mask.
Where were all the heroes a girl could see her reflection within?
It’s naive to assume that along the arc of history girls and women have been sitting silent and still on the sidelines. It is incorrect to assume that women have not been steadily contributing to art and science and exploration, mathematics, innovation. Women—explorers and inventors, leaders and heroes—have always been there, it is just that more often than not, we’ve been left–or forced–out of the narrative.
As an elementary school girl I read about Vasco de Gama and Magellan, Isaac Newton and Galileo; the artists, the authors, the musicians, the doers and inventors, the sports figures—they were all male, almost all white. There were a handful of women thrown in, but not many.
As a girl, you were often left with…princesses.
And then, in 1977, along came Carrie Fisher in a belted toga and cinnamon bun hair and in one epic reel of film, girls of my generation suddenly had a hero of their very own. A badass princess who could shoot a gun, was mouthy, and was organizing a resistance against a tyrannical regime.
For many girls, pig-tailed and searching for something they couldn’t name, she was a first.
The only people who underestimate the importance of representation—in books, or films, or even in everyday life, are those who don’t need to look far to see themselves reflected in the eyes of society; the first television show you turn on, the first history book you open, the first book from the canon of literature. But when nothing you see in the world matches the you that stares back from the mirror, it makes you question your own validity. It can feel as if you exist in a vacuum.
It’s not surprising one of the first real female heroes of my generation was from a science fiction film, set in a time and place where it was safe for females to rule, to fight, to command. It seems, in 2016, in real life, we are still not ready for a female to do that. Yet, at the end of the day, Leia was still a Princess, still a damsel in need of rescuing, but she was the first princess I remember who transcended passiveness. Leia didn’t sit around waiting, braiding her hair and biding her time until a prince came to shoot the truest arrow for her hand. She spearheaded a guerrilla movement.
Dig just a little and you will see how large a part women played in the French resistance movement, how crucial women were working at Bletchley Park to crack the Enigma, how women contributed to space exploration at NASA and computer engineering. How women have been there, all along.
When I was a young girl, heroes were men. No one ever did the digging to show us the heroes who were women.
Oh, but Leia! Leia was a girl.
I suppose it’s fitting that of all that the post-mortems I’ve written this year, Carrie Fisher’s would be the last. In a year which was filled with ups and downs for many women, a year in which many women saw their own reflection in a potential leader for the first time, that the last post-mortem should be for actress who brought us Princess Leia. Leia was the first princess many Toughskin wearing girls saw and wanted to emulate–not because she was blonde and beautiful, but because she wasn’t. She could hold her own, on her own.
As I watched my social media feed explode with remembrances of Fisher, but mostly of Leia, I wasn’t surprised. The effect Leia had on an entire generation of girls who saw, on screens, the bits of themselves they had no room to express before is profound. Leia came and blew life into the vacuum.
Back in October, watching the parade of costumes, my heart sang. I have no problem with girls who like to dress as princesses, but to see how the spectrum of choice has grown exponentially between their generation and my own was a beautiful thing. There was a Jillian Holtzman, the scientist from the Ghostbusters reboot, a baseball player from A League of Their Own and a kick-ass Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. How many more heroes to choose from these days. When given the option, most of these young girls chose strength and smarts over sparkle and sequins.
It’s no accident that most of those girls have mothers who watched Carrie Fisher blast her way across movie screens a few decades ago.
Carrie Fisher was much more than Princess Leia Organa of Alderon, of course. She was a noted author, an advocate for mental health and addiction recovery. She was a sharp-tongued wit and a feminist. A mother, a daughter. She was complex and imperfect, a warrior scarred from battles both personal and public. Carrie Fisher, like Leia, was the reflection of so many of us, unafraid to put her scars on display.
But for many, she will be remembered, primarily, as that Princess.
Thank you, Carrie, for giving a generation of girls a Princess who could shoot straight and smart. There is still a long way to go until the force is in balance. We’ll take your lessons forward as we try to find it.