On Leia and Lightsabers

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Image source: Carrie Fisher’s Dog @Gary_TheDog

I would have been eight or nine when I saw Star Wars at the cinema. It was the last movie my family ever attended together. After that, it was kid or kids with mum or dad, but never all of us, ever again.

We kids were excited. We argued about what the promos meant. We were suitably alarmed by the dark helmeted, deep-voiced scary guy, who we thought was the titular ‘Star Wars’. No, it didn’t make sense, but we were kids in single digits. In the 70s. We’d only just got colour television and we weren’t even allowed to watch Star Trek because it was too grown up.

Needless to say, we loved Star Wars. We clamoured to see it again, we got Star Wars action figures for Christmas (well, everyone else did; no Leia, so I missed out) and we role played it endlessly with various groups of friends. We used yellow Mattel race tracks for light sabers, leaping on couches, racing up stairs and jumping out from around corners. We did a lot of shouting.

I, as the only girl, was always Leia. I didn’t mind; I loved Leia. She was tough and smart-mouthed and brave and I loved her boots. What I minded was the fact was that the boys always denied me a lightsaber. All the boys got lightsabers, whether they were Luke or Han or any number of other invented characters. But Leila couldn’t have a lightsaber because she didn’t have one in the movie. I’d point out to Han that he didn’t have one in the movie either, and he’d tell me that didn’t matter, because all boys could have lightsabers. Boys could be Jedi Knights and have light sabers so Han could have a lightsaber but Leia couldn’t because girls couldn’t be Jedi Knights. Knights were boys. Period.

After a few rounds of tantrums and sulks and it’s-not-fair appeals to dismissive grown ups, I learned I was on my own. If I wanted to be part of the game, I had to submit to the boys’ rules. If I objected, there were eye-rolls and jeers and the game moved on without me. Once, when I refused to be rescued yet AGAIN and broke myself out of my sofa bed prison, the boys locked me in our lightless basement and I screamed until the grown ups came running and I was rescued for real. I got a lecture on why I shouldn’t provoke the boys; why, as the eldest, I was responsible for ensuring we all got along; and why it was silly to be afraid of the dark. The boys got a lecture on being polite to girls and playing fair. We were all told that if we couldn’t work it out, we wouldn’t be allowed to play at all. The boys glared at me for ruining their fun. I glared back, sniffling and seething with childish resentment.

In the end, I had to be content with a blaster and an active role in my own rescue after being, inevitably, captured by some baddy or other (usually Darth Vader).  I got to be reckless and short-tempered, because this created conflict and laughter and more situations from which I had to be rescued. But no piloting x-wings, and especially no lightsaber.

For the Leia I wanted to be, I had to retreat to my imagination. My Leia was fiery and smart and compassionate. She had refused to give up the rebel headquarters under torture, so she was brave. She had watched as her entire planet was destroyed by the Death Star, so she was sad. She should have been crushed, but she wasn’t; she had a mission, and she fought to complete it. To my mind, there was no way Luke could not teach her to use a lightsaber, especially if they were to go on having adventures together. In tight corners, my wisecracking Leia would pull out her lightsaber and proceed to saber the heck out of astonished baddies. She would face off against Vader, again and again, never backing down, never giving up. She would lead the rebellion to victory after victory, as new incarnations of the Empire rose and fell.

That Leia, of course, lived only in my head. On-screen, Leia was pretty much relegated to a handbag after the first (or fourth, depending on how you count) Star Wars movie. I was dead disappointed in what both sequels did with and to Leia: she devolved into a plot device and a love interest. That dodgy seduction scene with Han? The space bikini? At least she got to strangle Jabba. My interest waned, and I moved on to other loves.

My Leia returned with The Force Awakens, at least in part. We got a glimpse of the original Leia: irascible, vulnerable, stubborn. This Leia is older, but she is the Leia of the original Star Wars, stomping about in practical boots and getting on with the job despite her personal trauma. Her story is thin, but that’s as it ever was.

And now the woman who played Leia – and who was so much more than the character who made her famous – has died, taking Leia with her. I adored Carrie Fisher. I admired the way she carved her space in the world, post Star Wars, as an author and screen-doctor and comedian. I read her books and I read about her. I loved her ascerbic wit, her incisive humour, her no-holds-barred mental health advocacy. I loved that she loved her dog.

Farewell, Carrie Fisher. Farewell, Leia.

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