When I was six years old, I saw Annie Hall. It wasn’t until I watched it again in my 20’s that I recognized the complex relationships and fully formed persona of Oscar winner Diane Keaton’s title character. In the intermittent years, if you asked me about Annie Hall, the only thing I could remember was Woody Allen’s memory of growing up in a house underneath Coney Island’s famed Thunderbolt coaster.
The same year, 1977, I also saw Star Wars. We went to three theaters before we finally found one that had tickets – and it was standing room only. For much of the film, I sat on my dad’s shoulders in the back of the theater, taking in every breathtaking moment. From the age of six on, I could recite almost every line in that film. I related to Luke, to Han, to the droids, to the Wookie, and even to Leia. But as a young boy, I lacked something. I couldn’t relate to Leia as a girl would.
When Carrie Fisher passed away this week (my piece relating her performance to that of mother Debbie Reynolds in How The West Was Won can be found on InPark Magazine’s website), Thinkwell’s Cynthia Sharpe posted her perspective on what this meant to her as a woman on Facebook, which I hereby republish without her permission, because such is the ThemedReality way.
Two really important things happened to me within the same horrible year of junior high, which shaped me immeasurably. One, my school librarian slipped me “The Hero and the Crown’ and ‘The Blue Sword’, whispering to me to not let my particularly humorless about girls reading ‘boyish’ things principal see me with them. Two, I finally got to see the entire Star Wars (original) trilogy.
Combined, they rocked my world. Girls could be heroes. *Girls could be heroes*. Girls could be self-rescuing princesses. Girls could be smart, and crafty, and clever. They could be snarky and sarcastic. They could have complicated love lives. They could be actual well-rounded characters, instead of window dressing. They could be the masters of their own destinies. I couldn’t quite verbalize it at the time, why seeing Leia in a slave bikini pissed me off so damn much, but even then it did. Nice try, stuffing her back in the window dressing box, guys.
As a child, I appreciated Carrie Fisher’s characters. As an adult, her wit, wisdom, audacity. She opened the door for me to talk about addiction and mental health with my kid. You can keep your ‘when I am old I shall wear purple’ simpering crap. When I’m old, I wanna have Carrie Fisher’s total willingness to live out loud, unfiltered, no bullshit. A year ago I sat in a darkened movie theatre, behind my child, and though I had seen stills and clips, nothing prepared me for the moment that General Organa filled the screen. Older. Battle hardened. Not a magic sparklepony force user. No, a woman who had lead the resistance through loss after loss (both personal and sweeping). My hands flew to my face and I must have gasped, because Sean craned around in his seat and eyeballed me. I watched her weary face and no nonsense demeanor and saw countless female execs, professors, political leaders who’ve been through a similar grind. Carrie Fisher once again was representing so many of us. Not pretty. Not perky. Not conventional. *Competent*. Good- nay, great- at what we fucking do. And thoroughly done with bullshit.
David Bowie, Prince, George Michael, Carrie Fisher. I can draw an arc through and with all of them, all people who profoundly shaped what it meant to embrace yourself, to live life unapologetically, to be authentic in a visceral, norm-defying kind of way. They were our generation’s torch bearers, who lit the way for those of us who didn’t quite fit inside neat boxes. And while I felt the first three keenly, it’s the loss of Carrie Fisher that makes my face crumple. Maybe because of what next year will bring. Maybe because it feels like we haven’t come that far from 1977 when a princess who could wield a blaster was so boundary breaking.
I was so moved by Cynthia’s piece that I tracked her down to the private island in Indonesia that she calls her winter home and invited to join me for a conversation about Fisher and Leia over that second of grandest inventions by Al Gore (following global warming) – the internet.
If you’re not familiar with Cynthia, she is the Prinicipal, Cultural Attractions and Research at Thinkwell Group, and as such oversees the development of all educational programming. She has worked on three projects that have received the prestigious Thea Award from the Themed Entertainment Association, including that Harry Potter studio tour that the Mrs. keeps insisting I fly her to London to visit. And this is why our discussion moved into theme parks.
TR: I’d like to discuss how Carrie Fisher’s performance had a profound impact on the Disney heroines that followed, creating an empowered generation of young girls, which in turn changed the way Disney approached its shows and attractions
CS: Well, Princess Leia – and later, General Organa- certainly had an enormous impact even thought at the time of her creation, Leia wasn’t a Disney property.
When she first filled the big screen, most of our film heroines of a certain age were of a type. They were objects of romance, or scream queens. They were pretty and not the drivers of their own destiny, often. Princess Leia was a princess with a blaster! She had agency, skill, wit, and was- forgive my language- a badass. She wasn’t solely defined by her relationships to other men.
Despite the occasionally cheesy hairstyles, lack of bras in space, or that god awful slave bikini, you can draw a direct line from Leia screaming through the forests of Endor on a speeder to Merida galloping through the forests on her horse, or Anna taking off to find Elsa.
TR: One thing I’ve noticed is that much like Leia, the Disney princesses seemed to transform from damsels in distress needing a man to save them to empowered women that were considered equals.
CS: Exactly. And it makes sense. I’m of the same generation as Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Kristen Anderson-Lopez (songwriter, along with her husband, of Frozen). We are the generation who finally had a strong heroine in pop culture: Leia.
So it stands to reason that the women who came of age watching Leia and the strong female characters who followed her would want to continue to push that forward for a new generation of little girls in plush theatre seats.
TR: As the Disney parks are very character-centric, how have you seen this change in female character design affect the design of attractions in parks?
CS: Great question. I’ll admit there are ways in which I think they haven’t pushed it enough (I, for one, would burn every fastpass I could on a Brave ride rather than just a character meet-n-greet). But, having said that, we see it in ways both big and small. Re-skinning Maelstrom into Frozen could have been the equivalent of the Journey of the Little Mermaid- a rehash of the movie – to satisfy the need. Instead, it is bar none one of the smartest dark rides I’ve seen in ages. It’s thoughtful, witty, emotional- the use of that track is brilliant- and it *advances the story of the two sisters more*. They continue to be the heroines of their world.
On the ‘Small’ side- it won’t be small for long, given the Star Wars land work- but the gender parity and inclusion we see in Star Wars events in park is great. You don’t see only male staff in character- you see men and women and there’s absolutely no ‘well you can only be a princess’ exclusion of girls. Leia kicked butt. Rey kicked butt. There’s room for girls now and Disney is embracing that as fast as they can, given the realities of how long it takes to build a ride or land.
TR: A modern actress that I see having many of the same traits of Leia up on screen is Zoe Saldana. In 2017, we’ll see a new Disney attraction and a whole land based on franchises she starred in – Avatar and Guardians of the Galaxy. Will having lands or attractions based on films with strong female characters result in attractions that give a strong empowering message to young girls?
CS: I think so. It plain makes good business sense. When we look at the statistics of who drives disposable income spending in families, tweens have huge, huge influence- over 70B USD, on everything from what movie the family goes to on a weekend, to what car mom gets, to where they vacation. Tweens and teens are embracing films and characters where girls are empowered, are shaping the action and are right there in the thick of it. And this generation doesn’t hesitate to call out what they see as unfair or not doing justice to source material. Simply put: if you’re doing a land or attraction on a property with a strong female character, you had better get her right, or you’re going to hear about it from the fan base and you’re not going to get their (or their parents’) income and attention as thoroughly as you want.
TR: One last question – what are your thoughts about her scene in Rogue One and the timing of the film’s release being so close to her death?
CS: I think it’s actually going to be way harder to watch the next film- I understand she was done filming- than to see Rogue One again. Because in the next film she’s General Organa. She’s Princess Leia after Seeing It All, Losing So Much, Pushing Through The Horror. I personally felt from a storytelling standpoint it was important to end Rogue One- which, wow, it’s not like you didn’t know what kind of a mood it had to set – on a note that brings it full circle to the ‘start’ of the mythos and the opening of A New Hope.
The reminder that after all of this horror, after so much loss, there’s still hope- that was an important beat. But, personally? I think the punch of watching General Organa and knowing she’s gone will be much, much harder.