I turned five in 1977, which I think most people in my American generation—and perhaps much of the world—will consider a year the planet changed. The first movie I, and I am sure many, ever went to a theater to see was Star Wars. Of course it made me the geek I still am to this very day, but there was an element there seeded in my young brain I did not realize for years. The Subversive Princess.
Let me set the stage a little more. I was living in very rural Arizona, and to be fair my parents, both, were some pretty tough people. Around that time while moving hay, my Mom accidently put two tines of a pitchfork through her boot and foot, and then drove herself to the clinic 30 miles away because my Dad was busy. My Dad would shoot rattlesnakes from the porch (sometimes while my Mom was maneuvering away from the snake, literally having to leap from the path of the buckshot) to protect the animals, and we didn’t have a working toilet. This was before the days of VCRs or widespread cable television, so entertainment was whatever came on the broadcast network, or the (and I am so thankful for this) books that littered the small trailer broiling in the Arizona sun. My Dad introduced me to Sci Fi very young (Bradbury, Burroughs, Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein) and when Star Wars came out, we made that same 30 mile journey to take the movie in one fine afternoon that, as will be pretty obvious if you scan through my Tumblr, forever molded my young psyche.
So, I, and I have no doubt at least 98.5 percent of my generation, fell in love with a certain Princess. At that point in history, we’d all been programmed by Disney to love Princesses, usually ones who were seeking their Prince Charming, or waiting to be rescued from their dark towers, guarded by Dark Knights or dragons. Indeed, in this story our Princess was in a fortified citadel guarded by a laser sword wielding menace who served as both dark knight AND dragon. But, what slipped past me at age five, yet burrowed into my subconscious, was the fact that this Princess looked the dragon in the eyes and did not flinch. That this Princess rescued her rescuers. That this Princess stood firm and resolute watching her entire kingdom vaporized.
And when I got a toy of that Princess, she came not with a hairbrush (though I guess they did that with a larger figure), but rather a pistol. And I found when I would play with those toys collectively, she had that pistol, and would make short work of my poor Stormtroopers, who like their movie counterparts, pretty much existed to be targets for the heroes.
As the movies came out in succession, I was growing up a bit. By the time The Empire Strikes Back came out, (and I had shifted to a slightly less remote Arizona town) I was buying Topps trading cards, meticulously organized…but any card with the Princess in a separate section, and the “A Brave Princess” card in my pocket more often than not. But again, here’s the Princess, now in a military uniform, and having to be forcefully evacuated from a full assault by that dragon Darth Vader. Who, when captured through betrayal, takes advantage of the first opportunity, grabs a rifle, kills some more (poor) Stormtroopers, and rushes into battle to free one of the male heroes. Here again, the subversive Princess was taking what society wanted me to believe about girls, and was turning it on its head.
Then came 1983, and another trope came to play with the Princess. After threatening to kill about a hundred aliens with a grenade to rescue the Damoiseau in Distress, she is indeed captured, and forced into an outfit bearing a great resemblance to many years of descriptions of another Princess, one of Mars, as described by the aforementioned Burroughs.
I will not dissemble here, the sight of my Dear Princess in this now infamous outfit when I was 11 was certainly welcome. I spent many years idolizing the “Steel Bikini” as so many of us did. What was planted by the subversive Princess in my brain though was that though forced into this humiliation, vengeance was to be hers.
Along with hip and leg, burned into my mind as well was a woman strangling an oppressor with the very chains in which he would hold her. Think about how visceral the death scene is for vile space gangster Jabba the Hutt. Again, not rescued by her freed beau, or the up and coming space knight who was at the time outside laser swording the hell out of a hundred minions, the Princess takes it upon herself to turn the instrument of her slavery into a weapon to slay her oppressor. Later, on the planet Endor when their position is about to be revealed by more white armored minions, now on flying motorcycles, with no hesitation she leaps on to one of the speeding vehicles, the farmboy turned space knight clinging on behind her for dear life.
So, in those three movies between 1977 and 1983, the seeds were planted for a generation of men who would realize they liked it better when the Princess saved herself, and a generation of women who were shown that you didn’t have to wait for a hero to come along, and even when down, threatened, or captive, could find weapons with which to fight back, even when all that was available was a sharp tongue to remark upon a villain’s “foul stench.”
No, not all men have gotten the message, and many will still watch for the steel bikini more intrigued by the Slave than the Huttslayer (and I still cannot dissemble; that Princess had a great influence on my discerning what words like “pretty,” “lovely,” and “sexy” meant). But more often now we see those types of characters—and men whose masculinity is apparently offended will complain—and I think we can lay so much of the fact those characters may be found in our popular fiction at the feet of The Subversive Princess fighting the Star Wars. The fight for representation is not yet won, but the seed still grows.
There is in any character a piece of the actor who portrays them. It was later as the subversive message of strength in the Princess grew in my head I began to more and more realize that Carrie Fisher contributed so much more than society wanted me to see to that character. Wit, humor, acerbic intolerance of foolishness; Carrie Fisher in real life broke through expectations by being the pretty showbiz daughter who also became a renowned novelist, fixed many men’s scripts when they had written an inferior screenplay, and would not hesitate to share her wins and losses in a battle against mental illness- that thing no one talks about, hush now. Perhaps most subversive about The Subversive Princess is that she was real in a very real way, and she swaggered and cursed and carried around a French bulldog, and to HELL with how you think she should behave or talk or have imposed on her by Hollywood, Society, Directors, or Fans.
All of that was brought home for me in September of 2015 when I got to meet her, ever so briefly, as she walked the floor of a Comic Convention in Portland, Oregon where my artistic partner and I were hawking our wares. She was witty and smart and beautiful and more than a little eccentric, and I wished there was some way I could have gone back to share the experience with the 10-year-old who carried the trading card.
I would also though have to share that she is now gone, and for better or for worse immortalized as The Subversive Princess who left her mark on so many, even those who have not yet gotten the message. There are many things, good and bad, Carrie Fisher was in her life, and many of those things left behind are remarkable (my God, her prose is sublime); but I will always first think of her as the Huttslayer, Royalty with a Rifle, The Subversive Princess.
And I am a better man today for it.