“Don’t be a slave like I was… You keep fighting against that slave outfit,” Carrie Fisher told Daisy Ridley, the actress who portrayed the heroine Rey in 2015’s new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Fisher, who died on Dec. 27 at the age of 60, was referring to her uncomfortably iconic sequence in Return of the Jedi (1983), in which the filmmakers dressed her in a striking golden bikini and chained her character, Princess Leia, to a giant phallic slug. Fisher disliked the outfit, the scene, and the symbolism of that moment; she was warning Ridley not to let the filmmakers disempower her.
In many action films, Strong Female Characters suffer from what Tasha Robinson calls Trinity Syndrome (named after The Matrix’s heroine): Badass women have to inexplicably fail and flail so that the male hero can seem more heroic, just as how in The Matrix, Trinity has to take a backseat to Neo even though she’s more experienced and more competent. This never happens in Star Wars, though, in part because Leia is much more than an action hero: She’s also a political and military leader who commands rebel attack forces in future films.
The slug-slave scene was so over the top that it can overwhelm the rest of Leia—and, to some extent, Fisher herself. But what’s more remarkable about the scene is that it was so out of character: Through the rest of the films, Leia is not a helpless sex object. In fact, she’s not any one thing at all. Instead, Fisher occupied a range of personas and roles, quietly creating one of the least stereotypical and least constrained female action heroes in Hollywood history.
Leia starts off in A New Hope (1977) as a princess who needs to be rescued in the usual way. For her savior, Luke Skywalker, she’s literally an image first and a person second, as R2D2 spits out her holographic likeness for his inspiration and consumption. When Luke and Han Solo actually find her though, she’s hardly a demure damsel in distress—instead, she’s a badass female space-fighter. When Luke shows up in disguise to rescue her, a romantic musical theme begins to play but is quickly deflated by Carrie Fisher’s sardonic one liner: “Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?” Soon thereafter she’s firing blasters and gunning down storm troopers along with the rest of the guys—and informing the cocky Han Solo that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Being a political leader means that Leia is kept away from front lines—at least some of the time. But then she also gets to join in the action, and in Empire, spar with an indignant Han Solo in a screwball-comedy-within-a-space-opera. “I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser brain,” is admittedly not incredibly sophisticated repartee, but Fisher gets enough scorn in there to make it work.
Once Leia does fall for Han, she doesn’t just sink into tedious niceness, as is often the fate of rom-com heroines. Instead, she gets to do what women in Hollywood hardly ever used to do: rescue her hapless man. She does so in Return of the Jedi by dressing up as an androgynous bounty hunter who outwits the evil Jabba to rescue frozen Han Solo in a gender-flipped reversal of Sleeping Beauty. Even when she’s caught and shackled in that infamous metal bikini, she isn’t helpless herself; instead, chained to Jabba she strangles him with the very bonds of the patriarchy .
Fisher recently revealed that she had an affair with Harrison Ford back in the day. “I suppose in part I’m telling this story now because I want all of you—and I do mean all—to know that I wasn’t always a somewhat-overweight woman without an upper lip to her name,” she said. “I was once a relevant piece of ass.”
And yet, in her last turn as Leia, in 2015’s The Force Awakens, she played Leia as a realistically aging woman. Action films aren’t usually interested in—or willing to represent—older women, but Fisher as Leia was sufficiently iconic that she managed to toss out that rule, too.
Perhaps Leia got to fulfill so many roles in part because she was virtually the only woman in the Star Wars universe during those first three films. Or perhaps Lucas and his collaborators, inspired by the feminism of the time (or by Fisher herself) were simply more imaginative than most of their peers. In any case, through the Star Wars films, Fisher was both rescued and a rescuer, a sexy slave, an androgynous bounty hunter, an older matriarch, a scrappy rebel fighter, a seasoned politician, an action lead, and a romantic lead.
Even compared to current female action heroes—including Rey and Jyn in the recent Star Wars reboots—Leia was remarkably unlimited by gender stereotypes or expectations, moving from one role to another with an irrepressible intelligence. Fisher was much more than the role of Leia, but Leia remains a standing reminder to Hollywood of how much women can be, not just in a universe far, far away, but at home as well.