Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Bless You Carrie Fisher

Sometimes it seems that 2016 has been a cursed year for celebrities.  For myself as a child of the 70s/80s, it's felt like watching as a piece at a time, part of my childhood has died from David Bowie, to Prince, to UK radio personality Terry Wogan.

It seems that 2016 had one last nasty left.  Carrie Fisher fell ill on a long haul flight from London to Los Angeles. The whole world held their breath, but this morning I'm waking up to a feed full of "Princess Leia dead".

It's always awkward when an actor dies.  As with Leonard Nimoy, you can't help talking a little about the role that makes them famous, and we will.  But there is an aspect to Carrie which is the reason behind this post.

Let's talk about Leia

Okay - in a nutshell, Star Wars isn't really that original a concept, 'let's rescue the Princess' is a common theme in fantasy, and okay to mix things up it was done in space.  But let's talk about that princess, and how she broke the mould.

You see until that time in the 1970s, 'the princess archetype' would be a helpless woman who the bad guys henchmen would just grab and throw in the dungeon.  In Star Wars, when a stormtrooper said 'grab her', this princess came out fighting, shooting him dead to rights.

Groundbreaking for the time.  But of course she wasn't allowed to be too groundbreaking.  Where a guy would just continue to shoot it out with the villains, Princess Leia then attempts a feeble run away and is shot in the back.  I guess we weren't ready for a female as an equal billing action hero.

Leia turns out to be in charge of a resistance, the Rebel Alliance.  She's tortured, blackmailed with the destruction of her home planet, but doesn't give in.  She refuses to be intimidated or broken.  She never pleads for herself, only when others are threatened.  She's is undeniably feisty and barely recognisable from your typical fairytale princess.

When she is rescued, she picks up a gun, and starts shooting it out with the boys.  She proves her feistiness again by having some of the best lines during their escape from the Death Star, "you came in that? You're braver than I thought".

Some friends at school hated that about her, she's been rescued, and she's just bitchy.  But then again she's breaking 'the princess archetype' by not just throwing herself at the guys who rescued her.  [Notice she kisses Luke once for luck escaping the Death Star, but apart from that any romance is in Luke's head.  At the end she hugs Luke for destroying the Death Star, but it's more that of a friend]

It broke the mould of the time, but like I said, today it seems dated.  Leia is the only one of the band repeatedly shot.  And in Return Of The Jedi, she even turns the table on 'rescue the princess' by being instrumental in 'rescue the smuggler' of Han, although because she's a girl she soon needs rescuing herself.  [Even then, she manages to single handedly take down Jabba The Hutt, without needing a lightsabre]

Princess Leia paved the way for future heroines who have become a staple of subsequent movies.  Heroines like Brave's Merida, Shrek's Princess Fiona, and of course Star Wars Padme Amidala and Rey.

Look at Leia - Padme - Rey, each one is allowed to be more daring than the next, require less rescuing, be more capable of effecting their own escape.  This shows a kind of normalisation.  But it all started with Leia.

Let's talk about Carrie

So Star Wars happened in the 70s and 80s, but after Return Of The Jedi, most of the cast seemed to vanish.  Only Harrison Ford seemed to be keeping busy, although Carrie and Mark Hamill seemed to be taking the Rutger Hauer route into occasional direct-to-video low budget movies.

Carrie Fisher seemed to vanish.  There were a lot of rumours in magazines I read about her 'having problems'.  Drugs and mental problems were loosely talked about, it felt like another Hollywood casualty, someone we'd get over as we all just moved on.

But she never quite vanished, she still persisted in media, talking about her issues - she'd become addicted to cocaine, she was diagnosed as 'manic depressive' or bipolar in today's terms.  In another era, this would have been career suicide, she'd have been shunned.  But she wasn't - although of course she had more than a fair share of 'haters', some of which rose to a head with plenty of unfair criticism aimed at her during Star Wars VII The Force Unleashed.  Using dialogue worthy of her onscreen character, she rose above it, whilst getting in a few well place quips which placed her as a feminist Oscar Wild witicist at times.

Over the last two decades she acted less, and write more - Postcards From The Edge was semi-autobiographical.  She also helped to edit and doctor screenplays.

Carrie Fisher along with British comedian Spike Milligan were the first public celebrities I knew who talked openly about their mental health struggles.  And they did so in an era where mental health was stigmatised.  A common tool they used was their sense of humour to get through the bleak parts, but also to help communicate what they were going through.

Mental health is an issue I've discussed a lot on this blog in the past.  I've been overwhelmed with the reception I've had to some of that writing, it's an issue the IT community is passionate about doing better in.  At the recent Agile Test Days conference I ended up talking a lot with others about the subject, listening to their stories, all of which moved me a lot.  But without a doubt, people want to talk about mental health because it's important to them - they want to be open when they have issues, and it be okay to seek help rather than suffer in silence out of pride, feeling they have a form of mental leprosy which will see them banished.

To me, Carrie Fisher was a pioneer talking about her issues in an era when it was taboo, and she risked and experienced heavy stigmatisation.  Her bipolar might have laid her low at times, but she proved to be stronger than that.  She was braver than Princess Leia going up against Darth Vader in this.  She broke the taboos of the time, she showed that 'it's okay to talk about this stuff'.

It's for that reason that in a year when we've lost so many celebrities, her loss has hit hardest.

Farewell Carrie Fisher,

Carrie talked with Stephen Fry about her experiences as part of his program 'The Secret Life Of The Manic Depressive'.