“I was not a damsel in distress. I was a distressing damsel.” – Carrie Fisher, on playing Princess Leia
Dear Princess Leia,
For as long as I can remember, you’ve been a part of my life. I was introduced to you when I was around five or six years old (definitely before I was seven because I have memories of watching A New Hope in the first house I lived in), and it was love at first sight. You had brown hair like I did, you were small like I was, and—most importantly—you were a girl like me. When I played Star Wars with my cousins on the playground near our grandparents’ house, I didn’t have to just watch while they played heroes like Luke and Han. Thanks to you, I got to play a hero, too, every time I pretended to be you (which was often).
You were the first female hero I met through the media, the first in a long line that took me past Sydney Bristow and Hermione Granger on the way to Zoe Washburne, Katniss Everdeen, and Kate Beckett. I may have had many fictional role models along the way as I grew up, but you never forget your first.
I was born at a time when Disney princesses were experiencing a renaissance, when Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine started showing some smarts and spark that were missing from their earlier counterparts. I loved and still love Belle with the fervor of a three-year-old watching her sing about the “great, wide somewhere” for the first time, but pretending to be Belle was never as much fun as pretending to be you.
When I pretended to be you, I got to run and climb and boss people around. I got to play a game with higher stakes than just finding a prince; I got to fight Darth Vader for the freedom of an entire galaxy.
I learned so much from you without even realizing it until much later. I learned about passion, courage, and fighting for what you believe in. I learned that women can be political leaders and military strategists. I learned that smart women are the ones who get to do all of the cool stuff, like leading attacks on the Death Star (and capturing the heart of Han Solo). I learned that there are times when even strong women need rescuing, but then there are times when they get to do the rescuing, too.
I’ve always been a tiny girl with a big mouth, and with the memory of you etched in my brain from early childhood, I’ve always felt like those things are a pretty great combination. You spoke your mind, so I grew up believing it was okay to do the same. You never let the men around you keep you from voicing your opinions; being a woman never meant you had to be silent. You were just as good a leader and a shot as the men around you, so I grew up believing I could do anything boys could do. That’s a belief that fades for a lot of girls as they grow up, but I’m so thankful that I had a fictional role model like you (in addition to the great role models I’ve had in my everyday life) to show me that women are in no way “the weaker sex.”
When I was in junior high, I was introduced to the concept of “playing dumb” to get a boy to like you. At that fragile age, we as young women are taught through most media we encounter that the most desirable women are those who downplay their intelligence, strengths, passions, and personalities to become whatever a man wants them to be. We’re not supposed to “intimidate” boys; it’ll scare them away.
But then, once again, I went back to you. You—with your biting sarcasm and sharp comebacks. You—with your unashamed intelligence and power. You weren’t worried about intimidating anybody; in fact, you wanted to intimidate people if it served your purpose. And when you found love, it was because of your intelligence, your spark, and your self-sufficiency—not despite those things. You never had to change one iota about yourself to get your happy ending.
You woke the sleeping pirate from hibernation, which was exactly the kind of twist on the fairytale that I needed to see. Yours was a love story filled with challenge and passion, a relationship of equals. When Han told you he loved you as you pulled out your blaster to take down Imperial troopers and you gave him an “I know” in reply, I discovered the kind of love story that I want.
From one short, Type-A brunette to another, thank you. Thank you for being a princess with a goal beyond finding prince charming, for being a princess with opinions and a penchant for sharing them, and for being a princess who is so much more than just a metal bikini (though the way you killed Jabba the Hutt singlehandedly while wearing said bikini will never cease being awesome to me).
I think I speak for every girl who grew up with Star Wars when I say you really helped usher in a wave of powerful female characters in traditionally male-dominated media. In a world that was all about the boys, you gave girls something to relate to and someone to aspire to be.
The little girl inside of me thanks you. The adolescent girl inside of me thanks you. And the woman I am now thanks you, too.