Never the Ingénue: A Tribute to Carrie Fisher

When Carrie Fisher died Tuesday, I didn’t think of Star Wars.

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Sure, I came to know Fisher’s work through the iconic trilogy, as many of us did. Twelve years old and at an academic summer camp, I was reluctantly stuffed into a small, hot classroom, seated at a desk while a dingy television was wheeled in on a cart. Up until then, I’d deliberately avoided Star Wars due to a misguided idea that all the films had to offer were idiosyncratic aliens and futuristic space battles. And I had no interest in watching a bunch of guys shoot lasers at each other during my precious free time. What a breath of fresh air, then, what relief, to meet Leia, to see reflected in her my hope that women could be tough and smart and command armies—and doubly so, much later, for the older and wiser General Organa Leia would ultimately become.

But although Leia came first, it was Fisher’s role in When Harry Met Sally that resonated with me beyond the screen. Fisher, as Sally’s best friend Marie—justifiably characterized by Slate as one of the “all-time great supporting performances”—taught me that women could be quirky, flawed, candid and funny. What an unlikely lesson to learn from a romantic comedy, a genre I’d always thought (perhaps unfairly) flattened its female characters, rendering them as types: the neurotic, the naif, the shrew, the girl-next-door.

Marie’s affair with a married man provides one of the running gags of her friendship with Sally. The repeated conversations go something like this: Marie tells Sally some detail of her affair, suggesting her lover never intends to leave his wife. Sally agrees that “he’s never going to leave her.” Marie responds: “You’re right. You’re right. I know you’re right.” The genius of Fisher’s delivery is impossible to describe, but her ability to say the same lines again and again, yet each time different, with depth, each time deadpan and hilarious, somehow epitomizes Fisher’s brilliance and Marie’s charm.

In her penultimate book of nonfiction, Shockaholic, which recounts her voluntary subjection to electroshock therapy to battle her bipolar disorder, Fisher writes:

I never went into show business. It surrounded me from my first breath. A neater trick would’ve been for me to sneak out. I never wanted to be an actress, let alone a celebrity. I’d grown up watching the bright glow of my parents’ stardom slowly dim, cool, and fade. I watched both my parents scramble to stay in the light. But fame has an unpredictable half-life. While not necessarily fleeting it is guaranteed to inevitably flee. Runny and screaming from the room.

Fame may have followed Fisher, but it’s plain to see it wasn’t her goal. She’s acted, written novels and memoirs, raised a daughter; she’s been astonishingly open about her drug use, alcoholism and mental illness. Her dog has a Twitter account. In June, she started writing an advice column for the Guardian.  Having done a little of everything, Fisher, like Marie, has never been easy to pin down.

Over the years, I’ve heard people lament that Fisher so often found herself in supporting roles. But, as a teenager who once watched When Harry Met Sally every day for a month, I wanted to be Marie, not Sally. Who wants to be the ingénue when you can live an interesting life, battle your demons and, at the end of the day, be remembered for always being different?

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Aviva Dove-Viebahn is an honors faculty fellow at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. She’s written for both popular and academic venues on gender and sexuality in American culture, contemporary art and television.

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Comments

  1. Even to this day, 2 months later, I am still left in shock over the death of Carrie Fisher. I can vividly remember “playing” Star Wars when I was a child. Video games, toys, puzzles, and board games filled the halls of my house.

    Carrie is an icon of pop culture and will forever be missed. Rest in peace Carrie

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