LOOK­ING TO LEIA

Red Eye Chicago - - Cover Story -

There were signs quot­ing “The Big Le­bowski” and signs quot­ing “Hamil­ton.” There were faux-cam­paign posters for Les­lie Knope, the do-gooder hero­ine of “Parks and Recre­ation.” In Washington, one young man hoisted a por­trait of Lu­cille Bluth, the sharp-tongued ma­tri­arch from “Ar­rested Devel­op­ment,” sip­ping a mar­tini be­low a speech bub­ble that said, “I don’t care for Trump.”

But among the many dif­fer­ent pop-cul­ture ref­er­ences spot­ted at the mas­sive women’s marches held across the coun­try and the world on Jan. 21, per­haps none were as preva­lent—or pow­er­ful—as the images of Princess Leia.

Car­rie Fisher’s char­ac­ter from “Star Wars” was there at the Women’s March on Washington, her youthful face on one sign cast­ing a steely gaze from above the words “his­tory has its eyes on you” on an­other marcher’s sign.

She was in Los Angeles, where the charac- ter’s ma­ture ver­sion, Gen­eral Or­gana, stared boldly be­low the phrase “A woman’s place is in the Re­sis­tance.”

She was in New York City, and in cities and town across the coun­try—and even over­seas, car­ried by self-pro­claimed “nasty women” marching in Frank­furt, Ger­many.

The char­ac­ter was a strik­ing icon for a proudly fem­i­nist demon­stra­tion. As a young princess in the early movies, Leia was a re­silient survivor de­ter­mined to fight for her cause. As a mid­dle-aged woman in 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens,” she had en­dured po­lit­i­cal strife and per­sonal tragedy but re­mained the for­mi­da­ble leader of the right­eous re­bel­lion.

“Leia keeps fight­ing when things seem im­pos­si­ble,” tweeted fem­i­nist writer Anne Théri­ault last month. This was just af­ter Fisher’s sud­den death at age 60, when her defin­ing role was once again on ev­ery­one’s mind. Théri­ault ar­gued that it was the older it­era- tion of Leia who was the most em­pow­er­ing fem­i­nist char­ac­ter of all.

“She’s in it for the long haul,” Théri­ault wrote. “…With­out Leia, the re­bel­lion would have [been] quashed long ago.”

The Women’s March protest was so­cial me­dia-driven—it was cre­ated on­line, or­ga­nized on­line and shared on­line—and in a cli­mate where clever signs quickly go vi­ral, it’s not sur­pris­ing to see so many pop-cul­ture ref­er­ences, said Leah Mur­ray, a pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at We­ber State Univer­sity in Utah.

So­cial me­dia “is so primed for the use of en­ter­tain­ment-in­formed ma­te­rial in memes,” she said.

Ref­er­enc­ing a char­ac­ter like Leia “en­ables pro­test­ers to draw on the im­age of strength or power or re­sis­tance those char­ac­ters demon­strated in their re­spec­tive stories of strug­gle and em­pow­er­ment,” said Mary Triece, a pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of women’s stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Akron in Ohio.

Fisher’s own off-screen story of strug­gle and em­pow­er­ment helped bol­ster her fem­i­nist cre­den­tials for many fans. She had openly shared her per­sonal his­tory with bipo­lar dis­or­der and sub­stance abuse, and as­sailed stig­mas as­so­ci­ated with men­tal ill­ness. She cham­pi­oned fem­i­nist causes—and she lobbed plenty of crit­i­cisms at Don­ald Trump, be­fore and af­ter he won the pres­i­dency.

Based on re­cent his­tory, it’s likely Fisher would have wanted to be among the many celebri­ties who joined the marches across the na­tion—a point noted by her “Star Wars” co-star Mark Hamill, who saluted on Twit­ter the fans who car­ried Princess Leia into the crowded streets:

“I know where she stood. You know where she stood. Such an honor to see her stand­ing with you to­day. Bigly. #Re­sis­tance #WorldWideWomen­sMarch”

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