Internet denizens got into our customary “go girl!” frenzy when Carrie Fisher took on critics of her appearance — initially aiming her virtual blaster at grousing fans and subsequently firing back at nasty New York Post writer Kyle Smith for sneering at her age. As these cycles tend to go, it was a rout. The masses cheered, deeming Fisher even more heroic than she was when Princess Leia singlehandedly strangled Jabba the Hutt. It seemed like yet another feel-good moment for pop-culture feminism, with Carrie Fisher as the latest “queen” who “owned” her “haters.”
Except what Fisher actually said went deeper than one might initially consider, even tweaking and undermining some of the accepted wisdom of today’s iteration of online feminism. She didn’t just say what many of her supporters said: “Stop hating — I’m a beautiful older women.” Instead, she basically said, “Screw beauty, it’s superficial anyway, and my other attributes matter way more than my appearance.”
How else to interpret her statements on Twitter? “Youth and beauty are not accomplishments.They’re the temporary happy by-products [sic] of time and/or DNA. Don’t hold your breath for either,” Fisher wrote. And: “My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.” And finally, my favorite: “My body is my brain bag, it hauls me around to those places and in front of faces where there’s something to say or see.” This latter statement is a somewhat shocking thing to hear in our cultural moment of hallowed mind-body connectedness. Whatever our ideology, we are a culture that enthuses about workouts and cleanses, seeking purification through physical transformation.
In fact, at this particular moment in time, dismissing beauty as unimportant and tedious, as Fisher has done, is positively radical. Today, selfies are celebrated, excellent lipstick is deemed feminist as hell, and putting in effort to look good is in no way seen as incompatible with empowerment. Nor should it be; feminism’s current relationship with beauty is focused on exposing the time and labor behind constructed appearances, and smashing the standards that reinforce white, thin female bodies (which Fisher was famous for having) by showing other bodies and faces as equally beautiful.
Praising Michelle Obama’s arms, spotlighting the new group of transgender models, and celebrating plus-size Instagram stars and athletes’ tough builds are all ways to push back against dominant and painful beauty standards. It’s vital and important work. And by doing this work, contemporary feminists are also shaking up stereotypes that haunt feminism: bra-burning, dowdy women who “don’t take care of themselves” on one end and shallow, manipulative shopaholics on the other. Contemporary feminist thinkers from beauty bloggers to Amy Schumer have successfully pointed out that most women are constantly buffing and primping just to look acceptably “bare” to male eyes. “Look at Beyoncé!” we cry. The most beautiful woman in the world is strong and wise, too, and her line “I woke up like this” cleverly pokes fun at the idea that cover-girl-worthy beauty is naturally occurring.
But again, what Fisher is actually saying goes even further beyond that level of critique and explanation: she thinks “taking care of yourself” is overrated, boring, and secondary to the life of the mind and spirit. She has gone on the record complaining about how dull it is to talk about dieting and exercise, and actively made fun of the training regimen she was on for the new films. She doesn’t buy in to the idea that, as Kyle Smith suggested, she should be grateful for her new body or her fitness regimen, preferring to lay it bare as a mandatory, frustrating aspect of her work. These quips, and that attitude, have earned her derision. But they also reinforce one of the best aspects of Star Wars‘ female characters: Rey and Leia are remembered by female fans for their baggy, nondescript desert outfits as much as male fans salivate over that one stupid slave bikini.
Speaking of the legacy of that lamentable bikini, as a woman who found herself fashioned into a sex symbol for nerds in order to sell a movie, Fisher may have particular cause for her utter rejection of her former body and disdain for the culture that worshipped it. And as a white woman, she has the privilege of remaking herself in her own image, critics be damned. So keeping her unique circumstance in mind, I don’t wish to valorize Fisher (I’m sure the outspoken actress has said many stupid and possibly offensive things in her time) — or even take her words as universally applicable and a Lesson For All Women Everywhere.
But I do think hers are words that 2016 needs to hear. Because her set of comments is also a corrective to a disturbing trend that Jia Tolentino nailed in her year-end essay on feminism, writing: “There is a growing inseparability between female narcissism and feminist liberation and female identity full stop; there is an idea that women and women’s bodies have to be sacred, treated worshipfully or never mentioned, in order to be worthwhile.” In our efforts to course-correct the pernicious white male gaze, are we replacing it with a female gaze that, in its own way, emphasizes external appearance and glossy success over substance and ideas? At the very least, it’s a question worth asking.
I wish it were OK for young women who don’t care about appearance to acknowledge that our bodies are just our brain bags, and that what matters are the things that, as Fisher puts it, we “say and see.” Sure, some of us might want more adorned bags, or sleeker ones (no one’s coming for your lipstick or spinning class), or utterly pragmatic ones that simply take us from place to place. But at least none of us would accept it as a given that Oprah, the most powerful woman in the entertainment industry and culture at large, would mournfully endorse Weight Watchers with this upsetting statement: “Inside every overweight woman is a woman she knows she can be.”
As a fellow writer and friend noted in a recent Facebook thread, we should feel free to start with a premise that’s closer to Fisher’s than Oprah’s: that the person we want to be is already there, and our packaging is arbitrary window dressing for the inner character that matters. Carrie Fisher can’t be the only person who feels that way, so in this year of ascendant feminism, why is she so alone in expressing it?