When Carrie Fisher appeared on screen in The Force Awakens, all the hairs on my arms stood up. I smiled. Then I winced. Who was this actor who looked like she could hardly move her own lips? I winced with the resigned understanding that no one truly is exempt from Hollywood's bullshit beauty ideals. I winced knowing that it would only be a matter of time before people started tearing her down based on her looks.
I grew up with Princess Leia-era Carrie Fisher and loved her most when she was proverbially spitting in Vadar's face, blasting her way through Storm Troopers, giving Jabba the Hut the business end of his disgusting shackles (in a bikini nonetheless), and leading the resistance to victory zooming around on Endor. She was a princess in title only; she hardly fit with Disneyfied stereotypical princesses of the 70s and 80s who danced around looking pretty waiting for their prince to swoop in at the rescue. Leia was always badass.
I was lucky to be too young to pick up on the body politics of Carrie Fisher in that harem get-up and how hard it probably was for her as a young actor working at the height of transparent industry sexism and misogyny where your body is your capital. Enter NY Post columnist Kyle Smith in 2015 who wrote, "No one would know the name Carrie Fisher if it weren't for her ability to leverage her looks," which are now, according to Smith and others, not representative of what movies want us to believe are desirable and ideal. More recently, conservative critic Bill O'Reilly remarked to guest Jesse Watters:
O'REILLY: But it comes out worse for our friend Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia, because she doesn't look like Princess Leia.
WATTERS: That's not nice.
O'REILLY: No, I don't know what she really looks like, but -- you know -- they're heavily made up, these actors.
I was less disturbed by Smith's lengthy take-down of Fisher, her looks, her talents and career, than I was of O'Reilly's statements. To me, they showcase the frighteningly blasé attitude we have in dismantling women's bodies. Why should we be outraged at the media for simply absorbing and broadcasting our casual body shaming for the world to see?
The ways in which we talk about girls and women's bodies in our everyday matter every bit, if not more, as the way they get talked about by critics, columnists, and cultural pundits. As a teen and young woman, I was often around men and women who made off-handed comments about "fatties" or girls who "could use a little work." How about these phrases that were sprinkled throughout conversation from your mother, your aunt, your grandmother: "She really let herself go;" "Maybe if she tried a little harder;" "Skinny bitch;" "Someone hit every branch on their fall out of the ugly tree." And we all know darker, crueler, cruder, and more violent body-hate speech that we have encountered. The attitudes of ordinary people, the frequency with which these kinds of statements show up in regular conversation, completely play a role in how powerful people in the media shape perceptions of women. Every time we call out another woman's "thunder thighs" with disgust while praising another for her "Michelle Obama arms" grants cultural permission to treat every body--man, woman, trans--as fair game for scrutiny, judgment, evaluation, and ultimately for categorization as "good/desirable or bad/devalued."
In response to Fisher's critics she answered in part: "Youth and beauty are not accomplishments. They're temporary by-products [sic] of time and/or DNA. Don't hold your breath for either." I'm grateful for her statement and its raw truth: A bikini is not beauty, neither is Botox or shiny hair. But we can't expect the media to reflect these ideas if we're entrenched in dialogue and behaviors with each other that reinforce the exact opposite.