When Carrie Fisher suffered a heart attack on a plane on Dec. 23, it seemed like a collective final straw for many of the women in my life. 2016 had taken so many wonderful artists, and so much hope from so many of us; it couldn’t have Fisher, too. But this year being what it was, our protests were inevitable: Fisher died on Tuesday at age 60, leaving us to mourn her as our Princess and our General, as an icon of genre fiction and the best part of one of the best romantic comedies ever, as a mental health advocate and as a tart commentator on gender norms.
It’s easy for me to explain why Fisher’s death weighs so heavily on me personally and as a critic. Like the Bechdel Test, Fisher’s performance as Princess Leia is the standard that all female characters in space operas will be measured against, as long as I’m around to evaluate them. She could read a line like almost no one else: When Han Solo (Harrison Ford) finally tells Leia he loves her, you can tell that Leia has been waiting months, maybe even years, to tease him about what he said when she made the same confession. In “When Harry Met Sally,” you can see her Marie fall in love with Jess (Bruno Kirby) as it happens. Fisher was one of the women who taught me that contempt laced with humor was a perfectly reasonable response to the ridiculousnesses and indignities of being female, whether that meant choking a giant slug to death with a chain or joking about being strangled by one’s own bra in space.
But then, I’ve written a lot of these inventories this year, for Prince and David Bowie, for Harper Lee. And as the losses have mounted, it’s become harder to feel the weight of each death on its own; they all press down together. It’s not simply that a lot of seminal artists have died this year, forcing us through the same rituals of grief and evaluation.
Rather, 2016 left me with the feeling that a whole generation was turning over at once, leaving us simultaneously bereft and with the space for new artists and thinkers to emerge and assert their visions of the world. In some years, this might have felt like a natural process. In 2016, it felt as though this rupture came too soon. How could David Bowie’s work be done at 69, or Prince’s at 57 or Anton Yelchin’s at 27 or Gwen Ifill’s at 61 or Phife Dawg’s at 45 or George Michael’s at 53? How is it that the world got only 60 years with Sharon Jones and Carrie Fisher, especially when, for some of those years, the world didn’t seem to realize what it had in these remarkable women? And how can these people go precisely when we need them so much?
In 2016, we lost artists who showed us how to be irrepressible black men, unruly women, joyful and unashamed sexual beings and tender and tough all at once. And we lost them in a year when racism crept out of the crannies to which it had been consigned and an unrepentant chauvinist was elected president of the United States while sharing a ticket with a man who has appeared to believe that homosexuality could be cured. No wonder these didn’t seem like mere deaths, but larger disasters; the people who had fired our ideas for who we could be and what our society could be like were slipping from us just as those ideals were being swamped by a shocking backlash.
Now, more than ever, we need icons who have no patience for the requirements of frozen trophy wifedom, whose dignity and strangeness are unshakable even in the face of the most powerful pressures to conform, whose integrity and faith in the truth can’t be distorted or demolished. And with Carrie Fisher and others like her gone too soon, we’ll need to embody these values ourselves, rather than relying on anyone else to dream them into being for us.