Carrie Fisher as Feminist Star and Feminist Author?

On 27 December 2016 Carrie Fisher passed away, having suffered from cardiac arrest on a flight from London to Los Angeles four days previously. Fisher remains practically synonymous with her role as Princess Leia Organa in Star Wars (1977, hereafter referred to as A New Hope to distinguish it from the franchise), its two sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), and two instalments in the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens (2015) and The Last Jedi (2017). “Her portrayal of the sardonic and self- rescuing princess redefined the archetype,” claims a book published by Disney (Radcliffe, p.113). Tributes poured in from fans and at the official fan convention Star Wars Celebration in 2017 an event was held in her honour in which a tribute video released by Disney was shown which has since been viewed on YouTube over four million times (A Tribute To Carrie Fisher). Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that “The loss of Carrie Fisher is felt by all who love Hollywood, warmth and wit,” (2016).

As was her life, Fisher’s death is inextricably entwined with her fictional image. Across numerous obituaries the dominant image of Fisher is of her as Princess Leia, either with her distinctive double-bun hairstyle or wearing the infamous slave-girl bikini. Fisher had become unabashedly outspoken about her inability to escape the role. As she jokes in Disney’s tribute video, “I am Princess Leia and Princess Leia is me. It’s like a Möbius striptease.” Many obituaries mention her as a writer and yet Star Wars cannot be sidelined. Fisher explored the blurring of boundaries between her real and fictional self in Postcards from the Edge, the 1990 film directed by Mike Nichols which she adapted from her novel of the same title. Actress Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) is checked into a rehabilitation centre after an accidental overdose of painkillers. The film follows her struggle to relaunch her career while navigating her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Doris Mann (Shirley MacLaine), a former star of the studio era. Both novel and screenplay are heavily fictionalised versions of Fisher’s own life, as Fisher also experienced a drug overdose and was the daughter of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) star Debbie Reynolds.

Postcards was a relative critical and commercial success. It claimed the top spot at the US box office in its opening weekend and went on to gross $39 million in the US. Streep received an Academy Award nomination and it was praised in Time magazine as proof “that movie dialogue can still carry the sting, heft and meaning of the finest old romantic comedy,” (Corliss, 1990). It remains unusual in that Fisher’s authorship is regarded as equalling, if not eclipsing, Nichols’. At the time reviews seemed preoccupied with the film’s semi-autobiographical nature, with Roger Ebert describing it as “a new comedy based on Carrie Fisher’s journey through addiction,” and barely mentioning Nichols (1990). Postcards was Fisher’s only major screenwriting project, and yet it remains significant that a female screenwriter does not merely equal a male directors’ authorial status, she challenges Mike Nichols’ status, who had won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Graduate (1967) and was hailed as a “renaissance man” and “immigrant auteur,” in an obituary (Brooks, Ellis-Petersen, 2014). Examining this film and its context will begin to reveal Fisher’s position within the discourse of female authorship, authorship being “a discourse in which female filmmakers have been marginalised” (Tasker, p.214). By examining Postcards as a potentially feminist text and Fisher as a feminist figure both through the lens of Dyer’s work on star studies and through scholarship on female authorship the complexities of her identity as writer coexisting with her identity as a rebel princess can begin to be unravelled. Can she be considered a feminist star and/or a feminist author? Fisher’s writing career may also begin to illuminate the authorial position of the female screenwriter.

Carrie Fisher might be simultaneously considered a feminist star and a feminist author. A New Hope was released in 1977, towards the end of second-wave feminism. As a courageous woman who suffers no fools, Princess Leia redefined the strong female character, and, setting aside its trans media spread, was the only leading female character in Star Wars until the more recent trilogies. Leia was not the focus of any signifiant feminist film study at the time but recognition of her can be seen in a more populist context, with an interview with Fisher promoting Return of the Jedi dubbing Leia “the feminist from the fourth dimension,” somewhat undermined by her appearance in that instalment in the slave-girl bikini (Caldwell, 1983). As Fisher herself pointed out, “the…way they made her more female…was to have her take off her clothes,” (ibid). Fisher became both a sex symbol and “a Feminist Force to Be Reckoned With,” as one obituary describes her (Howard, 2016). Her return to the public eye via the Star Wars sequel trilogy coinciding with the emergence of fourth-wave feminism means she continues to be heralded as a feminist icon by a new generation. As The Independent highlighted, “Carrie Fisher’s rebel princess turned general became a source of hope and inspiration for women everywhere,” as images of Leia were used on protest signs at women’s marches around the world in January 2017 (Loughrey, 2017). In From Reverence to Rape Haskell describes stars “freezing in a role, repeating the public’s favourite ‘act’,” until the human being “disappeared behind the image,” (p.10). Perhaps this was Fisher’s fate. “They love [Leia] and I’m her custodian and I’m as close as you’re gonna get,” she sighs in Fisher Stevens’ documentary Bright Lights (2017).

Dyer formulates two approaches to the study of stardom: the sociological and the semiotic. The former “centres on the stars as a…social phenomenon, as well as being an aspect of film’s ‘industrial’ nature,” which means “films are only of significance in so far as they have stars in them,” (p.1). The latter only considers stars significant “because they are in films and therefore are part of the way films signify,” (ibid). Yet Dyer concedes that the two are interdependent in that “sociologically speaking, stars do not exist outside of such texts,” and as such the texts must be studied, and “the semiotic concern has to be informed by the sociological,” because stars are always “social facts,” (ibid). An examination of Fisher relates more to the semiotic approach, as she is largely understood in relation to Star Wars as a media text, rather than the other way around. Perhaps she cannot be considered a star at all as Leia eclipses her other roles and just as the auteur is formulated across multiple texts “star images are collections of meanings read from various star texts,” (McDonald, p.13). Dyer disputes Alberoni’s notion that stars have no political power (which would also invalidate Fisher as a feminist star, if we assume that feminism is a fundamentally political movement) and insists that the political meanings of stars “form part of the way by which [audiences’] values and attitudes are shaped,” (p.8). The notion of stars as politically powerless seems outdated in the wake of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Donald Trump taking political office. Fisher did not publicly call herself a feminist, yet she is regarded as “A Fearless, Feminist Princess,” (Rosseinsky, 2016). As McDonald outlines, audiences “bring many different social and cultural competencies to their understanding of a star’s identity…the meaning of a star’s image is therefore not contained in the sources that represent the star but is produced in the moment of interaction between moviegoers and star texts,” (McDonald, p.7).

Viewers with feminist inclinations may have projected Leia’s feminism onto Fisher, and yet Fisher clearly was passionate about the representation of women onscreen. “You keep fighting against that slave outfit,” she told new generation Star Wars star Daisy Ridley (Fisher, 2015). Some of her discomfort with Hollywood’s distortion of her image is realised in Postcards From the Edge. Drawing direct parallels between Fisher and the fictional Suzanne feels tawdry, but the film cannot be divorced from Fisher’s star persona as she appears to confront the institutional misogyny of the film industry. By examining that film we can gain further insight into Fisher as a feminist figure and question if she can be considered a feminist author.

Discourse around the female auteur as a reaction against traditional auteur theory, or la politique des auteurs originating from the French critics surrounding Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s, is focused on the female director in response to traditional theory focusing on the male director. Authorship continues to be a contentious subject. Tasker highlights it as “a methodology that film studies has in many ways moved beyond,” while Cook declares it “alive and well,” constantly being reworked and reinvented and naming its current incarnation “post auteurism,” (p.213, p.479). The notion of the Romantic author has been repeatedly problematised “in the face of such a collaborative and industrialised cultural form as film,” and yet as a result of attempting to rewrite female filmmakers into film history, it does seem to have been repositioned as significant (Thornham, p.25). Geetha Ramanathan uses the term in her book Feminist Auteurs, while highlighting that it is “not without ambiguity,” and argues that “we need to claim women filmmakers as auteurs or to define and defend notions of female authorship,” (p.3, p.132). Simply summarised by Shelley Cobb in 2015, “because of its masculine connotations, [auteur status] has neither been readily available for women filmmakers nor wholly accepted by feminist film theorists,” (p.1). As Lizzie Francke highlights in Script Girls, unlike directing, for “determined young women who wanted to play a role behind the camera, screenwriting has been one profession open to them throughout the history of Hollywood,” and yet the screenwriter is rarely considered auteur (p.1).

Traditionally, Fisher would never be considered an auteur. Not only was she not a director, but she also only wrote one feature length screenplay, meaning she did not establish “a distinguishable personality,” (ibid). With its male director, Postcards would be excluded from Ramanathan’s consideration of feminist filmmaking which only refers to “the work of women filmmakers that is feminist, excluding thereby the work of both male filmmakers that is feminist, and of female directors that is not,” (p.6).

In her highly influential 1974 essay Women’s Cinema as Counter-Cinema, Claire Johnston calls for the development of a women’s counter-cinema, stating that objectification “can only be challenged by developing the means to interrogate the male, bourgeois, cinema,” (p.37). This counter-cinema would challenge the woman’s appearance on screen as “coded for strong visual and erotic impact” and an object of male voyeuristic pleasure, as articulated by Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (p.62). As Anneke Smelik summarises, “because the structures of Hollywood cinema are analysed as fundamentally patriarchal, early feminists declare that a woman’s film should shun traditional narrative and cinematic techniques,” (p.492). However, Johnston questions this notion that these techniques should be abandoned: “a strategy should be developed which embraces both the notion of films as a political tool and film as entertainment,” (p.39). Postcards is undoubtedly a mainstream film. Yet it engages with feminist concerns, exploring and subverting Mulvey’s notion of woman as erotic spectacle. Perhaps we cannot so easily disregard Postcards as a feminist film because of its mainstream approach, its male director and the theoretical impossibility of Fisher as a female author, if not auteur.

Postcards opens with its most elaborate sequence, a long-take in which the camera follows Suzanne as she walks through a busy South American airport. She is apprehended by a moustachioed official who manhandles her into an office and slaps her. In defiance, Suzanne says “There isn’t enough mommy in the world to further a cause like yours,” and the official bursts into laughter at her fluffed line, as does Suzanne, who pulls off his false moustache, puts it on herself and starts joking directly at the camera. A disembodied voice yells “Cut!” and the artifice is destroyed, a cut revealing the film crew that has been shooting the scene all along. Through this breaking of the fourth wall not only is the partition between fiction and reality crossed but attention is drawn to Suzanne, and, by extension, the woman, as the object of our gaze. Suzanne playing with the moustache and putting on a deep voice actively signals an undermining of the gendered eroticism of the female Hollywood star. Haskell states that “The conception of woman as idol, art object, icon, and visual entity is, after all, the first principle of the aesthetic of film,” a principle scrutinised in Postcards (p.7).

Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) struggles to perform her role

After her time in rehabilitation, Suzanne takes a role in a trashy police thriller. Fisher gives us glimpses of the scenes Suzanne is shooting to comedic effect as she is tied to a cactus and appears in a speedboat chase. During a break from shooting while eating a bag of crisps, Suzanne overhears a conversation between Simon Asquith (Simon Callow), the film’s director, and the wardrobe mistress (Dana Ivey). Both make derogatory comments about Suzanne’s body (“If you have her on her back, her tits are going to move into her armpits,”) and her face darkens with a crisp halfway to her mouth. “The star system as a whole depended on the fetishisation of women,” Johnston declares, and here we see an unsubtle but effective recognition of Hollywood’s disgust at a female body transgressing the beauty standards that ensure desirability (p.34). Fisher was always open about being forced by the studio to lose weight for the original Star Wars trilogy and the sequel trilogy. “Nothing changes,” she said, “I’m in a business where the only thing that matters is weight and appearance,” (Hather, 2016). Fisher protects Suzanne from her own indignities though; Suzanne’s body is never undressed to be exhibited. Having been harangued by producers with criticisms of her performance Suzanne must then return to the set to be dangled off a building. She can barely manage a feeble plea for help before she throws up her hands in resignation. She is fundamentally failing at her job: performing the role of a cinematic woman, Mulvey’s object of erotic spectacle.

Doris Mann (Shirley Maclaine) performs “I’m Still Here”

On Suzanne’s first night at home after leaving the rehabilitation centre, her mother throws a party. Doris gathers her guests around her piano and cajoles Suzanne to sing. Here we see an example of the spectacle of a woman’s performance, what Mulvey highlights as a “break in the flow of the diegesis,” as the narrative is paused to accommodate the spectacle (p.63). Suzanne sings Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, shyly at first, by gradually gaining confidence. Doris then belts out Steven Sondheim’s I’m Still Here dressed in a red sequinned gown, flashing her legs at her delighted guests. Mulvey argues that when the woman performs within the narrative “the gaze of the spectator and that of the male characters in the film are neatly combined,” unifying the erotic gaze of both the diegetic spectator and non-diegetic spectator (ibid). Yet this sequence feels like a conscious subversion. Few reaction shots punctuate the performances, and those that do prominently display the faces of either Suzanne or Doris, surrounded by the rest of the audience made up of women and gay men.

While it could be argued that a woman’s performance in a stylistically conventional film is inherently erotic as film is structured upon male active voyeurism and female passive exhibitionism which “illuminate how Hollywood is tailor-made for male desire,” Suzanne’s song is directed at her mother, and, as Doris’ song acknowledges, she is too old to be considered an object of heterosexual male desire: “first you’re another true-blue tramp, then someone’s mother, then you’re camp,” (Smelik, p.492). Her performance is a pastiche of classical Hollywood exhibitionism.

The exploration of woman as element of spectacle is a consistent theme throughout Postcards. Suzanne does gain the attention of one heterosexual male spectator: producer Jack Faulkner (Dennis Quaid). He tells her that “I’ve wanted you from the first time I saw you on-screen…you had a shot in Public Domain where you looked at the camera, into me and I loved you…you’re my fantasy.” Here is a realisation of Mulvey’s notion of “the determining male gaze” that “projects its phantasy on to the female figure,” (p.62). According to Mulvey, “by means of identification with [the male protagonist]…the spectator can indirectly possess her too,” (p.64). Yet the camera does not take on Jack’s perspective upon her as an erotic object, he merely speaks about the experience. The conversation is sensuous and yet it is shot entirely in a two-shot; Nichols never indulges in a glamorous close-up of Suzanne. Indeed, Jack is more overtly eroticised, with Suzanne looking at him showering while she is fully clothed. Ramanathan refers to female filmmakers establishing “feminist authority,” through “the mechanisms of looking,” and here we can argue Fisher establishes her authority through Suzanne and implicitly acknowledges the heterosexual female spectator (p.7). Jack turns out to be unfaithful, signalling the toxicity of his (and by extension, the heterosexual man’s) fetishisation of women.

Postcards was directed by a man, but arguably Fisher’s authorial voice is stronger. Martin highlights that “female or feminist authorship tends to be sought in what can be identifiably linked to the filmmaker (as woman),” with two of the criteria being true of Postcards: “a film’s autobiographical reference,” and “the evidence of a female voice within the narrative,” (p.130–131). This autobiographical female voice combined with Nichol’s unobtrusive style means the film feels more “hers”. The screenplay is dialogue heavy, giving it a theatrical feel. Nichols dispenses with the stylistic flourishes of The Graduate and takes a simple approach, keeping the camera static and covering the action in medium shots or close ups. The camerawork does not draw attention to itself, deferring to displaying the performances. It complements Fisher’s writing but its lack of flamboyance means his authorial voice is less distinguishable than hers. Yet Nichols stated that he always worked closely with screenwriters and he and Fisher “did a lot of [Postcards] together,” (Schwartz, 1990). But it is Fisher who recorded commentary for the DVD and recent writing about the film memorialises her rather than Nichols: Postcards From the Edge Was Carrie Fisher’s Perfect Mother-Daughter Opus, reads a Vulture headline (Harris, 2016). After her death there was more media coverage of her writing, with The Huffington Post declaring You Should Remember Carrie Fisher As A Brilliant Author, (Fallon, 2016). What also came to light was her extensive work as “one of the most sought after [script] doctors in town,” (Cagle, 1992). She reportedly did rewrites on Hook (1991), Sister Act (1992), The Wedding Singer (1998) and more. When asked how to improve a script she replied “make the women smarter and the love scenes
better,” (Kennedy, 2008). The uncredited nature of script doctoring means it is impossible to quantify her contributions.

Here we return to one of the fundamental flaws of auteur theory, whether it considers the female filmmaker or not. Filmic texts “are typically produced by groups, not individuals,” and it is impossible to neatly distinguish contributions from each other (Wright Wexman, p.8). As Thornham points out, “a concern to celebrate an ‘authored’ women’s cinema sits uneasily alongside a theoretical framework which renders such authorship…extremely problematic,” (p.29). The work of Nichols and Fisher fundamentally cannot be separated, but both Postcards and Fisher’s script doctoring contribute to her status as a feminist author focused on improving the characterisation of women on screen.

As demonstrated, to a certain extent Postcards subverts Mulvey’s male gaze and while it does not overtly confront the societal oppression of women it clearly engages with themes relevant to feminist film criticism. Ramanathan argues that “thematic solutions are not adequate,” in terms of locating female authority and alternative aesthetics are the qualifier (p.204). However, it seems exclusionary to disregard the possibility that any film directed by a man but with such a distinctive female authorial voice that tells a story about the relationship between two women and the negotiations of their images might be feminist. Stevens argues in his study of Nichols’ career that “not every authorship study has to be auteurist,” and Fisher might be considered significant as female author, rather than auteur (p.188). In any case, perhaps the term must be dispensed with altogether. Mayer states that “Authorship…is at once crucial to coverage and circulation for feminist cinema, and deeply problematic, invoking Default Man models of the solitary genius,” (p. 16). Ramanathan highlights the problem of “inevitable shadowing of male models of auteurship, despite our well-meaning disclaimers of the same,” (p.3). These models cannot be relied upon, and yet it seems reliance is unavoidable. Thornham argues that because authorship “has been so lately granted to women it is important politically that it is not simply given up,” and “it makes women, and their marginality, visible, and regenders male writing, so that it can no longer claim universality,” (p.28). Authorship may be beneficial in terms of the elevation of the female director, but the significance of women working in other areas of the industry cannot be ignored in favour of the solitary genius, even if she female. How can an alternative, inclusive approach be formulated? The answer remains unclear.

This study has only begun to touch upon some of the academic and industrial issues that both Fisher and Postcards illuminate. Further research would need to be undertaken to fully comprehend the position of the female screenwriter in Hollywood, especially in the current cultural context of the lack of female directors becoming a mainstream issue as part of fourth-wave feminism and boosted by the #MeToo movement and Times Up initiative. The Celluloid Ceiling report found that of the top 250 highest grossing films of 2018 in the US, women made up 16% of writers and 8% of directors (Lauzen, 2018). Evidently the lack of female film directors is troubling, and yet a significant number of female screenwriters work in the industry whose contributions are not the subject of media attention or substantial academic study, perhaps due to the auteurist emphasis on the importance of the director. Postcards would also certainly be fascinating as interrogated from the perspective of adaptation studies with a more detailed examination of Suzanne as an incarnation of the female creative figure searching for fulfilment. It might also be considered a descendent of the Woman’s Film, a subgenre most popular from the 1930s-1940s that centres the female experience in melodramatic narratives focused on family and romantic desire. Haskell argues that feminist film critics’ “attack on auteurism is less theoretical than emotional,” and it is certainly true that a personal attachment to Fisher has resulted in an assessment biased towards accepting her as a feminist star and author (p.33). Again, more in depth research is necessary.

Even posthumously, Carrie Fisher remains irrepressible. She hit the headlines almost a year after her death in relation to the #MeToo movement as screenwriter Heather Robinson recalled that Fisher had sent a predatory male producer a cow’s tongue on her behalf as a warning (Mumford, 2017). Unused footage of her as Leia shot for The Force Awakens is reportedly being used in the upcoming Star Wars instalment in order to bid the character farewell, and her brother Todd Fisher has stated that he has “a lot of things of hers that she’s written that will someday be shared. There’s a lot more to come from Carrie,” (Sandell, 2018). It seems clear that thanks to both Princess Leia’s status as a beloved pop cultural feminist and her custodian’s own irreverence and wit, Fisher will never be forgotten. While images of her with that double-bun hairstyle or the bikini might continue to signify her, in Postcards she created a self-reflective self-portrait that begins to dismantle herself as an eroticised image for consumption. It will never eclipse Star Wars but it demonstrates a regaining of agency and identity.


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Film writer, English Heritage assistant, Jane Campion champion. @laura_venning on Twitter.

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