Damsels in Defiance

Always Forward, Never Back.

A Wisdom Born of Pain: an Essay on Heroes


2016 was hard on heroes.  We lost Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince (among many others) all in a row and people all around me were sincerely grieving. Bowie and Prince were rock gods and challenged traditional notions of masculinity in ways that gave scared young men and women hope for a future where they didn’t have to fit inside of society’s defined boxes.  Bowie was the dream prince for millions of women around my age who grew up idolizing the Goblin King, and he also was the very real man who publicly shamed MTV for not playing videos starring black artists.  Prince was a glorious celebration of unashamed, flamboyant sexuality and he was also a quiet man who still lived in his hometown and was known for extravagant, spontaneous generosity.

Professor Snape—Alan Rickman—meant so much to so many Potterheads.  The character was perhaps the most complex man in a complex universe.  His layers had layers.  Rickman imbued him with a depth and humanity that made you ache for Snape, even before you knew the whole story.  Alan was also behind many other iconic characters.  He was our favorite villain in “Die Hard,” the tragically sympathetic non-alien alien in “Galaxy Quest,” and a cheating husband who somehow was hard to truly hate in “Love Actually.”  For me, Rickman performed a nearly impossible feat when he made Col. Brandon sexy in “Sense and Sensibility.”  But, to most of us, he will first and foremost be the maligned yet beloved Professor Snape. Always.

These losses were painful but, even though I shared in them to one extent or another, they didn’t rip out my soul and crush it on the ground like the past two months have.  If anyone ever asked me who my heroes are, I would, without fail, name two people: Princess Leia and Hillary Clinton.  Now, in one way or another, 2016 has taken both of them from me and left behind a hole inside of my heart that just sits—empty and longing.  

It was Princess Leia first.  I saw “Star Wars” on TV in 1979, and then “Empire Strikes Back” in the theater.  I was five years old, and Princess Leia was instantly everything to me.  She has fancy hair and a long white dress.  She could shoot a blaster and back talk the authorities.  She was unimpressed when two dudes came to ogle and rescue her.  She was trusted with secret missions and commanded troops at a rebel base.  I started wearing my hair in side-buns and intricate braids.  I owned every Leia action figure ever made.  She was my birthday cake and my Halloween costume.  “Return of the Jedi” came out four years later, and we got to see Leia use the chains of her captivity to strangle the villain who enslaved her.  I’m not claiming to have totally understood all of the ramifications of that at age 9, but I recognized the moment as epic.

It wasn’t until 1992 that I added another hero to my list, and that was an ongoing process.  I didn’t fall for Hillary Clinton as quickly as I did Princess Leia, but that doesn’t lessen the depth of my love for her.  I first came to know Hillary (and I do feel like I know her) through her husband’s presidential campaign.  I admired her strength and sincerity and felt for her while she was receiving constant criticism for everything from the way she looked to the way she chose to raise her child.  I was 18 and just learning what it means to be a woman out in the world while watching Hillary have to stand up to all of the stones being flung at her for no reason other than that her husband was running for President.  Just like Princess Leia, so many people persisted in only seeing Hillary as a supporting character in her own life—someone who exists only to prop up the men around her and give them something to do.  But those of us who see the world through a different lens know better.  

Princess Leia was royalty and a trusted leader in the resistance.  She didn’t have anything to prove to anybody, but Luke and Han still questioned her knowledge and capability before they saw proof with their own eyes.  Hillary Clinton was a graduate of Wellesley and Yale who spent her summers interviewing the families of migrant workers and going undercover to expose segregated schools in the South; she was an attorney with the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate Inquiry, and one who worked for the Children’s Defense Fund advocating for students with special needs.  She was the First Lady of Arkansas, a mother, and a working lawyer.  But America still demanded she prove that she was worthy to be the wife of the president.  It demanded that she soften her hair, her clothes, her voice and her intelligence to be accepted. In a galaxy far, far away, Princess Leia could mostly be her kick-ass self.  In 1992, America wanted its First Lady to keep her skirt ironed, her hair curled, and her mouth shut.

I never forgot about Princess Leia; in one way or another, she was a constant companion through my childhood and into my college years.  I hadn’t, though, thought much about Carrie Fisher in a long time.  I always enjoyed seeing her pop up in a film role, but it was in the 1990’s when I started learning more about her as a person outside of acting.  Carrie turned out to be even more of a bad ass than her alter ego.  She was a talented actress, a witty and incisive writer, a loving mother, a daughter in a complicated relationship with another Hollywood icon, bravely honest, fiercely funny, and a committed activist for mental health awareness.  Of course, most of the entertainment media would rather discuss if she was gaining weight or how “well” she was aging.  Carrie wouldn’t go away, though. She was still our Princess, but she was determined to be herself as well—fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

As First Lady of the United States, Hillary fought for health care for children and always stood up for women’s rights.  After President Clinton’s second term of office was over, Hillary ran for Senate in the state of New York.  She won by travelling across the state and talking to people, by listening to their stories and showing that she cared.  Her compassion was put into action after the tragedy at the World Trade Center on 9/11.  Her years in the Senate were spent fighting tooth and nail to force the government to take care of the first responders who took care of New Yorkers.  In 2008, Hillary ran for President and I couldn’t have been more proud.  It hurt to see her lose, but she was resilient—accepting the position of President Obama’s Secretary of State and serving the country with her characteristic dignity and strength.

In 2015, while Hillary was getting ready for her second run at the presidency, Princess Leia became General Organa.  Star Wars was reborn, and she was at the head of the Rebel Alliance.  Strength and dignity also defined the General.  Through personal heartbreak and a separation from the love of her life, she still did what needed to be done for her people.  Her wisdom had been fortified by the loss of her entire family and through a constant struggle with the oppressive evil threatening the galaxy at every turn.  Now, at her age, she knew that no win is ever really final, but we fight all the same.

Hillary’s campaign carried through oddly similar themes.  We were battling a party that wanted to strip away the voting rights act, affirmative action, abortion access, and the right to marry the person of your choice.  We learned that rights are not given, they cannot even be won—they must be fought for every day.  We learned the hard way that racism is alive and insidious, that sexism is everywhere, and that fascism will be allowed to flourish if too many people turn their backs on the possibility.  We also learned that powerful women are still judged by their clothes, their hairstyles, and the tone of their voice.  Princess Leia was criticized for having aged, rather than celebrated for leading the rebellion.  Hillary Clinton was criticized for not smiling enough, rather than revered for her achievements.  How can we, how can any woman win, when society is worried more about our weight than our words?

On November 9th, 2016, women woke up to a world where a confessed sexual predator had been elected President over perhaps the most experienced and accomplished woman of her time.  It felt like womanhood had been consigned to obscurity.  America told us to sit down, shut up, and take it.  But Princess Leia and Hillary Rodham Clinton have given us the opposite message.  No matter how many times evil rises up, no matter often we seem to be defeated—we can’t give up.  The consequences are too great for those around us.  Princess Leia’s father and son were seduced to the dark side, her mother died giving birth, her brother was hidden from her for decades and then left her alone during the most difficult time of her life, the Empire killed her adoptive parents, and her husband left her after they lost their child.  Through all of this, her purpose remained steadfast.  She is not Leia Skywalker or Mrs. Solo, she is General Organa and her people look to her for leadership.  Her love doesn’t weaken her, it makes her strong. Similarly, Hillary’s compassion for her country was misunderstood by so many.  Kindness and listening skills are aspects of femininity, and femininity is consistently undervalued in American society.  

2016 was hard on heroes.  Hillary lost her final attempt at the presidency, and Carrie Fisher died, taking Princess Leia with her.  The world grieves along with me for Leia, but sometimes I feel isolated in my sorrow when it comes to Hillary Clinton.  All of my family voted for her, but none of them are grieving like I am.  I have to hear comments about a “bad candidate” and a “poor campaign.”  News articles are posted trying to dissect why she lost—and they love to analyze what she wore, or how she spoke, or why she turned off voters by talking to them about their concerns and actually listening to their answers.  I hear the comments of “Bernie would have won” and bite my tongue because I don’t want to fight with practical allies.  One relative even campaigned for Jill Stein in North Carolina.  I wanted to cry, but I fought back the tears because it wouldn’t help.  I’m a woman, you see, so emotion is frowned upon.  They don’t know that it hurts to listen to them devalue someone that I’m so proud of, but I wish they could share my pain.

In one way or another, 2016 took both of my heroes, but nothing can take what they have given me—what they have given all of us.  Princess Leia and Hillary Clinton have taught me to fight for what is important.  They have taught me to move forward, always, with strength and dignity.  They have taught me that kindness and compassion are never weaknesses, and that living to serve others has a grace and beauty all its own. They have also shown me that while men can be our lovers, our family, and our allies—we, as women, have to stand up and wage war for ourselves.  Our bodies, our lives, our struggle.   Leia and Hillary never gave up on the people who needed them, and they never let anyone convince them that their worth was superficial.  Age brought them experience, and pain bore wisdom.  Neither of them were invincible, but their ideals can be if we stay true and carry on the rebellion in their names.

— April


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