Opinion 

The way men talk about Carrie Fisher betrays a fear of the ageing woman  

For more than 40 years, Carrie Fisher had to put up with the movie and media industries judging, selling and lusting after her body. Let’s stop this now, says Lynn Enright  

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Posted by Lynn Enright on

Each day since December 27, women have come forward to share stories about how their lives were touched by Carrie Fisher. Some – like actor and screenwriter Sharon Horgan, who played her daughter-in-law in Catastrophe – knew her personally, and can confirm how hilarious and tough and vulnerable and great she was. Many others had never met her, but felt her influence, appreciating especially her forthrightness about her mental health. Writing on Wednesday, the columnist Deborah Orr movingly outlined how Carrie Fisher’s honesty had encouraged her to speak openly about her own struggles with complex post-traumatic stress disorder. “People such as Carrie Fisher … are so important,” she wrote. “They reassure you that you feel worse before you feel better. They help you understand that while all the emotions you suppressed – the fear, the guilt, the grief, the shame, the anger, the self-loathing – now feel overwhelming, this too will pass.”

It’s bittersweet, this outpouring. The wonderful recognition of Fisher’s importance and influence comes about due to the sad fact that we have lost her and she will no longer be able to soothe us with jokes and quips and truths.  

Meanwhile, what seems straightforwardly unhelpful, unedifying and spectacularly out of step with an understanding of who Fisher was and what she represented are the tributes that focus on her appearance. In a piece published in the Guardian, film critic Peter Bradshaw spent a paragraph pointing out that the 60-year-old Fisher looked different to the 20-year-old Fisher, who appeared in the Star Wars movies of the 1970s and “invaded fantasies” with her “outrageous gold bikini”. It’s obvious that Bradshaw was a fan, a critic who appreciated her talent greatly, but he seems to have been swept up in the insidious chatter about Princess Leia ageing when he wrote: “Fisher’s desperately sad demise is a poignant reminder that never has a movie star looked more different in an older and younger self. And this was in some ways a conscious decision – a moving-on from the world of glamour.”

I find it impossible to read those lines without hearing a Fisher hoot in my head. And I wish she was here to come back at them with a zinger, because I know she would have skewered the misguided misogyny more efficiently and more hilariously than the rest of us. Because all I can really do is sit here slack-jawed. Sorry, what? Let me read that again. “Never has a movie star looked more different in an older and younger self.” What? What? What? What? Are we saying that Fisher was somehow alone or unique in the process of ageing? Because surely that’s preposterous. 

Remembering Fisher’s habit of joking about her appearance, Sharon Horgan said: ‘It hurt her. Make no mistake about that’

Arses sag. Chins double. Nasolabial folds crease. It happens to them. It happens to us. It happens to women. It happens to men. Everyone ages.

But it’s women who have to somehow apologise for it. Whoever is doing the PR for the ageing men has been doing a really great job because so many of us have bought into the idea that older men are sexy rogues well into their seventies – hi, Harrison Ford – whereas older women deserve to be publicly belittled for not fitting into a bikini 40 years after they first wore it. And Carrie Fisher really took the greatest hit for that. It’s actually obvious why a film journalist like Bradshaw thought he had to mention it: because ageing and how it applied to Fisher has been an acceptable conversation topic for decades, a subject mentioned as a matter of course in profiles of the actor and writer.    

So often, Fisher was asked about her appearance in interviews, journalists dragging mean tweets and reviews to her, like cats lying horribly decomposing birds at their masters’ feet. “What do you think of reviews that say you’re too old or chubby, Carrie?” journalists would ask, and somehow, instead of throwing back the disgusting dead birds back in the hacks’ faces, she would respond.  

She commented. And she quipped. Because she was a funny person and that’s what funny people do: they wear their weaknesses like outrageous hats, inviting us all to look at them and laugh. They admit to the silliness, for all of our sakes. That’s why we love them. That’s why they’re important. So that we can start to see how very, very silly it – sexism, Hollywood, life, whatever – is, and undermine it by laughing at it. 

But it still seems sad that she had to deal with it, that Carrie Fisher had to put up with this shit. Remembering her habit of joking about her appearance, Sharon Horgan said: “She knew that a man in her position wouldn’t have got the flak that she got. And he didn’t. She knew that she had to keep mouthing off about it. And she did it with great wit. But it hurt her. Make no mistake about that.” 

After she died, thousands shared Fisher’s own suggestion for her obituary:  “No matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.” It’s a funny line but, when you read the paragraphs preceding it, you get a sense of what Fisher was enduring her entire life. The joke came about because Star Wars director George Lucas refused to allow Fisher to wear a bra in the films, arguing that there’s no underwear in space.

As Fisher put it in her memoir, Wishful Drinking:

He [Lucas] explained: “You go into space and you become weightless. Then your body expands but your bra doesn’t. So you get strangled by your own underwear.”   

I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.

For more than 40 years, Carrie Fisher had to put up with the media and movie industries looking at her body, selling it, judging it, mocking it. 

But women never loved Carrie Fisher for her body. We loved her for her wit and her strength and her frankness. We don’t miss her gold bikini. We don’t miss her youth. We miss her words and her wisdom. And we miss her because we know we’ve lost a woman who helped us all to put up with this shit. 

@lynnenright

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