She was about three and half inches tall, molded in white plastic except for some peach tones at the hands and face and brown on the iconic double bun. She’d probably be worth a good deal of money to a collector if I had kept her in the box, since she was in the very first run of action figures in this genre. She was my companion, my confidant, my agent, my employee, my captive and my slave.
What you have to understand about me and my Princess Leia action figure is that it was 1977, the year Star Wars came out, and I was a ten-year-old girl. Yes, I am one of those fans for whom Star Wars will always mean Episode IV without the subtitle, the exploding Death Star does not have a ring around it, and Han bloody well shot first.
We’d moved to Southern California a little over a year ago, after my two-year-old brother died in a car accident. My family wasn’t coping well, and my style of not coping well was near-complete shutdown. We moved several times within months and were homeless for a short time; this made me withdraw even more. Always inclined to live mostly in my imagination, I was taking it to a new extreme. Socially isolated did not begin to cover it.
That’s where I was when Star Wars found me and provided a new forum for my imagination. More than that, it gave me a feeling of normalcy for the first time because when we got an apartment, the kids in my new neighborhood and I were obsessed with the same thing. I began to join in the conversations and games when Star Wars was the theme, because I knew I could hold my own. I read the novelization until I could practically recite it, and I knew every incongruity (example: in the final battle, Luke’s call sign is Red Five in the movie but Blue Five in the book.) I fractured a bone in my foot playing “Luke and Leia Swing Across the Chasm” at a nearby construction site.
Though I found all the characters compelling, down to and including Grand Moff Tarkin (what the hell is a Moff, anyway, and are there petite and medium ones out there?) Leia was my favorite and my role model. The damsel in non-distress, who could think her way out of a firefight and have enough mental energy left for a sarcastic putdown. Brave enough to sit in that black cell, after being at the mercy of Darth Vader and that sinister hypo-bearing sphere, and still greet the arrival of a strange soldier with “Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?” and not “Please, don’t hurt me.”
My games with toy Leia were solitary ones. I’d confine her in small dark places and reenact her captivity, or create a primitive version of fan fiction by engineering hypothetical scenes from before or after the movie, not to mention creepy scenes about the interrogation that in no way betray any power-exchange quirks in my developing tastes. But Leia’s most frequent role was that of a field agent, being sent on dangerous missions and returning with vital intelligence.
Her destination: usually the roof of the neighboring apartment building, accessed by a vigorous throw from my bedroom window. Her mission: explore, defeat any enemies encountered, and return. Her protection: a loop of dirty string tied around her waist, by which she would be hauled back when I got bored. Naturally, she got more than a little banged up as her career progressed.
I was a stern taskmistress. Sometimes Leia didn’t feel ready to go. I would encourage her and remind her of her duty, and in the end I sent her whether she was ready or not. I remember those conversations, and I wonder now who I was really talking to when I gave her those orders. Was I using her as a symbol of the courage I wanted to have? Were her fears linked to my fears of going to school? I’d convinced myself that there was no point in talking to any adults about anything; that it was up to me to deal with a mean teacher or a bullying student or the guy who talked obscenely to me in class. So when I talked to Leia, was I really saying to a part of myself, “I know it’s scary out there, but you have to go. There’s nothing to be done about it, so get out there.”
One day, after a long and illustrious run of missions, Leia’s head came off while I was trying to tug the loop of string up to be retied. I tried to glue it back on, but that kind of plastic is tricky. It was obvious even to me that her head wouldn’t survive another excursion, so there was only one thing to do…I buried her tiny body and head at the base of a tree in front of the apartment building. The funeral was quite moving. Looking back at it, I’m surprised that I didn’t make up a dramatic story about Leia’s last mission and incorporate a rationale for her decapitation into it. Perhaps I felt the rightness of her end being the result not of one fatal mission but of too many.
Thank you, little plastic Leia. Thank you for hurtling through the air tied to a string, being dragged through gravel, and smacking repeatedly into stucco walls on your return journeys. Thanks for being my friend. If I had you today–with your head still on–I’d wash off your smudged face and let you rest for a while. I’d take you to some different places instead of dragging you over the same dreary gravel-covered roof.
And if I could, I’d keep the little girl who owned you safe too.