When imperfect can be perfect: Lessons learned from Carrie Fisher's life and death

Curator's Note

Kelly Tenzek, PhD, University at Buffalo

James Carviou, PhD, Missouri Western State University

As lifelong fans of Star Wars and Carrie Fisher, we were heartbroken to hear of her passing on December 27, 2016 from "sleep apnea and other undetermined factors." To add to the grief, reports came in of her mother, Debbie Reynolds passing away one day later. These celebrity deaths left us in a state of shock and grief, but also piqued our interest in the way the deaths were communicated and how fans responded. What can we learn from a celebrity’s life and death?

Fisher was born into a family of elite stardom amongst the eternal Hollywood icons. Her life was then center stage in all of its complications and triumphs. The HBO documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, brilliantly captured the complexity of her relationship with her mother and father and their fame in its intricate ability to influence her entire life. It was well documented that in response to her daughter’s mental illness, Debbie Reynolds was a major supporter of The Thalians.

Billie Lourd, the outspoken daughter of Carrie Fisher, explained the difficulty in processing her mother’s death for herself and for those around her. She discussed in a recent interview on Ellen (September 11, 2017) how everyone is expecting the extreme of either I am ok or I am not ok. This creates an isolated discourse with no room for ambiguity and authenticity in the grieving process.

How can we process the impact of her life and death?

1. Carrie Fisher opened several doors for discussions surrounding women being objectified in Hollywood.

2. Fisher was open on all accounts about her struggles with mental illness. This also dovetailed with her endless battle with drug and alcohol addiction.

3. By making personal struggles more public, an important revelation was made to the rest of the world about the support system necessary for working with family members that are struggling from mental illness and drug addiction.

4. While there is immense pressure for Hollywood stars to live one certain lifestyle, look one certain way, achieve perfection that is simply unrealistic, what happens when we apply this notion to death, dying, and grief?

5. Can one’s imperfections become perfect through the authenticity of lived experiences?


I think the public mourning of cultural icons highlights no only the areas of impact that icon was most associated with, in the case of Carrie Fisher—Star Wars, mental health and addiction advocacy, and feminism, but it is also a public mourning for the personal associations where celebrity intersects with mundane life.

I have been watching the fans' reaction surrounding Carrie's death since December on social media and I noticed most of them seemed to share a very unique bond with her. Their mourning, as Tanya already pointed out, undoubtedly had a lot to do with their personal associations, but what really impressed me was the amount of stories they shared regarding mental illness and drug addiction. It seems to me that Carrie's fragilities, to a certain extent, brought people closer to her more than her acting accomplishments. Do you agree?

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