"You're My Fantasy": Postcards from the Edge and the Subversion of the Male Gaze
To celebrate Star Wars Day, Laura Venning reflects on the legacy of Carrie Fisher beyond Princess Leia. In Postcards From The Edge, the refocusing of the male gaze solidifies Fisher’s magnanimous, irrepressible legacy.
On 27 December 2016, Carrie Fisher died. It seemed impossible that such a wickedly funny and resilient personality could be extinguished. Like her life, Fisher’s death was bound up in her fictional image. Across countless obituaries the dominant image of Fisher was of her as Princess Leia. “Her portrayal of the sardonic and self-rescuing princess redefined the archetype,” claims the book Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy. Her return to the public eye via the Star Wars sequel trilogy coinciding with the emergence of fourth-wave feminism meant she was heralded as a feminist icon for a new generation. Uproariously outspoken on misogyny in Hollywood and the stigmatisation of mental health issues, Fisher held her trademark middle finger up to those determined to dismiss her. Images of Leia could be seen on protest signs at 2017 Women’s Marches all over the world.
Fisher had roles in The Blues Brothers, When Harry Met Sally and Catastrophe, and was a prolific author. But Star Wars can’t be sidelined, and Fisher was unabashedly open about her inability to escape it. “[The fans] love Leia and I’m her custodian and I’m as close as you’re gonna get,” she sighed in the documentary Bright Lights. She explored the blurring of boundaries between her real and fictional identities in Postcards from the Edge, the 1990 film directed by Mike Nichols, which Fisher adapted from her own novel. Hollywood 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. It’s loosely autobiographical, as Fisher also spent time in rehab and was the daughter of Singin’ in the Rain star Debbie Reynolds. By fictionalising her own life, Fisher seized control of her story and sharply interrogated the male gaze that had propelled, but also constrained, her career.
Postcards opens with its most elaborate sequence, a long take in which the camera follows Suzanne as she steps off a bus and weaves her way through a crowded South American airport bursting with colour and noise. She is apprehended by a moustachioed official, who interrogates 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 to the camera. A voice yells “Cut!”, and the artifice is destroyed: the film crew shooting the scene is revealed. Through this breaking of the fourth wall, attention is drawn to Suzanne as the object of the audience’s gaze. Suzanne, by playing with the moustache and putting on a deep, masculine voice, undermines the gendered eroticism of the female Hollywood star.
After her time in rehab, Suzanne takes a role in a trashy police thriller. While eating a bag of crisps, Suzanne overhears the film’s director and wardrobe mistress making derogatory comments about her body: “If you have her on her back, her tits are going to move into her armpits.” This comment exemplifies Hollywood’s disgust at a female body daring to subvert its image of desirability. Fisher was always open about being forced to lose weight for both the original Star Wars trilogy and the sequel trilogy. “Nothing changes,” she said in 2015, “I’m in a business where the only thing that matters is weight and appearance.” Fisher protects Suzanne from her own indignities though; Suzanne’s body is never undressed to be exhibited. Having been harangued by producers, Suzanne returns to the set to be filmed dangling off a building. She manages one feeble plea for help before throwing up her hands in frustration. She fundamental fails at her job: performing the role of a cinematic woman, an object of erotic spectacle.
The image of the female body as the subject of an audience’s gaze is threaded through Postcards. At a party, Doris, Suzanne’s mother, cajoles Suzanne to sing for their guests. There is a pause in the narrative to accommodate her performance. Suzanne sings Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me, followed by Doris belting out Stephen Sondheim’s I’m Still Here dressed in a red sequined gown. Feminist scholar Laura Mulvey argues that when a 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 the spectator within the film and the audience member watching the film. Yet this sequence feels like a conscious subversion as Suzanne and Doris aren’t admired by men, as their performances are dedicated to each other.
Suzanne does gain the attention of one heterosexual male spectator: producer Jack Faulkner (Dennis Quaid). He tells her, “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”. This relates to Mulvey’s notion of “the determining male gaze” that “projects its fantasy on to the female figure”. According to Mulvey, the male spectator identifies with the male protagonist and can possess the onscreen woman too. Yet the conversation is entirely framed in a two-shot; Nichols never indulges in an alluring, sexualised close-up of Suzanne. In fact, Jack is more eroticised, as Suzanne later spies on him showering while she is fully clothed. By refocusing the gaze, Fisher acknowledges the heterosexual female spectator and establishes a feminist authority.
Even posthumously, Carrie Fisher remains irrepressible. She made headlines almost a year after her death in relation to the #MeToo movement, as screenwriter Heather Robinson recalled Fisher sending a predatory male producer a cow’s tongue on her behalf. 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 Leia, with her double-bun hairstyle or dreaded metal bikini, might continue to represent Fisher, in Postcards she created a reflexive self-portrait that dismantled her as an eroticised image. “I don't want life to imitate art, I want life to be art,” says Suzanne. Nothing will ever eclipse Star Wars. But Postcards offers a regaining of agency and identity, elevating Carrie Fisher’s life into art.
Laura Venning (@laura_venning) is a Film Studies MA student and writer based in London and Norwich. She's particularly interested in female filmmakers and in Australian and New Zealand cinema and has written for Reel Honey, Much Ado About Cinema and Screen Queens.