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“The nerds are also here”: Talking to the women who marched with Princess Leia

Vanessa Witter with the sign she designed. (Photo: Scott Witter)
Vanessa Witter with the sign she designed. (Photo: Scott Witter)

Shortly after I arrived in D.C. for the Women’s March, I saw my first Princess Leia sign. Over the course of that Saturday, I began snapping photos of each one I saw; by the end, I lost count. The rest of the media took notice, too: Women around the world were photographed using Carrie Fisher’s bold, brazen leader from Alderaan to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration. She certainly wasn’t the only capable, outspoken female character invoked—Harry Potter’s Hermione and Grease’s Rizzo were also there—but she, more than the rest, felt like the face of the resistance.

That makes sense. After all, Princess—now General—Leia takes charge of Star Wars’ Rebellion, and she’s introduced as a woman who’s unafraid to look a fascist in the eye and comment on his foul stench. Combine that with renewed interest in the franchise, thanks to Rogue One and The Force Awakens, and the recent tragedy of Fisher’s death, and it’s easy to see why protesters would gravitate to her now.

“When you’re walking with a sign that embraces her character, you try to be your best Leia, and hope that you do it justice,” says Meredith Carey, a 24-year-old editor based in New York. When she marched in Washington, she traced a silhouette of Leia’s buns for her own placard, inspired—like so many of her fellow protesters were—by art she saw online. From those designs, two especially took off: One, by Hayley Gilmore, read, ”A Woman’s Place Is In The Resistance.” The other by Vanessa Witter proclaimed, “We Are The Resistance.”

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Gilmore says she sought to evoke both Rosie The Riveter and the oft-copied “Keep Calm And Carry On,” rendering Leia in patriotic but “distressed” reds and blues. Her design proved so popular, she didn’t even make it to the nearby march in Jackson, Mississippi, because she was so busy helping others print copies.

Witter, a designer at an ad agency in Los Angeles, tells The A.V. Club that she’d been inspired to make hers after protesting on the night after Trump’s election, with the idea coming to her suddenly while driving. “I just thought, ‘Holy shit, Princess Leia,’” Witter says. “‘What better embodiment of feminine power and leadership?’” She overlaid that with a typeface that recalled the work of one of her “design idols,” Barbara Kruger, whose “Untitled (Your Body Is A Battleground)” was made for the Women’s March on Washington in 1989 during another period when Roe V. Wade was being threatened. Once Witter uploaded it to Facebook, her image started to spread, then got another viral boost after her friend, actress Natalie Morales, posted it to Twitter.

“I think we’re always so starved for powerful images of women in pop culture,” Witter says. “[Leia’s] always been such an icon in that realm... It was already such a hard December, and then losing Carrie Fisher was just such an emotional thing. I’m familiar enough with [Fisher’s] point of view that I think it would be something that she would have embraced.” For Caitlin Moran, a project editor at W. W. Norton, Fisher was also just as much on her mind when she marched with Leia in D.C. “There’s no better nasty woman than Carrie Fisher,” she says. “Her quote, ‘Stay afraid, but do it anyway’ I feel like is a really good thing to carry into a protest and into the next however many years of having to continually protest.” In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Todd Fisher agreed that he saw the march in Washington as continuing his sister’s mission: “She was a champion of women, no one can deny it.”

“I think it was a broad message that stood for everything,” says Danielle Saenz, a 30-year-old administrator at a home healthcare company who marched in Los Angeles. “[Leia]’s always been a symbol of hope so I thought that would be the best choice for me.”

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Jenny Bencardino, a 48-year-old physician from Long Island, recalls watching The Empire Strikes Back when she was a child in Colombia. Now, the recently naturalized citizen of the U.S., whose first time voting was in the 2016 election, has two Star Wars-loving sons. At the beginning of January, she posted to the Women’s March On Washington Facebook page calling for volunteers for a “Princess Leia contingent” at the march, asking them to wear their hair in Leia’s iconic A New Hope style. “It’s all the Princess Leias coming together and telling this guy that, if we are united, we will be able to put a stop to his policies,” Bencardino says. Anne McSilver, 47, similarly got the idea to wear the Leia costume she bought for her son’s birthday party to Oakland, after a friend suggested there should be an “army of Princess Leias marching.” While not everyone dressed up or fell into organized ranks, Moran, 27, believes they were all united under one banner: “There was obviously a general camaraderie between everyone that out there, but then there was a separate camaraderie of like, ‘The nerds are also here.’”

There are certainly arguments to be made about the perils of an over-reliance on pop culture escapism to confront very real political anxieties. But as those who marched with Leia demonstrate, you can’t deny the ability of fictional characters to communicate your ideals as effective—if not more so—than any slogan. “My purpose was never to belittle these real problems,” Witter says, adding, “I think that people connect with characters and stories and pop culture in a really special way.” Gilmore echoes that sentiment: “I think [Leia’s] willingness to step up and take action and to fight for change, that really speaks to a lot of women right now. Because of the election cycle, the way everything was kind of poisonous to young women and to people of color... We’re not going to stand for it. We’re not going to take it. We’re not going to turn a blind eye to it.” Spoken like a true rebel.