Princess or showgirl? When considering the departed talents of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, that's the question many women put to themselves.

All over social media, fans have posted snaps of Fisher in her Star Wars role and eulogised Princess Leia as a top female role model. One woman wrote: "She fired a gun, told men they were idiots and commanded a whole star fleet."

I must confess I didn't take away such an unequivocally feminist message from the early Star Wars movies. Even aged 9, I couldn't help noticing that only blokes got to be Jedi knights, or ace starship pilots.

And while Han Solo got the best lines and a big, furry friend, Leia was consigned to a gold bikini and metal collar, then chained to Jabba the Hutt.

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So, aged 48, when I seek inspiring women in films, I'm more likely to turn to Singin' in the Rain's Kathy Selden than the rebel royal. There are few things more liberating to my inner Germaine Greer than watching a radiant Debbie Reynolds outshine Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in the Good Morning tap-dancing routine. A feat that becomes more extraordinary when you consider that Reynolds was 19 years old and had just three months' dance training under her belt. The fact is, Princess Leia is a celluloid fantasy, but being able to sing and hoof like that is a real-life miraculous gift.

But then I grew up on a steady diet of classic musicals. The BBC's daytime scheduling during my childhood was a treasure-trove of Hollywood's most escapist hits, from Busby Berkeley extravaganzas to Rodgers and Hammerstein's lyrical works.

Those films were visual panaceas: no trouble was so dark or overwhelming that you couldn't soar away from it on feet light as gossamer to the sound of an invisible orchestra.

To see a singing, dancing Debbie Reynolds outshine Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain is a powerful inspiration for a young woman.
To see a singing, dancing Debbie Reynolds outshine Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain is a powerful inspiration for a young woman.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers rippled across the screen in Top Hat, Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron floated through An American in Paris, while Cyd Charisse's high-kicks took her ever closer to the heavens. Charisse has a career-making dance with Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain as a gangster's moll. The film's director, Stanley Donen, later explained: "We needed someone who could stop a man by just sticking up her leg."

I still find that perfect pin more powerful than Princess Leia's gun and, let's face it, only one of those items was insured for a million bucks.

These movies rarely scored the awards and critical acclaim showered on serious dramas, but as the experts are always telling us on Masterchef, it's deceptively hard to create the perfect souffle.

What Reynolds and Co left me with is a lifelong yearning to burst into song in a public space; preferably while carrying out an astounding dance routine involving an umbrella and carefully choreographed rain.

I am hardly alone in this fantasy. Zadie Smith's new novel Swing Time is partly an homage to the stardust allure of the great silver screen musicals.

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars.
Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in Star Wars.

I watched Smith talk about the book to a rapt audience at the Cambridge Literary Festival last month, as she pondered Fred Astaire's genius: "What rights accrue to you because of that sort of talent - what does it mean?"

Both of her central characters - best friends from childhood - aspire to be dancers, but only one has the talent. And isn't that the way most of us feel? Excluded from this all-singing, all-dancing Garden of Eden because we croon like strangled parrots and move with all the grace of a dump-truck?

The less talented you are, the more you yearn to see those with true flair perform their magic. And the darker the times you live in, the more frothy the diversions you seek. The public's appetite for Busby Berkeley's prodigious output (he choreographed or directed more than 30 movies in the '30s) was directly related to the horrors of the Great Depression and the need temporarily to escape the gloom.

So it's not surprising that a time of stark political polarisation, when many fear another global recession and increased terrorism, Hollywood has made a spirited attempt to revive the musical format.

I have been salivating in front of the trailers for Damien Chazelle's La La Land, where it seems no songbird trope is left unexploited. The romantic leads, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, never talk when they can trill, never walk when they can twirl, and yet the film is set firmly in the 21st century - just check out the drivers on a gridlocked LA freeway, singing on top of their cars. There's even a scene in the Griffiths Observatory, where the two lovers soar up to the stars.

If they've thrown in some umbrellas and a downpour, too, my happiness will be complete.