Does Slave Leia Weaken or Empower Women?

As San Diego Comic-Con approaches, the geek community has been inundated with news, information, and discussions of all sorts. What comes after Harry Potter? Will the DC Reboot be an epic fail? Who will be the next big thing in scifi and fantasy storytelling?  Of all these seemingly unlimited questions, one seems to be a recurring theme – How are women fitting into an industry once believed to be only interesting to men?

Amid this broader discussion, a notion has arisen that women who are traditionally classified as “sexy” can’t also be geeks, accented pointedly by the backlash when Miss USA Allysa Campanella announced her geekiness to the world. Interestingly enough, ActionFlickChick.com’s Katrina Hill had already assembled a Comic-Con panel to discuss sexiness in geekdom well before that brouhaha ever erupted.

10:45-11:45 Oh, You Sexy Geek! — Does displaying the sexiness of fangirls benefit or demean them? When geek girls show off, are they liberating themselves or pandering to men? Do some “fake fangirls” blend sex appeal with nerdiness just to appeal to the growing geek/nerd market, or is that question itself unfair? And what’s up with all the Slave Leias? Action flick chick Katrina Hill (ActionFlickChick.com) asks Bonnie Burton (Grrl.com), Adrianne Curry (America’s Next Top Model), Clare Grant (Team Unicorn, “G33k & G4m3r Girls”), Kiala Kazebee (Nerdist.com), Clare Kramer (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), Nerdy Bird – Jill Pantozzi (“Has Boobs, Reads Comics”), Jennifer K. Stuller (Ink-Stained Amazons, GeekGirlCon) and Chris Gore (G4TV’s Attack of the Show!) to discuss whether fans can be sexy and geeky at the same time — and if they should! Room 6A

It’s not surprising that Slave Leia gets drawn into the mix when discussing sex appeal, objectification, and female geeks. As I noted last week, Princess Leia is the gold standard when it comes to portraying strong female heroines. But ever since 1983, her stint in the metal bikini has been a constant source of debate between those who see something wrong with sticking Princess Leia into such a revealing outfit and those who love the costume to the point that conventions aren’t really complete without the Slave Leia roundup and photo session.

The Ladies of the ’80s

It’s difficult to discuss Slave Leia’s impact on pop-culture, and then relate that back to how I see it as a woman, without giving some perspective. In 1977 when Star Wars hit the big screen, I was eight years old.  With one fantastic movie, I had been sucked into the genre completely.  Television shows such Wonder Woman (1975-1979), The Bionic Woman (1976-1978), Battlestar Galactica (1978) and Buck Rogers (1979-1981), and movies such as Star Trek I-VI (1979-1991), didn’t quite hit the Princess Leia gold standard, but they were still exposing scifi fans to stronger female characters than we were getting in the aggregate.

When The Empire Strikes Back premiered in 1980, I was eleven and a fan of Disney fairytales. George Lucas’ movie gave the young ladies of my generation exactly what we wanted – a princess – except she was better in so many ways.

As I noted in last week’s blog, if the viewer needed to understand Return of the Jedi’s dramatic characterization shift for its heroine – from devoted champion of the Rebellion to a woman on a mission to save her man – it’s subtly embedded into the story. At the age of fourteen, when RotJ first hit the screen, I didn’t understand the implications of Leia’s personal journey, or really even need to, but I most certainly do almost three decades later.  What really mattered from the movie, though, was how back then, as a young high school student, I took away one important lesson from Princess Leia – fortune or circumstance can take away everything, but only you can give away your dignity.

I’m not sure I can explain how utterly entranced I was with Star Wars as a teenager. My best friend “Laura” (name changed to protect my friend’s privacy) and I were trying out for the high school dance team together. Between ESB and RotJ, we spent every second we weren’t practicing musing about Vader – was he really Luke’s father? – and whether Leia could save Han.  While people often think of the rise of the internet age as the spoiler era, I can assure you that back in the good old days we were just as spoiler-crazy – it was just a lot harder to get them.  Laura had a friend of a friend of a friend who had gotten his hands on some real juicy information; the trouble was in the details of getting said material into our hands. (You didn’t just take a picture of it with your phone…)  The escapade that ensued – imagine two girls in their best Madonna-esque attire – might have rivaled Fanboys the movie in its hilarity, but that’s a story for another day.

What’s important from all that shenanigans is that we did know, before ever seeing a frame of the movie, that Princess Leia was going to save Han Solo. For a girl brought up on damsel-in-distress fairytales, the woman with the Cinnabun hairdo was about to become exactly what we imagined…

Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

I realize some people are going to want to stop me right there, and point out the ridiculously skimpy metal bikini outfit. And when I say some people, really it’s mostly women – I mean, how many guys do you know who don’t like Slave Leia? – and the trouble they usually have with the outfit is that men are attracted to it.  This is not to say that there aren’t some men who take issue with it, but in my experience women are quite capable of sexism amongst their own sisters, especially when it comes down to matters of beauty.

Just recently, Roqoo Depot highlighted their take on the five biggest Star Wars fanservice moments, and not surprisingly, Slave Leia made number one.  Does putting Carrie Fisher in a barely-there bikini with chains serve some inner fanboy id?  Of course it does – but I don’t think it hurts women or Princess Leia’s characterization in the least. I think women are the better for it.

Posing with the Lord Mayor's Trophy (1986)

Let’s start with my frame of reference on a personal level. Remember, Laura and I had tried out for dance team.  Well, we made it. Although not quite Slave Leia in its skimpy-ness, I spent a good portion of my high school years, and then later much of college, going to classes and performing in shorter-than-short skirts and revealing dance costumes. Initially, girls join dance teams or cheerleading squads for the camaraderie and to cheer their teams on, for the recognition, and, shockingly to some, for the sport. As I got a little older, that’s when I heard the first charges that I’m complicit in society objectifying women and that I, like scantily clad Carrie Fisher, was pandering to the base desires of men.  Whisked past the wondrous moments of my youth – when being skinny was easy – and into adulthood, it became clear to me that those who believe Leia’s portrayal in the slave costume demeans women are also usually the same people who suggest that cheerleaders and dance teams are rolling gender equivalency backwards with each shake off our pompoms.  What I still see to this day, however, from my time as a high school and college pep dancer, and from Slave Leia, are the achievements that came from showing a little skin.

Dance team got me places I’d have never been able to go otherwise. I toured England and Ireland as part of the National Dance Team, and to cap that tour off we were awarded the Lord Mayor’s Trophy for the best performance in the Dublin St. Patrick’s Day Parade.  There were an estimated quarter million people along the parade route. I performed at an NBA basketball game and at numerous other major sporting events. Later, when I captained the Duke Dancing Devils, I performed at halftime of some of the biggest rivalries in college basketball and had the privilege of talking to Coach K every now and then. Was all that hard work and dance skill just pandering? Not in my mind.  I was performing and having the time of my life.  I showed some skin, men ogled.  Did they hold some power over me because of it? Quite frankly, no.  I’m pretty sure I was the one controlling the agenda.

Do You Think Any Less of Me?

Scantily clad male characters, such as James Bond emerging from the water in Casino Royale, appear quite often in the media.  Of course, it’s supposed to be provocative and eye-candy. It appeals to women because he exhibits strength and beauty. The question that jumps out at me, when looking at Daniel Craig in his tight light-blue swimsuit, is: Do people think any less of his character’s ability as superagent 007 because of this image? Why aren’t male characters accused of pandering?

So why is it different with Slave Leia? Do people think her any less noble, heroic, or dignified than she was pre-bikini because she was captured and set out as a trophy for all of Jabba’s court to see?

There are, as I see it, two motivations that need to be examined when discussing Slave Leia. The first is character motivation, and the second is the director’s motives. 

If the character motivation is weak or unapparent, then charges of pandering might be well-placed, but let’s consider a few things. But first, back to Casino Royale for a minute. Much later, after James is thoroughly smitten with Vesper, they are both captured.  Bond is shown naked, strapped in a chair. The villain, Le Chiffre, uses brutal torture tactics to advance his agenda; they involve literally degrading Bond’s manhood until he gives up the information his torturer wants.  The motivations for the characters and the director are quite clear.  And while the image of Daniel Craig stripped down to nothing is eye-candy for about the first two seconds, for the viewer it also creates empathy for his vulnerability in the moment. Both the director’s and the characters’ motivations align to create a real moment, not a gratuitous one.

So what would motivate Jabba the Hutt to chain up Princess Leia in a slave outfit?  For one, she’s an attractive female and he’s a leech.  Secondly, he’s trying to remind everyone, his gang and his enemies, that he holds the power.  More importantly, though, is how Leia reacts.  Instead of acting stricken or mortified, she remains dignified and regal, refusing to debase herself to Jabba’s whims, and this behavior is as important for her as it is for her friends in Jabba’s palace.  She’s saying silently, “I’m all right. Don’t do anything stupid on account of me.  We’ll get through this.”

Take That, Jabba

That the character motivations make sense leads me to conclude that what some people will still raise an eyebrow about is the motivations of George Lucas and RotJ director Richard Marquand.  Couldn’t they have put Carrie Fisher in a less revealing outfit?  Probably. Were they fulfilling a school-boy fantasy? Possibly. Would the ultimate denouement of her story in the first arc of the movie have been as effective with Leia in a slave tunic? I don’t think so.

Gentle Giant Ltd.'s Slave Leia maquette from their Animated Star Wars series

Attraction is a basic primal instinct; it is in our nature to seek out the strongest, the prettiest, the best of the best. It creates subliminal suggestions in our psyche telling us how to react to another human being. Looking at Princess Leia on paper – powerful, independent, bossy, emotionally iron-willed – she maps out like a character many men and even some women won’t like.  Faced with the destruction of her entire planet, she doesn’t even cry or break down; her compassion and vulnerability are tough to uncover under all her bitch shields.  Women this powerful and secure in themselves tend to elicit a negative response from men and women.

But Slave Leia’s costume turns that on its head. It gives the male mind an indicator that it should like her, despite the dominant personality traits that might otherwise get in the way. To the female mind, it evokes a sympathy response. How many women haven’t been the victim of sexual objectification by a sleazy, shady, despicable, or maybe even downright creepy figure?  That’s why Slave Leia resonates so clearly.

Leia, practically naked, chained up to the front of Jabba’s dais, has become an iconic image of sexual objectification by a villain, but the most important thing is that she is never once shown lacking dignity.  Stripped of everything, in the depths of what some women might perceive as their own version of hell, Princess Leia remains poised and in possession of her self-worth, reminding us that there are some things a woman can refuse to give away – that we always have the power.  (That’s not to say some women aren’t horribly victimized by physically more powerful men, or even other women, but if you’ve watched the recent interview with Jaycee Dugard, I think it’s undeniable that a woman can escape slavery with her sense of self.)

But it gets even better than that!

Once the eventual mayhem ensues out at the Sarlacc pit, Luke, Han, Lando, and Chewie get caught up in their own treacherous drama.  Armed with only her chains of slavery, Leia jumps into action.  With brute strength of will, she alone brings down one of the most feared Hutt gangsters in the galaxy. 

Leia saves herself.  And in that moment, Star Wars took the princess-in-need-of-rescue trope and forever turned it on its ear.

.

Slave Leias on Parade

Slave Leias at Comic-Con 2010 (photo by Nicole Love, featured on the Official Star Wars Blog)

When I see Slave Leias wandering the halls of a convention, I see Leia literally choking the snot out of her oppressor.  In this society hyper-focused on looks, the courage and self-esteem these women have is remarkable, and I think they’ve taken the right message away from Star Wars.  Whether it’s Adrianne Curry or an anonymous cosplayer, and she feels good about herself in what she’s wearing, then I have to ask you this: who is actually doing more harm to her self-worth – the fanboy ogling her or the woman telling her she’s undermining women?  People could argue for either, but my whole point is that there is a third option:  neither.  Slave Leia costumers hold all the power right inside their minds to keep their dignity intact and show off their emotional and psychological strength while they’re at it. 


Tricia will be blogging from San Diego Comic-Con this week. My first blog will be a follow up on Thursday morning’s Oh, You Sexy Geek! panel. I hope to see lots of Slave Leias and other fantastic female heroine cosplayers while I’m there.

You can check my Facebook page for pictures and my Twitter feed (@fangirlcantina) for breaking news (and random squeals of glee). I have also been prescreened by UberSoc, and you can follow their Twitter stream using #ubersdcc. 


Finally, speaking of Princess Leia, today TFN shared a link to the Pennsylvania Star Wars Collecting Society and their limited-edition sale of medallions featuring the image of Princess Leia in Hoth battle gear as a fundraiser for Operation Troop Appreciation. Support a worthy cause and celebrate a great heroine at the same time – how can you beat that?

Fangirl

Fangirl

Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and the intersection of women within Star Wars fandom. She is co-author of Ultimate Star Wars and Star Wars Visual Encyclopedia from DK Publishing, a featured writer for Star Wars Insider magazine with numerous articles on the Hero's Journey. Her FANgirl opinions can be heard on the podcasts Hyperspace Theories and Fangirls Going Rogue.

Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.
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Fangirl

Tricia Barr took her understanding of brand management and marketing, mixed it with a love of genre storytelling, and added a dash of social media flare to create FANgirl Blog, where she discusses Star Wars, fandom, and the intersection of women within Star Wars fandom. She is co-author of Ultimate Star Wars and Star Wars Visual Encyclopedia from DK Publishing, a featured writer for Star Wars Insider magazine with numerous articles on the Hero's Journey. Her FANgirl opinions can be heard on the podcasts Hyperspace Theories and Fangirls Going Rogue. Tricia Barr's novel, Wynde, won the 2014 Independent Publisher Book Award Gold Medal for Best Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Ebook. She was also part of Silence in the Library's successful all-female creator science fiction and fantasy anthology Athena's Daughters, which is available now. For excerpts and tales of her adventures in creating a fictional universe, hop over to TriciaBarr.com.

22 thoughts on “Does Slave Leia Weaken or Empower Women?

  • July 18, 2011 at 11:33 pm
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    This piece is excellent and resonates with me on so many levels.

    Like you, I was 8 when ANH was released, and I don’t know if younger women can possibly understand how truly inspiring Leia was to us. At the time, strong women in film and TV tended to blatantly point out that they were STRONG WOMEN, hear me roar. Leia just grabbed Luke’s gun, shouted at Han and took over! Then she looked radiant and feminine at the end. She was awesome!

    Fast forward to ROTJ. Your descriptions of being a young female SW fan during that time period are so accurate! Like you, I was 14 and impressionable, and I can’t think of a better role model for young women of that age than Leia, even (maybe especially!) in the bikini. Leia is a smart lady, as is Carrie Fisher, who’s terrific in those scenes; she portrays Leia’s dignity and nobility despite the outfit so effectively.

    Leia was able to look alluring while defending herself (and rescuing her man, too.) I think there’s an important distinction between being sexy and sexual, and it saddens me to see that so many young women today feel the need to promote such gratuitous sexuality.

    As for the issue of Leia’s character shifting from strong-willed freedom fighter to woman fighting for her man, I think it’s a definite progression of her character, not a weakness. She allows herself to deeply love another human being, and that’s something worth fighting for, too. Even in a metal bikini.

    Reply
  • July 19, 2011 at 11:32 am
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    Looking at Princess Leia on paper – powerful, independent, bossy, emotionally iron-willed – she maps out like a character many men and even some women won’t like. Faced with the destruction of her entire planet, she doesn’t even cry or break down; her compassion and vulnerability are tough to uncover under all her bitch shields. Women this powerful and secure in themselves tend to elicit a negative response from men and women.

    But Slave Leia’s costume turns that on its head. It gives the male mind an indicator that it should like her, despite the dominant personality traits that might otherwise get in the way.

    That has to be one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. Women can’t display personality traits–like assertiveness, independence, courage, etc–for which men are praised, because it threatens the male ego. But if a powerful woman throws on a skimpy bikini to appeal to the drooling male’s base instinct, suddenly she’s worthwhile again. Lord, it makes me wish I was a lesbian.

    Reply
    • July 19, 2011 at 12:55 pm
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      Way to miss the point, Little Miss Straw Feminist. :P

      Reply
    • July 19, 2011 at 2:12 pm
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      “drooling male’s base instinct”? Way to be nasty there. Comments like these give feminism a bad name.

      I think you misunderstood what fangirl was trying to say. Yes, fangirl could have phrased it better, but she can’t be blamed because she isn’t a man and only intellectually knows what she’s talking about there.

      Only the most petty, insecure, prejudiced men hate strong women. On the other hand, when a woman comes off “too strong” or “bitchy”, some rare men may find her more attractive, but most men are (sexually) put off by it. Lack of sexual attraction =/= hatred.

      Reply
  • July 19, 2011 at 12:42 pm
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    I agree with Amy.

    Also, I believe it takes a lot of guts for a woman to wear a skimpy outfit, regardless of whether it’s a ‘slave’ costume or not. Would Princess Leia usually walk around scantily clad? Probably not. Did she need to in order to be a powerful woman? No.

    In contrast, in the PT, Padme wore more revealing outfits when she wanted to get her way with men, so who is to say that using your sexuality isn’t empowering? People can read into and overanalyse the meaning and symbolism of a person’s clothes all they want, but as they say ‘clothes don’t make the man’; they certainly don’t make the woman either! What matters is the woman’s intention, how she holds herself and how she behaves in spite of what clothes she is wearing.

    Reply
  • July 19, 2011 at 9:21 pm
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    I agree with the truism that wearing skimpy clothing does not automatically mean that a woman (or man, for that matter) is vulnerable or giving up their personal power. From a psychological perspective, Leia was placed in a vulnerable position (quite different from being vulnerable) by Jabba, a criminal who is using the age-old tactic of removing her clothing in an attempt to rob his prisoner of what she so obviously owns: confidence, resourcefulness, and yes, power. He is trying to humiliate her. The metal bikini could also be viewed as an extension of her chains, containing her sexuality so to speak, to remind others that she is now his possession. Naturally, some individuals enjoy the suggestive voyeuristic fantasy inherent to this situation – as well as the simple sight of a beautiful woman in a state of partial dress (hey, I enjoyed watching Daniel Craig, too!) – but their (sexual) interest is superficial in that, (a) it’s not real, and (b) it ignores the fact that never once does Leia look the least bit victimized.

    You said it well, Fangirl: Leia refuses to give up her power. She is absolutely sure of who she is and confident in her ability to deal with any situation. Clothing, or lack of it, does not change her fundamental character. That was established from the first time Leia appears in ANH. It takes a lot of guts to be a rebel right under the breathing mask of Darth Vader.

    If that doesn’t represent empowerment, what in space does?

    I really don’t see much to debate about this. Female freedom-fighters everywhere ought to applaud Leia for, as Fangirl said, “choking the snot” out of the most unlikely opponent. Leia Organa rejected the role of humiliated prisoner and instead stole her would-be tormentor’s life. As far as I’m concerned, Leia is Power.

    This debate reminded me of a story I read about the filming of the scene when Leia rushes to embrace Luke so they can swing from Jabba’s barge onto the waiting skiff holding Han, Lando, and Chewie. There is a brief moment when Mark Hamill glances down at Carrie’s bikini. True or not, the story goes that her costar was checking to make sure The Bikini was still “in place”, since a part of Carrie’s anatomy had escaped the awkward garment in a previous take. (Sounds plausible to me – watch the scene again sometime.) I would bet that Carrie Fisher may have been at least briefly embarrassed by such a wardrobe malfunction but probably would also have accepted it with good humor. Carrie is a pretty powerful woman in her own right, something she has proven in triumphs over many real-life challenges.

    The line – if there is one – between life and art is blurry. We need to be careful not to impose too many burdens on our interpretations of either.

    Reply
    • July 24, 2011 at 10:31 am
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      *This*. Seriously.

      Reply
  • July 20, 2011 at 2:19 am
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    I agree with your points about Leia and how she carried herself throughout the traumatic event.

    However, why do the FANGIRLS dress up? It’s not because they want to show themselves being dignified when forced into slavery. No, they’re dressing up because everyone finds Slave!Leia ‘hot’.

    She’s FORCED INTO SLAVERY. That is the last thing any self-respecting woman should be emulating.

    Reply
    • July 24, 2011 at 10:30 am
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      You make a very good point, Kelly. :)

      Reply
    • July 30, 2011 at 7:47 pm
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      Not really. I made the costume for precisely the reason set out in the article. Leia as warrior, and one of the first I saw as a child. No one who has seen photos of me in the costume could mistake that aspect- I made a conscious decision to wear the shortened chain ie post break out and with my 6 foot weapon of Vibroaxe very much at the ready.

      The one thing I would differ with in the article is that Leia was not acting alone to get Han out and she did not fail her mission in getting caught. If she had got Han away Chewie would have remained locked up for one. It would be unlikely anyone could have got him out alone.

      Lando was already in place as a guard, Chewie wound up in the in the cell with Han (to be his eyes), the droids in Jabba’s court so as close to him as they could get and then Leia who was as close to him as anyone could ever get- literally. She was the best positioned to assassinate him. Once there was a distraction- Luke provided the distraction and the reason for getting them out into the desert rather than in his fortress like palace.

      So no, dressing as Leia in the Slave costume for me is not about glorifying slavery, I would never let anyone hold my chain or even touch me when I posed for photos. I did have fun with a fight with a friend also in a SLeia costume- because believe me there is a lot of backfighting about who “can” be Leia at conventions so we played on that. Olivia Munn actually hit that one right on the nail with her segment a few years ago.

      Don’t assume everyone has the same motivations.

      Oh yeah I also wanted a challenge costume wise so mine is sculpted molded and then cast in resin and fibreglass. Part of my motivation was to see who assumed my costume was bought and what assumptions would be made on the quality when they found out I made it. Sadly all of my own assumptions were proved true.

      Reply
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  • August 5, 2011 at 6:24 pm
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    Thank you. Seriously: THANK YOU. I am seriously exhausted by Slave Leia being trotted out as though this is a “Perils of Pauline,” situation of damsel-in-distress. You’ve laid out the argument BRILLIANTLY. The thing people seem to ignore fwhen discussing cosplay or costuming in genre film/tv, is that these women still kick ass. This isn’t Pretty Woman with the, “She rescues him right back,” lip-service/subtext. It is genuinely, in plain sight, women who save the day. Leia, Leeloo, Ripley. . . there are more, and stronger examples of women who are not only smart and capable, but in full possession of sexual agency in sci-fi than in any other genre.

    Reply
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  • October 24, 2012 at 2:42 pm
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    It empowers. It shows that women can be beautiful and powerful at the same time. Choking Jabba showed strength, cunning and guts. If anything, Leia gave young girls a lot to strive for.

    Reply
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