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.
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.
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
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?
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.