Earlier this month, a concerned parent complained to Hasbro that the easiest to find Princess Leia action figure was the "Slave Leia" costume from her brief imprisonment by Jabba the Hutt at the beginning of Episode VI. The complainant has been praise for caring about female depiction and empowerment, ridiculed for not understanding the source material, and ignored from various corners of the internet. Coincidentally, this kerfuffle comes on the occasion of my daughter's first watching of the films at the age of eight. Last night we watched the first film, A New Hope. (For the purpose of this discussion, there are a total of three Star Wars films, which were released in 1977, 1980, and 1983. This isn't prequel-bashing, but an acknowledgement that the "classic trilogy" has a place of cultural important and influence which the later ones do not share). It's worth looking at what Star Wars says about women, why "Slave Leia" is so problematic (as I believe that, to an extent, it is), and how things could be better.
First, re-watching Episode IV with my daughter was overall a wonderful experience. The acting is, of course, abysmal as is much of the dialog, the plot is fairly predictable and the villains range from cartoonishly pure-evil (Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin) to cartoonishly stupid (the Stormtroopers). That said, the film has a distinctive look, some great (for its time) action sequences, and is great fun overall. Getting to the topic of the depiction of women, one can't help but smile at Princess Leia, especially in the moment where she takes control of her rescue after Han and Luke have gotten themselves cornered. Throughout the movie she's depicted as strong, dignified, and honorable. Given this portrayal of overall strength, why is it a problem for her to be very briefly stripped of her clothes and dignity only to turn around and literally use her chains to strangle her captor? Two reasons.
First, and most importantly, is that anything which happens to Leia happens to all women. Why? Because Leia is very nearly the only named female character in the trilogy (yes, there's Luke's Aunt Beru who gets perhaps four minutes of screen time and about six lines of dialog. We barely get to know her and barely remember her when the final credits roll). This gives her depiction a gravity which isn't there for male characters. Han Solo appears selfish and arrogant? He's counterbalanced by the naive, good-hearted simple farmboy. Lando Calrissian acts cowardly and dishonest? Not, as they say on Twitter, all men; there are plenty who are honest and honorable. Han Solo is taken prisoner, frozen in carbonite? Another man is there to lead the rescue effort. Princess Leia is captured by Stormtroopers, captured by Jabba the Hutt, forced to wear a metal bikini? That's every single woman we know in the Star Wars universe. Watching Episode IV, I noticed that the background characters don't even include women - and that's a shame. Why not have some female soldiers fighting alongside the men in the Rebellion? Why are there no female officers on the Death Star? The more women present, the less representation becomes a statement on women in general and the more it becomes about the single character.
|How female fans depict to Leia|
|More Leia cosplay|
The second issue is that the Slave Leia costume is blatant sexualization which teaches girls that participation includes showing off female bodies. Take these Google Image Search results for "Princess Leia Cosplay"; I took the very first images which came up and see that, of the first dozen, ten are the "slave" outfit. Yes, women are within their rights to show off their bodies if they want and no, I don't consider such displays shameful. What it DOES remind us is that messages - even unintended ones - echo and that sex, as they say, sells. Throughout the films, we see Leia as a warrior, a leader, and a hero in her own right. We see her defiantly stand up to her captors, including the imposing and intimidating Darth Vader. We see her in battle, blaster in hand. We see her dressed in long white robes, in cold-weather gear, in jungle camoflauge. And, for a few minutes of one film, we see her in a metal bikini. Sexual displays of female bodies get so much attention in our society that the one glimpse of her body takes a disproportionate share of our consciousness, and is elevated to an iconic status which, to be fair, the source material does not deserve. As I said, Leia is a hero and a strong character whose focus is NOT her sexuality.
|How female fans depict Hermione Granger.|
Note that she is wearing clothes.
When we sexualize the only female character in a franchise, we encourage sexual engagement from fans and send a message that fandom is about sex. When we only have one female character, that character represents ALL women. Compare, for the sake of discussion, the Harry Potter books and films. While the main character is a boy, we have multiple important women and girls (Professor McGonagall, Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood and, arguably the most important villain of the series, Dolores Umbridge). This means that Luna's flightiness tells us that Luna is flighty, not that girls are flighty.
It's also noteworthy that, even as characters mature and fall into relationships, neither Rowling nor the various filmakers involved "sexed up" any of the female characters. If you look at cosplay of Hermione Granger, for example, you'll see the same kind of dress-up as Harry Potter cosplay; representations of the character as they are. The Potter characters aren't sexless by any means; one could argue that the Harry Potter books are a more adult-oriented work than Star Wars, certainly with a more interesting a varied take on romance. That they could do this without turning all females into pinups is a good thing.
So yes, while I understand that it's part of canon and that many fans have affection for it, the Slave-Leia depiction is a big negative in portrayal of women and in giving them a broad welcome into fandom. We need to do better.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know. Watch this space for more flash fiction later this week, and check out my AV-related posts over on rAVepubs.