Opinion: Slave Leia

As a life-long Star Wars fan, Leia ties with Luke as my favourite film character. She is the perfect combination of sassy, smart, brave, warm, loyal, wise, and caring. Carrie was also a total boss and owned her life – the good and the bad – and didn’t care what anyone else thought.

Jabba and Slave Leia

Slave Leia and Jabba. Credit: Oracle of Film

The Return of the Jedi is my favourite of the eight five films. Luke’s arc culmination is incredible. He would go to the Dark Side to save Leia, and that has touched my soul since I was a child. Unfortunately, the movie is also famous for Leia’s Huttese slave bikini and it led to an explosion of marketing featuring her in the skimpy two-piece. Before we go further, I think the outfit is actually beautiful and sexy, and Carrie looked amazing. I have issues with its influence on how Leia is portrayed. For all of Leia’s accomplishments, the imagery associated most frequently with her in advertising, toys, etc is the slave bikini which, in my opinion, greatly undermines her power and legacy.

Carrie was not keen on wearing the outfit. It was director Richard Marquand’s idea “because she was incredibly sexy,” and it was floated by costume designer Nilo Rodis-Jamero and supported by George Lucas (from Star Wars Costumes: The Original Trilogy). She had very little, if any, speaking time while wearing it. Recently she advised Daisy Ridley to not be a slave like she was. Also, am I the only person bothered by her “fun” Rolling Stone beach photoshoot with Darth Vader (Leia’s father) to promote The Return of the Jedi? Why did George and the gang ever think that those photos sent the right message? I agree with Carrie in that the best moment is when she strangles Jabba with his own chain attached to her neck, and then changes into something sensible off-screen.

Disney should not outright ban the outfit as it’s still a part of her character. However, up until recently Slave Leia has dominated merchandise. I would have preferred the bikini to not be the first (for a while, the only) version of Leia released by Hasbro for the Black Series of action figures while they delayed other Leia figures due to “likeness issues” but released multiple variations of other male characters. I would have preferred that for a while the Facebook “page” for Princess Leia did not feature Olivia Munn dressed as Slave Leia as the photo that represents “Princess Leia.”

As a cosplayer, I personally would never wear the outfit because I respect Leia for who she would have preferred to be seen. Over the years, however, I have seen so many women embracing the outfit as an expression of empowerment (Amy Schumer’s recent GQ photoshoot being the most public and crude incarnation of Slave Leia cosplay). I would ask… “why?” She didn’t carry around a Huttese bikini in her bra just in case she ran across a slimy worm crimeload she felt compelled to snuggle up with. She was his slave. It was intended to humiliate her and reduce her agency and power.

I disagree with the various rationalizations put forth over time, and I believe that the bikini should be seen as exploitation and not empowerment. On the other side of the debate, some would arugue that it is a symbol of Leia’s suffering, conquering her oppressor, and that she needed to be the sex slave to prove herself. Noah Bertalsky argued that her Boushh-Slave transition was a metaphor for her sexual awakening. On a lower level, Lizzy Finnegan argued that anyone who criticizes the legacy of the bikini is just a jealous feminist. These rationalizations often sound to me like an intellecutally dishonest cover for “I want a Slave Leia poster on my wall” or “I want to be a slave.” If I was Leia, my first thought after killing Jabba would not be “Now I am a woman! That was the most edifying moment of my life!” No, I shun the idea that a woman draws her worth from being sexualised against her will, which is basically what these commentators argue.

I would ask these commentators: does the bikini need to be in so many of the advertisements over all of her other non-sexual outfits (that had significantly more screentime)? If Jabba had put her in a frumpy jumpsuit, would you be arguing so strongly for her wearing it? If Carrie wasn’t considered “hot,” would men actually argue that she was exploited? Can’t we appreciate what the outfit meant within the context of the film but remember that Leia would not have wanted to wear that uncomfortable metal contraption? Can we talk about the trolls who body-shamed Carrie when she appeared in Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (her male co-stars escaping such scrutiny), many of whom are undoubtedly men who watch The Return of the Jedi “for the ewoks”? Can we just admit that sex sells and that’s what this is all about? What kind of message does that send to girls and young women?

In the film, she subverted the “damsel in distress” trope which is exactly what Leia would do. “Slave Leia” on merchandise and in advertising loses that context and reduces her to a one-dimensional male fantasy. It sends the message that this fierce warrior and politician, the only significant woman in the original trilogy, is only relavent to the entire story of Star Wars when she is essentially naked.

That being said, women being sexualised in fantasy and science fiction is nothing new. Women’s portrayal in the 1970s and before is a history lesson in itself. In the last thirty years of Star Trek alone, Marina Sirits said, of portraying Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation, that she “got her brains back” when the writers gave her a uniform instead of a tight, cleavage-baring jumpsuit. The writers for Star Trek: Voyager swapped quiet and demure Kes for sex kitten Seven of Nine to improve the ratings and it took a long time for her to get any character development. She was actually an interesting character once they paid attention to her beyond suggestive camera angles. Cat-suit-wearing T’Pol on Enterprise stripped with Trip in the decontamination shower in the pilot episode, forever either establishing or destroying her potential as a character depending on your point of view (and emotional maturity). While Slave Leia never traded brains for boobs, the bikini’s legacy in our culture propagates the idea that the woman gets sexualized and such sexualization is the only way to justify her existance while men are never expected to prance around as sex objects in order to be fully fleshed-out characters.

Image collage: Princess Leia’s outfits through the course of the three films. The Huttese bikini remains perhaps her most iconic outfit in merchandise, with the Alderaan outfit a close second. All images found on Pinterest.com.

I don’t ask that the bikini be buried and never see the light of day again, or that Disney edits the film to cover her up in the spirit of Iranian state censorship. I take issue with the rationalization of why the bikini is so popular and I wish that for every instance where the bikini is used in merchandise and advertising, they also offered material featuring her seldom-seen Bespin gown, or her Hoth outfit, for those of us who don’t want to embrace and support her sexualisation. She does not need a bikini to show she is tough and she would still be the same beloved First Lady of Star Wars without it.