When the trailer for “Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens” premiered this week, I found myself in a bit of a Twitter tiff with a less-nerdy former colleague of mine. Like me, she was delighted to see Rey (Daisy Ridley) at the center of the promotional clip. But I was moderately perturbed by the idea she advanced that previous “Star Wars” movies had been any less egalitarian or that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was any less of a feminist hero, simply because in “Return of the Jedi,” there are a number of scenes in which the sluglike gangster Jabba the Hutt (voiced by Larry Ward) holds her hostage and forces her to wear what has become an iconic metal-and-leather bikini.
While I cede no ground to anyone in my love for Princess Leia, my interlocutor raised a point I’m not sure she intended. Princess Leia’s outfit — known in fan shorthand as Slave Leia — in those scenes does have a vexed history. And the costume has become culturally iconic in a way that has slipped loose from the context of the scenes in which Leia wore it and the things she does after she is forced into the outfit.
Fisher herself was frank about how she felt the scene functioned in the movie. “There are a lot of people who don’t like my character in these movies; they think I’m some kind of space b—-,” Fisher told Carol Caldwell in an interview for Rolling Stone just before “Return of the Jedi” opened in 1983. “She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds — along with her hairdresser — so all she has is a cause. From the first film [‘Star Wars’], she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry. In ‘Return of the Jedi,’ she gets to be more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate. But let’s not forget that these movies are basically boys’ fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes.”
That assessment might have been due to the way Fisher was treated on set while wearing the costume. In J.W. Rinzler’s “The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi,” he notes an interview Fisher gave in which she explains what it was like to film those scenes.”This was no bikini. It was metal. It didn’t go where you went. After the shots, the prop man would have to check me. He’d say, ‘Okay tits are fine. Let’s go.’ So I started checking for any bounce or slip after takes. Then it was, ‘Cut. Hey, how they doin’, hooters in place? Tits all right?’ I was embarrassed at first with a hundred guys going crazy over my revealed self. Dignity was out of the question.”
And as Chris Taylor reports in “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe,” Fisher could be tart about how her image was used outside those scenes, too. “I told George, ‘You have the rights to my face,’ ” Fisher apparently said about a Princess Leia figurine. ” ‘You do not have the rights to my lagoon of mystery.’ ”
Fisher wasn’t wrong to think that “Star Wars” fans would be so blinkered by the sight of a nearly naked Princess Leia that they’d miss the context of the scene. In fact, taking the costume out of the context has become something of a mini-trope in popular culture.
In the third-season premiere of “Friends,” Ross (David Schwimmer) confessed to Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) that he has a sexual fantasy about Leia in captivity. “Every guy our age loved that,” their friend Phoebe (Lisa Kudrow) tells Rachel when she asks whether Ross’s fantasy is normal. “It’s huge. That’s the moment when she stopped being a princess, and she became, like, a woman.” Self-aware nerd culture shows, from “Family Guy” to “Robot Chicken” to “Chuck,” have deployed the bikini in a wide range of storylines, sometimes fulfilling male fantasies in the process. It’s lady-nerd Zoe’s (Kristen Bell) cosplay of choice in “Fanboys.” “The Big Bang Theory’s” Kaley Cuoco even filmed a satirical public service announcement about the ubiquity of the costumes at fan gatherings:
And the outfit is hardly confined to geeky spaces. The gold bikini has showed up in a “Dancing With the Stars” routine, and on Kim Kardashian, who wore it in a pilot for a puppet show her now-husband Kanye West shot in 2008. There’s perhaps no better sign that Slave Leia is simply considered sexy (rather than complicated) than the fact that a doll of the character in the outfit became the subject of a trollish local news story this year after a disgruntled parent complained about the fact that the toy was being sold at Target.
But treating the gold bikini as merely sexy misses the point not just of the outfit itself, but also of the scenes in which Leia wears it. Whether the costume was supposed to provide visual interest to Leia’s monochrome wardrobe, soften a character some fans apparently felt to be inaccessible or simply give the franchise a jolt of sexual heat, there’s no denying the contempt and disgust on Leia’s face when she is forced into Jabba’s idea of appropriate clothing. It’s well worth contrasting Leia’s expression with the joy and humor Fisher put on display during the Rolling Stone photo shoot for which she wore the costume.
Leia may be captive in these scenes, but she’s not exactly a compliant fantasy. Instead, she’s biding her time for the moment when she can put that fury into action, carrying out a carefully laid plan to rescue her lover (Harrison Ford). And when that moment comes, the bikini doesn’t condemn Leia to passivity. She rises, and uses the very chains that bind her to strangle the creature who tried to take away her power by turning her into a sex object.
Even more than Fisher’s excellent acting in the scenes at Jabba’s palace, that setting complicates any attempt to read Leia as a simple sex object in a way that fawning fans often ignore. If you wanted to see Princess Leia naked, or nearly so, it ought to be uncomfortable that the person who makes her that way is a violent, brutish grotesque. The comics writer Kelly Sue DeConnick has talked about reversing perspective to “turn the camera on the watcher” in scenes with nude women, and the Jabba’s palace sequences are as stark an example of that technique as I can think of. Some viewers might be getting their fantasy, but along with it, they’re getting a reminder that they share that fantasy with a crude monster — and that their fantasy is being accomplished only by force. Then there’s that unsettling ending, Jabba’s leering tongue lolling out of his mouth in death. No wonder people have spent decades forgetting about Leia’s revenge and focusing on her sex appeal instead.
It’s for this reason that Amy Schumer’s recent GQ photo shoot, in which she played a robot-bedding, hard-partying, leather-bar-crashing Princess Leia, is one of the most refreshing riffs on Leia, slave and otherwise, in recent pop culture. By sticking a lightsaber in her mouth, she rendered Slave Leia fantasies as the silly, boorish, context-free things they so often are. By climbing up on a bar and hosting shots as the denizens of a gay bar hit on Chewbacca and get lectured by C-3PO, Schumer suggests a Leia who’s in it for her own good time, not anyone else’s.
There have always been “Star Wars” fans who weren’t in it for a depiction of women that still counts as revolutionary. But if Jabba the Hutt couldn’t break Leia’s spirit by forcing her into a ridiculous bikini, we shouldn’t let the outfit cloud our memories of her, or the franchise that gave birth to Princess Leia, either.