In 1977, George Lucas modeled his space opera after the matinee adventures he watched as a child. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Zorro were all garnished with damsels in distress. Beautiful women placed in peril allowing the male hero to rescue them and save the day. The hero fought off armies of foes while the damsel sat by idle, an inanimate object with no power over her own destiny.
Princess Leia redefined this stereotypical damsel in distress. While in captivity on the Death Star, once an opportunity arrived, she grabbed a blaster and acted. Blasting a hole and creating an avenue of escape she commanded, “Into the garbage shoot, flyboy!” By doing so, she opened the door for future female characters like Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor to take the reins and save everyone’s collective ass.
However let’s take a step back. She may have graduated from totally helpless but she was still a prize to possess. In Star Wars, she was taken to the castle fortress Death Star and held in its fortified walls. In Empire Strikes Back, she was the jewel of Cloud City and used by Darth Vader to lure Luke. In Return of the Jedi the dragon Jabba the Hutt displayed his bling-bling Leia in his lair.
These polar opposite attributes allowed her character to be both vulnerable and a force to be reckoned with. Burdened with the responsibility of the rebellion, she still sought the comfort of Han’s embrace. Sprawled upon Jabba the Hutt, captured and humiliated, Leia held a regal grace. True to form she faced another struggle with fortitude awaiting the moment to strike and escape. She harnessed her chains of bondage as an instrument of freedom and vanquished her foe. Leia Organa was a graceful, exposed, tender, guarded, lethal, and formidable character.
On the other hand, the phenomenon of Slave Leia transcends this character. Now an enduring staple of SF/Fantasy conventions, Slave Leia piques the fetish fantasies of fanboys and allows fangirls to dabble in exhibitionism. The costume has made several appearances in pop culture and could be considered the epitome of geek sexploitation. Does this homage demean the dignity of the character or express the prowess of femininity in spite of exposure?
Without getting into an objectifying of women debate, let's just agree that if a person shows a significant portion of skin they are going to get noticed. This attention may be scandalous, provocative, or sensual but as sexual beings we can't help being receptive to it. As Slave Leias frolic around convention floors, one more revealing than the next, promoting a bondage fetish and allowing fans a titillating experience. It's easy to see a dichotomy between the character and the sensation it has become.
Let's remember that the SF/Fantasy genre is about exploring intelligent and absorbing ideas in the safety of escapism. Conventions allow this function on a grand scale. It is the one place where a scantily clad woman will be treated with the respect she deserves because of the character she is depicting.
Princess Leia is an amazing character with the ability to balance between being vulnerable and strong. So remember, the next time you're in the presence of a Slave Leia stop gawking and drooling. Force yourself to look deeper, past the abundance of bare flesh. Honor and respect the powerful and majestic woman standing before you.
Women in any universe must deal with sexplotation. Can I be pretty and bad ass? Do I have to pick one? Am I selfish or vain if I want to be attractive? Obviously in movies, attractiveness matters (especially to the studio).
I’ve never been offended by Slave Leia, but given all her other costumes to chose from, I’d argue that most women who don the outfit do want sexual attention. But I’d also argue that wearing a Slave Leia at a Con might be the only time some of these women get that kind of attention- the admirable kind. Nowhere else can so few covered parts being seen in a positive light. No one ever considers a Slave Leia as slutty.
As a mom of teenage sons, I’m having a difficult time convincing KidsAZ that skimpy clothes don’t always mean an easy girl. The girls aren’t helping matters at all given the short shorts that are in right now and all the suggestive slogan on T-shirts- BOY TOY, JUICEY, etc. I’d prefer a classroom full of Slave Leias!
I’m not sure I’ve made a point here. As for me, I think I’m too old at almost 44 to pull off a Slave Leia. Kinda wish I’d gone there just once though, for the thrill of it!
Great post, Talos, And great comment DawnAZ.
This is an interesting subject, and I a thot occurred to me when it was mentioned recently on the podcast.
Yeah, yeah. It is a sexy outfit. And Carrie Fischer looked great in it.
But it’s actually pretty key that she’s dressed that way. It’s said that George Lucas got a lot of inspiration from the works of Joseph Campbell.
Indulge me with this quote from Wikipedia:
“George Lucas was the first Hollywood filmmaker to credit Campbell’s influence. Lucas stated following the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977 that its story was shaped, in part, by ideas described in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and other works of Campbell’s. The linkage between Star Wars and Campbell was further reinforced when later reprints of Campbell’s book used the image of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker on the cover. Lucas discusses this influence at great length in the authorized biography of Joseph Campbell, A Fire in the Mind”
One thing that Campbell talks about a lot in his books is the mythological Dragon. A key archetype of the western Dragon is a the big powerful beast that’s hordes “objects” that have no value to him, and this can include damsels that he can’t “do anything” with but just wants to enslave them.
It’s clear that in Return of the Jedi Jabba the Hutt is the Dragon and Princess Leia is the beautiful princess enslaved by the dragon.
The skimpy Slave Leia outfit accentuates this idea and without it, the feel of the that idea is weakened I think.
I think Lucas know exactly what he was doing there in terms of taping into mythological archetypes, and I doubt sexploitation had nothing to do with it. If that was his goal, he’d of had sexy clothing on her and other females throughout the films, and he obviously does not.
I saw Jedi for the first time at age 11 in the movie theater. As a young girl, I loved Princess Leia. To me she was strong, funny and powerful, and she kept up with the boys. As an impressionable pre-teen, I guess I did not realize how sexy and revealing the outfit was. Nor did I understand the implications of her being “enslaved”. All I saw was a girl who took matters into her own hands by trying to rescue Han Solo. And even though she was captured by Jabba, she waited for the right time to make her move, and she strangled Jabba and ultimately escaped. To me Princess Leia was an idol. I loved the story line with her and Han Solo falling in love in Empire. That was so romantic to me as a child.
So why do girls dress as Slave Leia? Anyone who wears an outfit that revealing is certainly looking to get attention. And I don’t mean to imply that is a bad thing. I do think though that young girls today (and as someone who is 39, I think I am qualified to make this statement) need to be sure they understand the implications of wearing an outfit like that. Are they wearing the outfit because it makes them feel empowered, sexy and strong? Or are they just trying to titillate a convention room full of geeky fanboys? Are sexy geek girls taken seriously by everyone? It’s hard to say I suppose. I have mixed feelings when I see girls dressed like that- on the one hand I applaud their courage and confidence. On the other hand, I wonder what their true motivations are. But ultimately I think if they are paying homage to Princess Leia and love her character as I do, then I understand where they are coming from.
Great post and comments. I thought a lot about this after the cast too.
One thing that I think gets mixed up is the title “Slave Leia.” I don’t think that title was used or at least widely used until people started buying the action figure. So when I saw Leia on screen (and I was 13 years old and it certainly awakened something in me) first off, I just thought of her as Leia, not Slave Leia. I don’t think people were getting off on the concept of her as a slave in and of itself or that “slave” was closely associated with Leia’s appeal in that outfit in the movie.
Having said that, I was aware when I was watching the movie for the first time that this outfit was demeaning to her. I don’t know whether that made it more or less erotic. Possibly more because I had the feeling of seeing something I wasn’t supposed to. But I was also rooting for her to get out of that situation — not to end up being further exploited.
As for more “modern” references to Slave Leia, I remember on Friends that Rachel dressed up in the outfit to fulfill Ross’s fantasy. The show sort of acknowledged that it was a forbidden fantasy for a couple of reasons — because it was naughty and because it was part of geek culture, which is not supposed to be sexy.
I guess the exploitation angle does tap some deep, dark whatever within boys, but because that complexity is usually near the surface, I don’t think it’s as offensive as the more casual objectifications of women that bombard us daily.
This was a fantastic post ‘Talos! I read it on Saturday and several times since then trying to get my thoughts straight on it. I’m not sure I have, but I’ll give it my best shot. I personally never idolized Princess Leia solely as a sex symbol. She was clearly more than that. She was intelligence, she was able to take action, she was able to command and she was clearly focused on defeating the Empire’s hold on the known galaxy. The fact that Leia just happened to be a hot princess was just bonus.
I have also never gone to a convention to see a Slave Leia. It isn’t until the last year that I have come to know what “Cos Play” really is. So then to me it becomes the outfit. Since I would know nothing about the girls in the outfit I would either assume that they aspire to Princess Leia’s higher ideals or that they just want attention and dress like Leia at her most vulnerable moment for that attention. It would be impossible for me to guess at the girl’s intentions just by seeing her in the Slave Leia costume.
As far as the dichotomy of the persona as described in the post, aren’t we all strong and vulnerable? Don’t we all see ourselves as the victim? How about getting beaten down at the DMV or seeing that well deserved promotion go to someone else less deserving? Don’t we all see ourselves as strong, too? Have you ever routed for a team that won it’s championship? Have you ever identified yourself with a winning protagonist in a movie or novel? Slave Leia would be no different, just a statement that we all are the victim and the confident individual simultaneously.
But as a father of two adorable and beautiful girls, I have to wonder if I would be bothered by seeing them in a Slave Leia outfit. It’s really no different than a skin tight dance costume or cheer outfit after all. And girls’ swim suits these days cover about the same amount of skin. So for me it would have to come down to intent. Why would my daughters wear such an outfit in public?
Is the costume empowering to girls? Does dressing up like a beautiful fantasy princess in very little clothes empower women? I’m probably the least person to be an expert on this. However, if either of my daughters sought to gain power over anyone for any reason I’d feel as though I failed as a parent. Girls using their looks to manipulate others is a very strong and dangerous power. It isn’t power over anyone that I want to teach my children. Rather, I’d like to have taught them compassion for others and an ability to coexist with anyone.
Do girls just need to feel sexy sometime? Don’t we all? What better way to explore this than as a sexy space princess that ends up winning in the end.
So as with so many other things, it comes down to intent, not the costume. And intent is an individual choice based on each individual situation. I can only hope my girls would attempt to have the right intent if they wore a Slave Leia costume, but even if they didn’t I won’t love them any less.
Let’s make a study of this. Next time we’re at a comic book convention and see a “Slave Leia,” I saw we pull out a pad and pencil and ask them what their motivation for wearing the outfit is and whether anyone has done anything untoward because of their outfit. Then we return here to post the results.
‘Talos, I think you did a great job in this post of gesturing towards the complexity of this figure – we can’t automatically assume that the Princess Leia of the movies and EU can be equated with the practice of women (though perhaps men cross-dress as her? I don’t know) choosing to dress as “Slave Leia” at fan conventions, for Halloween, or for other appropriate occasions. I also applaud efforts to avoid what some might see as the typical geek response to seeing someone dressed as such – titillation, gawking, and ultimately objectification.
However, I have a bit of a stumbling block when it comes to the concept itself. Reg alluded to it when she remembers how, at 11, she did not pick up on the issues attendant on the idea of enslavement, and I know I tried to talk about it some on Twitter (the 140 character limit! curses!). I am fundamentally ambivalent about the idea that we can re-semanticize, or take-back, words and images that are imbued with historical (or contemporary!) discrimination and oppression. On the one hand, sometimes it works wonderfully – an excellent example would be the reclaiming of the word “queer” to be seen in a positive light. However, and with all the racial tensions attendant on discussions of slavery in US culture, and with the human racial diversity in Star Wars itself being less than representative, I find the practice of generally white women dressing as this character to be at best insensitive to the legacy of slavery and racism in the United States. (I mention white women because doing a quick google image search for Slave Leia, I didn’t find a single photograph of a black woman cosplaying Slave Leia) – not to mention the problems of human trafficking, objects of whom are most often women and children sold into the sex trade. 🙁
(Lucas deals with slavery again in the prequels, but we don’t see Slave Anakin or Slave Shmi as popular cosplay roles, so I haven’t gone into it here)
tl;dr: ‘talos did a great job of thoughtfully approaching this issue, but I cannot wholeheartedly embrace the idea of “Slave Leia” as empowering because of the legacies of slavery attached to it.
I struggled with adding a bit about slavery. Originally the character was not known as Slave Leia. According to the novel, she was dressed in a dancing girl outfit. To be honest, I could not find the first reference to Slave Leia or how it came to be.
I decided to approach the article from the POV of the character instead. Amira Sa’id, a dancer who has used a Leia bikini in her performances said, “Jabba put her into the outfit to humiliate her, but Leia was such a strong character, her will made the costume empowering.”
Leia is a prisoner and a prized possession for Jabba. He soon learns the consequence of mortifying a plunder, especially one that he underestimates.
If I may offer a criticism since there’s virtally none. This article is mainly giving Leia blind praise with not an ounce of criticism, it makes her look very sueish.
As for the costume, wearing it is not what makes someone strong or majestic, their character speaks more for them. People each have different reasons for wearing it than making a statement, not just one mind set.
People keep saying she was strong during that first act of the movie, but I don’t see it. Even during her escape scene after she killed Jabba, she still needed R2D2 to cut her leash to free her, and Luke to cover her ass when getting to the turret before swinging her to safety. The bikini was more of a marketing ploy at the time to sell tickets and toys.
Not to say her character is worthless, she’s iconic, but there looks to be a certain bias when it comes to anything about her.