When I was four years old, George Lucas offered me an unlikely gift. I was at an Ohio drive-in, nestled snugly in our ’76 Dodge Ramcharger, with my mother, father, sister, and Uncle Bob, when Lucas opened my palm and placed something warm inside, something impossibly small and so white that it appeared to glow like the pinprick stars beyond the giant screen. “This is power,” he said. “I call her Leia.”
I don’t remember much else about seeing Star Wars that first night. I have long lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since. For me as for most other children of the seventies, the movie was an ever-presence. We argued over whether Han or Luke was the good guy just like we argued over whether Kit or the General Lee was a better car. Every Halloween, our stores filled with plastic sack costumes and masks with every character’s face. We tilted chairs over to be the cabins of our X-Wings, ptchu-ing out laser beams to take down the legions of tie fighters that filled our living rooms.
From the moment Princess Leia appeared on screen, my friends and I loved every inch of her, from her flowing dress to her elaborate side buns. We wanted to inhabit her skin, to take on her confidence and resolve. We knew immediately Leia was no ordinary princess, no demure damsel in distress. A child herself, surrounded by danger on every side, she antagonized her captors with a fierce and unflinching wit: “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.” Yes, we cheered. You tell it, girl. Stick it to the man.
Luke and Han may have freed her from her cell, but following them only led her into greater danger. Leia knew this before they did and mocked their lack of foresight even as the chase was on: “Some rescue! You came in here, but didn’t you have a plan for getting out?” She forged the path that would lead them from danger, jumping into a garbage chute without a moment’s girly hesitation or squeamishness. Years later, my proper British aunt, walking in as this scene played on our VCR, witnessed Leia blast the pursuing Storm Troopers to create their escape. “Well done, Madam!” my aunt said, her Queen’s English ringing with well-earned awe. Well done indeed. The scene was a dramatic departure from the women we had seen or would see in so many movies. Leia was my first glimpse at a female bad ass.
I didn’t own a single Star Wars action figure, but my neighbor Tommy had them all, from Walrus Man to Hammerhead, from the Millennium Falcon to the X-Wing Fighter. Going to his house to play, my sister and I would begin each game the same way, fighting over who got to be Leia. My mother, sensible and sick of our arguing, suggested we could both be Leia. After all, Tommy had multiple Leias in every outfit. Why not pretend there were two women characters, give one another name?
We merely rolled our eyes. Tommy had his pick of characters, male action figures lying around him, good and evil, but there was only one Leia.
How strange that it is only now, as an aging Carrie Fisher undergoes round after round of body critique, that this fully dawns on me: Leia wasn’t the only female action figure. In those first films, Leia was the only girl.
Check it out:
|Major male characters from Star Wars episodes 4-6||Major female characters from Star Wars episodes 4-6|
Jabba the Hut
Some might argue that the droids are non-gendered, but both are given male pronouns (“That R2 unit is in fine condition. I’ve worked with him before” [emphasis mine]) and C3PO has a male speaking voice.
And things don’t get much better if we include the minor characters. Yes, we have Aunt Beru and that one girl dancer who gets fed to the aptly named rancor in Jabba’s pit, but both are killed almost as soon as they enter the film. Admiral Ackbar is male, as is his fleet of X-Wing pilots, every last Sandperson or Jawa, and the entire Empirical Army. The emperor, his generals, and even the lowliest Storm Trooper? Men, men, men. Leia is the one woman of any significance in the entire penis-swinging universe.
This fact is so achingly obvious that it should have been clear to me even at four years old, but it only strikes me now. “Strikes” being the appropriate verb: the fact woke me up one night like a fish slap to the face. How could I be so blind? How could I miss so obvious a fact?
I suspect I know: In 1978, having only one woman was a step forward. And really, things haven’t changed much in the Star Wars universe in the intervening years. Even in the latest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, a quick glance at IMDB shows that men outnumber women nearly three to one—yet it is being lauded as one of the most progressive casts for racial and gender equity. Our standards are that off-kilter.
What is all the more troubling to me is the evolution Leia’s character takes over the course of the first three films.
Ask any Star Wars fan about the mistakes in Return of the Jedi, and they are likely to focus on the lame death of Boba Fett or the cloyingly precious Ewoks. To both these complaints, I say, yes, fine, but they pale in comparison to the mistake of metal bikini, the outfit that turned a rebel leader into the object of sexual fantasies faster than Greedo could fire a blaster.
The bikini is in the film for mere minutes, but as soon as it appears, it forever changed the perception of Leia from rebel to concubine. Wikipedia has a full page devoted to the outfit, an honor not matched by any of her other looks. Leia’s Victorianly chaste dress in A New Hope is virginal white from turtleneck to boot toe. Unlike so many of today’s female super heroes (I’m looking at you, Black Widow), Leia did not gain her power from her sexual manipulation. In that first film she doesn’t flirt to get her way. Faced with the sexiest space pirate this side of the Degoba System, she dismissed him as a scruffy-looking nerf herder. In that first 1977 film and its 1980 sequel, Leia was her own woman.
Unfortunately, as soon as Leia appears in the bikini, all of this is moot. It doesn’t matter that she will choke her captor with her own chain (what a metaphor!). It doesn’t matter than she will continue the movie in sensible pants-and-poncho forestware. It doesn’t matter that she’ll outrun and outmaneuver Imperials on their speeder bikes. Walking away from the film, what stuck in the minds of so many viewers was a new sexualized Leia. The bikini had forcibly over-inscribed every other view.
An informal sampling of Facebook friends responding to my question “Quick poll: what are your feelings on Leia’s brown bikini in JEDI?” results in a telling if unsurprising gender divide. My male friends tended to look back on the bikini fondly. One confessed, “To this day I have a base, carnal response to even thinking of it—let alone SEEING it. I first saw it when I was 15 years old so that probably has something to do with it.” Another said, “Let’s just say it helped shape one of the better parts of every ComicCon.”
My female friends were more divided. Those not bothered by the outfit generally pointed out that, even bikini-clad, Leia strangled Jabba, thus showing that she was still the same woman no matter what the garb. One went farther, saying “I thought it was perfect—very sex bondage, making Jabba all the more repulsive.” But I must say, I find it symptomatic of a social sickness that the underlying assumption here is that sexual exploitation is worse if done by someone who looks “repulsive” than it would be if the dominating power is an attractive man. (Fifty Shades of Gray, anyone?)
That point aside, many of my female friends objected to the bikini, and the varying nature of the objections are, in themselves, instructive. “It was unnecessary and went against her character,” wrote one. “Plus, Luke’s plan was ridiculous in the first place.” Another (male) friend challenged her, writing, “I don’t think being silent in those circumstances was demonstrative of weakness, nor against her character. She was chained to a 2-ton blob who could have yanked her head off of her body. Her strength was in biding her time instead of displaying her usual irreverent and reckless behavior which would have certainly cost her her life.” To which my female friend replied, “I don’t think she would have gone along with the plan in the first place, and I see her involvement in the plan as nothing more than a way to get Fisher into a sexy outfit for the viewers.”
As my male friend points out, the scene endorses self-silencing as a strategy necessary for protection, and though he sees this as a part of her character, her belligerence when captured in A New Hope suggests otherwise. In the third film, she doesn’t question Luke’s plans as she did in the first film. In the earlier film, her willingness to challenge her captors in previous movies did not result in harm, but though Han mouths off to Jabba, Leia won’t. Her character here has changed. The smart and sassy Leia has been overwritten by quietude. The rules in this movie are different for Leia, more traditional, more limiting. “Don’t talk,” the Jabba scene says to women everywhere. “Your voice will not help you here. Your voice is one we never really cared for anyway.”
For me as for many female audience members, the sexuality and power dynamics of the bikini, like the lack of women in general, would not register until much, much later. “It’s funny,” one female Facebook friend wrote, “but I actually didn’t realize how sexual it was until I was in my 20s and on Friends Rachel got dressed up as Leia for Ross. Then I finally realized, ‘Oh!!!’ ” I nodded as I read her post. My own experience was similar. As a child, I didn’t know what to think of the outfit other than to be dimly aware that it wasn’t meant for me. White dress Leia might have been, but this new Leia was designed to serve another audience.
The ultimate crime of the metal bikini is that it turned Leia from a force of personality into merely a body. It situated Leia in the old binary: she’d been a virgin; she was now a whore. The Leia who walked into Jabba’s lair as a voice- and gender-disguised bounty hunter armed with a thermal detonator could command a room. The Leia who leaves is something altogether different. From the moment she appears in the bikini, the outfit overwrites the Leia that was and the Leias that will be, a fact that has only now become apparent. When seeing her in The Force Awakens where she wears a kind of hybrid version of her Hoth and Endor battle clothes, the viewers who had once been excited by the sexual bondage/bikini fantasy are now proportionately repulsed, resulting in a backlash recently documented in the Washington Post article “Carrie Fisher to haters: Youth and beauty are not accomplishments.” The sexualized body is not allowed to age. In the minds of so many fans, sex slave Leia cannot become General Leia. She may have escaped Jabba, but she can’t escape the image of her own exposed and captive body.
In the wake of the new movie and the numerous articles it has sparked, I find myself wrestling with a number of questions: Would we see her position as general as the natural outcome of a series of promotions for the girl stood up to Tarkin and Vader if that girl hadn’t been silenced in subsequent movies? Would audiences have accepted an aging Leia better if we’d seen more of her in action, fulfilling her Jedi promise? Why didn’t the screenwriters see Leia, who once retrieved top secret plans and smuggled them under the nose of the whole galactic Empire, as capable enough to act on her own to retrieve her son rather than waiting on her wayward and anything-but-reliable husband? How many of the writers of The Force Awakens grew up fantasizing of a bikini-clad Leia? How many forgot what she stood for?
Ultimately, I don’t know whether any of this is Lucas’s fault. As a writer myself, I know how difficult it is to predict how an audience with interpret an image and what they will carry away. Perhaps we were supposed to remember her triumph over the gigantic flaccid penis on his throne. Perhaps it’s not his fault that the image that burned itself into audience members’ minds was only the bound and silenced girl.
But why was Leia the only woman? And why was it necessary that she be stripped at all? Lucas gave me Leia at a time when I was a child, when the idea of a powerful woman acting of her own volition could shape the way I saw my own capabilities. Far more than Luke, Leia represented a new hope for girls across the country. But the Empire struck back, the Jedi returned.
As the Star Wars universe slowly builds the female component of its population, I would like to challenge its writers to be thoughtful and complex about how they portray those women, resisting the easy characterizations of harlots and innocents, so that future generations of girls aren’t robbed of the force that is once again and at long last awakening.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Georgia Review, Redivider, Fifth Wednesday Journal,Quarterly West, Ninth Letter, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her short fiction has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, once by Versal and once by The Georgia Review, and her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. Currently, she reads fiction as part of the editorial team at Barrelhouse. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com.