In today’s Scene it? I am looking at a very contested story-line within The Return of the Jedi. Although I will be discussing the whole story arc, I will be focusing on the scene that brings it to an end. I am talking about ‘slave Leia’ and especially “the bikini”, which is one of the things that has been incredibly divisive within the Star Wars fandom.
The video above shows the entirety of the story arc I will be discussing. There are those who love “the bikini” and think that it is rightfully one of the most-recognized Star Wars costumes and there are those who think that whole story-line was an abomination. I find myself in the curious position of disagreeing with both sides.
What is important is that the arc starts with Leia in the anti-stereotypical role of saviour of a man in distress. Leia is in disguise and has bluffed her way into Jabba’s palace. She is in a position of relative strength here. It turns out Jabba has been onto her and rather than imprison her, he objectifies and chains her. What Jabba does is become the ultimate sleaze-bag. He sees a woman and rather than acknowledge her as an adversary, he reduces her to her physical form and the pleasure he can gain from that. He chains her to himself and seemingly stops her from having any kind of agency. Now, this is what most people have issues with. Here we have a female character who, from the very beginning in A New Hope, didn’t put up with any of the condescension directed towards her. She was commanding, decisive and, most importantly, crucial to the story. Even when getting involved in a love story, Leia never lost herself. Then why of why, I hear you ask, did she have to suffer through this?
Unlike what many critics have argued, I do not believe this story arc was thought of by Lucas and Kasdan in order to strip Leia of her dignity or power. Rather, it presents Leia with a problem she seemingly hasn’t encountered before. Leia was adopted into royalty and has shouldered political burdens from a very early age on. She was a key figure in the Rebellion and a respected leader. In The Empire Strikes Back we see her giving orders to X-Wing pilots without being questioned and she is as capable as Han and Luke in A New Hope. When she isn’t given respect, she demands it and then receives it. What happens when you pit such a woman against a man like Jabba?
What happens is a very recognizable situation for many women. A man in power takes advantage of a woman without power. Carrie Fisher herself argued the following about her slave outfit’s purpose:
“In Return of the Jedi, [Leia] 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.” – Rolling Stones, 1983
I both agree and disagree with Fisher’s statements. By making Leia suffer the same objectification that many women endure each day, she does become more recognizably a woman, but not to men. Rather, she becomes even more relatable and more of an inspiration to other women. The Star Wars galaxy is not a fantastical one in which there is only one big bad and everything else is good. There are crooks, criminals and small-time war lords. And yet it was a bold move by Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan to include such a female struggle in their film. The pure objectification and disregard with which Jabba treats Leia is horrific exactly because the audience knows she is a strong woman. Lucas and Kasdan draw attention to this kind of sexism and represent it in the package of a large, disgusting slug. The fact that Leia deals with this situation though, and moves on afterwards, is very inspirational. It is clear who is the better in this organisation. Throughout her enslavement Leia keeps her eyes and ears open and struggles against Jabba.
The final scene between Leia and Jabba is horrific in its explicitness. Death and killing are, although present, very tame in the original Star Wars films. There is no overt goriness and most characters die off screen. There is no other character in the original trilogy which dies violently on screen. And Jabba doesn’t just die, no, Leia slowly, but surely, strangles him to death. The scene is gruesome in how drawn out their respective struggle is, with Jabba’s raspy breath and Leia’s grunts. Leia here doesn’t just struggle against Jabba but also against everything he stands for. She is killing the idea that she can be objectified and chained, that she can be treated like an object. She is using her own chains to free herself and her outfit is no obstacle to her finding her own way to the top deck and positioning the canon properly.
Although it is true that Leia seems more affectionate and supportive afterwards, I don’t believe this is due to her having been physically exposed. Rather, it has to do with how the rest of the characters respond to her. We see no sign from Han, Luke or Lando that they appreciated the way she looked. There is not a single up-and-down glance with which all women are so familiar from them throughout her captivity. She is not suddenly been demoted in their eyes, she has not lost their respect. She is as important and powerful to them as before. This kind of relationship naturally creates a bond in which affection and trust are natural. She had been put in an awful situation but she wasn’t treated any differently afterwards. The men, and women, around her still see her as the same person, which means she knows she can relax around them without judgement. Especially Han, who is a bit of scoundrel, responds admirably to the whole situation. From A New Hope, in which he was rather questionable at times, Han goes through a major development in which he is willing to let the love of his life go in order for her to be happy. The strange idea, which I have seen floating around the Internet, that he would suggest keeping the outfit and make her wear it on “special occasions” is ridiculous and out of character. It also doesn’t seem as if Leia is suddenly incapable of being strong. She is crucial on Endor, establishing relations with the Ewoks and kicking major ass in the battle against the storm-troopers!
The lasting impression of this one outfit and this one story-line is a bit of a double-edged knife. On the one hand, as the analysis above hopefully shows, this story-line can be very inspirational to young viewers, but on the other hand this inspiration hasn’t trickled through into popular culture yet. When Ross wants to see Rachel in the slave outfit, he isn’t thinking about the whole story but only about the one image. For the fact that Princess Leia is a crucial part of three, soon four, Star Wars films, it is disgraceful that the Slave Leia-doll is the only one to be found in Disney stores. It is not a representation of her that is in accord with her character or one that is aware of the power of this particular story-line.
Princess Leia Organa is a character who has been and still is a major inspiration. She is a strong woman, not just because she can wield a gun. She is witty, sharp, intelligent and resourceful. When the Galaxy deals her a bad hand in the form of imprisonment or blatant sexism, she deals with it and gets back up. Whether it’s Darth Vader torturing her for information or Jabba the Hutt exposing her, Leia never loses the respect of those around her and never gives up. What this story-line shows is that the disrespect of others should never stop you from following your own ambitions and that this kind of objectification makes monsters of others, not you.