Why Leia Matters

It’s hard being a woman in mainstream fiction.  You WILL be defined by your sexuality at some point.  This is especially true in fantasy / science fiction.  Female superheroes often run around half-naked in heels while Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. get to cover themselves from head to toe.  Even one of my favorite female characters, Dejah Thoris, is initially defined by how beautiful she is.  She gets more three-dimensional as the Mars books carry on, but at the beginning, she is there to be adored by John Carter for no other reason than she’s very, very pretty.  Harley Quinn started out as an almost asexual being with a strange crush on the Joker to a woman running around in her underwear.  And so it goes.

To paraphrase Fight Club, given a long enough timeline, the odds of a female character being reduced to fanservice is 100 percent.

This is why Princess Leia is so damned important.  She is that rare female protagonist in mainstream sci fi that is more than just a pretty face.  Oh, I’m sure there are others, but not a heck of a lot that spring to mind immediately.  Leia dominates the mainstream in a way that few female characters can, and she did so for decades without having to be a sex symbol.  Yet like any female character, she has always struggled against the desire of society at large to box her into that package.  And Slave Girl Leia is where this becomes a problem.

Let’s be clear.  In Return of the Jedi, I’m okay with Slave Girl Leia.  Is it pandering a little?  Yes.  For two movies, Carrie Fisher dressed like any of the male protagonists in a way that downplayed her girlishness.  Even in the first film, where she’s dressed in a gown sort of thing, it doesn’t reveal much.  This is why when we see her in Jedi it makes such a tremendous impression.  We have been conditioned over the years to assume only plain girls don’t show off what they’ve got.  Yet Leia doesn’t even show off a spot of cleavage in the first two films.  Furthermore, once she’s out of her slave girl outfit in Jedi, she goes right back to her traditional style, which is practical clothes and a practical hairstyle.  Leia is a freedom fighter, and, unlike many female protagonists, you can see that by the way she dresses.

But despite a bit of pandering, Slave Girl Leia makes a certain sense.  Jabba the Hutt is a jerk, and it’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.  It might be an excuse to get Leia half-naked, and that could be unforgivable.  Except that Leia then goes on to kill Jabba.  She is only his “slave” for as long as it suits her purposes, and when the time comes, she strangles the bastard with the very chain he used to “hold” her.  It is one of the defining moments of the entire Star Wars universe.  It reminds us that Leia is not merely a fetish in a metal bikini.  She’s a fighter, a strong capable character who Jabba fatally underestimates.  It’s also a great play on audience expectations.

Traditionally, Leia would need Luke or Han to rescue her.  That wouldn’t be so bad in this case because the characters in Star Wars rescue each other all the time.  How often does Han pull Luke out of the fire (or stuff him in the tauntaun)?  If Leia was rescued, it wouldn’t seem especially sexist or wrong in the story being told.  It would just be allies and friends helping each other.

But even so, Leia doesn’t need you to rescue her in this situation, and it’s one of the series’s most wonderful moments.  It allows a strong character to remain strong.  And, if you think about it, the entire rescue of Han Solo puts him in the traditional female role.  He’s blinded, mostly helpless, and accomplishes very little.  Meanwhile, Luke beats up a whole ship full of thugs.  And Leia, with nothing more than a chain and a will to fight, kills the first major villain of the film.

Though I have my problems with the Star Wars prequels, don’t give a damn about the expanded universe, and think that Star Wars as a whole is an empty product at this point, I will say I enjoy the hell out of the original films and think this particular scene manages to make Leia both an icon of kickass and a sex symbol at the same time.  And that’s quite a rare feat.

I know that Slave Girl Leia is a thing now.  Often, just an excuse for pretty women to dress up in sexy costumes for no other reason than we tend to want pretty women to dress up in sexy costumes.  And I’m okay with that because underneath it, emulating Leia isn’t such a bad thing.  It reminds us that a woman can be sexy and still kick butt, and that just because she’s half-naked that doesn’t mean she’s a victim or a toy.  (It’s the same reason I love Power Girl, who is a sexy superhero but also, a strong character who kicks butt.)

And then along comes Kinect Star Wars for Xbox360, and I’m reminded why it’s so tough being a female in this world.  Or any other.

For those of you who haven’t heard, Kineck Star Wars is a game built upon the Kinect motion controller system based on games played in a Star Wars setting.  So you swing your lightsaber, you attack people as a rancor, and you otherwise play games based on Star Wars.  I have no problem with that.  It’s not my bag, but so what?

The problem is that there are dance offs.  Putting aside how out of place these seem in the Star Wars universe or that it is something out of a fever dream to hear pop songs lyrically altered to a Star Wars theme, it’s mostly silly and harmless.  Or it should be.  But then you watch as some of the defining elements of the Star Wars stories are gleefully marginalized by the entire thing.  Han Solo being frozen in carbonite was a defining dark moment for the films, and it is somehow cheapened by turning it into a dance number.  And was anyone yearning to watch Boba Fett shake his groove thang?

Worst though, by far, is a moment where Slave Girl Leia willingly takes off her chain and dances for Jabba the Hutt.  In one instant, everything wonderful about the character is taken away from her.  She stops being the strong character she was and becomes nothing more than the worst sort of fetish.

It is unforgivable.

It is also in incredibly poor taste when you think about it.  Star Wars shouldn’t be about dancing girls parading themselves before a drug kingpin.  Even in the original Jedi, being a dancing girl at Jabba’s palace is portrayed as a horrible fate.  If you’re unlucky, you get fed to a rancor.  If you’re really unlucky, you get stuck dancing for Jabba.  It is one of those rare moments where enslavement is portrayed as a genuinely terrible thing.

Now, it’s a dance number.

There will be those who think I’m reading too much into this, and there’s little doubt that this is a shameful moment in Star Wars history that will eventually be forgotten.  Just a silly little video game.  If Jabba the Hutt couldn’t keep Leia down, this probably won’t either.  But it doesn’t change the fact that, for some, this will be their first exposure to Leia and a defining one at that.  One of the reasons Slave Girl Leia is acceptable is by the time we get to the metal bikini, we’ve already met her and know so much about her.  It is impossible for us to think of her as merely a sexual object, a bit of fanservice.  But this game takes all that and casts it aside.

Star Wars has committed a lot of sins in recent years, but nothing quite like this.  And we, as a society, are far poorer for it.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

And may The Force be with you.


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  1. Posted April 6, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Marvelous essay, Lee. It is a difficult thing to have strong female characters who are not just guys with breasts, but are still very feminine.

    I agree totally with you that the whole Star Wars franchise should have stopped after the original three movies. The other movies and all the spin-offs? Best forgotten in my opinion.

  2. Joe Kessler
    Posted April 8, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I’m not on board with the suggestion that women who dress up as Slave Leia do so “for no other reason than we tend to want pretty women to dress up in sexy costumes,” because I think that ignores the fact that these women are choosing to dress the way they do, and that they likely feel empowered by it. But that aside, I think this is a great analysis.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted April 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      The “empowerment” argument has always struck me as more complicated than many are willing to explore. I’m for women claiming their sexuality, but I do worry that sometimes, their attempts to claim it are just as depowering as classic objectification. Though I have no easy answer on that.

      That said, I believe there’s nothing terribly wrong with a woman dressing in a sexy manner or that it should be read as saying anything negative about her character. Just not sure it says anything positive either.

      And maybe that’s the catch. Maybe it shouldn’t say anything about her. Maybe it should just be something she’s wearing for fun or because she likes it without having society read something larger into it. I’m all for that, and I’m all for all people being able to wear what they like without fear of judgment.

  3. Posted April 9, 2012 at 5:04 am | Permalink

    Very well put! I have had problems for years about the way female characters are portrayed in comics and the science fiction/fantasy universe. When I am book shopping I have to make sure to ignore the covers of books in said genres because often they are just some overly-sexualized model of the main character that has nothing to do with the portrayal of the character in the story. It bothers me that I have to do this, because I shouldn’t have to. Pretty female cover models should not be a selling point for a book.

    This is a great analysis of the Leia character and very accurate. She is someone girls and women should be proud to emulate. She can kick your butt and look pretty if she wants to. But she never has to, and that is the key.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted April 9, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      Yes, the classic Urban Fantasy cover at this point is sure to have a hyper sexy vixen on the cover, even if in the book itself she isn’t written as such. And it highlights a serious problem. Women continue to be defined by their appearance first and foremost.

      Compare Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files covers. Originally, they didn’t even depict any characters at all. Then they finally moved on to showing the protagonist. Is he in a tank top with his muscular arms exposed? Is his ass pointed toward the reader? No, he’s wrapped in a trenchcoat, cloaked in shadows, and with barely a glimpse of his face.

      This is how we sell male and female protagonists. About the only place cheesecake and beefcake get equal treatment is on the covers of some romance lines.

      It is a problem. And until we talk about it honestly, it will remain one.

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