In Defense Of Slave Leia

We here at Olivia Waite hover happily on the edges of geek culture. And lately we’ve been noticing a bit of a trend in various blog posts on and around convention season.

Apparently the internet has declared this the Summer Where Everyone Criticizes Slave Leia.

For instance, this satirical public service announcement:

Heather from the delightful Galaxy Express argues in favor of Bounty Hunter Leia cosplay and general diversity in costuming:

By talking up my favorite heroines, I can advocate for the idea that SF/F/SFR heroines are more than the sum of their sexual parts. If enough people add their voices to mine, in time we could make serious inroads (not just for us, but for future genre fans). Rather than devolve into an endless parade of Slave Leias, conventions could become places where many types of cosplay outfits are accepted and valued.

And naturally, Courtney from Geek Feminism gets right to the heart of the matter (emphasis hers):

But the actions of women are not the cause of their objectification. Women have a lot of good reasons to perform beauty work and to dress sexy, especially in the sexist cultures represented at your average con. Women aren’t the problem, whether they crossplay and eschew femininity altogether or they pull out the sexy Leia costume. The problem is that women who dress sexy, who frame themselves as sex objects, are rewarded by geek culture for doing so. … The problem, then, isn’t what women do, but a culture in which the only way that women can be recognized as a desirable part of the culture is when they participate by making themselves consumable sexy objects for geek men.

I have to admit that it bothers me to see “Slave Leia” becoming seen more and more as a token—as proof that you haven’t been creative enough with your costume, or that you’re not as authentic a geek like the dudes dressed as Han Solo or Spiderman, or that you’re given in to dudely pressure on a grand scale. (Which is not to say that pressure does not exist on a grand scale—hoo boy, does it ever.)

Because, for me, Slave Leia and the gold bikini were life-changing.

To explain, I’m going to have to talk about saddle shoes.

Black background. Facing right is a black-and-white saddle shoe with ivory laces and a hard rubber sole.
I have come to forgive saddle shoes, but only recently.

When I was a little tyke I was pretty active: running, climbing, falling down (active =/= graceful), kicking things, chasing and being chased, the whole bit. And like many others my school had a concrete parking lot as a playground. But for all of kindergarten and half of first grade, my mother refused to buy me tennis shoes or sneakers. (Hi, Mom!) Instead, I did all that running and climbing and chasing while wearing saddle shoes—hard-soled, stiff-sided, pinch-toed monstrosities that supposedly were a better match for the French braid or bun or pigtails that I wore, because I was also not allowed to go to school with my hair down.

I hated all of it. I still remember the rush of relief I got when finally my mom got tired of seeing scuffs and scratches on those nicer shoes (or just worn down by my constant griping—it’s a toss-up) and bought me a pair of purple Reebok hi-tops. Oh, the glorious eggplant shade of comfortable footgear!

It was another two years before I won the right to wear my hair loose one or two days a week. (Little does Mom know—now that I’m a writer, it’s a banner day when my hair even gets brushed!)

This was also the time I started watching the original Star Wars trilogy every time it was televised. Which was every year for a lot of years, all the way up into high school and puberty. And one of the things I liked best was Leia—this badass, intelligent, passionate woman who sometimes found herself kidnapped and threatened and other times did the rescuing herself.

And as soon as she shows up in the gold bikini, with the high ponytail and the neck-chain, every cell in my being went, She must be so pissed about that.

Because what people forget, when they talk about Slave Leia outfits, is that it’s the one costume she doesn’t choose for herself. She’s forced into it, compelled to wear that bikini for Jabba’s dubious and slobbery pleasure. And I can see why people are upset that this happens—because if there’s one thing we do not need to gratify so much, it’s the male gaze in film—but at the same time, I think it’s important that this happens to Leia, because it happens to plenty of women, all the time, every day, around the world, with or without help from a gold bikini.

And here is what Leia does, when you force her into a scanty outfit and choke-chain: she takes that chain, and she kills you with it. She doesn’t let her clothing get in her way or limit her more than she can help—she waits for her moment to strike, and then she conquers her would-be conqueror and saves the day.

And I was a little kid, not yet desensitized to violence (that would have to wait until I saw my first R-rated movie in theaters—that Connery and Cage masterpiece known as The Rock). Jabba’s death scene freaked the hell out of me. It wasn’t a clean blaster shot to the chest or a slice from a lightsaber that sent sparks flying or made you turn invisible. There were struggles, and flailing, and twitching limbs. The shots are close-ups, and very dark—it’s vicious, and vengeful, and physical, and very very personal.

So for me, wearing that gold bikini does not mean Here I am, a sexy toy for your amusement and gratification.

To me, that gold bikini says, If you fuck with me, I will end you.

It says, What I wear is not the same as who I am.

And if my reading is a good one, and the gold bikini is dangerous, that explains the double reaction from geek culture to the Slave Leia cosplayers: they are both dismissed and demonized. They are simultaneously insignificant and threatening—like feminists, or gay people, or trans people, or people of color, or anyone who tries to speak out against the various types of privilege that are active in geekery. These speakers are not normal because they’re not like us, so you can ignore them—or you can insult them, either one.

But what they’re not is comfortable.

When geek culture says, Don’t be Slave Leia, what I hear is: Don’t unsettle us. Don’t make us think about the consequences of our misogyny, or our entitlement, or our privilege. Don’t remind us that female sexuality can be a power as well as a commodity.

This is not to say that Slave Leia (or Jabba-Killin’ Leia, as I think we could more accurately call her) is the only or even the best choice for cosplay. Because I am also really, really enthralled with this steampunk Tardis trend I’ve been hearing so much about.

But I find it troubling when there’s a whole category of women that we are Officially Allowed to Mock and/or Hate. Because that line is a really arbitrary thing, and it’s really easy to imagine that, some day, I’ll end up on the wrong side of it.

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26 thoughts on “In Defense Of Slave Leia

  1. Lovely post, Olivia! I really appreciate reading individual fans’ reasons for their cosplay choices. It’s awesome (and important) how we use cosplay to reflect our (often deeply personal) interpretations of texts.

  2. Thanks, Courtney! You’ve been a guiding light to me as I explore further into geek and gamer culture. 🙂

  3. But I find it troubling when there’s a whole category of women that we are Officially Allowed to Mock and/or Hate.

    One of the many reasons I’d still be defending Bella Swan (Twilight) even if I didn’t love her. Which I so, so do.

    I really liked this essay. I have to admit that the way guys react to Jabba-Killin’ Leia cosplayers often annoys the crap out of me, but while I was older than you when I first saw the movie, I had exactly the same reaction.

    And I always loved that about Leia. That whole “if you fuck with me, I will end you,” thing 🙂

  4. YES YES yes. I had EXACTLY that reaction to seeing Leia like that in Jedi. I was nearly four, it was in theaters, and it made this HUGE impression me. You chain her up? SHE WILL STRANGLE YOU WITH THAT CHAIN. It was so badass, and it saddens me that the whole scene has been reduced to a punchline or a fantasy because of her OUTFIT.

  5. Other thing to remember is that Leia choose to be in that position, chained to Jabba, because it all Part Of Plan. She not captured and chained to Jabba because she helpless and have no choice. She go through that willingly, intentionally, because she know it give her chance to kill Jabba and rescue Han. Me loved Leia in first third of movie because she badass from start to finish – first when she disguised as bounty hunter, and then when it revealed that getting captured part of plan she and Luke cook up. Me always disappointed she not get to kick more ass in final third of movie.

  6. Thank you! This is still one of the pieces that people tend to land on — and Leia is still a pretty interesting character to debate. I’m glad to contribute to the conversation.

  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this article! I have a hard time really getting my thoughts, but this summed them up perfectly. 🙂

  8. Hm, I’ve never heard that interpretation before, but I like it. I always figured that Leia going in to rescue Han was Plan A, and Luke going in to rescue both of them was Plan B in case Plan A went awry (Luke’s attempt *had* to have been planned in advance, of course, or else Artoo wouldn’t have smuggled in Luke’s lightsaber). I’ll have to watch the movie again with your fun to have an excuse to re-watch the original trilogy, haha!

    Are there any indications that you know of (in the movie, or in outside materials like novelizations, radio dramas, screenplay notes, etc.) which support your interpretation as the “official” one? I’m just wondering if I missed some vital clues, or if it’s the sort of thing that can be validly interpreted either way (since when it comes to fiction, it doesn’t always make sense to say that only *one* version is what “actually” happened since the whole thing never “actually” happened at all – that’s my mythology geek side speaking, where creatively re-interpreting a story is an important part of engaging with it, and in some contexts is *more* important than passing it down exactly as one had received).

  9. It’s entirely possible there’s some gem in one of the many Star Wars-themed interviews, books, documentaries, or novelizations produced over the decades that totally invalidates my thoughts on Leia’s agency. But then again, I shy away from “official” interpretations — I tend to assume there’s an intention, and there’s a viewer’s interpretation, and they may resemble one another or they may not. Often I think unintended interpretations are the most surprising and beautiful, and they don’t negate nor are they negated by what an artist, writer, director, or musician intended to produce. The human brain and the artistic process are still pretty damn mysterious, and intentions aren’t always accurate guides to the final result.

    That said, it’s funny you should mention Luke’s planning in this instance — Mr. Waite and I recently watched the whole trilogy straight through (first time in many years), and one thing we couldn’t figure out was just how Luke’s whole plan was intended to work. Did he just build in all the failsafes he could think of? See: this thread, which gets to the heart of my frustration.

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