Wednesday, July 18, 2007

My First Idol

When I was in preschool, and my brown hair hung all the way to my waist, I used to beg my mother to make my hair like Princess Leia's.

If I was lucky, she would agree and braid my two pigtails and loop them up in an approximation of Leia's Cinnabraids.

If I was very, very, lucky, she would braid my hair and pile it on top of my head.

Long before I met Gertrude.....

...or Oracle....

.....or Kitty Pride.

Long before I met Buffy....

.....or River......

......or Alice.

Long before Kaylee....

.....or Ellie.....

.....or even Penny......

.....and Gadget.

Long before Alanna or Val or Gemma.

Even long before The Beggar Queen, Charlotte Doyle, or Meg.

Even before Anne....

.....and Princess Sara.

There was Leia.

I get nostalgic for VHS ghosts of Luke on Tatooine the way some people talk about the crackling on old records. I can remember the smell and texture and weight and look of all my Leia action figures better than I remember most of the things I've done in the last decade. My earliest memory of going to the movie theatre is not of a Disney movie, but of going to see Return of the Jedi. I was six and we had Burger King afterwards because they were the ones selling the movie cups.

When I applied to work in my college's computer lab, I wrote about stealing Star Wars files off the internet and setting my "alert" sound to Chewbacca's growl. When I decorated the bulletin board on my dorm door, Han and Leia took their place beside Emma and Mr. Knightly.

When I ditched my friends during senior week to go see Episode 1 on opening night in NYC, I brought with me a flashlight, empty Sprite bottles, and packing tape. Because real Jedi make their own.

So it bothers me when people say that Leia's slave girl outfit is her most iconic, because despite having wanted to be her for as long as I can remember, I rarely ever think of that outfit. And when I do, it's usually because That '70's Show is making a joke about dressing up for sex play, Wizard is turning Leia into a Sexy! Zombie!, or Comicon is trying to sell itself - to people who apparently aren't me.

Ewan McGregor once said that girls didn't like Star Wars.* When I first read that quote it sounded so ridiculous to me that I thought it was a joke at first. I bought the damn magazine for no other reason than because it had Star Wars on the cover, didn't I? I kept having to re-read the lines that followed because they didn't make sense - until I realized that he was being deadly serious.

This is the fandom in which Leia as Jabba's fucktoy is the representative image of her: the fandom in which real women are invisible.

"But, but but!" you say. "That's not fair! It's not just iconic because it shows the most skin, it's also iconic because she kills Jabba in that outfit!"

Bullshit, I say.

Princess Leia Organa Solo was a diplomat and high ranking leader in a military rebellion.

She didn't just wait around and pray to be rescued. She had the foresight to not only send word for help, but to make sure that vital information was passed onto the rest of the Alliance - despite her capture.

She told the scary bad guy that had us all quaking in our boots to fuck off. She told the creepy general to fuck off too.

She withstood torture.

She found a way out of the mess Luke and Han made of her rescue (with R2D2's help) and did her fair share of shooting at Stormtroopers. She did not stay inside the Millennium Falcon while Han when out to investigate. Neither did she stay on the sidelines during the Battle of Endor.

She faced down Jabba the Hut with a bomb in her hand and completed the most important part of her mission: unfreezing Han.

And she did none of this while wearing a metal bikini.

"But, but but!" you say. "It's women who dress up as slave-girl Leia at comic conventions. You don't speak for all women! You obviously don't even speak for most women!"

Most women wear make-up. Why don't you go ask a few of them if they always do it because they really enjoy putting gunk on their face every day or if sometimes they do it just because they are afraid of how they will be treated if they don't. Now, I'm sure plenty of them will simply liken it to bathing regularly and there are more than a few that do so because it can be fun. The point is though, that while Kirsten Bell is fully capable of making her own choices and speaking for herself, her decision to wear a metal bikini and not a long white, baggy dress is not uninfluenced by how she will be treated in each outfit.

In fact, Kirsten Bell happens to be wearing that outfit for a new movie called Fanboys. Which brings me to the point that while many women are dressing up as slave-girl Leia for their own amusement, they generally aren't the ones making and buying all the drawings, statues, etc. of Leia as Jabba's slave. I'll bet they're not even the ones uploading and downloading most of the pictures of women dressed as slave-girl Leia.

Pictures of Leia in her metal bikini makes up the vast majority of the first page of links that come up in a google image search of her name.** But to say that makes the bikini outfit the more iconic is just as ridiculous as saying that this (note: probably NSFW) is what comes to most people's minds when you say "american girl."

Let's not ignore that this (note: definitely NSFW!) in fact comes first before this in the above search. Let's also not pretend that anything other than rampant, malicious sexism (dare I say misogyny?) is the reason why a naked Leia being shown her home planet blown to bits beats a flirty but fully clothed Leia holding a gun. At least not when a google image search for Han Solo gives us no naked or nearly naked images of Harrison Ford. (It does eventually give us several more of Leia, however.)

Leia's slave-girl outfit is cool and I completely understand seeing as it as a symbol of women rescuing themselves from their aggressors. (plus, it's literally cool, which I can see being A Very Good thing in San Diego in July.) But, unfortunately, that isn't the only reason why Leia in her metal bikini is such a popular image. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's not even the biggest reason.

Remember too, that we're not just talking about women.

The kind of widespread and hardcore fandom that Star Wars enjoys usually only happens when most of the fans are introduced to the story and it's characters as children or teenagers. Most die-hard Star Wars fans are children of the '70's and '80's. So we aren't just talking about women, we are mostly talking about now grown up girls and their childhood idols. To say that Leia will always be remembered most as a scantily clad sex slave turned killer is to say that Ewan McGregor was right, girls don't like Star Wars.

Women may want to look like Sexy Leia. They may even admire her strength. But little girls don't want to be slave girl Leia - Jabba killer or not. Little girls generally don't choose to picture themselves as chained to creepy monsters and they only choose to picture themselves in bikinis if that actually is the character's most iconic image.

You'll note that while Leia in her metal bikini is featured on the posters for Return of the Jedi, Mattel didn't make an action figure of her in that outfit.

I like the Comicon cover (mostly). (It's Star Wars! duh, of course I like it.)

I think having the characters pose for pictures as if they were just people dressed up as Luke and Han and Leia was a cute idea and was mostly well-done. I think that it was smart to try to reference the movie posters as well by having the appropriate background behind them.

I think the not as well done mix of the two ideas is the weakest part of the cover. Such as Han just looking like Han, while the other two are posed like fans in costume. I think that, whatever the artist's feelings and attitudes on the matter, the sexism that is still quite present in sci-fi fandom contributed to the bad mix of the two; the homage to the actual movies is thwarted by the desire to realisticly portray Star Wars fandom - without daring to question the sexism within it. Having all three movies represented by outfts from all three movies was cute; the fact that this gives justification for Leia not wearing her iconic white is not. And as far as the silly argument about color contrast goes, Leia in white and Luke in his black outfit would have solved the problem just as well (better, even) - and kept the three movies/three outfits bit going.

It hardly reaches the "yes, why don't you go and piss off your fans so much that they no longer want to give you money" moment that the Ewan McGregor quote achieved. In large part because Adam Hughes made sure to have Leia hold the chain in a (semi) aggressive way. But it is another little reminder that I'm often invisible. And the defensive reactions to my pointing this out are an even stronger reminder.

And yeah, I'm not looking forward to going to Comicon as much as I was before I heard the stupid argument that this is not Leia's most iconic outift.

However, I'll probably now be wearing Cinnabraids if I do still go.

*Sorry, I don't have the exact quote, it was from a British magazine article the year before Phantom Menace came out. I can't find it with google, and I obviously didn't drag the article back with me from Bristol.

**I started writing this weeks ago. Needless to say, several of the searches have shifted since then (not necessarily for the better) and one link isn't working. The now not working "american girl" link was something along the lines of this (note: very NSFW), but with enough skin covered up for it to not be porn.


Reb said...


I've tried to explain to SO MANY people why the slave girl outfit bothers me. It's basically this: Leia is strong and powerful and respected. The iconic image of her should NOT be one where she's reduced to a sex object, wearing a collar with a chain. Yeah, she turns around uses to to kill Jabba, but the people who have told me how hot it is *aren't* finding Leia-killing-Jabba sexy, they're finding the image of woman--a powerful, agressive woman--reduced to a submissive *image* sexy.

Or, in other words, exactly what you said.

Yeah, I was Leia for Halloween last year. You'd best believe I had the cinnabraids.

Mickle said...

You are very, very welcome.

I wasn't terribly coherent when the subject came up at Ragnell's blog, but I was so pissed at the time that I'm surprised any actual words came out.

This is one of those posts that I went over and over again to make it as perfect as I could, so I'm glad it came out right.

BetaCandy said...

I can't add anything but yeah. Exactly.

I wrote an article on Hathor a while back about how that scene came to be: Carrie Fisher thought Leia had been so hard-edged (had to be) in the first two films, and she wanted to show some vulnerability. She explained this to Misogynist Junior Grade George Lucas, who interpreted that to mean she should show more skin.

Sorry, I hate Lucas. I have many, many issues with his treatment of both actresses and female characters, not to mention people other than white folks.

But anyway, yeah. Very nice post.

bellatrys said...


How can something be "THE ICONIC" version of a character, when it didn't exist for all the popular-consciousness creation time of the original? Star Wars was around for SIX BLEEDING YEARS before the Bronze Bikini appeared on the scene, dammit!

It's only "iconic" because fanboys think they're the center of the universe and because Lucas chose to pander to them with fanservice that totally dissed the other half of the fandom.

One thing which gets me, and which explains a lot imho is the retconnage of Joseph Campbell as THE authoriteh on SW. In Campbell's hero book - which I only didn't throw across the room b/c I was in a library - he declares that girls can't be heroes, because we are Precious Objects interchangeable with the Grail, mere accessories for the Hero on *his* Journey. Which totally reverses the direction of SW, where yes, we follow Doofy!Luke on his quest to rescue the that she can complete HER task of saving the Galaxy! So Leia must subsequently be depowered, so as not to take away from HIS story. Grr. Again.

I also suspect that the direct influence on the change of direction in costuming was an intervening pop culture phenomenon - Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. They stuck Col. Deering in the most skin-tight jumpsuits they could, and never wasted a chance to have Ardala parade around in a sparkly bikini. I would bet good money that this crept into Lucas' character revamp.

Ami Angelwings said...

Agreed! :D

I HATE that the slave girl outfit is the "iconic" one! I think her white outfit should be more important for sure >.>;;

Men have this great way of finding ways to link "strong" with "sex object" tho, so that they can convince women that it's not gratuitous. Like putting female superheroes in almost nothing. >.>;;

The idea being "she's sexy and for our viewing pleasure, but if she beats somebody else too, then everybody's happy!"

E said...

I don't intend to contradict anything you've pointed out, just to offer an aside:

If someone was looking to understand why gold bikini Leia has such iconic power, you would be in error to just look at how modern _men_ think of it.

You have to imagine the image's effect on, say, a 9- to 15-year-old _boy_. The sudden appearance of a sexy/sexual image in an until-then sexless adventure saga made quite an impression. I don't even think the slavery/bondage aspect necessarily registered strongly with that audience. (And yes, I'm speaking from my specific experience and turning it into a generality).

I don't know about the narrow world of "fandom", but I think that in the wider world of guys who loved Star Wars, the resonance of the gold bikini image doesn't always have that much to do with the notion of bringing down a strong female character.

Mickle said...


The issue is not whether guys deliberately mean to bring Leia down by fixating on her metal bikini, the issue is the extent to which men invalidate girls and women's experiences - and over-validate their own.

To a small extent they do this by continuing to fixate on her metal bikini even once they are old enough to understand the implications, which ignores how women react to it.

It's funny that you say that the bondage aspect did not register, I promise you that it registered even with girls (such as myself) who were too young to understand exactly how it was icky. I mostly see that as more proof that boys and men are taught not to put themselves in girls and women's shoes, not that it's something as simple as differing experiences and opinions.

I think that another part of the reason the bondage did not register is because our culture sets up sex as something that women give (often in response to force) to men, so even remotely subtle sexual violence tends to not register - especially with boys and men, who don't put themselves in the girls/women's shoes.

More importantly though, male reactions to Leia tend to ignore what Leia means to girls and women and even claim that their view of her is the "right" one.

Naked Leia on the Death Star is a natural extension of all this. Quite frankly, if all I had found were pictures of Leia looking sultry in her metal bikini, I'd say your argument is all there is to it. But in light of the popularity of such images, and the reaction of counter-arguments to which outfit is more iconic, there does seem to be more going on.

15 year old boys may have initially simply been reacting to the sexual imagry, but it's now something else.

Besides, the number of boys didn't who see Return of the Jedi during that narrow window of after puberty but still new to sexual imagery was very small - much smaller than the number of girls who were under puberty when they met Leia. Most guys who are fixated of Leia in her metal bikini don't fit into that group - so , good point, but not quite all there is to it by a long shot.

Mickle said...

grrr...obviously that last paragraph should be:

"Besides, the number of boys who saw Return of the Jedi during that narrow window of after puberty but still new to sexual imagery was very small..."

E said...

I don't think we're disagreeing.

"The issue is not whether guys deliberately mean to bring Leia down by fixating on her metal bikini, the issue is the extent to which men invalidate girls and women's experiences - and over-validate their own."

Fair enough. I'm generally (I think) not a part of the fan community in which the arguments you are describing are taking place, but I'm definitely prepared to believe that there's a lot of weirdly defensive macho griping about this idea going on--that fan community being a part of the wider culture, and all.

The idea of the metal bikini being the "right" image of Leia is certainly odd, to say the least. Leia ain't one of those characters.

It would make more sense to argue that the particular metal bikini which happened to appear on Carrie Fisher (sp?) has become the most iconic metal bikini in all of sci-fi and fantasy. Which I'm sure is a profound aesthetic philosophical point on some parallel Earth, but is strictly Mighty Mouse vs. Superman territory on this one.

"To a small extent they do this by continuing to fixate on her metal bikini even once they are old enough to understand the implications, which ignores how women react to it."

Don't disagree, but I'll offer two observations, which may not be your experiences:

1. Most (white, straight, etc.) men can come to understand, but still will never really "grok" the importance and power of identification when it comes to characters from a marginalized group.

Explaining that importance will always be an uphill battle, because it will not be intuitive for most of the audience one is trying to convince.

2. It seems like girl fans were effectively closeted in the '80s, when socially sci-fi and fantasy were a boys-only club (by default as much as by intentional exclusion).

The mainstreaming of geek culture, combined with the internet, through the '90s changed the public mix of fandom.

We're in the middle, or maybe at the tail end, of a revolution in the make-up and participation of people we can widely group as Sci-Fi/Fantasy fans.

A lot of guys haven't gotten over the shock.

As long as the fan-girls keep speaking up, I'd bet that in another five-to-ten years the vast majority of fan-boys will understand that girls who like this stuff are not just freakish demographic outliers, and the kinds of frustrations you're talking about will occur much less often.

But then, I'm a bit of an optimist.

Oh, and for what its worth, I don't think Ewan MacGregor is much of a Star Wars fan, or thinks very much of the kind of guy who does like Star Wars, anyway.