I am a dyed-in-the-Tauntaun-hide Star Wars fangirl, and I have a confession to make. Slave Leia, by which I mean the geek culture meme that resulted from the original scene, makes me uncomfortable. For a long time, it has made me uncomfortable in a way I couldn’t articulate. But I think I’ve distilled out what is lurking beneath the surface of the Slave Leia cultural phenomenon, and unfortunately I think it’s problematic.
I want to make it clear that my problem is with the cultural trope only, not the individuals who dress up as Leia in this costume or the individuals who find it attractive. There is simply no way for us on the outside to know how those individuals are framing the situation. I believe that it is possible for individuals to choose to wear a Slave Leia costume with full awareness of the issues of sex slavery and with healthy reasons behind their decision to don the costume. Only each individual really knows whether their behaviour has healthy or unhealthy motivations, or whether they are being mindful of the context of their actions. Since I can’t know that, I’m not concerned with that. What concerns me is how this trope plays out in the aggregate, in geek culture as a whole. That’s what I think is problematic.
First, the meme makes me uncomfortable because the in-narrative context of Slave Leia is the humiliation of a female political leader. I’m not suggesting that wearing a bikini is humiliating – there’s nothing microproblematic about wearing a bikini. I am suggesting that being forced into slavery, forced to wear a bikini and shackled to a chain is supposed to be humiliating. It is, by the way, clearly sub-textually coded to be sexual slavery – as evidenced by the damn bikini.
Now, in the narrative Leia actually strangles Jabba with the very chain he uses to imprison her, which makes this – in the text – actually a bit of a triumph for Leia over those who seek to dominate and subjugate her! Go Leia! Cast off the shackles of oppression! I believe therefore that an argument can be made for the integrity of the scene itself, although I have seen no evidence that George Lucas really thought about it.
However, this triumph is not what the subsequent Slave Leia meme is about. The Slave Leia meme is about those glorious 150 seconds of bikini-clad stateswoman on a leash. Nobody draws sexy pictures of Leia strangling Jabba. Nobody makes anatomically-creative statues of Leia vanquishing her captor. Regardless of what Fangirl Blog says, when you see women in Slave Leia costume, you don’t see them strangling their oppressors (in fact, you see this instead). People make statues and fanart of Leia sitting in shackles. Virtually no references are ever made in media or in geek culture to the empowering part of the scene.
The focus is always on the gold bikini and the manacles and the chain – the tools of Leia’s forced submission. The focus is on how sexy Leia looks in the garb she was forced to wear as part of her subjugation. If this bikini were Leia’s personal choice for a pool party or a beach holiday, it would not be problematic for geek culture as a whole to collectively salivate over it and elevate it to a trope. But it isn’t her choice. This bikini is the outfit chosen for Leia by the males who forced her into slavery.
I also want to note that the real-life context of the original scene with Carrie Fisher is also all kinds of skeevy. From the Star Wars wiki: “Fisher herself also found the costume to be difficult to endure and referred to it as “what supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell.” Fisher also said it was particularly revealing to the cast and crew around her. In particular Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who played Boba Fett, could see more of the actress than she was comfortable with. In an interview years later, she said, “if you stood behind me you could see straight to Florida. You’ll have to ask Boba Fett about that.””
The meme of Slave Leia pretends to be coyly ignorant of its origins. We as a community like to pretend it’s just popular because it’s a “girl in a bikini” moment. But it if you stop and think about it for half a minute, you should see that it is way more problematic than that (as I just outlined above). So either we have a fanbase full of people who have a strong aversion to any form of introspection, or we collectively have an alarming willingness to gloss over the fact that the costume is a reference to sexual slavery.
I say the meme “pretends” to be ignorant of the origins of Slave Leia because it seems to me that everyone knows the slavery aspect of the whole thing is not a neutral force here. Some of the cosplay doesn’t bother to pretend Leia is in control in the meme version of Slave Leia. Indeed, again from the Star Wars wiki: “During a broadcast from Celebration IV, Spike television personality Nicole Malgarini (wearing the Slave Leia costume herself) referred to Fite [webmaster of Leia’s Metal Bikini] as the “slavemaster” and “the pimp ofStar Wars.” Oh great, that’s not harmful at all. Nothing problematic about that. Let’s trivialise slavery by flippantly referring to it as though it’s sexy rather than one of the worst things a human being can experience. Oh and while we’re at it, let’s flippantly refer to “pimps” as though that’s a big damn joke too. Good job everyone.
Let’s be honest with ourselves: the Slave Leia meme is macroproblematic. We have a situation on our hands where one of the biggest nerd fantasies apparently involves at the very least a reference to forced sex slavery. It is concerning that the geek community doesn’t appear to give this two seconds of thought, and when we do, we find it appropriate to joke about slavemasters and pimps. If Slave Leia is seen as the hottest female geek cosplay costume, this literally means that the community recognises as the hottest girls those dressed up like sex slaves.
Leia may have strangled her oppressor in the movie and emerged victorious, but geek culture couldn’t care less about that. In our world, Leia never got out of the damn bikini at all.