How Do You Solve A Problem Like Slave Leia?

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.”[11] Fisher also said it was particularly revealing to the cast and crew around her.[6][12] In particular Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who played Boba Fett, could see more of the actress than she was comfortable with.[12] 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.”[6]”

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”[19] and “the pimp ofStar Wars.[19]” 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.

Author: Rachael

Rachael is a queer, nerdy, aneurotypical, white cisfemale with a bachelor's degree in economics and a give 'em hell attitude. She has a culturally unacceptable amount of body fat but sometimes "passes", and she accesses some forms of thin privilege but not others. She believes in leveraging the privilege one has in order to smash the kyriarchy. She is a big geek, an atheist, a skeptic, and a fan of science. In her spare time she enjoys meditation, going to therapy, and shouting.

21 thoughts on “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Slave Leia?”

  1. This is one of those perennial topics that – with respect – I feel is making a mountain out of a molehill. Of all the costumes and characters in Star Wars, why is only Slave Leia held to some real world standard about what message it sends?

    Darth Vader and the Emperor are bad guys, right? In the course of the movies, we see them commit genecide several times over. Yet no one criticizes a Vader cosplayer for thinking the character is cool. No one accuses the Emperor cosplayer of idolizing evil and sending the message that the Dark Side is the proper way of life.

    Heck, Vader has practically been a spokesman for products. If the Emperor was held to the same standard that Slave Leia is, people should be protesting that the Robot Chicken specials have taken a character many times more evil than Hitler and reduced him to a comedic, almost loveable “bad boss” character. Should those who find Slave Leia cosplay offensive not be equally offended that the Emperor and Vader’s galactic domination is played for laughs?

    Just food for thought.

    1. This is a good point, and respectfully made, but I think we want to separate out some things here.

      The first issue I have with your view is that the message of something in a text matters far more when that message is echoed in the real world, because then it has the power to reinforce and bolster a negative trope that is pre-existing in an individual’s mind when they consume the media. The message that the glorification of the slave leia costume sends is a message that women already get in real life: that our primary value is our ability to provide men with sexual service/gratification. This is reinforced in our world in lots of horrible ways (jokes, offensive movies, etc) and affects women’s lives every day. On the other hand, nobody in real life condones genocide and dictatorship as being good things in and of themselves and nobody watching star wars is going to have pre-existing positive feelings towards genocide.

      The second issue is how the message intersects with geek culture. Geek culture in particular is not known for its propensity for genocide: it is however known to be hostile to women, at best in a cluelessly sleazy “date-me-date-me-sexy-femmegeek” manner, at worst in a “who is this fucking whore and how dare she come into my space?” manner. The Slave Leia meme is a problem in the context of geek culture – Vader’s genocide is not. It needs to be called out because there is good evidence that otherwise, geek culture will continue to think women’s primary value is to be sexy for men in real life. Vader’s genocide is something that all geeks know is bad in real life. I think that’s a key difference.

      1. Really lucidly put, addressing a common objection to finding something fannish problematic. I shall bookmark this article for future reference!

  2. I fail to see why it’s so bad to appreciate the Slave Leia costume. So what if a few people percieve subtexts of sexual slavery? The purpose of wearing the costume (or drooling over it) is to have fun indulging yourself in a [i]fictional fantasy[/i]. It’s completely possible for a man to give women a primary value other than being sexy [i]and[/i] support the Slave Leia meme at the same time; there’s a reason Slave Leia is a fantasy and not something endorsed as something to replicate in reality. Likewise, it’s also perfectly acceptable for a nerd to fantasize about gunning down hordes of Muslim terrorists (something that’s quite common in shooter games) just as long as that nerd lacks the urge to either kill or harass Muslims in real life. Let the FPS players have their fun, and let us Slave Leia fans have ours.

    1. Ack, unfortunately I can’t find a good link to point you to (yet), but essentially this is the “it’s just a fantasy/fiction/movie/book” argument that gets trotted out far too often in geek communities. No, fiction does not have to be realistic, but fiction does inform and construct our view of the world. Why do we bother campaigning for representation in fiction at all then, if fiction doesn’t matter? The truth is that fiction does matter, and how marginalised people are represented in fiction matters a great deal. Fiction doesn’t exist in some sort of vacuum away from the bigotry of the rest of the world; we don’t consume fiction in an ivory tower and then forget about it in the rest of our lives. Fiction upholds systems of privilege as much (if not more) than real world events.

      Note that Rachael also wrote this from the get-go:

      “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”

      It’s clear this post is about the macro-problematic aspects of this trope, not the micro. (See here for a more thorough explanation). No one is saying you shouldn’t dress up as Slave Leia, but the over all trend and attitude towards it is problematic. Similarly, gunning down Muslims in videogames is generally not problematic in a single instance, but highly problematic if this trope is one that is often-repeated (I don’t play enough of those games to know) and all Muslims become equated with terrorists in the player’s mind, even if they don’t kill them irl.

  3. I find it amazing that people are actually able to take the time to sit down at a computer and compose an argument, with sentences and everything, asserting that pop-culture doesn’t matter.

    When I encounter something that I think doesn’t matter, the thing that I do, you see, is not get into arguments on the internet about it.*

    *Does not apply to things that are rich in lulz, like bitcoin.

  4. Agreed that pop culture matters.

    Agreed that Slave Leia’s appeal is at least partly about dubcon/non-con power fantasies for tons of guys and girls who like it, whether on a conscious or subconscious level.

    That said, I’m not seeing what makes Slave Leia all that different of a situation from all the other dubcon/non-con power fantasizing that goes on — there’s tons and tons of it, sometimes along heteronormative lines, but also in non-heteronormative contexts (particularly in yaoi).

    It seems like the key question is (assuming we agree that the mere fact of Good And Decentin People having such fantasies isn’t considered problematic a priori): What’s the ‘proper’ way to handle/process/display dubcon/non-con power fantasies a society that has a real problem with rape culture?

    I don’t think that’s a question with a single right answer, and I’m curious to know what people would propose. I have some ideas of my own on the topic, but they feel preliminary.

    1. I think Slave Leia is unique because of its position as a major trope in geek culture, and so this trope is more intertwined with cultural sexism than say the tropes in yaoi.

      Totally agree that there’s no problem with this on an individual level! Like you, I think we just need to figure out how we are going to play this on a societal level. I also agree that figuring out how we tackle this as a culture is really hard. The only thing that seems clear is that we need to have a public discourse in the culture itself that makes these issues plain so that we have less chance of people operating within these tropes without full consciousness of their actions and thus less likelihood of making rape-culturey missteps. This is one area where awareness raising is a relevant goal because many of the problems here arise due to unexamined cultural messages.

  5. Hi there,

    I really appreciate this analysis, and I think you’re spot on. But could you rewrite the part about being “deathly allergic”? This trivializes the debilitating and life-threatening problems that I and other people I know have to deal with on a daily basis. Not all of my allergies are life threatening, but they are serious enough to significantly affect the way I live my life. I already have enough trouble getting people to understand that allergies are more than a runny nose and red eyes; they can be a legitimate disability. Please don’t contribute to that ableist culture.

    Thank you,
    Chungyen Chang

    1. I’m sorry that I did not think about that quip and its ableist connotations before I posted. I will amend the post now. Thanks for raising your concerns!

  6. Can some one point to me an article explaining why as Rachel said: “Fiction matters, culture matters.” it seems that if there is solid evidence that it has impact on real world behaviour then it would be a very difficult argument to ignore for censoring or at least prohibiting a number of different problematic media. Given the arguments fought over the issues of video game censorship there is little decisive material on either side. could someone more knowledgeable in this matter point me in a good direction?

    1. Sorry about the delay in publishing this, some comments got lost in our mod queue recently.

      When we say fiction and culture matter, it’s not as simple as the conjecture that “you see more violent stuff, you become more violent”. There are heaps of warring studies on that issue, and as far as I know it is not settled in science.

      So in this context, when I say fiction and culture matter I am referring more to how they make us feel, what they make us expect for ourselves etc. These issues are more personal, more subjective and less objective, and so we have to rely more on individual testimony of lived experiences to determine those. And there is plenty of that! So I hope that clears things up a bit.

  7. Pop culture doesn’t matter. Not even slightly. People could be dressing up as Adolf Hitler for all I care. Working men and women are being oppressed out there, minorities are being discriminated against, women are getting less pay and being forced out of the workforce and every ounce of energy that’s expended fretting over whether some TV show is racist, sexist or whatever is energy that could be used fighting that instead.

    1. Actually, the current evidence highly suggests that the stereotypes perpetuated in pop culture matter, because of stereotype threat. For example, if you give boys and girls a math test, the boys will perform better. But if you beforehand give the classroom a speech saying “You may have heard that girls do worse in math tests, but that’s not true for this test” then the gap disappears completely. So the girls were doing worse purely because of “Stereotype threat” – the stereotype about girls is they are bad at math, so the girls raised their prior on themselves as bad at math, and then they didn’t try as hard when they encountered difficulty. So sending the message to girls that they can do math – be it in a speech or in a tv show or a movie – actually makes their math outcomes better, which should have flow-on effects to the workforce and female representation in the sciences and whatnot.

      I suggest you read “Delusions of Gender” by Cordelia Fine, or “Poor Economics” by Duflo and Banerjee (the chapter on gender is very good) or “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Kahneman for a deeper discussion of how stereotypes affect people’s lives and are deeply linked to the discrimination we are all concerned about.

      It may also interest you to know that the “Don’t use energy on X thing, Y is more important” is potentially fallacious due to decreasing marginal returns. Also, I doubt you spend every hour of every day worrying about discrimination, so just tell yourself that we at SJL worry about stereotypes in the time you use to play Halo, then maybe you’ll feel better. Or you could read the books I suggested and realise that this stuff really matters. It’s up to you.

      1. My partner is a Sociologist professor and he gets quite adamant about how there has never been a study done conclusively linking violent media consumption and people actually committing criminal acts. In fact his favorite story to tell me is how in the 1950’s, every TV show in the US was practically a Western and featured violence in some fashion. They were ubiquitous and unavoidable. In the US the kids and teens who watched these shows would then go on to be part of the largest anti-war movement in the United States. Now in the 80’s, there was a purge of violent content on Saturday morning cartoons, to be replaced by shows such as the Care Bears. Ten years later, the US youth crime rate would spike in the early 90’s.

        In other words, if one wanted to establish a link between violent media consumption and criminality, you would have to argue for a negative relationship and that the Care Bears were responsible for the greatest crime wave in US History.

        Stereotypes, I think personally are a problem because they get reinforced in ways outside of media in ways which violence is not. Most teachers and parents are probably going to reinforce a message that murder/violence is wrong, in spite of whatever violent media content a kid sees. This is not going to happen so much with “girls are weak or worse at math”. In fact the parents/teachers are quite likely going to be reinforcing that one more than the media would.

      2. I think you underestimate the appeal of the strong aspects of Slave Leia. I have yet to meet a guy who doesn’t find Jabba’s death scene weirdly arousing. In fact I bet many, if asked, would list that as Leia’s sexiest moment. Plenty of guys love ass-kicking women. And a 5-foot-tall woman killing a 2-ton monster practically with her bare hands is a pretty epic ass-kicking, and difficult to dismiss when considering the appeal of slave Leia. Near-nakedness certainly doesn’t hurt, but I don’t think it’s the point. I also don’t think helplessness is the point. Toughness is built into the character in an inescapable way. Even in early scenes where Jabba is taunting and manhandling Leia, we can’t help but smirk at the thought of what lies ahead for him. We don’t see a helpless woman being ravaged, we see a big blowhard setting himself up for a fall by messing with a deceptively dangerous female. So Leia’s strength is never really in doubt, even in her “weakest” moments. I’m babbling, but you get my point. I don’t think you can totally put slave Leia in the fantasy sex kitten box because the toughness she showed while wearing that outfit is as legendary as the outfit itself, and part of her appeal.

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