Is 'Star Wars' Slave Leia Offensive Or Feminist?

As Star Wars prepares to enter into a more inclusive phase of the franchise, specifically with The Force Awakens ' new female lead, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and black stormtrooper star, Finn (John Boyega), a lot of attention has been given to the character of Princess Leia. Leia, of course, was one of the three or so women with speaking roles in George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy. And, though she proved herself to be a strong, independent leader, history has arguably reduced her to "Slave Leia." Star Wars' Slave Leia costume is infamous — it's the barely-there metal bikini Leia is forced to wear when she is taken prisoner by Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. With a growing chorus of women calling the merchandise of Slave Leia demeaning and offensive and with rumors swirling in November that Disney plans to retire the costume from all Star Wars merchandise, it's easy to see how the image of Slave Leia is nothing but a male fantasy that undermines the only heroine in the original series. Some Star Wars fans, however, take the opposite view, and continue to defend the Slave Leia costume. Now the question is: why do people defend Slave Leia?

It's hard for fans who, like myself, don't see the merit in commercializing the image of Slave Leia, to understand why there are others determined to defend her. Women in science fiction tend to be overly objectified on screen, certainly much more than their male counterparts, and the lack of female protagonists in the genre makes the imbalance even more pronounced. Princess Leia is a rare female hero in a sea of men who save the day, which makes how she is remembered and presented matter. It might not be fair, but it's the consequence of the world we live in. If Slave Leia becomes the dominant image of Princess Leia, through publicity or merchandise, it will define her as an object of male desire, as opposed to one of the main leaders of the rebellion against Darth Vader. Looking at Slave Leia through this lens, what could possibly make her worth defending?

In Defense Of Slave Leia

Well for starters, the image is almost impossible to forget; the Slave Leia costume is about as recognizable as Princess Leia's iconic hair buns. It's a piece of cinematic history, and, as many fans point out, should be respected as such. For over 30 years, the Slave Leia costume has been a part of pop culture, and, short of having George Lucas edit the costume using CGI (which would be undoubtedly awkward), it will remain there forever. It makes sense, then, that some fans would defend the costume as part of the Star Wars canon.

The outfit is also defended as a symbol of Leia's strength. As Carrie Fisher herself has argued, Leia's time as Slave Leia is not only important to the story in Return of the Jedi, but is also a moment during which Leia overcomes oppression when she uses the chains that bind her to kill Jabba the Hutt.

At a recent press event, Fisher gave some advice to parents wondering how to explain the Slave Leia costume to their children, telling The Wall Street Journal, "The father who flipped out about it, 'What am I going to tell my kid about why she's in that outfit?' Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn't like it. And then I took it off. Backstage."

Fisher has a point. In fact, some fans have started a movement to simply re-name Slave Leia instead of banning her for good, calling her look "Slayer Leia" instead. One Slave Leia defender, Lizzy Finnegan, praised Slave Leia as "Jabba-Killing-Leia." Writing for Brietbart, Finnegan said,

"Slave Leia, aka Jabba-Killing-Leia, was one of the earliest examples of a TRUE feminist icon represented in media. That scene quite seriously warned against underestimating women whilst simultaneously showing that sexuality can be a power as well as a commodity. Jabba fatally underestimated his prisoner, who managed to take him down with nothing but a chain and a will to survive."

Others even argue that Slave Leia wasn't always the most recognizable incarnation of the Princess. Leia only wears the outfit for a short sequence and changes the moment she gets free from Jabba. Strictly within the context of the film, Slave Leia's impact is negligible on how fans remember Princess Leia (looks-wise). "The truth is I don't recall giving it much thought when I was a kid, beyond the fact that that's what she was wearing when she singlehandedly killed Jabba the Hut, thereby ridding the universe of an evil villain," wrote Glynnis Macnicol for Elle .

But What About Her Legacy?

Later in her essay, Macnicol pointed out that none of the five original Princess Leia action figures released at the time of the original trilogy were of Slave Leia. In fact, reports suggest that Slave Leia action figures were not sold until 1997, when Kenner released a figure of Princess Leia as "Jabba's Prisoner." Over the years, various reports have alleged incidents of Slave Leia being the only Princess Leia toy available at stores like Toys 'R Us. (The Toys 'R Us website features a small selection of Leia toys, a few of which feature the Slave attire.) Princess Leia toys are increasingly difficult to find (in May 2014, the official Twitter account for the Disney Store said it had no plans to sell any Princess Leia merchandise in their stores, a statement they quickly retracted). The lack of, and sometimes complete absence of, Princess Leia merchandise available, combined with the production of Slave Leia merchandise is hugely troubling.

To Slave Leia objectors like myself, this is a huge problem. So, when rumors began spreading that Disney was retiring the Slave Leia image in merchandising going forward, many fans were thrilled. Others, however, were not impressed, seeing the actions as an attempt by Disney to satisfy a critique of politically correctness. Wrote Jessica Chobot of Nerdist,

"Is this the case of a company erasing history to appear more PC or just the case of a 30-year-old outfit that's been de-contextualized from a costume forced upon someone forced into slavery to sexy, sexy, sex symbol being retired as the company tries to reshape a character's image into the badass leader she'll be in Episode VII?"

Looking at the arguments from those who defend Slave Leia, it seems to me that they have a fundamental misunderstanding about what it is, exactly, that some people find offensive about the Slave Leia phenomenon. It's not so much that Slave Leia exists that bothers anti-Slave Leia activists, but that Slave Leia has come to represent Princess Leia in pop culture, or, as Chobot so aptly put it, been "de-contextualized." To the world outside of the Star Wars fandom, Slave Leia is simply a sexy character from Star Wars, not an image of a woman essentially forced into sexual slavery. And that doesn't help anybody.

Slave Leia cannot and should not define Princess Leia's character, but she also simply can't be erased from the Star Wars fandom. What's important is that Star Wars merchandise continues to evolve and help perpetuate many different aspects of Princes Leia, her sexuality included. Maybe soon, thanks to her new title in The Force Awakens, young fans of The Force Awakens will be able to focus not on Slave Leia, but on General Leia, instead.

Editor's Note: a previous version of this article stated that a majority of Princess Leia toys consist of Slave Leia, but this claim could not be verified.

Images: Walt Disney Studios; Giphy; rebelscum