Opinion

Princess Leia, feminist hero

Why it's time to take back 'Slave Leia'

I'm one of those geeks: I saw the first Star Wars when it came out; I saw The Empire Strikes Back 11 times before I lost count; and I gave George Lucas a pass on Return of the Jedi, because while not great, it felt like home. Needless to say, I deny the existence of the prequels (though I paid to see them, of course).

Stay with me, though, it gets worse: I'm one of those geeks who thinks that Star Wars actually matters — and not just in a "humans build community through storytelling" way, or even in a "Lucas upended Hollywood" way. I think Star Wars matters in the same way that I think all pop culture matters: It both reflects our socio-political norms and shapes them. You might even say that pop-culture surrounds us and binds us.

All of which, naturally, brings me to "Slave Leia."

Mention the character of Princess Leia to the average resident of Planet Earth and two images come to mind: White-robed Leia with her double-Cinnabon hairdo, and golden-bikini'ed "Slave Leia."

This despite the fact that she's in that bikini for less than three of the 399 minutes that make up the original Star Wars trilogy (yes, I did the math); despite the fact that it was forced on her as humiliation and punishment after being caught infiltrating Jabba the Hutt's lair disguised as a bounty hunter and carrying a thermo-detonator (aka: space grenade) in order to rescue Han Solo (again, might I add — to rescue Han Solo again); and despite the fact that as her final act in Jabba's clutches, she kills the universe's greatest crime lord with the very chain he used to bind her.

But sure, yeah: "Slave Leia."

I mean, I get it. Carrie Fisher's Leia was flawless. That bikini and the floor-length loincloth with which it was accessorized showcases her beauty quite intentionally. The script tells us that Leia is badass and should not be so ill-treated; the costume and languid positioning of her body tell us to think about sex. I would be the first to tell you that the franchise is not without its problems and mixed messages (Vader slaughters literally millions, but is redeemed because he can't bring himself to kill his son? But I digress.)

We're not the franchise, though. We're the ones who interpret the franchise and give it cultural weight. We're the ones who came up with "Slave Leia" (a name never used anywhere in the films), in total disregard of the 396 other minutes in which Badass Leia blasts her way through Death Stars and Cloud Cities, saves her would-be rescuers ("into the garbage chute, flyboy!"), leads a rebellion, and can fly any craft she happens to find herself in or on.

This is, after all, what we do to women every day — we reduce them to their weakest, meekest, most domesticated iterations. If women are allowed to be sexual, they must be sexual in a way that meets heterosexual male expectations. Just ask Serena Williams, currently under fire for daring to strike a frankly sexual pose on her Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year cover — after having long been under fire for being too muscular, too big, and too black to be sexy (for that matter, check with Eugenie Bouchard, also a world-class tennis player, asked during the 2015 Australian Open to "give us a twirl" and show off her outfit.)

But consider also Rosa Parks, who risked her life for more than a decade documenting the sexual assault of black women by white men before she sat on that bus, itself a long-planned act of radical civil disobedience, and not — even a little bit — the decision of a tired woman at the end of a long day. Consider Helen Keller, the girl who overcame deaf-blindness — once she grew up, Keller became a socialist, supported women's suffrage and right to birth control, protested war and racism, and helped found the ACLU. Ask Hillary Clinton, forced to provide a cookie recipe when her husband was campaigning for the White House, and to embrace the term "grandmother-in-chief" as she makes her own run (I have no doubt that Clinton loves being a grandmother. How many of our presidents have been called "grandfather-in-chief"?)

All of this is bad, not just for women and girls (though it is certainly bad for women and girls), but for men and boys, as well. When we reduce fully half of humanity to something far less than they are capable of being, we rob ourselves of all that they are capable of contributing.

Thus, a humble suggestion to help us be the change we want to see: Stop already with the "Slave Leia" crap. That woman in the gold bikini? That's Leia the Hutt Slayer. So she is, and so shall she be named.

And may the Force be with us all.

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