The Women of Star Wars: Elephants in Gold Bikinis
Posted on Friday, December 4th, 2015 by Blade Brain Trust
You’ve heard the story before. The young hero boldly fights his way past dark forces to breach the prison of the evil wizard’s stronghold to rescue the imperilled princess. He opens her cell to find her sleeping peacefully, awaiting her prince. He removes his helmet, and tells her he’s here to rescue her. But then something strange happens. The princess realizes her rescuer has no plan getting them out of there, so she takes the lead, and his gun, and starts shooting a way out through the trash compactor. This moment would set the tone for how the women of Star Wars should be portrayed; strong, capable, sassy, and not afraid to get dirty. But has Star Wars lived up to this promising start? Probably not, but much like the story of Star Wars itself, there’s still hope.
Few would be able to argue that Princess Leia isn’t a positive role model. She may have fallen into a few pitfalls of generic female storytelling (her principle story arc was a love triangle after all), but focusing on that does a disservice to all her other traits. First and foremost, she was a leader of the rebellion trying to make a difference in the galaxy. Just look at where we find the male characters at the start of the film. Luke is wasting his life on a farm (and whining about it a lot), Obi-Wan is hiding out in a cave, and Han Solo is boozing, smuggling, and shooting people in bars all across the galaxy. They may end up heroes in the end, but they’re heroes of circumstance. All swept up by the events Leia put in motion by taking actions to improve the world around her.
But of course, there’s the elephant in the room, made only more noticeable because it’s wearing a gold chain bikini. The “Slave Leia” outfit. Its place in pop culture is now infamous, ranging from appearances in television shows like Friends, to domineering fan conventions with the sheer number of women cosplaying it. Disney, the new owners of Star Wars, has unsurprisingly started to take steps away from Slave Leia, quietly ending production of all products, toys, and merchandise involving the outfit. Probably a good idea for the company notorious for its family friendly appearance, but it does beg the question; is the costume inherently a bad thing? Maybe not, at least not completely. It’s important to recognize that the costume was originally a response to Carrie Fisher’s request for a “sexier” outfit. She may not have quite expected gold chainmail, but it wasn’t forced on the actress out of nowhere. As for the slave portion, it’s actually used symbolically well in the movie as Leia is actually the one who takes out her captor, the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt, using the chains he enthralled her with no less. For a costume chiefly designed to titillate, it at least wasn’t used entirely without purpose.
Possibly more problematic than any swimsuit was the prequel trilogies portrayal of women. These films had several narrative problems, chief among them was that Natalie Portman’s character, Padmé Amidala, only seemed to be included to fulfill the movies need for someone to give birth to Luke and Leia. While we’re told repeatedly how capable she is, her actions rarely demonstrate this. What we do see is no less than 25 costume changes across three movies to ensure a large line of dolls to compete with Barbie. In the final film, Revenge of the Sith, her entire subplot involving her laying the seeds that would become the rebellion was cut for time, leaving her story to consist of two things; have babies, and die. This is sadly a major step back from the proactive princess we got 30 years prior.
But there’s still hope. The Force Awakens is arriving soon, and while many of its details are being kept securely under wraps, we do know a few things. Much of the story seems to focus on a young girl still known only as Rey, portrayed by the talented Daisy Ridley. From what we’ve seen, she’s an able young woman capable of surviving on the harshest of planets and can handle herself in a fight just fine. Things behind the scenes have also gotten better for women. Lucasfilm’s president and head of production on all things Star Wars is Kathleen Kennedy, one of Hollywood’s biggest producers who’s racked up more than 60 films, 120 Academy Award nominations, and over $11 billion in worldwide sales. Star Wars might not have lived up to its own promising start, but the games far from over, and they’ve got a new captain on the field. Let’s see how she does.
Join us back here next week as we move on from telling you about the background of Star Wars, and on to HOW you should watch it with Machete Order.