Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Return of the Leia

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

The third and final Star Wars film begins a year after the events of Empire, with Han’s rescue from the clutches of gangster Jabba the Hutt. Jabba, whom Han had previously, unintentionally, screwed over to the tune of lots of money, had the frozen Han delivered to him from Bespin. Leia enters the film, in characteristically badass fashion, disguised as the bounty hunter Boushh. In this form, she appears masked, alien, and ambiguously male. She infiltrates Jabba’s entourage with some gutsy bluffing, and then proceeds to unfreeze Han while Jabba’s palace sleeps. Here, Leia is symbolically taking the rescuer role that Han and Luke filled in the first film, and the descent into the underworld to raise a loved one from the dead places her in the mythic company of Orpheus and Demeter. But victory doesn’t last, as Jabba intercepts the couple, imprisons Han, and enslaves Leia, bringing us to the infamous metal bikini.

Ah yes, the metal bikini. The point at which hundreds of first generation Star Wars fanboys, teenagers by ’83, noticed some very different feelings bubbling up inside them. Up until that moment, one of the strongest positives of Leia’s characterization was that she wasn’t sexualized. Not at all. She looked beautiful, of course, but in a very natural way. Her clothing was practical and not revealing. She wasn't even filmed in a sexualizing manner! It’s really quite extraordinary, considering how a woman can rarely kick ass in an action movie today without looking like a fetish incarnate. Leia was created at a time when action heroines were relatively unknown, so she wasn’t burdened by the current tropes that require women to be super hot, flexible, and clad in leather while fighting. Her combat abilities didn’t insist upon themselves either, they were just a part of who she was. So, imagine my dismay at the fact that the most popular cosplay incarnation of Leia is not her Cinnabon look, nor her practical Hoth jumpsuit, nor even her pretty Bespin gown. Nope, it’s the metal bikini. And when you Google image “Princess Leia,” the top three suggestions are “Princess Leia Metal Bikini,” “Princess Leia Naked,” and “Princess Leia Hot.” Great.

So, let’s approach the getup from two angles. First, what’s up with the bikini incident in-verse? Jabba the Hutt has been thoroughly established as an unpleasant character. He has his monster pet that snacks on people who annoy him, his droid torturer[1], a prison that would probably prompt an Amnesty Intergalactic letter writing campaign, his sexualized slaves of all species, and his tendency to turn people’s comatose bodies into wall art. He’s basically an equal opportunity exploiter of sentient beings. A big question is why he, a slug creature, would be turned on by scantily clad females of other species. I assume it’s a status thing. He’s a powerful gangster who controls most of the Galaxy’s crime circuit, so showing off his “all planets” collection of ladies is an intimidating symbol of just how much control he has.[2] And though I’ll look more closely at the question next week, it’s possible that if Jabba was female, she’d have a bunch of objectified males in her entourage. So, based on his established M.O., it makes sense that Jabba would think a human slave who tried to cross him would add a lot to his reputation. Leia is obviously unhappy with the situation, but I like how she never lets wearing 80% less clothing than usual diminish her in-control vibe. She always looks alert, not vulnerable or ashamed. And let’s not forget the glorious conclusion to the incident. As the skirmish over the Sarlac pit rages on, Leia takes advantage of the chaos, cuts the power in Jabba’s barge, and strangles the slimy motherfucker with her chain. It’s gross, wiggly and gaspy; the most hands on and violent death in the trilogy. Love it![3] She goes on to liberate herself, and help Luke blow up the barge. 

In light of all this, we can assume that the gold bikini could be expected from Jabba. Leia handles it well, gets glorious revenge, and her violent and intense response to being put in an objectifying situation adds something to her character.

So, in-verse, I’m totally fine with Princess Bikini. I get uncomfortable when I consider the behind the scenes brainstorming sessions.  After all, events in a plot don’t just happen. They have to be created by someone. And there is simply no way that whatever man[4] came up with the costume wasn’t thinking of the franchises male fans. Those same fans, I might mention, had already devoted six years to Star Wars with a fully clothed Leia! I highly doubt they were threatening to revoke their support if Jedi didn’t deliver golden titties. I understand that the bikini has become part of Star Wars fan culture, often embraced by female fans.[5] But I get more than a little disappointed when I consider how close Star Wars came to zero sexualization.[6] If I could, would I go back in time and make sure the outfit never ended up in the film? Honestly, no. The incident adds to the atmosphere that made Jabba so iconic, and it gives Leia a chance to get some fucking awesome revenge. Overall, I’m fine with it in the film. I only wish popular culture hadn’t turned an OOC outfit and unpleasant moment for the character into Leia’s (second) most iconic look.  Still, I’m really not surprised.

Now that we’ve thoroughly addressed the scantily clad elephant in the room, let’s get back to the narrative. After thoroughly crushing crime-lord windpipe, Leia returns with the re-united gang to the Rebel Fleet and Star Wars launches into its conclusion.  Compared to Episode V, Jedi has a simple plot. We have Luke in his whole “facing Vader” mode, and that’s where the majority of the story’s emotion is focused.[7] But if there is another emotional focal point, it’s Leia.

Jedi is the film that officially reveals Leia as Luke’s twin sister, and Darth Vader’s daughter. It would have been cool if the film had done more with the revelation.[8] But when a story is trying to get to a conclusion, I understand why it can’t go too crazy expanding on a recently revealed plot twist. What Leia does get is one of Williams' best themes to illustrate the connection, and a quiet scene with Luke during which she discovers the truth. She reflects on their mother for the first time and only time in the Trilogy. It’s a nice break from the paternal psychological conflict at the center of the myth. I actually love how briefly the maternal memory appears in the narrative. It’s tender and melancholy, a breath of humanity in the twins’ otherwise inhuman past. And the essential emotional moment arrives via Leia.

After two films of non-stop strength and resilience, I actually like that she finally lets herself breakdown. I know that narratives get tiresome when even the strongest female character has a requisite moment of “feminine” weakness, while the man has nothing more than a furrowed brow during his dark night of the soul. But before Leia has her subdued Jedi cry, Luke has done enough whining, yelling and crying to last a lifetime. I think Leia can have a moment for an appropriate reaction to the news that her father is Darth fucking Vader.

Leia keeps her connection to Luke secret from Han until the end of the film,[9] which serves as a reminder that even in a relationship; she values her emotional independence. By Jedi, Han and Leia are an established, comfy couple, with some nice moments but little swooning[10] and no drama. The best Jedi moment for the pair is a flirty reprise of their emotional Empire exchange. This time, its Han’s “I love you,” and Leia’s confident, “I know.” And what prompts the declaration? Leia’s wicked combination of a blaster and a sharp mind. Han is crazy about how badass his girlfriend is, and Leia knows it. She thinks he’s okay too.

Leia began the Star Wars films as an assertive anti-damsel in distress. She ended it as a woman with a military victory, a stable, equal relationship, and a profound origin, destiny, and set of powers. By the conclusion of Jedi, she’s been given her own hero’s journey and grown into the story’s second most important protagonist.[11] When it comes down to it, Star Wars is primarily Luke’s story. But Leia is essential, well drawn, and awesome. This feminist fangirl is not complaining.

Next week: We take a big step back. Does Star Wars pass the Bechdel test? And does the story inhabit a patriarchal world?  

[1] And a people torturer, we can assume.

[2] So if some Greedo comes to visit, he’ll see Jabba’s half naked Greedette and think, “Oh, I guess he can exploit my species too. I better not cross him.”

[3] Sorry. But my personal approach to feminism is commonly of the Quentin Tarantino variety. Deal.

[4] Or group of men.

[5] No one is holding a cosplay gun to their heads.

[6] In what would have been marketed today as an action movie for 18-34 year old males.

[7] I know. After the mega-depth of Empire, some people find Jedi’s simplicity jarring. But it’s wholly appropriate to the mythic structure so essential to Star Wars. The third act usually begins with the final escape from the despair of act two, with a streamlined, focused plot that drives the story to its conclusion. Jedi isn’t my favorite of the Trilogy, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Yes, not even the Ewoks.

[8] Given Leia a chance to face Vader with her brother, for example, or at least make something float.

[9] Wherein she reveals it casually and offhand.

[10] Most of which actually comes from Han, who repeatedly resembles a lovesick puppy around Leia’s confident cool.

[11] Her presence in the conversations between Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Vader is intensly felt and helps elevate her to a central role even when she’s not on-screen. In contrast, Han is rarely discussed when he’s off-screen.

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