Trigger warning: sexual assault
A rumor was began this week that Disney was working on removing the iconic slave Leia costume from future marketing. The rumor was based off of comments made by a Marvel comics artist claiming that Daisy Ridley (“Rey” in The Force Awakens) “won’t have to fight anything. Disney is well on its way to wiping out the ‘slave’ outfit from future products period”. Many fanboys responded in immediate anger. There were cries that this was a result of Disney’s family-friendly reputation and the desire to avoid a racy image. There’s probably a lot of truth in that, but to be honest, slave Leia isn’t wearing any less clothing than Ariel or Pocahontas. Some wilkl argue that we’re becoming increasingly PC, but I think there’s more to it than that.
There’s a famous “Friends” episode where Russ, Chandler, and Joey discuss the Princess Leia fantasy that they and all guys of their generation share. Though half a generation behind the guys at Central Perk, I do have pretty strong memories of that scene in “Return of the Jedi”. It was probably my earliest sexualized media consumed, or at least that I can remember. That Leia was scantily clad may be part of the problem, but I think the real issue, as we have increased sensitivities developing in our culture, is the context of the scene in which the outfit was worn.
I’ll say this explicitly, Leia was sexually assaulted.
This is not my doing a revisionist history thing. It’s almost impossible to not see it once you’re looking for it. It’s established early in the first third of the film. As Jabba and his cohort are celebrating… whatever it is they were celebrating, Jabba begins making a leering look at his dancing slave. He begins to pull her near to him. She resists. She’s terrified. He’s making advances toward her. She’s clearly been through this before. She fights him. He gets frustrated with her refusal, opens a trap door and feeds her to the rancor. Fast forward, Leia frees Han, their joy is short lived, as Jabba and his crew interrupt their reunion. Han is dragged off and Jabba orders that Leia be brought to him.
“You’re going to regret this,” she says to him.
“I’m sure,” he snarls back then begins to lick her. C-3PO standing by turns away. “I can’t bear to watch”. He’s seen this before in his short time in Jabba’s employ. The next time we see Leia, she has been stripped of her clothes and is in the infamous slave outfit. At the very least, Jabba has touched her in an unwanted way and stripped her for the amusement of his crowd. Imagination leaves us to believe that more has happened.
I think it’s also important to look at Jabba’s death. It wasn’t enough for Leia to try to escape in the commotion. She furiously strangled Jabba. It is revenge, a fairly cold-blooded murder, justified in our minds by the heinousness of Jabba’s actions.
I think it is wise for Disney to begin phasing out slave Leia merchandise considering this context. It’s slightly disturbing to think that one of my earliest experiences of a sexualized woman’s body was in the form of an assault. Maybe I’m overstating this, but I wonder how much this image has shaped the sexuality of a generation of men. We can justify it as being off screen, but that didn’t seem to matter with Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. We can say “it’s just sci-fi” but many real life issues are dealt with in science fiction. Even within the story, it is problematic that Leia has to be assaulted so that Han can be freed.
I don’t think a ban on “Return of the Jedi” is necessary. I think the first third of “Jedi” has some of the strongest moments of the whole series. But it is inappropriate to play with an action figure of an assault victim. So despite the dismay that millions of fan boys might feel, I think Disney is making the right move.