Feminist in a Metal Bikini
A few weeks ago, I was browsing my Facebook feed and came across this blog post.
TL;DR: Mom and daughter see an action figure of Leia dressed in a metal bikini in the toy aisle. Mom deflects questions from her young child about it, having never seen the film. She writes to a popular parenting advice blogger about how to have a conversation with her daughter. Columnist responds with a suggested conversation that not only is way above the comprehension level of most 4 year-olds, but also introduces some really adult concepts. In the process, she shames parents who let their kids watch Star Wars, without making a very good case.
Disclaimer: Like many people who grew up in the 1980’s, I love Star Wars. Princess Leia was a huge source of inspiration for me – an iconic main character in a film series about space, which was largely marketed to boys, at a time when most female characters were girlfriends, wives and/or damsels in distress. She is not only a princess, but also a Senator, a rebel spy and a warrior, in a film series that was created at a time when there were very few female members of Congress, and women were not allowed to fight in combat in the United States military. She knows how to shoot a blaster (with more accuracy than many of the male characters) and remains strong, determined and resourceful, even when captured by some really bad folks. She has a sarcastic sense of humor and also a fierce caring for those she serves and loves. She protects her people even when being tortured and skillfully helps create a plan to defeat the Empire and carry out that plan. Although she starts the series in dire straits, she ends up saving herself and others many times and actually kills the very captor that made her wear a metal bikini with the chain around her neck. Badass.
Naturally, I was more than a little annoyed when I read such a superficial analysis of her character, which shames people who enjoy the films, diminishes her badassness and labels her a victim.
Her response to the reader’s question:
These are the moments that take you by surprise. You’re just looking for a birthday present for her friend and all of a sudden, your daughter is waving a half-naked princess Leia in your face — with a chain around her neck like a bondage porn star.
I am not sure how much bondage porn you’ve seen, but it’s pretty fallacious to start off your post with a straw man argument. I don’t think the Leia action figure in any way resembles a porn star. Yes, it’s disappointing that Hasbro decided to create an action figure featuring this costume from the film, but it’s hardly the only Leia action figure or toy available, and it’s not like she’s wearing less than some of the Barbie or Bratz dolls available in the toy aisle. Plus, this costume choice really only takes someone by surprise if they haven’t seen the films.
But wait, there’s more.
Sure, the toy is “true” to the scene in the movie, but who would show that movie to a four-year-old? This toy is in the toy aisles for any age child to see. And just as the scene was upsetting, the doll is upsetting.
Who would show that movie to a four-year-old? I would. And my mom did. And thousands, if not millions of other parents have, too. It’s far less violent than many other movies and shows for children and as a bonus, it features a strong female character that my daughter and son can look up to and positive messages about believing in yourself, teamwork and loyalty. Sanctimommy much?
Besides, if someone watches the films with their children, they can easily provide context as to why Leia is wearing this outfit and that the Jabba the Hutt character is disgusting and evil. The easy answer to why is she wearing a chain around her neck is: “She got captured while going undercover to rescue Han Solo. A bad creature – Jabba the Hutt – made her wear that outfit to embarrass her. Isn’t that mean? But remember, her friends came and together they fought back and they all escaped together. Isn’t that awesome?”
I, and when we watched it together, my then four year-old daughter, didn’t find the scene upsetting or confusing at all. Why? We understood what was happening in the context of the film. Also, when my daughter watched it, I was there to answer questions and provide comfort if she got scared, which she didn’t, beyond a bit of natural anxiety seeing beloved characters dangling above a Sarlacc. About the same about of anxiety as she felt watching Anna and Kristoff being chased by the snow monster in Frozen.
Also, Princess Leia is a strong figure in the movie. Why is this the only Leia figure that is readily available in most toy aisles?
I have found plenty of other Leia toys available in several stores. I am not sure that this is true of “most toy aisles,” but it sure makes your straw man easier to knock down.
Do I find it yucky that George Lucas made Carrie Fisher – one of the only women in the film – wear such a skimpy costume? Sure.
Have I heard that Carrie Fisher was made to wear the costume even though she didn’t want to (rumor has it that this is due to wanting to appeal to more men and teen boys and/or as punishment for standing up for herself on set)? Yes, and frankly, I think that fucking sucks.
Do I think that her character in the film is suddenly not a good role model or less badass because of it? Nope.
In fact, I think it makes her more badass because she did everything that the male characters did, but while wearing a freaking metal bikini and at great risk to herself. As someone who works with assault survivors, that is the most disturbing part of Return of the Jedi for me – the fact that Princess Leia (like most women in war zones) faced sexual violence in addition to physical violence when she chose to go undercover as a bounty hunter to rescue Han. But, that very adult understanding of the threat of sexual violence against women is not something that I will discuss with my children until they are old enough to understand.
There’s no right or wrong way to answer your child’s question. I might have said something like this.
Child: “Why does that doll have a chain around her neck?”
Parent: “That’s upsetting to look at, isn’t it? It’s from a movie, where she was captured and kept as a slave until she escaped. Slavery is a terrible thing — it’s treating people as property, that someone else can own and even put a chain on. That’s why slavery is illegal now, everywhere in the world.”
I disagree, I think your response is wrong. Why would you ask your child such a leading question if they were just curious and not upset? Do we really want to talk about slavery with a four-year-old in the toy aisle? I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t discuss challenging topics with our kids, but we might want to wait for them to bring them up, rather than potentially upsetting them with concepts that they can’t possibly understand. I find this ironic and confusing coming from an advice blogger who frequently argues that we should let kids be kids.
Child: “Why doesn’t she have any clothes on?”
My child would never ask this. Nudity =/= shame in our house. Leia is, in fact, wearing clothes. Probably more clothes than many dolls available in the same store. Besides, the simple answer is – “this is what her character wore in the film.”
Parent: “Good question. She looks like she’s going to the beach, doesn’t she? This outfit doesn’t look like it would be good to run in, or climb trees in, does it?
Holy mother of fuck! See the freaking film. Leia does a hell of a lot of strenuous activity in that outfit and actually uses the “bondage porn” chain to kill Jabba the Hutt. Why would you project your own issues about this outfit onto your child? Her character is an adult. It’s not like Disney is selling Slave Leia costumes for four-year-olds or baby dolls in bondage chains.
This movie was made a long time ago, when they had different ideas than we do now about women. But I remember that Princess Leia in the movie was a very strong woman. I wish they had a Leia doll that showed how brave and strong and smart she is, instead of sexualizing her.”
Child: “What’s sexualizing?”
Parent: “It’s when they emphasize how someone looks instead of who she is or what she does.”
I must first comment that she misses a prime opportunity to write – “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” here. But, I digress.
How exactly does someone create a doll that illustrates bravery or intelligence? The addition of glasses? How about a medical degree or test tube? Why does a wearing bikini negate bravery and intelligence? Especially since she was forced to wear it while doing something extremely brave and smart. I am just as brave and strong and smart when I wear a bikini, as I am when I wear other types of clothes. The message that I would take away from this comment is that smart women don’t wear bikinis. Yuck.
And are you really suggesting that we introduce the word sexualizing to a four year-old? Even if you are, that is NOT the definition of sexualize. Can we introduce positive values – how we look is less important than who we are – without introducing concepts that are NOT age-appropriate for a preschooler?
Child: “Can I see the movie?”
Parent: “When you grow up, if you want to. It’s not a movie for children.”
If you want to censor the media your child views, that’s fine, but don’t lie and say that it’s not a movie for children. Especially when your child is viewing a toy based on the film at that very moment. Just be honest and say you don’t like it or don’t think that it’s appropriate for kids her age. If she wants to, she will see it anyway in her best friend’s basement during a sleepover, just like I saw Dirty Dancing when my parents forbid me to see it (mom – if you are reading this, sorry).
As for the toy aisle, I was much more disappointed in Target for selling this shirt, depicting Leia and Han with lightsabers, than I was for selling a slave Leia action figure. At least the metal bikini scene actually happened in the film.
Princess Leia is an empowered, intelligent leader. She taught me that women can be Senators and warriors. Liking Star Wars and her character doesn’t make me a bad feminist, and watching Star Wars with my kids doesn’t make me a bad parent. I hope that more parents will watch the Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes 4-6) with their daughters and sons. I hope that Princess Leia and everything she represents will become as popular as Queen Elsa with a new generation of young girls. Let’s save conversations about sexualization and slavery for when our kids are old enough to understand. And as you help your daughters and sons navigate this sometimes terrible world, may the Force be with you.
I LOVED this! You said everything I would have wanted to say, but better. Right down to “who would show that movie to a four-year-old?” (well, me, for one).
OH HELL YES. This post makes me want to do your taxes.
Great article. I just recently started showing the original trilogy to my five year old daughter (started as we rented the dvd from the library and it was scratched halfway through).
And you might be able to feel slightly better about that tee. I saw a larger version of that image and Han and Leia don’t have lightsabers, the red lights are the flash from their blasters.
And of course, even though she’s on a chain and wearing a bikini, she uses that same chain to choke the man who put her there. (Well, not really a ‘man’, if Hutts are like slugs, then they would be both male and female.)
BTW, slavery is legal in a few countries, most notably Mauritania. It’s mostly winked at in others like Malaysia. (Why, yes, Malaysia is a TPP partner.) Or, in countries such as the United States and North Korea, they find excuses, such as saying it’s punishment for a crime. So “That’s why slavery is illegal now, everywhere in the world.” Funny, that.
I’m going to disagree with you here.
Star Wars is not for 4 year olds. OK, maybe it’s better for 4 year olds than 6 yo, because smaller kids simply tune out on things. But at that age they cannot differenciate well between fiction and reality. You’re right that there are worse things out there, but that’s the “Dear Muslima” of TV shows.
I also think you contradict yourself. You question whether somebody would want to talk about slavery in the toy aisle, but you are in favour of watching a film featuring sexual(ized) slavery with the child.
Of course you can say that at home you can talk better about those issues with your child, but tell me, how many hours are you going to spend dscussing this movie with your child? The slavery, the torture, the colonialism, the violence?
There’s a wonderful chapter in Peggy Orenstein’s “Cinderella ate my Daughter” about the “downaging” of media products, how the consumers are getting younger and younger than the originally intended audience which means that in the end their life gets dominated by topics and things intended for a much older audience.
I think Star Wars (or Hannah Montanna) are good examples. Just because there’s now merchandise for toddlers (bought by parents, not toddlers!) doesn’t mean something is intended or suitable for them.
Ad hominem attacks aren’t usually your style. Please don’t compare me to Dawkins. That’s gross. I question whether or not Return of the Jedi could be said to “feature” sex slavery. That’s not what happens in the film. It’s not. It’s one scene in a series that gets so much right about what an empowered female leader should be. I say this as a professional who works with sex trafficking survivors, who would probably laugh or shake their heads at the comparison. I don’t believe we can or should isolate our children from reality and media that reflects reality. It’s our job to be their guide and provide context and explanation. There’s no real comparison to Hannah Montana – Princess Leia is an adult, not a child. And eventually, even Hannah Montana is allowed to grow up and become a sexual being (whether we want her to or not). There has to be a balance between pearl clutching and pornography, slut shaming and sexuality. Let’s not pretend that RotJ is bondage porn because it’s an easier straw man to knock down.
Steph, that was not an ad hominem. In no way and I didn’t compare YOU to Dawkins, I compared the argument to point out that it is fallacious.
” I question whether or not Return of the Jedi could be said to “feature” sex slavery.”
You might notice that I put a (ized) behins sexual. I’m not saying it’s definitely sex slavery as a lot of stuff happens off-screen, but you cannot deny that there is the element of sexualisation, an imagery that relies on 1001 “Arabian nights harem” depictions.
” I don’t believe we can or should isolate our children from reality and media that reflects reality.”
Really, Star Wars refelcts reality?
” There’s no real comparison to Hannah Montana – Princess Leia is an adult, not a child.”
The comparison was that both media products, Star Wars and Hannah Montana get consumed now by audiences that are much younger than what they were actually intended for. Star Wars is clearly not produced with toddlers in mind as consumers. Except for the Ewoks perhaps.
“Let’s not pretend that RotJ is bondage porn because it’s an easier straw man to knock down.”
Good thing I never did that.
Jeez, it looks like you saw that somebody did not agree with your asessment and then stopped parsing what I said because you’re knocking down and aweful lot of straw.
Hell, I even agree with your general asessment of Leia as a character. I just don’t think it’s a character I want to introduce to a preschooler. I like Star Wars like the next geek, and I’m looking forward to watching it with my kids one day (if they want to), but that day is not in the near future.
Hmmm. I understand (and sympathize) with where you are coming from Giliell, but Offspring was also being exposed to many of those messages in supposed children’s films she was seeing at friends’ houses or school. While purporting to be anodyne, Disney and knock-offs like Anastasia depicted violence and abuse, as well as relentless othering. (Of course, we’d already traumatized Offspring by taking xyr to see Mononoke-hime when xe was 3, thinking that it would be like Kiki, so what was a bit of interstellar rebellion). At the end of the day, Spouse and I specifically chose to show xyr Star Wars because of Leia. She (Offspring at the time) had started pointing out gendering in stories by then, and while she might not have been distinguishing fiction and reality perfectly, she was pretty insightful about aspects of reality reflected back to her in fiction. Leia is actually a decent example of a female hero who is a strong character, without having that equated with physical strength. Now that Offspring is a young adult, I can’t say that I have any regrets about showing xyr Star Wars as a toddler. And we both love Mononoke-hime.