For 38 years, I’ve been the proud owner of a 12-inch Darth Vader doll (thanks, 8-year-old self!), and my merchandise includes a Force FX lightsaber and an expensive piece of X-Wing art. I know how important toys are to fans.
But I’m pleased to hear the rumor that Disney may be retiring "Slave Leia" toys and merchandise. Because when it comes to Slave Leia, it’s all about context.
When you see Slave Leia, you tend to see her either in a package as a scantily-clad doll with articulated limbs or as a statue of her lying on her side. Because of the static nature of the toy/statue, it's impossible to tell that this is a powerful, sexy woman inches away from making her move to escape. Without context, the viewer only sees a woman with a slave collar around her neck.
In Return of the Jedi, Leia was captured by Jabba the Hutt and enslaved, complete with a costume meant to degrade and humiliate. Jabba had turned a senator into his plaything and put her on display for all to see. The existence of the scene was necessary for the story, because soon after this, when Luke and R2-D2 cause a distraction, Leia frees herself by strangling Jabba with his own chain. It’s a proud moment in Star Wars history.
Without the context, we only see a slave collar -- but with the context, it's actually worse. This is an image of Leia that only serves to glamorize her at her most vulnerable, when she is a victim.
Princess Leia Organa was the senator who stood up to Governor Tarkin, saw her planet destroyed, and endured torture from Darth Vader. Although Luke Skywalker broke her out of her cell, it was Leia who grabbed Han’s blaster and shot their way to safety. She led battles in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. She even participated in them in Return of the Jedi.
To paraphrase Rene Magritte, whose surrealist artwork proclaimed, “This is not a pipe” (“Ceci ne pas un pipe”), images of Slave Leia are not Leia. Yet one of the most recognizable images of Leia is of her in chains ― static, silent, and submissive.
One male friend told me, “I would choose a figurine of Slave Leia over a Hoth Leia any day, because Slave Leia is hot.” I get it. Actress Carrie Fisher was indeed smokin’ in that metal bikini. And yes, women can be both powerful and sexy, as we see when she chokes out Jabba. But Fisher with her chain around Jabba’s neck, pulling it until his tongue lashes out, is not the image we see. Google “Slave Leia.” Here are the images you get.
We almost always see Fisher either posing provocatively or sitting at Jabba’s feet. We rarely see Leia defeating Jabba. She may be hot but she’s still in chains. It’s an image straight outta pulp fiction, circa 1930. My calendar reads 2015.
Another male friend argued, “Disney shouldn’t change Slave Leia merchandise because it’s so iconic.” Really? So the status quo should remain unchallenged? Slavery in America was a way of life for parts of this country from 1619 — until in 1865 it wasn’t.
Slave Leia will never be retired: A group of cosplayers who are proud of their bodies, no matter what their shape, will always keep cosplaying her. At conventions, Slave Leia is much more acceptable. These women (and in some cases, men who crossplay) are proud of their bodies, no matter what their figures. However, they are not static images but living people. They can choose to walk away or stay in chains (because hey, chains are sexy to some people).
The fact is Disney doesn’t want to peddle images of an enslaved woman to the public. It’s not that Leia wears a bikini―The Little Mermaid wore one, and Jasmine’s two-piece outfit reveals a bit of skin. But I can’t imagine Disney trying to spin a happy fun slave collar or market an image of female degradation as though it were something little girls should internalize or aspire to.
By removing Slave Leia from their merchandise, Disney gets to keep its princess, but one akin to their modern, positive female role models, like Mulan or Merida. Give me a Leia suited up for battle or elegantly coiffed and conducting her official duties, and I’ll proudly position her next to her Darth Daddy on my shelf. And guess what? So will a lot of other fans who see her as more than a fetishized victim.