Friday, July 24, 2009

Reflections on a Gold Bikini

The husband and I watched Fanboys not too long ago. We’d seen a preview for it AGES ago, and kept waiting for it to come out, being Star Wars fans and all.

All in all, it was an entertaining film. A little on the dudely side, but what could I expect from something call Fanboys, right? It was filled with references to them calling their right hands Leia, that kind of stuff.

And then, the one fangirl—the one who is tough and smart and brave and excellent with logistics (because that what the token girl is for—organizing the superfocused boys into some semblance of efficiency—but that’s another rant altogether)—finishes out the movie in Leia’s gold slave girl bikini from Return of the Jedi. And it sort of squicked me out, but I couldn’t really identify why.

We were inspired to watch the original movies again, something we hadn’t done for a long time. I used the opportunity to try to figure out why the fanboy love of the gold bikini sat so poorly with me.

From a feminist perspective, Leia is a great, and pretty unusual, character. She’s a fully developed human being. She has authority and is treated with respect because of it. She has expertise in strategy and is deferred to because of it. She has a romantic relationship, but it isn’t the focus of her character, nor would I even call it her primary relationship in the films.

Throughout most of the films, Leia’s costuming reflects these aspects of her character. She has dignity. She dresses appropriately to the situation. When she’s in battle, she dresses like she’s in battle—the hair is out of the way, the shoes are good for running, the appropriate camouflage and protective gear is present. When she’s acting as a dignitary, her clothes are flattering (well, as flattering as 1970s scifi costuming could be expected to be), but modest, designed to command respect for her and for the office she is filling.

The one time we see Leia in something conventionally sexy, she has had all power stripped from her. Even when she is being held prisoner by Vader in the opening of Episode 4, she retains her rank as princess and ambassador. In Jabba’s “court” she has been literally objectified—reduced to an ornament. Her gold bikini is emblematic of her lack of status and control. She is exposed, vulnerable.

And therein lies the crux of the fanboy lust issue for me. For all that so many of them say they love Leia for her strength, the fantasy focuses on the 10 minutes out of three films when she is forced into submission. The iconic image of sexy Return of the Jedi Leia is one of subjugation and powerlessness. In focusing their desire and fantasy on the gold bikini, the fanboys are identifying not with Han, who loves and desires Leia as a complete and autonomous person, but with Jabba, who sees her as a possession and a decorative object.

A younger friend, a young woman who I think falls more into the Third Wave than I do, has indicated to me that she thinks the gold bikini can be reclaimed from the fanboys and given a feminist spin. It is an idea that intrigues me, but I have my doubts. I’m not sure how to reclaim something that wasn’t ours to begin with. An argument can be made, I suppose, that if women are choosing to put on the costume that it becomes emblematic of the choice to be seen as sexual. I think that this requires removing the costume from its context, though. The gold bikini plays into a very old, traditional frame of female sexuality—powerlessness, vulnerability, and submission.

And while it is true that choice as to how to live one’s life is the basis of feminism, I would argue that not all choices are feminist. The choice to play at submissiveness, to purposefully step into a powerless role, is certainly a valid one that I respect an individual’s right to make. In our current society, however, where female sexuality is still based almost entirely around objectification, I think it’s harder to argue that the choice is a feminist one.

I hope to see the day when I am proven wrong about this. But for now, when a fanboy tells me he loves strong women but has fantasies about the gold bikini that don’t involve Leia strangling Jabba with her slave chain, I keep my guard up. My experience tells me that what he probably means is that he may think he loves strong women, but what he really loves is strong women made helpless. Ask yourself this question: At the end of Return of the Jedi, when the teddy bears are done dancing and the celebrations are over, do you think Leia would have put on the gold bikini for Han’s benefit?


  1. In focusing their desire and fantasy on the gold bikini, the fanboys are identifying not with Han, who loves and desires Leia as a complete and autonomous person, but with Jabba, who sees her as a possession and a decorative object.

    Excellent point! Great post; thank you for braving delurkdom to link it in the blogaround.

  2. Thanks to everyone from Shakesville who read. I appreciate it!