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Disney Is Right to Retire “Slave Leia” Merch. That Doesn’t Mean You Should Hang Up Your Gold Bikini.

Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (198
Carrie Fisher in   Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi.

Photo courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd.

Princess Leia’s slave bikini: Perhaps no sci-fi costume has been so replicated, reviled, and worshipped. The image of Leia stripped down and held captive by the revolting slug Jabba the Hutt is seared into our memories. In case anyone doubted our cultural obsession, the bikini itself recently sold for $96,000. For many female fans, the costume and debate surrounding are the perfect microcosm for their complicated relationship with the franchise. Now, word on the street is that Disney and Lucasfilm are edging away from Slave Leia in future merchandise. Great! But is it time for female cosplayers—who have long loved donning the gold bikini—to retire the image, as well?

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The news of Slave Leia’s potential retirement from merchandising broke on Tuesday, with headlines ranging from cautious (“Rumor: Disney May Be Retiring ‘Slave Leia’ Merchandise for Good”) to celebratory (“So Long, Slave Leia. It’s ‘Slayer Leia’ Now.”) The main source of these reports was Marvel comic artist J. Scott Campbell, who offhandedly commented on Facebook that “Disney is already well on it’s way to wiping out the ‘slave’ outfit from any future products period.” He added later,

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I’ve heard it from two sources. We can’t even draw Leia in a sexy pose at Marvel, let alone in that outfit! We also had a 3-D [Slave Leia] statue killed at a major manufacturer because there will no longer be any [Slave Leia] merchandise :/

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The comments seem to have been deleted, and the artist has since posted a lengthy missive that expresses both surprise and frustration at how his casual comments have been treated and distributed as a news scoop. For what it’s worth, Mashable adds that Star Wars rumor site Making Star Wars also reports the costume is being retired from merchandise and marketing.

Seeing Leia, the only woman with a major role in all three original Star Wars movies, held captive and sexualized stirs up a lot of questions for critics and fans alike. But it’s important to remember that in the end, Leia uses the very chain that held her captive to strangle her captor. As Alyssa Rosenberg notes in the Washington Post, those who write off Leia’s legitimacy as a feminist figure solely because she wore the bikini are missing the big picture. While some take the bikini out of context as a reason not to take the character of Leia seriously, Rosenberg notes that others do the opposite—fetishizing the costume without recognizing the way the movie aligns sexually enticed viewers with the monster holding Leia captive.

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In other words, ogling Slave Leia merch—or using the image as a shallow “sex-sells” marketing ploy—is gross, especially since Carrie Fisher herself doesn’t seem to like the way the outfit and its subsequent lore reduced her to a “slave.” As Rosenberg notes, when she received a Leia action figurine she considered too revealing, Fisher’s reaction was swift: “I told George, ‘You have the rights to my face,’ ” she reportedly said. “You do not have the rights to my lagoon of mystery!’ ”

But if Slave Leia isn’t an acceptable marketing image, was it OK when Amy Schumer donned a variation of the gold bikini on the cover of GQ—and did some very lewd things with droids and light sabers that raised some eyebrows over at Disney and Lucasfilm? I would say yes—because Schumer wasn’t objectifying Leia; she was identifying with her. By spoofing the images with her usual irreverence, Schumer was claiming the image as her own and adding a personal spin. This is similar to what fans do when they cosplay as Slave Leia—by putting themselves in Leia’s get-up, they claim some part of her character for themselves.

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One might wonder why Leia cosplayers would choose the outfit, out of all of Leia’s ensembles—and reasons will vary. Some might champion how Leia triumphed over her captor, while others might simply like feeling sexy. But by making the outfit and character their own, these fans (often but certainly not always female) are removing Fisher’s image from the equation and continuing an ongoing conversation about the franchise’s legacy—and all of its delightfully complicated facets. Slave Leia merchandising is gross because it cynically reduces Leia to a pair of gold-clad boobs, and the incredibly imaginative movies themselves to their very short dose of generic sex appeal. Slave Leia cosplay should be celebrated because it allows women to take that generic sex appeal and harness it for their own purposes. Leia would be proud.

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