Princess Leia: What the Word Vulnerable Means

vul ·ner ·a ·ble adj.
1. Susceptible to physical or emotional injury.

If you do a search in Yahoo for “pic princess leia”, guess what you get? Bikini pics. Lots of bikini pics.

What I can’t find on the net is something I remember from an interview (was it in that People magazine spread that came out with Jedi?) was her comment on how that costume came about: she said she went to Lucas and asked him if Leia could have some more vulnerability than she’d shown in the last two films. And she guessed the bikini was his response. Anyone else remember that? I’ll keep looking and may edit the post if I find it. But I think it’s significant that I searched 12 pages in Yahoo, using several search strings, and nada, yet pics of the bikini are almost difficult to avoid.

This topic could go in SO many directions: was this the start of the prepubescent male’s dominance of the movie marketplace? Was it demeaning for her to be skimpily clad while still kicking ass (in my opinion, no, stages of dress are never, in themselves, the issue)? Did little boys find her attractive before the bikini, and if not, what does that say about them? Etc. Maybe I – or one of you – will address those issues in another post.

I’m sticking to once tiny portion of this issue: the discrepancy between what Fisher and Lucas thought the word “vulnerability” means.

Now, if Lucas understood actors – which, by all accounts, he never did, as evidenced by his recent love affair CGI characters who don’t ask about their motivation – he would know that the term vulnerability is actor shorthand for “being emotionally open to wounding”. Actors don’t generally concern themselves with the situations their characters are in – only the characters’ responses to those situations. Lucas could have fulfilled Fisher’s request either by writing her lines a bit differently, or by creating a situation that brought out her vulnerability.

He achieved neither.

For those who need a refresher course, let’s get the whole context here: Leia goes to Jabba’s Palace to rescue her comrade and lover. She gets caught. Then Jabba makes her into a bikini-clad slave. The implication is clear when he licks her – she’d be a sex slave if Jabba was biologically compatible. (We’re a little worried that was going to happen eventually anyway, but no one makes a brain-scubbing soap strong enough to wipe out that image, so we live in denial.)

If this was Lucas’ idea of vulnerable, it clearly demonstrates that his idea of a vulnerable woman is one in a position to be raped. If that’s truly his perception of vulnerability, one has to wonder if he would think to console a person who’s grieving, who’s been publicly humiliated, or who’s in danger of losing something they cherish. Or would he just look at them, assess that they’re in no physical danger, and go on his merry way?

Leia is far from vulnerable in that bikini. She’s even more defiant with Jabba than she was with Tarkin and Vader in the first film. She’s too busy fighting (admirably) to show much concern for anyone. While I have no problem with how she acquits herself in those scenes, I do have a problem with the idea that it expressed vulnerability. If anything, being skimpily clad and unarmed puts her more on guard, makes her more brittle. As it would any woman in a situation like that.


  1. says

    You know, when you consider what actually constitutes sexual assault, I’d say the licking bit qualifies as sexual assault. I guess rape is generally used to describe sexual assaults that involve penetration? I have to admit I’m not very clear on the distinction – it doesn’t help that various states and countries define them differently in their law.

  2. Anemone says

    I don’t remember any licking. I must have traumatic amnesia or something. (I probably just looked away.)

    I did/do think he actually raped her though, in addition to sexually assaulting her in public, and I think I just assumed that somewhere under all that bulge he had the necessary anatomy to do the job. Ick. Though it made me appreciate why she wanted to kill him.

  3. says

    Uh, yeah, he licks the side of her face and head.

    I’m definitely not arguing that your perception of an offscreen rape is incorrect. I don’t know what Lucas intended to imply, but from what’s on screen, it’s a valid perception.

    I find that happens in a lot of movies and TV shows, actually – someone takes a woman captive, and indicates he’s sexually interested in her, and it takes a while for her rescuers to show up, but there’s never any hint that a sexual assault actually took place, and it’s like, what? Did Mr. Evil get called away on business before he could do the deed? It always bothers me when they set up something like that, but then act like nothing *really* bad happened to the captive woman. It’s like they want the drama of the threat of imminent rape, but they need the pacing of a rescue that doesn’t come immediately, and it never occurs to them that we might assume rape occurred in the intervening time.

  4. Maria says

    I think this goes back to the implications of the politically correct post you made earlier today. If a WOMAN feels something, it’s intimately related to her being a woman. So, her vulnerability is a woman/femininized vulnerability as men perceive it — the fear of being raped. If a man’s vulnerable, he’s vulnerable in a HUMAN way — he’s grieving over his shattered planet, for example, or his lost parents, or whatever. That’s because “woman” and “rape” are categories “marked” in the same way.

  5. Ray says

    It definitely comes across sometimes like they think that the set up is titillating (so many problems right there!) but don’t actually want to deal with the emotional or physical consequences of a rape. (Then again, even in the few instances in media that a rape is explicitly stated, how often are these consequences dealt with?) Ugh.

    I had such high hopes for that movie, the first time I saw it, and every time I see that first bit where Leia rescues Han, I have visions of the sort of movie that it could have been… everything about her character pretty much disappears after that.

    Also, while I often hate the “female action hero fights in spandex underwear” trope, at least those women seem to be choosing their own clothing. I am a Star Wars fan in a lot of ways, but one of the things I hate about the movies is that apparently the only way to show women in sexy clothing is to have them attacked by aliens, thus being put into metal bikinis or having part of their shirts ripped off. (Okay, I guess there’s that Twilek Jedi in Revenge of the Sith, but we only see her get assassinated, right?)

    I mean, either characterize the woman (the ONE woman you can bother to give more than 5 lines to per trilogy…) as someone who doesn’t like to wear that sort of thing (or, you know, doesn’t have time to in the middle of a war!) and deal with an entire movie with no exposed stomachs, or give us a scene in which one of them CHOOSES to dress sexy. For example, put Padme in a nightgown that looks like something a real woman might wear.

  6. arj says

    I have a quick question about this scene, since I haven’t seen it in a while… How do Luke and Han react upon seeing Leia in her slave outfit?

    Do they swoon at the sight of her? Are they concerned about her physical and emotional safety?

    They rescue her, I know, and they all go out with a fight, but I don’t remember their precise reactions upon finding Leia captive in the manner that is implied.

    • says

      Of course nobody swoons at the sight of anybody. :)

      Han is still temporarily blind and never sees her in that outfit. Luke barely glances at her when he comes to speak before Jabba, because they’re all still pretending to be nobodies who aren’t working together to free Han, no sir. Luke never reacts to the costume at all.

      And you’re wrong: they don’t rescue Leia at all, which is yet another reason why Lucas’ interpretation of vulnerable is odd. Leia uses the chain that holds her to Jabba to strangle him to death, then she gets onto the part of the skiff where the battle’s happening and fires this big canon thing, which helps them win the battle.

      • arj says

        Ah yes, I remember now. Thank you.

        It’s disturbing, then, that Han and Luke show no concern for her. Sure, the situation made it difficult to voice any concern at that exact moment as it might have compromised the mission at hand–which was just as important to Leia as anybody else. But they never mention it afterwards, either. It’s like they all just pretend it never happened.

        Could that also be a sign of how Lucas perceives vulnerability? Women’s vulnerability lasts only as long as the compromising situation itself…? I think this is evident, too, in that Leia is back to being her pre-sex-slave self for the remainder of the movie. There is no evidence of physical or emotional distress.

        • says

          Could that also be a sign of how Lucas perceives vulnerability? Women’s vulnerability lasts only as long as the compromising situation itself…?

          It could be – it’s a typical human reaction, the failure to grasp why someone should be bothered by a situation that’s resolved. It’s why we need diagnoses like PTSD, to understand why getting past a trauma in time isn’t the same as getting past it emotionally.

          Something strange it hitting me, now that you mention it. We see no sign that Leia’s bothered by what she went through at Jabba’s. Nor do we see any signs Han is traumatized by having been frozen for six months, then having to fight with only a fraction of the eyesight he’s used to. But Luke’s emotional stress about simply knowing he’s Vader’s son and will have to face Vader is pretty evident throughout the movie. Maybe Lucas only thinks to include human emotions when they’re pivotal to the plot?

          Which could be another reason Carrie Fisher’s request for vulnerability didn’t get a satisfactory response. But what’s strange is: Luke was vulnerable as anything, despite being seriously bad-ass with the Jedi stuff. But even when Leia finds out Vader’s her father, the script doesn’t give her a chance to process the horror of that information (like Luke got in Empire.)

  7. Patrick McGraw says

    LA Times columnist Joes Stein said of the costume: “It’s like, ‘We didn’t think of Princess Leia sexually. Oh! Chain her up to a really disgusting creature? We’ve got a hard-on.”

    A slight nitpick: Jabba doesn’t actually lick Leia – watching the scene, he does extend his tongue in a lewd manner, but it doesn’t physically touch her. The implication is still the same, especially with Jabba’s comment that “soon you will learn to appreciate me.”

    I’ve seen people trying to argue that there is no rape context, because Hutts are hermaphroditic and would not be physically compatible with humans. I understand that defining rape in such a narrow manner is a major way in which a rape culture downplays it.

    Wookieepedia (the SW wiki) has an interesting article on the costume:

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