Ever since I can remember, I’ve loved to tease men that I’d dress up as Princess Leia for them. It’s not that I had a personal attachment to the original Star Wars trilogy, hell, it was only last month that I watched Return of the Jedi for the first time, but I knew intrinsically that an entire generation of men had become entranced with this formative sexual image. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t the “kind of girl” who would wear a gold bikini — if anything, that increased the appeal — because really, neither was Leia.
Surprisingly, if you cast aside Freud (who, in a roundabout-kind of way, discusses nostalgia through formative sexual experiences), sexual attraction and nostalgia are rarely interconnected, at least in the context of popular culture. For example, there are rampant articles about people who are nostalgic for exes, but there are very few works of writing that explore sex in relation to the impact of that first spark of attraction as it’s tied to what you’re watching or reading. And, if you can find anything, it’s almost exclusively from a cis male’s perspective, ignoring at least 50 percent of the population who might not be proto-naturally attracted to women.
In the first act of The Return of the Jedi, the issue with Leia is that the vision of her in a golden bikini betrays the character as developed up to that point. It’s obviously a striking image, evoking a powerful sadomasochistic ideal, but the visual betrays very much our idea of the character. As an adult watching the series for the first time, this becomes an incredibly confusing relationship. Star Wars, for all its dark corners and universal appeal, is still geared towards children. Sassy and intelligent, Carrie Fisher’s performance infuses a strong edge to the role as the only female figurehead in the original trilogy, and she emits a heroic embodiment of female autonomy (until Return of the Jedi). For fear of overusing the word “problematic,” it’s difficult to come to terms with the idea that this solo female character (who young girls can look up to) is reduced to a sexual object, an oversimplification of the character.
The quick dismissal of this turn for Leia is geared towards the fact that Star Wars was primarily focused towards children. Yet another bombastic female character reduced simultaneously to an object of desire (and a damsel in distress), Leia loses her autonomy (almost completely) during the Jabba the Hutt chapter, as Fisher’s lines are reduced, her performance subdued and her importance absolved. For young girls, all of Leia’s appeal and importance fades away. However, for young men who have identified with both Han Solo and Leia up to this point, I’m not sure her role within the narrative changed. Leia serves the same purpose in a bikini as she does fighting by their side.
But, as an adult watching the series, the one-sided condemnation of Leia’s bikini also betrays the possibility of her sexual identity. Why can’t Leia be into gold bikinis or even that fantasy of submission? Well, it’s because Star Wars is for children… but to say that children’s films don’t inform sexual desires (or reflect the adults who make them) is incredibly reductive. Sex is a part of our development, and for better or for worse, we often turn to media as guides for our desire.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.