Everyone loves the ridiculous spread on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, the 1983 Return of the Jedi ready issue that interviewed Carrie Fisher in all her bikini-ed glory. But more interesting than her space-faring beach party were the answers about Leia, and about the Star Wars films at large, that she gave to her interviewer, Carol Caldwell. Our Lady Organa had absolutely no illusions about why she was in a metal bikini, or why that galaxy far, far away rang true for the general population.
Basically, Carrie Fisher rocks, and was smarter about mythology and feminism thirty years ago than most people are now.
What’s shocking is that Fisher starts the interview by mentioning that many fans of the films view her character as “some kind of space bitch.”
These days, with Leia’s firmly entrenched position in the Great SF Film Pantheon, it’s hard to imagine that people were so callous about her character. But according to Fisher, the Princess’ hard road in the rebellion made her less than thrilling to fans:
“She has no friends, no family; her planet was blown up in seconds—along with her hairdresser—so all she has is a cause. From the first film, she was just a soldier, front line and center. The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry.”
So Fisher would have preferred Leia to be scripted with a bit more nuance, then. Not just a leader, not just an angry woman who lost her home, but someone who had a few extra emotions packed in there. Then again, most of the Star Wars actors felt that way about their characters—Ford was famous for taking issue with the scripts and their lack of emotional flair. Subtlety was never Lucas’ strong point, and that worked out fine for the first trilogy (with a few line tweaks on the part of the actors). But it’s Fisher’s thoughts on Return of the Jedi that really spell out how her character was considered from a fan-pleasing standpoint:
“In Return of the Jedi, she gets to be more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate. But let’s not forget that these movies are basically boys’ fantasies. So the other way they made her more female in this one was to have her take off her clothes.”
Ouch. Alright, plenty of us ladies would argue about Star Wars being strictly a boy’s fantasy, but Fisher is correct in context; at the time that Star Wars originally came out, the population certainly agreed that these films were made primarily for kids and teenage boys, and they were marketed as such. So her point about being in the bikini is even more valid—it is hard to suggest that costume change is there for anything but male gaze.
So Fisher picked out the problem with the “slave Leia” costume without even trying; the spread for Rolling Stone shows her having a rollicking good time with aliens on a beach in that impractical bikini because she knows that the outfit was created to tantalize the boys, regardless of what an awful message it sends due to its position in the film. She says it without saying it; Leia, as a character, is not the sort of person who would ever wear this on her own. The filmmakers had to find an excuse for it, and were fine with that excuse being a deplorable one. Leia had to be softened and sexualized for the final film because too many fans thought she was a “space bitch.”
It’s a fascinating example that highlights exactly how sexism has altered for women in the media. And it eloquently explains why so many female fans take issue with the metal swimsuit, despite the fact that it is sexy and fabulous-looking on Fisher.
Return of the Jedi suddenly reads differently under this scrutiny. In A New Hope, Leia is the master of get-it-done, driving the plot forward as soon as she’s picked up. There’s lust and some romance for her in Empire Strikes Back, but her reactions to Han’s advances are mostly hostile, retort-heavy, self-protective. But then we get to Jedi, and Leia’s first line in her own voice is “Someone who loves you.” She does time in a sexy space bikini, she’s allowed to be more emotional (hence her teary talks with Luke and Han in the Ewok village), and let’s not overlook that this is the only film where she gets to let her hair down. Literally.
At first glance, all of this (minus her Jabba’s palace ensemble) seems like logical character progression—her relationships have advanced and the fight is moving toward its finale. She can afford to be more frank about her feelings, she’s had some time to heal from the destruction of Alderaan. She is ready to kick the Empire’s behind and move on to the next exciting stage of her life. At 22 years old, she already has the life experience of someone twice her age—it’s hardly surprising that she’s ready for a change.
But all of this might have ultimately been due to fans perceiving her as an ice queen. Which is beyond depressing, because it is all of Princess Leia that makes her great. Leia facing down Grand Moff Tarkin with a petulant sneer, Leia rolling her eyes internally at Lando’s smooth-talking, and yes, Leia asking Han to hold her when she’s feeling down. The Leia at the end of the trilogy is our payoff for sticking with her, seeing her through the hardest times. It shouldn’t be a pandering move to fans who don’t understand that a woman who can come off harsh when she’s leading an underground rebellion against a fascist dictatorship is still feminine and attractive. And damned sexy.
At least Fisher understood the importance of the character. Moreover, she understood perfectly well why Leia was allowed such a position of leadership when that would have been impossible in a more “realistic” film at that time:
“Movies are dreams! And they work on you subliminally. You can play Leia as capable, independent, sensible, a solder, a fighter, a woman in control—control being, of course, a lesser word than master. But you can portray a woman who’s a master and get through all the female prejudice if you have her travel in time, if you add a magical quality, if you’re dealing in fairy-tale terms. People need these bigger-than-life projections.”
So really, Carrie Fisher always understood why Leia was going to be an important figure to women and fans the world over. Why she was needed when she hit the stage. Even if Hollywood did need to “soften” her, no one has ever been able to soften her impact—real heroes have a tendency to shine no matter how you dress them.
Check out the rest of the Rolling Stone article here.