Say whatever else you will about Jabba the Hutt but he has excellent taste in fashion. Sure, he has his faults. It's true that he showed incredibly bad manners when feeding Luke Skywalker to the Rancor Monster. Granted it was impolite (and not feng shui) to turn the frozen Han Solo into the galaxy's largest bookend. But let's not hold that against him because Jabba knows a nice bikini when he sees one.
Jabba (the most notorious of the Hutts) is the baddie from Return of the Jedi who captures, imprisons and then forces Princess Leia to wear a gold metal bikini. Though worn by Carrie Fisher in the1983 film for just a few minutes of screen time the impact of the outfit has been long-lasting.
Leia's bikini has become an indelible part of pop culture and it's been featured on such diverse TV shows as Family Guy, Dancing with the Stars and Deal or No Deal. There's an episode of Friends in which David Scwhimmer's character, Ross, confesses that he has an erotic fantasy which involves the garment. Much to Ross's (and the audience's) delight, Jennifer Aniston winds up wearing the outfit to seduce him.
But the obvious pleasure many derive from seeing a scantily clad woman obfuscates other darker implications. What exactly did Jabba want from Leia? What were her slave duties? Was her sole function to lie ornamentally at Jabba's feet or did he ultimately intend her to be his love slave?
The Star Wars community largely rejects the notion that Jabba sexually assaulted Leia. Amira Sa'id (who performs a belly dancing routine while dressed as Leia) believes the purpose behind the outfit was to put her "under his control." Echoing these thoughts is Amy "Kitty" Brown who performs a Star Wars themed burlesque routine. Brown thinks, "Jabba likes putting respectable ladies (i.e. a Princess) in humiliating clothes. It's not sexual; it's a power thing because Jabba is a bully!"
While humiliation is definitely a factor, fans should not ignore the fact that the form of her humiliation is sexual in nature. Jabba doesn't just put her in a funny hat and make her sit in corner. Instead, because he is attracted to her, Jabba forces her to wear a very skimpy outfit. A small but telling insight into Jabba's character is the name of his pet monkey-lizard, Salacious Crumb. "Salacious," of course, means lecherous or lustful. A less subtle clue to Jabba's true intentions occurs when he licks Leia's face with his long, slimy tongue. One video on YouTube entitled "Jabba Slurps Leia Aplenty" loops that moment of degradation.
For many fans, Leia is an exemplary personification of female empowerment. She's a smart, feisty, brave diplomat and warrior. And for these admirers it is disturbing to see her formidable stature diminished by the endlessly evoked image of her as a sexual object.
As Audrey Brown writes on her website Born For Geekdom: "I just resent the fact that out of all of Leia's actions from the entire Star Wars trilogy, this is the moment that has been removed and sanctified."
With that in mind, it's potentially disturbing that the image has been so highly marketed and merchandised. The toy company Hasbro manufactured Slave Leia action figures for children to play with. When first released in 1997, they immediately became a sought after collector's item.
There's also a website created by Jamin Fite that celebrates the cult of Slave Leia. On his MySpace page Jamin boldly declares that he "will not rest until every beautiful woman on earth wears a metal bikini." With a website already filled with several hundred photos of just that, it seems that he's off to a good start.
When discussing the metal bikini most fans refer to the character as "Slave Leia" and not "Princess Leia" or just "Leia". Both Hasbro and Fite were wise to eliminate the identifier of "Slave". When Kenner originally created the action figure they described her as "Jabba's prisoner." (Although when sold on eBay the figure is frequently called a slave.) Fite calls his website "Leia's Metal Bikini" and in doing so, he's helped redefine the terms in which the image is understood.
Regardless of, or in spite of Jabba's intentions, the fans who put on the costume find that their own pleasures in wearing it. Sa'id has said that Leia is "such a strong character, her will made the costume empowering." For her, the outfit makes her "feel sexy, powerful and confident." It's largely in that context that she dons the duds.
Brown thinks you can almost take the notion of sexuality out of the discussion. She said: "I didn't create my routine to sexualize Leia or the costume, I just did it because I thought it was a good gimmick."
Of course, it's easy to write off the concerns about those scenes' subtext as the overactive imaginations of pundits who take an innocent image and repurpose them to suit their own puerile thoughts. It is easy to dismiss the concerns of those who are offended by the sexualizing of Leia as misguided or overwrought. Perhaps, but then, can the same be said of George Lucas who also seems to be aware of the carnal pleasures of the outfit? Carrie Fisher told People Magazine, "There's that doll of me in the metal bikini, and George Lucas has a special one made for me where the top came off and I had tits."
An important but often overlooked part of the costume is the chain around Leia's neck which Jabba uses to restrict and control Leia. Her shackles are means of oppression. Paradoxically, the instrument (the chain) which Jabba uses to subjugate Leia is also the tool she employs to liberate herself from Jabba by strangling him to death with it.
Amanda Kloerne, who writes about human trafficking, considered the implications of the cult of Slave Leia and concluded in her blog: "It seems to be that most people can make a clear distinction; women being forced into prostitution as slaves is not sexy: Princess Leia as a slave in a gold bikini is."
No matter what one's personal feelings are about the bikini, there's one instance where it's been irrefutably been used for good. Earlier this year, the costume group The 501st and G4's Attack of the Show raised money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Their money raising method for the esteemed charity? A car wash populated and operated by beautiful woman dressed up in, you guessed it, Leia's metal bikini.