The profoundly famous slave bikini in George Lucas's Return of the Jedi, which is on display at EMP until October 4, is an intimate concoction involving straps and leather, gilded coils, and rose-red silk. In the movie, its wearer, the dreamy Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), looks like she swirled up from a genie bottle. S&M–y accessories play up the style, and it works. Leia's hair is long and elegantly braided; her face is perfectly cosmeticized with shimmery retro bronzes. Filth surrounds her, but her skin is white as cocaine. Leia's got a banging body, it turns out. Lots and lots of guys have jacked off to her in this scene.
As viewers following the story, we immediately understand that the character Leia did not choose this outfit. She's usually into ample gowns, mock turtlenecks, chaste boots, full-limb coverage. (In the previous Star Wars films, Fisher went braless beneath her white dress, but secured her breasts with tape to avoid the customary sci-fi fanfare of nips and jiggling-ness. As a feminist, I'd argue the movies were better for it.) Meanwhile, right behind Leia, her captor, Jabba the Hutt, has settled in for a laid-back evening. He's oblong and fleshy and distantly resembles a giant, disgusting penis. Leia is attached to Jabba by a neck chain, which he tugs with vigor. It's obvious they have a strained emotional relationship, but it's hard to tell what exactly is going on.
Leia's costuming confronts us with a series of shockingly adult questions that never get answered. Since the film was created for kids, it feels both silly and sickening to ask them, but I'll do it anyway. Is Leia supposed to be Jabba's sex slave? Because she's practically naked, as we've already noticed. Plus, if she were just an ordinary slave, wouldn't she be dressed in ordinary rags? So is it understood that Jabba will rape her? When he smears his tongue around, is he simply being menacing, or is this a sexual gesture?
Is Leia ashamed to be on display, or is she "owning" her sensuality? I don't know, but the costume definitely made filming unpleasant for Fisher, according to reports. The cups were a rigid plastic, and her boobs kept spilling out. "I was embarrassed at first with 100 guys [on set] going crazy over my revealed self. Dignity was out of the question," she told Jim Jerome of People when she was 26. (Back then, Fisher was at the height of her shit—dating powerful celebrities and starring in the most wildly beloved films of our time. Divorce, mental-health issues, and drug problems would soon follow, but these only deepen her glamour.)
Returning to Leia, the mysteries keep coming. Is she gorgeous because she appears so helpless, or in spite of it? Is she plotting the hell she's about to unleash, or is she gripped by fear? If we can't easily answer this last question, is it okay to consider Leia a sex symbol?
Here's another thing. Chewbacca and the wildly handsome Han Solo would've made perfectly excellent sex slaves all along, and if Jabba could be attracted to a vastly different species than his own, certainly his victim's gender was even less important. But Leia is basically the only woman around, and when a scene calls for a sex slave that doesn't leave a ton of options for anyone else. Film history is a heterosexual rodeo, and its laws have long established that sexually humiliating the male characters would irreparably destroy their grandeur, while female characters receiving the same treatment gain the opposite effect.
In the chaos of Leia's later escape from Jabba's Palace—thanks to Luke Skywalker and Lando Calrissian—we watch Leia strangle Jabba to death using the very chain that previously enslaved her. The hokey symbolism pokes you in the eyeballs, but it's also a thrilling relief. Even so, it's unclear whether Leia would've moved on her own, or if she needed the presence of male saviors to propel her.
Leia's skimpy ensemble either objectifies her or empowers her, I can't tell which. But what other sex-slave costume could properly symbolize feminine strength? Mesh Hammer pants? A tattered pantsuit? Black socks and basketball shorts? Nothing seems right. Overtly modest apparel might disavow the female form;s gender-neutral basics come off as neutering. The bikini sensationalizes Leia when it shows up without context in the movie's countless promos. And besides, if Leia really felt proactive in her slave bikini, wouldn't she want to wear it again after reclaiming her autonomy? She never does, never comes close. She hated that thing. She's glad it's at EMP now. When we see her in the next major scene, she's picked some baggy gray slacks and a shapeless camouflage sack.