Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Steinn over at The Dynamics of Cats brought my attention to an interesting topic intially broached over at Bitch PhD. That issue is a little pet peeve of mine: the representation of women in media, advertising, and entertainment. Specifically, guest blogger No_Nym asks:

Am I the only one who thinks that Carrie Fisher’s slave outfit in Return of the Jedi is part of the reason that there are so few women in science and engineering? George Lucas did shape the minds of a whole generation, seldom for the better.

Although Steinn wasn’t sure, the comments at Bitch PhD were quite interesting:

…Many nerds have since told me that Princess Leia was a pretty powerful Jedi, so I guess it’s too bad that people treated her as a Princess and a damsel in distress *instead* of a Jedi, except for that one time she saved Han. And, you know, the slave bikini. Where was HER big showdown with Darth Vader? Oh nevermind, her brother took care of it. ~Tally Cola

and

Princess Leia was a freakin’ princess. Her available life choices were necessarily different from other females’ options — and, by return of the Jedi, George Lucas’s weakness at writing characters was painfully clear (at least to teenaged me).

Girls who wanted to go into science and engineering benefited, I think, from recognizing that the available female “scripts” in cartoons (and the rest of popular culture) were dead-ends. What you needed to be able to do was write your own script. ~Dr. Free-Ride

Now I haven’t seen the Star Wars movies a trillion times like some, but I do distinctly remember a few things about Princess Leia:

1. She was the leader of the Rebellion against Vader and Friends. She had a position of authority, doled out the orders, made the decisions, and was portrayed as a competent and sucessful leader.

2. She was protrayed as the love interest of Han, mostly due to the fact that initally, she didn’t want anything to do with such a scruffy egohead. Now, it WAS Harrison Ford, so I’ll give her a pass for relenting. But the point was, she wasn’t just falling into the arms of any old guy. She didn’t NEED a man. She finally chose Han because deep down he was a sweetheart who thought Leia rocked socks. And she wasn’t afraid to tell him to shut up, if need be.

3. She didn’t choose to put on that slave bikini, she was forced to by Jabba the Hutt. Now, Jabba got what was coming to him when Leia killed him in cold blood. Thats right, she strangled him with her very chains of slave-dom. Now what more fitting symbol of the patriarchy could you ask for?

4. She didn’t have any kids. Her job as diplomat and secret Jedi was fufilling enough.

5. She rescued Han from Jabba with the threat of a bomb, even donning a very convincing (male) disguise to do it. Yeah, she could pull out the brass ones when needed, and bluff her way into getting things done.

6. Leia used a gun/blaster with the best of ‘em. Sure, she needed to be saved at intervals, but so did Luke, Hans, etc at some point. She surely took part in her own defense, and in the defense of others. No bystander was she.

7. Luke was portrayed as the disposable sibling. Remember when Obi and Yoda are conversing about who was the last Jedi? It was made clear then that “there is another.” Yeah, Luke’s not anybody’s last hope–Leia was. And Yoda didn’t look too worried. :)

While I’m not going to take the leap and say Leia was a feminist (she blew that with the bikini, I guess), I don’t think she could be lumped into the same category as Barbie or Snow White either. As a child of the 80s, and the daughter of a sci-fi fan, I grew up thinking Leia was a badass role model. She could run a rebellion, dodge the Emperor of the universe, save her friends, plan a coup, blast some Stormtroopers, and was still able to pull off Heidi buns. Snow White, she was not.

Comments

  1. #1 coturnix
    August 16, 2006

    Han Solo, not Hans.

  2. #2 Jennifer Ouellette
    August 16, 2006

    Since when does being a feminist preclude wearing a bikini? ‘m just sayin’, it seems a pretty trivial criterion… Feminism should be about freedom of choice… and that includes the choice to wear a bikini. (I prefer a one-piece, myself, but support the right of women to choose otherwise without being condemned by the sisterhood for it.)

  3. #3 Brandon
    August 16, 2006

    Of course she couldn’t be a scientist. She’s a politician. The last thing we need is a skantily-clad, hair-bun chicky running around using her feminine wiles to dupe people into believing there’s no global warming on Alderaan. That’s just crazy talk!

  4. #4 Tara C. Smith
    August 16, 2006

    Leia used a gun/blaster with the best of ‘em.

    Yeah, I wondered why he didn’t use that image over at Dynamics of Cats, instead of the big pic of bikini-Leia…

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    August 16, 2006

    “Since when does being a feminist preclude wearing a bikini?”

    Not at all, in my book! It was just as the basis in Bitch PhD’s site….I take issue too, as I am a big (or little) bikini fan. :)

  6. #6 Blake Stacey
    August 16, 2006

    Never mind the costumes: the entire Star Wars universe is un- or anti-scientific and steeped in tawdry mysticism. Think about it. If there were a decent college biology department anywhere in that friggin’ galaxy, they’d be able to clone midichlorians by the quadrillion and turn anybody who could pay into a Jedi. Star Wars was never about science; the plots never turned on scientific discoveries, even to the extent of making up goofy particle names like in Star Trek: TNG treknobabble. Perhaps, somewhere, a child was inspired by the Death Star’s easily avoidable failure mode and decided to become an engineer. That’s the closest relevance to science I can find in the whole threepenny space opera.

    At this point, it is obligatory to quote David Brin’s rant in Salon (which I wouldn’t do if Brin hadn’t called me “a very bright fellow“!). To wit:

    According to Stefan Jones, “In the first film, the Force was a kind of martial art/Zen archery kind of thing. Rather egalitarian: Obi-Wan even offers to teach scoffer Han Solo the ropes. Goofy comic-book mysticism, but kind of charming and innocent in a Hong Kong kung-fu movie sort of way.”

    But as the Ubermensch effect took over, the Force grew elitist. You had to be born with it! In a progressive universe, Yoda & Co. would set up Jedi-arts studios in every mini-mall on Coruscant — the way karate has saturated suburban America — giving millions of kids exposure to a little discipline and fun, plus a chance to better themselves through hard work, and maybe outperform what cynical grownups expected of them. But Yoda thinks he can diagnose at age 6 who’s got it, who hasn’t, and who is pre-destined to fail before they try. Only demigods need apply … and only those demigods Yoda likes.

    Rant concluded.

  7. #7 Paul Atreides
    August 16, 2006

    I think you brought up some good points. Also, later in the series(continued in books) she does end up getting pregnant, but also becomes a Jedi and learns to kick ass.

    That whole slave bikini thing was seared into my memory for all time…when I first saw it I was a teenager…it was..heavenly lol

  8. #8 Shelley Batts
    August 16, 2006

    Hmmm. I think I may have my next Halloween costume. :P

  9. #9 Kagehi
    August 16, 2006

    There is some inherent inequities, that are left overs from protestant gibberish, which liked everything, including women, to have their place. Unfortunately, some people go to radical extremes to appose the possible “symptoms” of the problem, while failing to address the actual problem. This leads to some of them calling anyone that doesn’t wear shapeless clothes and kick everyone that tries to date them in the balls, for daring to treat them like sex objects, while failing completely to recognize that the problem isn’t men and women treating each other different in the context of sexuality, but only in the context of stereo types and opertunities. The former is not only not a problem, its completely human, and it makes no sense to attack it, save where it *becomes* part of the later. The later problem, the extremist feminists simply redefine, instead of eliminating. Rather than remove the unfairness and distortions, they invent new ones, which can sometimes be even more offensive than the ones they appose.

    What they should be doing is promoting equality in presentation of people in media, not the blindingly obvious, false and irrational exageration of competence and subsequent denegration of men by comparison, that they **do** promote, or on the rare occation they get off their asses and produce something to express their ideas, instead of just protesting about how no one else is doing so, invariably create as “examples” of how the world “should” work. Unfortunately for them, while the current model is bullpucky, but some people have been taught to not see it, while their version is also bullpucky, and ***everyone*** can see it.

    Its simply easier to attack straw men, than promote real changes, especially when you are so obsessed with the “unfairness” of the other side, that you can’t understand, won’t recognize and will never accept compromise positions, and certainly not any position that accepts that “some” of the stuff they appose as symptoms of the problem are not symptoms of anything of the sort.

  10. #10 Shelley Batts
    August 16, 2006

    …the entire Star Wars universe is un- or anti-scientific and steeped in tawdry mysticism.

    Oh I completely agree. But, its fiction after all. People adore Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and the DaVinci Code too. Its just mindless fantasy, and reading too much into it will get you nowhere other than many lost hours nitpicking apart a script that was meant to entertain and not inform. I don’t have a problem with popular entertainment being un-scientific– even some of my favorite sciency movies, such as Pi, get it wrong on some crucial matters and romanticize the issue. So what? People go to college for an education, and to the movies for a story. Hollywood makes no bones about that, so I’m not going to hold them to a higher standard.

    That said, my post wasn’t really about whether Star Wars was scientifically sound, but if the criticism of Princess Leia as a mindless bikini-clad space babe was apt.

    I became interested in science fiction as a kid because it offered me something fascinating: the endless possibilites of technology. A lot of liberties were taken with *where* that technology could go, but as a kid it fostered in me a passion for exploration, knowledge, human accomplishment, and technological advancement. While Star Wars, and many other sci-fi flicks, are heavy on the “fi” and light on the “sci,” I would argue that their ethos was in the right place.

  11. #11 Dennis
    August 16, 2006

    “Hmmm. I think I may have my next Halloween costume. :P”

    Please post pics.

  12. #12 Tally Cola
    August 16, 2006

    My quote in this post was sort of taken out of context- I was talking about Princess Leia in regards to grown men telling a grown woman “girls can’t be Jedi”, and being completely serious. And other men basically defending them by saying they didn’t know enough about Star Wars, which is obviously not the point.

    Good post, though. Leia gets a lot of bad rep.

  13. #13 No Nym
    August 17, 2006

    Hi, Shelley.

    I may blog more on this next week, but I thought I’d make some quick comments. I think that in Ep. 4 Leia is definitely a decent role model for girls (she endures torture and threats against her family, and still holds out for the rebellion) and basically demonstrates lots more guts, competence, and principle than any of the men, save possibly Obi Wan.

    In the rest of the movies, she’s just a doll. Even in the Jabba strangulation scene, I think we’re getting a look into Lucas’ psyche more than Leia’s. I mean, a bikini slave girl strangling a fat slug boy in a BDSM role reversal? C’mon!

    If the series had stopped with Ep 4 I’d have no problems with Leia (or really, how Lucas writes girls), but it’s clear from all the movies that Lucas likes his girls subservient and in distress, until they start choking him.

  14. #14 Ron Chusid
    August 17, 2006

    I followed yourlinks back on the Princess Leia in slave girl outfit theory. If there is any validity to this theory to explain the smaller number of women in science and engineering, I think the problem might go back further than Star Wars. For proof see these photos (at bottom of post, beyond the Darwin bobblehead picture):

    http://liberalvaluesblog.com/?p=63

  15. #15 Cash
    August 18, 2006

    I am betting that asking us to believe Elisabeth Shue created cold fusion in THE SAINT didn’t do a lot for women wanting to enter science either.

    Well, people actually saw STAR WARS, so that probably had a bigger impact.

  16. #16 Doug
    August 19, 2006

    Perhaps Princess Leia was modeled after the Egyptian goddess ISIS. Isis was able to conceive Horus after the death of Osiris. Such a feat was not repeated to my knowledge until about 1991 in California. Was Isis a scientist?
    http://www.biojuris.com/natural/5-2-1.html

    It is remotely possible that the very ancient deified certain humans like Romans did for Caesar. The practice was somewhat like sainthood of today. How old is this practice?

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