Fanservice vs. Objectification: Why Shirtless Thor Wins and Slave Leia Loses

So let’s talk about Slave Leia.

I know, I know. Star Wars fandom has certainly voiced its share of opinions about Slave (or Huttslayer, if you prefer) Leia over the past several weeks. From the “concerned” dad at Target to Amy Schumer’s GQ photo shoot, at times it felt like 1983 all over again. And honestly, during most of the debate I felt like sitting back and yawning. Not because the topic isn’t pertinent to me — I can rant about Slave Leia with the best of them — but because I’m so bored of it. It’s like being forced to sit through American History 101 when I should be leading graduate level seminars.

This is not another column all about why Slave Leia is or isn’t bad. This is a column about objectification vs. fanservice, and why one is bad and the other is harmless fun. It’s about why I can swoon like a schoolgirl when Thor takes his shirt off, yet make the biggest side-eye when Carol Marcus strips down to her underwear in Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s about the differences between men and women in science fiction and fantasy, entertainment in general, and how we still have a long, long way to go.

Let me note, first and foremost, that this is nothing against cosplayers. If you enjoy wearing the Slave Leia costume, more power to you. If it makes you feel sexy, that’s awesome. I wish I had your confidence! I have seen some amazing Slave Leia costumers out there, and I would never begrudge any costumer their choice to dress as whatever character they want.

But let us remember, Slave Leia didn’t have that choice. Slave Leia was forced to wear that outfit. Because she was a prisoner. It doesn’t matter if they had a plan. She was being objectified. And apparently, some people think that’s sexy.

While discussing the Slave/Huttslayer Leia issue on Twitter the other day, I stated that my problem with the costume stems from its place in pop culture. Slave Leia is often presented as the main depiction of Leia, even though it’s the moment when she’s at her lowest. Let’s not mince words: she’s taken as a sex slave by a gangster. (It doesn’t matter what Jabba does or doesn’t do to her. If she’s forced to wear something that revealing against her will, it’s a sex crime.) Sure, Leia shows her strength by killing her captor and escaping with her comrades. That’s awesome. But it doesn’t change the horror of what she’s forced to live through. And I hate that people think that outfit shows how hot and sexy and strong she is.

Is she hot in the outfit? Yes. Carrie Fisher was a gorgeous woman. But it’s still degrading as hell. And I think Han would be horrified to see Leia wearing that at Jabba’s hands.

(Imagine, now, if Luke was the one to get captured and forced to wear a skimpy outfit. Would I be swooning? Hell, no. Same reason I don’t get excited by seeing him in the bacta tank. Instead I think, POOR LUKE!)

Let’s compare the gold bikini to Padme’s arena outfit, shall we? As an aside, I always find it amusing that Padme wears these elaborate outfits during Attack of the Clones, only to show up right before traveling to Geonosis wearing a (relatively) simple white jumpsuit. It’s almost like she knew she was going to be involved in a big action sequence. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with that outfit. It provides full coverage, and isn’t skimpy. I’ve never worn the costume, but I’d imagine it’s easy to move in, especially if there’s stretch to the fabric (probably more so than Jedi robes!). I love seeing little girls dressed up as Arena Padme for Halloween, holding their blasters and ready to kick butt. They’re so cute and awesome.

Of course, Padme gets slashed by a nexu during the arena battle, conveniently showing off her midriff. Sure, this is pretty eye-rolling.  But ultimately, that’s all I do. I roll my eyes, and move on, because it’s harmless. Midriff-bearing Padme hasn’t become the be all/end all of that character in pop culture. It probably helps that she has a million other costumes, way too many to have one “standard” look that everyone remembers her by. If anything, she’s usually shown in the full jumpsuit.

Padme losing her midriff is fanservice, pure and simple. It’s saying to all the audience members who fancy ladies, “hehe, here’s Natalie Portman’s midriff, wink wink, isn’t she pretty, now let’s watch her kick ass.” It’s an homage to old monster movies, just like that scene in the first place.

Slave Leia doesn’t do that. Slave Leia turns an awesome character into an object for teenage boys — and a Hutt — to gawk at until Luke saves the day. And it sucks.

Let’s look at another example, shall we?

The new Star Trek movies aren’t too great when it comes to female representation. The first movie featured Uhura, who was awesome, but didn’t have much to do. Let’s not forget that the female Starfleet uniforms are kind of ridiculous. Yes, I realize they’re an homage to the Original Series costumes. No, I don’t care. Any woman on the bridge of a freaking starship is not going to be wearing a skirt that doesn’t even reach her knees. Besides being restrictive, it’s probably also freaking cold!

The second movie didn’t fare much better. Uhura had a chance to be awesome with her scene with the Klingons, but instead she had to be rescued by John Harrison — I mean Khan. Most of her part in the movie centered around her relationship with Spock, which could have been interesting if she’d had more to do.

And then there was Carol Marcus. I still don’t understand her part in the movie. She was the antagonist’s daughter, and I guess that was supposed to be important? She did some science, I guess, or was supposed to. But her main part came when she went down to the surface of a planet with McCoy. She had to put on a pressure suit, which involved her stripping down to her underwear with Kirk in the room. Of course Kirk, being the bro that he is, peeked while she was changing. “Turn around,” Carol tells him, while in a really ridiculous look at me but don’t look at me pose.

I nearly threw popcorn at the screen during this part of the movie. We don’t even get the courtesy of seeing Bones have to put on his pressure suit!

Contrast this to Thor in…well, in several of his films. He’s an attractive man. He has nice abs. And, as a blessing to all of us audience members who fancy men, he takes his shirt off a few times. I won’t lie, it’s one of my favorite parts of those movies.

Does this make me a hypocrite? Maybe. Probably.

But — and here is the important difference — Thor is the star of his movies. Even in The Avengers films, he’s seen as a vital member to the team (even when he’s not). Nobody’s going to leave him off merchandise. Also, he’s not the only guy in the movies, so him being shirtless doesn’t make some grand statement about men’s roles in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Thor taking his shirt off is fanservice. He’s hot. The creators know that. So they throw a bone to all the audience members who fancy males. He’s still the most important character in his story. He’s got a character arc. He’s got agency. He’s still treated with respect.

Carol Marcus is not. Her stripping down to her underwear is objectification, pure and simple. She doesn’t do anything important, and neither does Uhura. Her role could be played by a sexy lamp (thanks, Kelly Sue!) and nothing in the film would be changed.

See the difference? When you objectify a character, you’re not being asked to care about them. They’re just a thing, a person to look at. Fanservice, on the other hand, stems from caring about a story and its fans. Whether it be a reference to an old line (“I have a bad feeling about this”) or the reappearance of a famous ship (the Millennium Falcon appearing in Revenge of the Sith) or Thor taking his shirt off because he’s got great abs, it’s all done with a wink and nod to the fans.

(Of course there’s other types of fanservice, like shoehorning in a character for no good reason or retreading a previous movie plot. But that’s a whole ‘nother article topic.)

While researching this article, I kept hearing about the movie Pixels and how awful it is. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the reviews and complaints. But apparently it’s pretty terrible when it comes to female representation, even going so far as to have the main characters win the affection of women as a result of saving the world.

So yeah, I have no interest in seeing that movie, even in the interest of article research. I have enough rant fodder to last an entire lifetime.

But let’s compare Pixels with The Wedding Singer, another Adam Sandler film. It’s one of my favorite romantic comedies. In case you haven’t seen it, it stars Adam Sandler as Robbie, the titular wedding singer, and Drew Barrymore as his friend and later love interest, Julia. At the beginning of the film, Robbie’s fiancee leaves him at the altar. He’s super distressed, and gets comfort from Julia, a catering waitress he met a few weeks earlier. She’s engaged to be married, and asks Robbie for help in planning her wedding because her fiance wants nothing to do with it (he’s a huge jerk). Robbie agrees, thinking it’ll distract him and wanting to help his friend. Helping Julia cheers him up, but it also presents a complication when he begins to fall for her. And Julia, in turn, falls for him.

I won’t give away the ending, only to say it involves Billy Idol. But the important thing is that throughout the movie, Robbie doesn’t see Julia as some prize to be won. He doesn’t see Julia’s fiance as some obstacle to defeat — at least not at the beginning. He only becomes combative with the fiance when he realizes how much of a jerk he is. He likes Julia as a person, as a friend, and that is the genesis of his romantic interest in her. Not because she’s sexy or unobtainable or any other typical reason you see in movies.

Contrast this with Pixels, in which four dudes save the world and get chicks. Women are objects to be won, not people with agency of their own.

My main wish, as we look ahead to The Force Awakens, is that characters like Rey and Captain Phasma are given that agency. That, while we might buy their action figures on Force Friday, they’re not treated like mere objects. That we don’t have to worry about Daisy Ridley being stuffed into a gold bikini for no reason, or losing the will to live when her relationship goes sour.

It’s okay to think Rey is hot.

It’s way more important to think she’s awesome.


8 thoughts on “Fanservice vs. Objectification: Why Shirtless Thor Wins and Slave Leia Loses

  1. Point A: I also love The Wedding Singer and have a little retroactive guilt about that due to what Sandler movies have become, so thank you for making me feel better about it.

    Point B: I agree with 98% of this and it was needed in the conversation, so thanks for that as well.

    Point C: there's one small part that I just see differently. Your interpretation is just as valid (if not more so because you're a woman) and I'm not trying to fight against it, I'd just like to share my POV, and I'd rather do it here rather than force out a whole editorial of my own about it. Forcing someone to wear anything more revealing than they're comfortable with is definitely a sex crime. I'm not clear (but curious) to what extent that's a real-world legal principle, like if someone could get charged as such for making a devout Muslim woman wear a tank top or something, but as a moral principle, I'm with you.

    But I don't think Leia, IU, gives a shit about the bikini. My understanding of the GFFA--my personal, deliberately chosen understanding--is that they've advanced beyond the body issues that the present-day US has. What amount of skin is considered revealing, if any, is basically the most mutable moral standard that could possibly exist, and to say that the outfit is scandalous IU is to imply that a woman choosing to walk around in a bikini (or some of the outfits in the Outlander Club, f.e.) is still being judged for it, and that bothers me--I want to believe they're past that, just like I want to believe they're past racism and homophobia.

    It's conceivable that Leia, for whatever reason--growing up in formal society, etc--actually does see the outfit the way you do, as something outside the bounds of her comfort zone, and in that case you'd be 100% right. I'd even grant that making anyone wear anything they don't want to could be seen IU as highly immoral, regardless of how revealing it is--and you'd be 100% right then too. But nothing about her demeanor in the scene makes me think that.

    • I admit I used the term sex crime specifically to spark a reaction. And I agree with you that Leia doesn't seem to care about wearing the bikini. Whether she's comfortable wearing skimpy clothes or not, she's still being forced to do something that is inherently sexual (and it is, because Jabba only has female slaves and dancing girls) against her will.

      • Jabba having male dancers as well definitely would've been an interesting change--I've never thought of it that way.

  2. I have to point out, Leia is the one who kills Jabba. He didn't get away with what he have done to her.
    That's quite clear message.

    You are correct, but it doesn't exactly pay for Leia cause. There are better examples.

  3. This is a wonderful article. I couldn't agree more. (And the last part, about Rey and Phasma figures? If only they'd existed in the quantities we expected, sigh.)

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