I still have Star Wars on the brain, and even if I was cooling down from the Star Wars hype, it was immediately rekindled by the Rogue One trailer and the recent release of the The Force Awakens DVD. But I’m not here to talk about any of the new Star Wars movies. A while back I talked about my favorite Star Wars installment in the franchise, The Empire Strikes Back, and now I am here to talk about my second favorite, Return of the Jedi.
Return of the Jedi is my second favorite Star Wars movie largely because of Luke. Luke’s narrative ended basically exactly the way I had hoped it would. I still remember the thrill I had at the beginning of the movie when everyone was talking about how powerful Luke was. As a viewer, we hadn’t seen Luke since his epic fail against Darth Vader where he learned that Vader was his father. In that movie, Luke has raw talent but not the skill necessary to actually win, and then later he is also too emotionally unstable because he’d just learned about his parentage. Audiences knew that Luke needed to become stronger if he wanted to succeed against Vader and the Emperor, so when we started hearing that Luke had achieved this, we obviously got excited. When Luke finally shows up he easily gets into Jabba’s palace, defeats the Rancor, and then, despite seemingly being captured by Jabba, remains calm the whole time because he knows it is all part of the plan. This is not the unsure-but-eager-to-prove-himself Luke from The Empire Strikes Back. This Luke doesn’t need to prove himself; this Luke is certain of his abilities.
The one thing Luke still seems unsure of is his dad. Luke doesn’t know if he can save Vader, but he also doesn’t want to fight anymore now that he knows who Vader is. So Luke has resolved to just ignore him. However, Yoda and Obi-Wan insist that Luke must face Darth Vader to become a full-fledged Jedi. Which, really, is pretty big talk coming from the two guys who spectacularly failed at realizing what Palpatine was up to or that Anakin was being manipulated and going dark side, and who then both ran off into hiding after their own epic fails. Yeah, Jedi are kind of hypocrites when you think about it, but Luke is a better Jedi: he is what Anakin, Obi-Wan, and heck, even Yoda should have been because he is unwilling to let others remain in the dark side. Luke always fights to bring them back. Such is the case with Darth Vader—while the other older Jedi insist that Luke must kill Vader, Luke refuses. Luke insists that there is still good in Vader and starts making plans to bring him back to the light side.
This is what I love about Luke: despite being the archetypal hero, he is not a typical male character. Luke does battle Vader, but he never intended to. Luke only fights Vader after being tempted by the dark side himself. While this is a failing on his part, Luke truly thought, or maybe hoped, that Vader wouldn’t bring him before the Emperor, that he could convince him to go back to being Anakin before they even set foot on the Death Star. Luke has such love for and faith in his father despite everything that Vader has done, to others and to Luke personally. Luke ultimately rejects the dark side. He is not out for revenge or even justice necessarily, but mercy and redemption. Luke’s greatest power is his love for others. The Jedi and the Sith tell him his attachments to his friends and family make him weak, but it’s Luke’s love that ultimately redeems Vader and destroys the Emperor. This is a groundbreaking portrayal for a male character. Men are often criticized in our society for showing emotion. If they value love and mercy over revenge and violence, they can be viewed as weak or naïve, but for Luke these stereotypical feminine qualities are his strength.
But enough about Luke; this is a feminist blog and I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Leia in this movie, particularly the slave Leia issue. There is a part of me that wants to dismiss the slave Leia issue. As Carrie Fisher herself has pointed out, Jabba forces her into a sexualized and objectifying costume and attempts to enslave her, and her response is to kill him and take back her autonomy. In a vacuum, it’s a great narrative about fighting oppression. On the other hand, media isn’t created in a vacuum, and there are plenty of issues with it. There is the question of how willing Carrie Fisher actually was to wear such a revealing costume, considering she told Daisy Ridley to fight against costumes like that for her character.
Ridley: “No, they always talk about how you’re a sex symbol, and how do I feel about that. [Fisher sighs] I’m not a sex symbol! [laughs]”
Fisher: “Listen! I am not a sex symbol, so that’s an opinion of someone. I don’t share that.”
Ridley: “I don’t think that’s the right—”
Fisher: “Word for it? Well, you should fight for your outfit. Don’t be a slave like I was.”
Ridley: “All right, I’ll fight.”
Fisher: “You keep fighting against that slave outfit.”
Ridley: “I will.”
There is also, as alluded to in the above conversation, the issue of the legacy of the slave Leia costume, which really just shows how much rape culture is part of our society. Instead of us viewing the scenes with slave Leia as uncomfortable and rapey, it seems like most people viewed it as one of the sexiest moments in Star Wars. Which is pretty fucked up when you think about it.
There is also the underlying racism and sexism in portraying Leia as a slave in Jabba’s palace. In a 1983 interview Carrie Fisher mentions how Leia, after her home world is destroyed, becomes very much a solider and closes herself off to people. However, by Return of the Jedi she has accepted that she loves Han and cares about Luke and starts to become more open and more affectionate, and in general seems to be okay being more “stereotypically feminine”. However, Fisher explains that one of the ways the writers chose to show this was by having her take off her clothes.
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.
While I disagree with Fisher that Star Wars is basically a boy’s fantasy, it was written by men, about men, so it’s understandable why she feels that way. In this instance, the sexism of the male writers and designs of the costume especially came through. How do we make Leia more feminine? Make her take her clothes off. Of course, what else?!
Then there is the racism issue of the whole Jabba’s palace scene. As one writer, The Guardian‘s Noah Berlatsky, points out:
It’s easy to see why Fisher isn’t fond of the get-up. The sequence with the giant bloated Jabba the Hut is a not-even-concealed Orientalist harem fantasy, complete with desert, chuckling dissipated bloated pasha and hapless princess decked out in fetishwear and chains. The sequence is a bit of soft-core porn dropped in the middle of a kids’ adventure story. Through the rest of the series (with the possible exception of A New Hope’s torture sequence) Leia is irascible, tough, empowered and, notably, completely covered. Then, all of a sudden, she’s a vulnerable, objectified sex toy. The dissonance is startling and stomach-churning.
Not only is Leia’s objectification an issue here, but the “Orientalist harem fantasy”, as Berlatsky put it, is an issue as well. Leia is the poor white girl kidnapped and forced into the harem of a bloated disgusting Jabba, and in the end all the good white people get their revenge and save the day. This is a theme I missed as a child watching this movie, but now that I’m an adult the issues have become more obvious.
I think we might not care so much about slave Leia if Leia’s storyline had been completed at the end of Return of the Jedi. Luke’s story arc comes full circle and Leia gets to take down the Empire as she planned, but it’s only in this last movie that we get the bomb of “Leia is Luke’s sister” dropped on us. At the end of Return of the Jedi, Leia tells Han that she knows Luke is still alive after the Death Star is destroyed, because she can feel it, alluding to the latent Jedi powers that Luke told her she had. But that’s it! We are left knowing that Leia is Force-sensitive, but unlike Luke, she never gets to fulfill that potential. While the male characters get to complete their story arcs, I always felt Leia’s story was left unfinished.
Overall, though, I still love Return of the Jedi—for me, it is only second best to The Empire Strikes Back. However, it’s still a movie that has a special place in my heart.