MOVIE DEEP DIVE Podcast Ep. 1: Return of the Gendered Palace!
In Episode 1 of the brand new "Movie Deep Dive" Podcast, your host Adam Johnson walks through a visual and spatial analysis of how Jabba's Palace is gendered in the film Return of the Jedi. This was originally created as part of a Gendered Rhetorics course, but through it, I am able to jumpstart something I've been meaning to do for some time. The following episode may not be suitable for all listeners, as it includes some crude references and discussion of sexualization. With all that out of the way, click the play button below and enjoy the show!
Davis, Angela Y. Are Prisons Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2003.
Ochoa O'Leary, "'Con el peso en la frente:' A Gendered Look at the Human and Economic Costs of Migration on the U.S.-Mexico Border." Migrant Deaths in the Arizona Desert: La vida no vale nada, edited by Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, Celestino Fernandez, Jessie K. Finch, and Araceli Masterson-Algar, University of Arizona Press, 2016, pp. 69-93.
Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi. Directed by Richard Marquand, 20th Century Fox, 1983.
Woerner, Meredith. "The Women of 'Star Wars' Speak Out About Their New Empire." Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-ca-hc-the-women-of-star-wars-the-force-awakens-20151206-htmlstory.html. Accessed 10 June 2018.
Music Used, in order of appearance:
"Hard Boiled" Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
I think my favorite movie growing up was Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. I hated the sight of blood, and this movie had virtually none. I loved the color green, and Luke had a green lightsaber. And as far as story and action went, this movie had it all. Yet for as much as I loved the film, I don’t think I realized how controversial it was. That is, I have no idea what my reaction was to perhaps the most infamous scene in all of Star Wars: the Jabba’s Palace scene and Leia’s gold metal bikini. But now older, wiser, and in a Gendered Rhetorics class, I think it’s worth looking at the rest of the scene to see how the palace itself is gendered—not just in the sexualization of the scene (you know, for the kids!), but in how Jabba’s Palace operates in terms of the gender roles there. We can see how through the treatment of the two most prominent female characters in this scene (Oola the Twi’lek Dancer and Leia Organa) and in the evident power structure of Jabba’s hive.
Jabba the Hutt was first mentioned in Star Wars: A New Hope. The most we knew about him was that he was a gangster who demanded overdue money from smuggler Han Solo. In the follow-up The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader uses the price on Han’s head as a way to lure the hero (and his surprise son!) Luke Skywalker to Bespin and deliver him to the Emperor. As part of this plan, Han is frozen in carbonite and sent to Jabba as a trophy. And finally in Return of the Jedi, we see Jabba in the ugly...disgusting...revolting...slimy...wormy flesh—but not before much prelude on how morally corrupt the Hutt gangster is! The opening crawl reveals that Luke is back on Tatooine to save Han “from the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt.” C-3P0 also alludes to some of Jabba’s unspeakable acts when he and R2-D2 approach the palace doors.
Case #1: A Study in Oola
Besides the grotesque designs of Jabba’s alien compadres, the most glaring thing we notice is his Twi’lek slave, who, while unnamed in the film, is named Oola. In her first appearance, she’s visibly uncomfortable and reviled at her current state and “master” (understandably). In fact, a quick glance at the rest of the palace shows that the only ones actually “enjoying” themselves are male gangsters and bounty hunters in positions of power. Oola and another woman (in the cast list, only identified as “Fat Dancer”) are forced to dance for Jabba and his palace guests. Both are dressed in scantily clad outfits (you know, for the kids!), though Oola is the only one on a chain. After the Max Rebo Band plays a song, Jabba demands, “Do it again.” In the brief seconds between numbers, you can tell that Oola is not enjoying herself. Still, the Max Rebo Band starts a new song and the dancing continues. Interestingly, a significant bit of the dancing is removed in the Special Edition in favor of bombastic CGI musicians. What’s consistent between both versions, though, is that Jabba yanks Oola’s chain to bring her to him, and with the nasty way he licks his lips, we can imagine it ain’t for a high five. Rightfully, Oola fight back and resists the chains: she won’t pleasure this beast. This angers Jabba, and he drops her into the Rancor pit.
Case #2: A Boussh by Any Other Name
Shortly after this scene, an intruder storms into Jabba’s Chamber, seeking a bounty for Chewbacca. The bounty hunter, known as Boussh, bargains with Jabba, with the trusty help of a thermal detonator. Totally worth noting, everyone refers to the masked stranger as “he.” (Why would they know that, especially C-3P0? We’ll get to that later.) Anywho, Boussh’s tenacity pleases Jabba who says, “This bounty hunter is my kind of scum, fearless and inventive,” and gains the approval of various members of Jabba’s company. As the sequence continues, Boussh frees Han from the carbonite. Why? Because it’s Leia Organa!! Of course, victory is short-lived and Han is sent to the dungeons and Leia...well, you know.... Jabba takes Leia as his slave since the last one became rancor chow, to Salacious Crumb’s awful delight...that ugly godforsaken monkey-lizard... and so we get the biggest moment of sexualization in the entire saga, to be cosplayed, marketed, and sold in merchandising for forty years.
Analysis: Return of the Gendered Palace
So let’s take a look at how gender roles are constructed here. It’s clear that Jabba, ugly... disgusting... revolting... slimy... wormy, is supposed to represent the most toxic, vile, and carnal natures of the galaxy. The crime lord is not to be celebrated. And in his palace, he is seated highest of all creatures, and his inner circle consists of similarly male goons like Bib Fortuna and Salacious Crumb...that ugly godforsaken monkey-lizard.... On the step below Jabba, though, is where his slave sits, and just below that: the trapdoor to the Rancor. The rest of the palace consists of mostly male bounty hunters and the Max Rebo Band. Besides Sy Snootles, the lead singer of the Max Rebo Band, the women in the palace are objects of flirtation and desire. Why is Sy absent from this gendered analysis? Well, she’s not really involved in the sequence, and if we look at the expanded lore, she’s a part-time bounty hunter who killed Jabba’s brother Ziro the Hutt to help grow Jabba’s empire. So she’s the exception to the rule.
But why did Jabba’s palace assume that Leia as Boussh was male? We can see that Jabba structures his palace around the superiority of male carnality and scumminess. Whenever we see a female character in Jabba’s Palace not in the background, they are shown in this subservient light to the empowered male characters. Oola is shown forced to please Jabba, and when she refuses, she dies. “Fat Dancer” dances for spectacle for the male characters. The Max Rebo back-up singers flirt with Boba Fett. And Leia, once found out, takes Oola’s place in the gold bikini (you know, for the kids!) for Jabba’s gross pleasures. We can assume that the way gender has been constructed in the palace, they would only believe that a male bounty hunter could challenge Jabba like so. Note how C-3P0 and R2-D2 know very little of the escape plan. As such, C-3P0, the worrywart who speaks too much, would not know that Boussh was actually Leia and could play into the trick. The fact that Jabba would be more taken by a male bounty hunter’s negotiations was key to the grand scheme to save Han.
Now that’s not to say that all males are treated better in Jabba’s Palace. Notably, our heroes are in a bad place throughout the sequence. Han’s a wall decoration; Chewbacca becomes a prisoner; Luke is rejected entry and then fed to the Rancor; and all three of them are sent to be fed to the Sarlacc Pit when every plan goes spectacularly wrong. But they wronged Jabba or owed him something, which led to that kind of treatment. So we see gender constructed in three ways:
Male denizens are guards, celebrated guests, or in power.
Women are objects of flirtation or desire, and fed to the Rancor if they reject that
Males who wrong Jabba are imprisoned, out of sight, or executed in spectacular fashion.
It’s not just saying this is a boy thing and this is a girl thing that genders something. Treatment in certain circumstances does, too. I’m reminded of two real life examples I read about in my Gendered Rhetorics course. The first is Anna Ochoa O’Leary’s gendered look at U.S.-Mexican border migration. In this chapter from Migrant Deaths in the Arizona Desert, O’Leary makes the case that male and female migrants are treated differently by their “coyote” guides based on their sex. At the end, she shares the tale of a woman named Yesenia and what happened when she and others were exchanged between these smugglers:
"After the second exchange, the coyote seemed reluctant to guide them through the desert because they were accompanied by children, and he tried to dissuade them by asking the women whether they knew how long they would be walking . . . . They replied that they were determined, but after all was said and done, they were ultimately left behind. She felt that their group was left behind because it was smaller in number and in it were women and children. Margarita, in her interview, mentioned that the last pollero (smuggler) they hired told her that he would charge her more to get them across because they were women."
The second is Angela Davis’s book Are Prisons Obsolete?, in which Davis goes into great detail about how prisons are gendered. She shows examples of how gender is constructed in the treatment of the prisoners, the perception of the prison system, the attitudes towards punishment and the marginalization of reform for women’s institutions. Davis details treatment towards convicted women that could easily be defined as sexual assault. Perhaps the biggest reason why is given on pages 69-70:
"Male punishment was linked ideologically to penitence and reform. The very forfeiture of rights and liberties implied that with self-reflection, religious study, and work, male convicts could achieve redemption and could recover these rights and liberties. However, since women were not acknowledged as securely in possession of these rights, they were not eligible to participate in this process of redemption."
In the case of the migrants, the movement is gendered. The women are chosen to be left behind because their perceived role is as a burden. In prisons, the space and treatment is gendered. Men are treated as creatures that can be reformed through labor and reflection, but women are treated as aberrations, assaulted and treated as fallen for not meeting the gendered expectation of domestication—regardless of the crime. Jabba’s Palace is the same way. A male’s role is to enjoy themselves and their carnal pleasures, as long as they don’t cross Jabba, whereas women are expected to provide Jabba desire and his guests lustful entertainment—or be eaten by a monster. With protests and awareness and action, the prison system can be reformed or even abolished, depending on where you stand on that issue. As for amending the Jabba’s Palace situation, well, Carrie Fisher had this to say to the Los Angeles Times when a father criticized the sale of “Slave Leia” toys:
"How about telling his daughter that the character is wearing that outfit not because she’s chosen to wear it. She’s been forced to wear it. She’s a prisoner of a giant testicle who has a lot of saliva going on and she does not want to wear that thing and it’s ultimately that chain, which you’re now indicating is some sort of accessory to S&M, that is used to kill the giant saliva testicle…. That’s asinine."
Indeed, the giant saliva testicle and his syndicate are defeated and blown up, thanks to Leia taking the chains of her captor (and her future husband’s debtor) and killing him with them...and some other explosive Skywalker theatrics. The heroic moment marks the destruction of the vile nature and toxic testicular masculinity of the Hutt empire. Now whether this message was conveyed effectively or was merely a means to fanservice: one’s mileage will vary.