The Clothing Makes the (Wo)man: Crossdressing and Power in Star Wars and Medieval and Renaissance Literature

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Spring 2015


This video essay compares Princess Leia’s cross-dressing to the cross-dressing of both Joan of Arc and Britomart from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. First, though—in A New Hope we find Leia dressed in a nun-like diplomatic gown that emphasizes her youth and purity. Not coincidentally, Tarkin treats her condescendingly when she is on the Death Star with him and wearing this outfit. But Leia’s white virginal garb contrasts with her violent actions when Luke and Han are rescuing her, as when she snatches Luke’s gun and fights off the stormtroopers herself. The religious aura surrounding Leia’s ANH costume leads quite naturally to a comparison with St. Joan of Arc. Both Leia and Joan are eventually able to enter a sphere of influence more often controlled by men through cross-dressing. Leia is perhaps most like Joan when she cross-dresses as a male bounty hunter in order to gain access to Jabba’s Palace. Jabba’s treatment of Oola and his turning Leia into his slave girl demonstrate why it was necessary for Leia to assume a male disguise. When Jabba strips Leia and silences her, it calls to mind the terrible treatment Joan received at the hands of the English after her capture, as well as Joan’s wish to protect herself from rape. Interestingly, the way Leia walks in her Boushh outfit hints that “he” is really a “she” before s/he even takes off her helmet. Britomart from The Faerie Queene also cross-dresses as a man, reversing the traditional roles of hero and heroine as she goes off in search of her destined love, Artegal. Similar to Leia’s slavery and slaying of Jabba, Britomart also saves the half-naked, chained woman Amoret from her lustful male captor, Busirane. Both Britomart and Leia also accomplish tasks that a man has previously been unable to complete—Leia by taking advantage of Jabba’s perception of her as a weak slave girl and slaying him (a deed many tried to accomplish before her). Despite being stripped, chained, and silenced by Jabba, Leia is still strong and dangerous. In today’s culture cross-dressing is still being used to challenge gender norms, especially to demonstrate how gender is performative.

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