Originally I was going to put this on a reblog of this Aayla piece by Kenneth Rocafort. A reblog of this particular piece showed up on my Tumblr dash questioning the need for Aayla’s revealing costume.
I have a lot of complicated feelings about Twi’leks that are, probably, inherently contradictory and that I’ve been trying to vocalise for a while now. I haven’t because I think I just keep coming across as an apologist for the presentation of Twi’lek women (or any hyper-sexualiation), which is not the case as anyone who knows me can tell. I spend most of my professional life fighting against the sexualisation of women, and generally failing because I am far too insignificant to be listened to and because the film industry is an entirely depressing place to be a feminist. One job last year had me seriously reconsider my career and looking at returning to full-time education rather than just part-time because of the way the one female character was treated (both the character and the actress).
I’m only going to discuss canon, because 1) I’m still refamiliarising myself with the EU/Legends, and 2) things get a bit snarly in the EU when it comes to Aayla and Twi’lek women, and frankly it’s irrelevant right now.
Having an immediate knee jerk reaction to a woman with any flesh showing contributes nothing to discussions are gender representation and sexualisation without any actual discussion. Finding Aayla Secura sexualised and being uncomfortable with her costume is fine – more than fine and perfectly understandable – but just screaming about a bare navel gets us nowhere. The thing with Twi’leks is that you enter a really very messy territory of author intent and in-universe culture. Aayla was created for the comics, designed for the comics and made with the intention of being appealing, which they succeeded in as Lucas put her in AotC based on a cover. The first Twi’lek woman – Oola – was created to be a literal sex object. However just because their initial inception was unsavoury, you have to consider how they were then developed and utilised. Consider the hows and whys of so many female Ms superheroes that were created, and where a great many of them are now, ie. Ms Marvel/Captain Marvel. (Unfortunately Oola doesn’t get much escape, but she should be central to the discourse of women on screen and women in SW.)
Twi’leks are over-sexualised, yes. So many of the Twi’leks that we have actually seen in canon are sex workers and/or slaves. They are hyper-sexualised, and it’s horrendous and tiring. Their context is sexualised, and the fact that they keep falling back and back and back on this needs to stop (let’s hope Rebels avoids it or finds some other way to express seediness). In LotS the main way they depicted the subjugation of Ryloth/Lessu was by having Isval infiltrating the sex-trade underworld. That was pretty much the only time we were shown the fate of Ryloth, the rest of the time we were just told; the book pretty much ignored everything else. (isval was a fantastically interesting character who got seriously undeserved by the narrative). This treatment of female Twi’lek characters needs to stop and needs to stop being glorified.
But don’t take that context and paint every single female Twi’lek with it. We haven’t seen many free/non-sex trade Twi’leks, but the very few we have are pretty strong (despite being limited).
Aayla as she is presented in AotC and in TCW is a confident, grown woman who owns herself and her presentation – her body and her personhood. The way she dresses is a nod to both her role in the Jedi Order and her cultural origin. While the Jedi Order is a culture and society in and of themselves, the indication is that they don’t stop members from exploring and incorporating these cultural aspects – that blending of the two can be seen with other characters, like Ahsoka & Shaak Ti’s Montral decorations, Katooni and Adi Gallia’s headdresses. I would see that as about being self-aware and comfortable in your self and place in the wider galaxy.
We see various Twi’lek women in the occupation of Ryloth episodes of TCW – it would have been nice to have some voiced, but at least they were shown working and fighting with the male characters. and they either wear a tunic-dress slit to the thigh (there are threeish variations of it), or basically an identical outfit to male Twi’leks. Given that Ryloth is a hot world and their cities are predominately made up of tunnel complexes, this is a practical way of dressing allowing for movement and ventilation. Their bodies are potentially on display, and they are still, of course, aesthetically pleasing. The women are still playing an active role, and it’s clearly not a cultural norm to completely cover up.
We have also seen number of senatorial aides in the prequels (and ocasionally in TCW, I think). Again, no lines. And you can read into their roles with the repulsive Orn Free Taa as being purely arm candy (yeah, probably, but I like to think not). They are elegant, well-dressed and composed. Like everyone else in the senate. The two women in AotC have (I think) bare navels, which is fairly obviously shown as being a cultural norm; Trisha Biggar’s character is wearing a very revealing dress in RotS, but it’s evening wear designed to attract attention (and there are many women who feel powerful in presenting them that way – just look at any red carpet). Are these things necessary within the context of the film, not necessarily, but they are not in and of themselves problematic, and are in line with the established cultural cues.
Major problems come in when people start glorifying figures like Oola, or when things are taken too far for absolutely nor purpose with characters like Talon (i know I said I would ignore EU, but really) who wears… tattoos and a bit of leather for no reason other than she is bad and sexy. There are much wider issues to be discussing and trying to argue against than a bare navel on a well-presented character.
Twi’leki culture is set-up in ‘verse as being preoccupied with the aesthetically pleasing, with beauty – and obviously there is a lengthy and unpleasant history of slavery and all of the misogyny tied up in that. This is an area that could really be challenged and dismantled, both meta-textually and in-verse.
Potentially, it’s a thing that’s being challenged with Hera who’s presentation is in utter opposition to the majority of Twi’lek women that we have seen thus far – but that is fairly reductive as there is every indication that her costume, a flight suit as worn by a pilot, is purely pragmatic. She crawls around ships, gets in fire fights, and lives in space which is cold whilst she comes from a hot planet (remember Anakin when he first goes into space?). I’ve also had conversations elsewhere that this shows a cultural dissociation on Hera’s part, perhaps as a self-protective response to everything that has happened, perhaps just because her culture doesn’t exist any more. Or perhaps just because. It may also be disassociative on the show’s part, but we won’t have any way of knowing that until we see other Twi’leks on the show (fingers crossed for season 2).
Specifically in the case of art like that linked above, it’s important to consider that it’s a pin-up, which is about displaying the female form (or male or anyone – it’s about aesthetic presentation). It can be tacky and gross, it can be uncomfortable subject-wise, as with the endless quantity of Oola pin-ups (see also Slave Leia); but it can also be owned if the character is presented with respect and strength as in that Aayla piece. Don’t hop onto an artist’s post and accuse it of being hyper-sexualised right there; query it in the tags, or make a separate post linking back. Message the artist in a polite and respectful way asking about their decisions. Promote and create discussion, critique and question, yes. But there are better ways to do it than in a reactionary knee-jerk fashion.
My main point is that there is this push in fandom to desexualise Twi’leks, which is fantastic, but in that push it’s brushing everything into one box without any consideration beyond ‘exposed flesh? into the box’, ignoring any nuance. Looking at a figure like Aayla and reducing her character to her midriff is dismissive of the rest of the character, context as key. From a purely subjective point of view, when I saw AotC as a 12/13 year old I immediately latched onto that tiny glimpse of this blue Twi’lek. She was both powerful and beautiful and looked to be in absolute control. When you’re an awkward teenage girl, it’s inspiring to see those things. Now as a woman, being able to have these powerful and interesting Twi’lek women is even better: when you take Hera and Aayla as we have been shown them so far, you are introducing a spectrum of femininity and body ownership; self-power. This is important for girls and women of all ages. When you start dismissing either one you start imposing absolutes and only a sith deals in absolutes for what is ‘right’. Sexualisation is more important and more complex than a bit of flesh.
I think I’ve talked myself in circles here, which is why i avoided this for so long. . Hopefully there is some sense in there somewhere. This is me throwing up my hands and hitting post, hoping I don’t regret it.