A response I received regarding my essay on Hera Syndulla:
What makes Hera particularly admirable and fascinating is that she comes from a culture (Twil’lek) where women are normally slaves and dancers.
This is actually something that I’ve discussed before at length, both privately and publicly, and I tried to address here. It a perspective that appears to be pretty common in the fandom and I feel disappointed every time it comes up.
Hera doesn’t come from a culture of slaves and dancers. And even if she did, it wouldn’t be her look that made her admirable, it would be that she made something of herself independently. Hera’s species is Twi’lek. Hera is Rylothean, and so that would be the root of her cultural cues. Not only is she Rylothean, but she is the daughter of a political leader and planetary hero. A family that is of high standing (enough that Cham Syndulla ran for office against Orn Free Taa, and had the means to lead two resistances) and higher regard. That means that she would have been even further removed from the galactically held view of twi’leks as commodities. Her species, and particularly her gender, has a history of objectification and enslavement, and if I recall correctly this was due to outside forces taking twi’leks. In a post-Republic world, as we saw in Lords of the Sith, many aspects of this have been brought home to Ryloth with Twi’leks being forced to serve their new Imperial overlords, or choosing to collaborate out of necessity. I forget exactly when Lords of the Sith takes place, but it’s safe to say that Hera was already be actively taking steps towards her fight and not a part of this subjugation.
Syndulla family portrait, note how well dressed they are, particularly Hera’s (nameless) mother.
Rylothean women from various episodes in The Clone Wars, including civilians and freedom fighters.
Numa and Hera, contemporaries both in age and in origin – young Rylothean women who grew up in the darkness of war and have come to fight for freedom (Hera was/is of a higher rank than Numa.) Their aesthetics are not so different, suggesting that this basic attire is a favoured and practical look for free(dom fighting) Rylothean women.
Culture and species are two separate things, though often intertwined. In the case of Star Wars and Twi’leks, what we have seen are creators working backwards from a starting point of objectification (Oola.) A difficult thing, allowing space for what ultimately appeals about the species and respecting what has already been established whilst creating depth, substance and history. These sort of responses diminishes the extensive world-building work and balancing act and dismiss the characters. For instance: Yes, Aayla Secura wears a revealing costume, but that does not mean she is enslaved or subjugated. The two Twi’lek women in the current Han Solo comic, Nowk and Sotna, wear form-fitting suits with low-cut trousers, but they are padded and obviously pilot gear (and they are furious when it is suggested that they are slaves.) A woman can show flesh, her figure, and be empowered. It is based on the individual and on decision, and clearly Twi’leks do not shy away from skin. Flesh is not in itself slutty or demeaning. An alien species will not have the same taboos and standards and conservative western earthlings. Likewise, because Hera – and I guess Numa – covers up, she is not ashamed of her body as I have repeatedly been told in various conversations. The way Hera presents, holds and moves herself does not indicate any body shame. She is a woman who dresses for her job: Rebel pilot. (Of course this could be headcanoned, but do not tell me that it is fact when there is no evidence.)
Some of this work gets muddied in the recycling of models in TCW: typically the bodysuited Twi’lek women are indicated to be sex-workers, performers, or slaves, whilst those wearing dresses or other costumes are implied to be free, but this sometimes swaps around. A good example of htis work, though, is in the differences in twi’lek dancing in TCW. We see a lot (a lot, but that is a whole messy conversation I don’t have the energy for right now) of different twi’lek performance in the wider galaxy, including glamorous Temple of Doom style showgirls and out and out table dancing:
These are, obviously, performative for a specific audience, calculated and rehearsed and for a purpose. It’s a job and a commodity. Or rather, a means to sell the commodity of the twi’lek performer’s body. In contrast, we see dancing on Ryloth:
This is a group activity, a celebration that is joyous and shared. Dancing for dancing’s sake. Stylistically and performatively, half a galaxy away. The culture of these dances couldn’t be more different, and Hera would have grown up in this society that celebrated performance and beauty rather than tried to sell it. These examples also clearly indicating the two main looks the show worked with.
As I’ve said before, discussing the sexualisation and objectification of twi’leks is hard, as every word runs the risk of sounding like an apologist. There is so much more to the conversation than ‘Twi’leks slave, skin bad.’