In our series of Star Wars’ Forgotten Women we’ve been focusing a lot of female characters from the Prequels but now I want to look at one of the female characters who always struck me as fascinating in Return of the Jedi: Oola, as played by Femi Taylor. We only get to see Oola for a relatively short time but she makes a very strong impression in those moments. As such this post will also be something of a Scene It? post. I think Oola also allows me to address the overt sexualisation of women in parts of Star Wars which I’ve never seen as gratuitous but rather to make express points. I’m going to restrict myself to discussing mainly canon, although I will also be drawing on the Return of the Jedi novelization by Ryder Windham. I’ve here chosen to show the rerelease version of the scene, rather than the original for the following interesting tidbit about Femi Taylor and Oola: Femi was the only one to shoot new scenes when they decided to re-release the Originals in 1997. So her scenes in the Special Editions are a mix between new and old material. So, groove along to ‘Jedi Rocks’ and then dive into the rancor pit with Oola and me.
In Return of the Jedi we meet Oola as a Twi’Lek dancer in Jabba’s palace. From the outset it is important to note that female Twi’leks, according to Star Wars lore, were often forced into slavery for entertaining purposes, i.e. dancing and performing. In and of itself this is a suggestion of sexual slavery as well. As such I’ve always thought of Oola as a very interesting representation of the sexual objectification and subjugation of women, the way their form and looks are taken as their main point of value and then displayed for the amusement of men. For some this has meant that Oola is a proof of Lucas having a sexist attitude towards women but I actually think that it is much more interesting than that. The answer to this question lies in what you think and expect Jabba the Hut to represent.
There seem to be a wide variety of theories out there as to why Jabba dropped her down the chute, some of which are simply ridiculous, but I think his intent and character are pretty clear, as long as you can accept that Jabba the Hutt is and always was a representation of the typical misogynist who sees women as objects for his own sexual pleasure. The scene between Oola and him clearly shows that this is what Lucas meant for Jabba to represent. So I’m going to go forward with this post with this in mind, because, well, it’s right.
Initially in the scene above, Oola seems to simply be a part of Jabba’s retinue, dancing along with the music etc. However, the very fact that she has a chain around her neck is an indication, both of Jabba’s intentions towards her and Oola’s potential desire for escape. The novelization adds some interesting background details to this moment. It tells us:
‘From his dais, Jabba kept his grip on Oola’s leash as he drooled and watched her green body move.’
We clearly see this in the scene as well, Jabba licking his lips and pulling Oola towards him.There is a power-imbalance between Jabba and Oola, with the former on a dais and the latter finding herself in a position where she is physically chained to the one who has enslaved her. When she decides to resist this bondage he seems to get excited by her refusal and it becomes a struggle between the two. Again, some seem to be very confused about why Oola would even struggle against her “master” but hopefully I don’t have to explain why anyone might want to flee (sexual) slavery. The novelization does, again, offer some background:
‘She knew what was coming, and that she was about to die, but she had already decided that death was preferable to spending one more moment as Jabba’s slave.’
In the short minute, then, in which we actively see Oola we see something very interesting happening, something which hit me from the first time I saw it. In Oola we see an enslaved woman who wants to fight against her “master” and is willing to sacrifice herself for that freedom. However, Jabba has his secret button which immediately drops Oola down into the Rancor pit. This is very much a visual representation of how different the positions are in which the two find themselves. Oola stands no chance against Jabba as he is in a position of power within his own place of power, his Palace. I always found her decision to go against him nonetheless very inspiring because although her death follows, Oola is an example of fighting against subjugation. It is also clear from the scene, in the way the camera stays with Oola after she is dropped into the pit, that the audience is meant to have empathy for her. This is also one of the examples where I feel that the rerelease has added immeasurably to the representation of a character, because in the original version of the film we never saw Oola’s fate. Lucas could have dismissed her but it was an important moment for him to go back to and show, both how a woman is fighting for her freedom as well as show the audience how despicable a character Jabba really is.
A further interesting point on which I can only really offer an opinion rather than theoretical analysis is the fact that Oola is played by a black actress. The body shape of black women is often something they are defined by, leading to the overt sexualisation of their bodies and the reduction of their personalities in how they are represented in the media. There is also something of the exotic about them, which is reminiscent of the Western penchant for Orientalism, which makes an Other of non-white people, making them something to be admired for how primal and sensual they are, without realising that you’re projecting your own desires onto them. It’s hard to say whether this was a conscious choice on the part of Lucas or the casting director or whether it was mere chance. But I thought it was an interesting thought to highlight nonetheless.
Finally, there is the role which Oola’s scene plays in setting up the storyline of one of Star Wars‘ main female characterse, namely Leia’s. Much (digital) ink has been spilled on Leia’s enslavement by Jabba. We have added our own ink to it in a post where I argued that this story line is also meant to shed light on how women are sexualised and how that is a way of subjugation, rather than being an easy way for Carrie Fisher to show some skin. However, returning to how Oola and Leia are linked. The novelization makes clear that Leia is used to replace Oola, entwining the two women and their stories. When we see Leia after her capture she is also chained to Jabba and we have already seen him drooling over her. Leia is clearly being sexualised and reduced to a body in the way that Oola was. Oola’s presence has already shown us how despicable and dangerous Jabba and that the position of Jabba’s pet is not something desirable. Leia follows in Oola’s footsteps in fighting for her freedom and were it not for Oola the audience might not appreciate the risk Leia is in by attacking Jabba. Her sacrifice, as such, was not for nothing.
There is a sense of tragedy when it comes to Oola because she is, in many ways, doomed from the outset. She doesn’t have a lot of options and she is outmatched by the power Jabba holds within his own palace. No one is there to help her and, as such, she has always struck me as one of the loneliest characters in Star Wars. Also in fandom she remains sexualised, much in the way that “slave Leia” is continually sexualised. However, Oola has a lot to offer to someone willing to pay attention. Her standing up for herself, no matter how doomed her attempt, always gives me courage and I hope her story does the same for others. Oola deserves to be recognised for much more than just the way she looks.