Defenders of the Gold Bikini

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Kristin Devine

Kristin is a geek, a libertarian, and a domestic goddess. She lives in a wildlife refuge in rural Washington state with too many children and way too many animals and works with women around the world as a fertility counselor. There's also a blog which most people would very much disapprove of https://atomicfeminist.com/

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34 Responses

  1. Avatar Mike Dwyer
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    I was very much already into girls by the time Return of the Jedi came out but for whatever reason I never had a crush on Princess Leia. I thought she was cool and the big reveal of her relationship to Luke was a shocker, but I guess if the producers of the movie intended to create some sex appeal it was lost on me. With that said (surprise, surprise) I also take Kristen’s view that it was meant to symbolize her humiliation and when she freed herself it was an empowering moment. But I also can’t wait to hear someone explain how offensive it is.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Mike Dwyer
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      The type of criticism that is levied on things like the gold bikini is intriguing to me.

      Because at the end of the day much of it boils down to basically telling women that if they like things that someone has deemed problematic, they’re wrong/brainwashed.

      And that doesn’t feel very empowering to me, like, at all. But at the same time I like to point out stuff that bothers me, and I often learn from it when others point out things that bother them.

      I wish we could move past criticism in the form of “this thing is bad and terrible because of these objective reasons that all rightthinking people will agree upon” into a place where we are more just sharing our reactions to stuff without judging each other when we like said things for our own personal reasons. I won’t hold my breath, but…Report

  2. Avatar veronica d
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    I never had a problem with the gold bikini. To me it seemed to fit into the mood of the films. And indeed, Leia escapes and kills the fucker who chained her up. It’s cool.

    That said, in criticizing media, we should look at not just what happens “in world,” but also we should understand that literally everything in the that world was chosen by the writers. (It’s the “Watsonian versus Doylist” thing.) In other words, it made sense for Jabba to humiliate Leia in a sexualized way, but it’s also true that the writers chose to create that situation with those characters, and to film that thing rather than many other things that might have happened.

    “Hey, let’s create a situation where we can show an attractive woman being humiliated in a sexualized way” is something the writers chose. The chose it for reasons.

    Consider all the “sexposition” scenes in Game of Thrones. It is, of course, entirely logical that a character like Baelish would operate brothels. It is also logical that sex would occur in these brothels, and that Baelish might conduct business with sex in the background. But still, the writers made choices on what they would show. The fact it is logical “in world” doesn’t change that.

    By contrast, it was a deliberate choice in Mad Max: Fury Road film to not show the sexualized abuse of “the wives.” The filmmakers certainly could have shown it. In fact, most movies would have. But they chose not to.

    The movie was better for it, I think.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to veronica d
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      As a writer I find it’s a lot less deliberate an act to create a world than viewers/readers and particularly cultural critics may realize.

      A lot that happens in writing – a LOT – is happy accidents or not so happy ones with things that don’t work and/or are problematic that you may not even realize or see until someone points it out to you after the project is complete. It’s not even remotely as cold and logical a process as you’re making it out to be. I think it’s somewhat an uncharitable read of a situation to look at the gold bikini and say “this is all just dudes who wanted to tell a story about women getting abused” because it isn’t and it wasn’t. Creating is just not that mathematical. It’s not a process where someone removed from the situation carefully selects a little from column A, a little from column B, plugs them into an algorithm to achieve a desired outcome. It’s more a bunch of crap from a lifetime whirred in a blender and puked onto a page and hopefully it comes out ok.

      We are all fish in our cultural fishbowl and George Lucas was a product of his place and time and the media that was created for him to view as a child/adult by people who they themselves were also products of a place and time. He built on ideas that were in his head that came from a wide variety of places and I really don’t think it’s fair, like, at all, to hold him to anything approaching the standards we (in many ways rightfully) hold GoT creators to – and yes, that one particular scene with Baelish was so skeevy and egregious it put me off the entire show. They should have known better. GL really could not have done much else than what he did given the place and time he was in, in my opinion.Report

      • Avatar Mike Dwyer in reply to Kristin Devine
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        When Turn was on the air I thought it was interesting because they told stories about women from perspectives I hadn’t seen. They accurately showed the washer women that would exist within military camps. They showed the female house slaves of well-off whites and contrasted the way they were treated by the Colonials and the British. They showed how hard it was for women legally regarding property, etc. I do understand how it can seem that telling stories around sex is gratuitous. I keep hoping for the day when “OMG that character is gay!” is not used as a shocking story twist anymore. Or for that matter, interracial relationships not being used to signify how progressive the characters might be.Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Kristin Devine
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        @Kristin — Let me be clear. I found the Leia in a bikini scene to be “basically okay,” in the sense I think they handled it well enough. It wasn’t over the top horrible. I meant to contrast it with the GoT stuff, which was egregious (although on the whole I loved the show).

        Regarding the “writers can’t help it” thing, I used to write [1], quite a lot. I was okay at it. People read my stuff and liked it. And sure, sometimes plot elements move out from under your feet. Characters made choices. I get that. On the other hand, one chooses what they publish. One chooses what to rewrite, what to rework, what seems acceptable. In other words, the writer is never “off the hook” for what they create and publish, even if it came from their subconscious rather than from conscious choice. They still looked at the manuscript and said, “Yep, this is ready to go.”

        Portraying a woman being sexually humiliated is never an accident. Likewise, just as “you can’t make an anti-war movie” (which I interpret to mean it’s very hard to make an anti-war movie), it seems damn hard to make an anti-sexual-abuse movie.

        It can be done. Jessica Jones managed. Mad Max: Fury Road did as well. By contrast, Game of Thrones fucked it up very badly.

        The Leia in a bikini thing is probably somewhere between those extremes.

        [1] The reasons I stopped writing are very weird and complicated.Report

        • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to veronica d
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          One of my all time favorite films is “The Stunt Man”. In it, Peter O’Toole, playing a film director, describes a friend who mad “the anti-war film to end all anti-war films. At the debut, the producer cried and shook his hand. Recruitment went up by 100 percent.”Report

        • Avatar George Turner in reply to veronica d
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          If GoT crossed with Star Wars, young Leia would have been groomed and preyed on by Jar Jar Binks in some kind of degrading and racially outrageous amphibiporn. But fortunately we know Disney would never allow that.

          *record needle goes scratching across an LP*

          Star Wars: Leia Unchained panel at ComicCon 2022.

          Fan: “What were you trying to establish with that, that ‘scene’?”
          Benioff: “We thought it would be good to add more depth to the Leia character by showing what kind of abusive hardships she’d been through, so that she comes across as more than just a privileged white princess.”
          Weiss: “And it added a dark new edge to the Gungans that I think really resonates. I mean, amphibians. Should you trust them?Having her eating flies and begging for more really brought that home.”
          Benioff: “And her lifelong fly-eating addiction explains why she was back on Geonosis, murdering and eating those big flying bugs we saw in the arena battle in Attack of the Clones.
          Weiss: “Yes, it shows how her sexual awakening with Jar Jar left a lasting impact on her character, and sets up the epic battle against the rightfully outraged Geonosians who don’t realize that the Skywalkers are just unwitting pawns in the battle between intellectually-challenged agrarian amphibian predators and profit-driven hive-minded flying insects, which is the real heart of the Star Wars saga.”

          ***

          Now, did I plan where this comment would end up? Of course not. Nobody could plan that. Each element arose spontaneously from a prior element.

          Putting Leia in a gold bikini is one of those things that gets added as a “and then, what if…” as they’re trying to come up with a story about what happened when the heroes were trying to rescue a frozen Han from Jabba’s clutches.

          However, in the prequels, you can pretty much bet that a lot of characters were added after marketing had designed the line of toys. The ever-downwards trajectory of the writing would be an interesting subject in its own right, perhaps touching on whether Hollywood has a lot of top executives who got to the top because of their skills at office politics, marketing, and finance, but whose only knowledge of good storytelling comes from a single “introduction to screenwriting” class at UCLA.Report

        • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to veronica d
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          Yeah. I’m not trying to argue, just explain why I see it differently. Thanks for reading and commenting.Report

    • Avatar Doctor Jay in reply to veronica d
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      I think that we are never going to see a time where we don’t see attractive people showing a lot of skin on film. Maybe in a somewhat sexual situation. We saw Chris Hemsworth this way in all three Thor films, and it was riffed on in Endgame (I wasn’t entirely happy with that, but that’s a topic for another day). I consider this a positive development – equal-time fan service.

      I think showing female characters with agency who enter into conflicts of their own choosing is far more important. Many women are still taught to hide their fighting spirit, when it is, in fact, a beautiful thing.Report

      • Avatar veronica d in reply to Doctor Jay
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        To be clear, I don’t mind seeing attractive people in film. In fact, I quite enjoy it.

        The thing about “skin,” however — sometimes I can “see the strings” pulling the character, and it’s really obvious I’m seeing “fan service,” not a real character.

        For example, I love the plot, setting, and characters in Ghost in the Shell, but would an elite cyborg super cop dress like this:

        https://i.imgur.com/fIoHtK9.png

        (Insert here a long, insipid fanwank explanation on how it totally makes sense that Kusanagi wears a “battle teddy,” cuz that’s so realistic.)

        I still love the show. I just kind of have to hold my nose and ignore some of her outfits.

        By contrast, there was a really cool graphic novel called Artesia: https://www.google.com/search?q=artesia+graphic+novel&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X

        Yeah there are a few sexy images of the main character, which evolve as the plot evolves. But mostly she goes around wearing armor. Plus, she has actual muscles.

        Anyway, yeah, Thor is smoking hawt, like OMG. I could go str8 for that boy.Report

  3. Avatar LeeEsq
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    Defenders of the Gold Bikini sounds like a direct to video movie from the 1980s. Something that the MST3K people would love to get their teeth into.

    On a more serious note, many people find heterosexual male sexuality kind of gross or very gross for many different reasons. The instinct is that it is wild and out of control and women and girls need to be defended from this at all times. This idea that heterosexual male sexuality as both patriarchal and feminist manifestations. The patriarchal manifestation are all those jokes about dads with shotguns seeking to protect their daughters from their suitors. The feminist manifestation takes the form of outrage at anything heterosexual men might find stimulating. It objectifies women. Rather than achieving great goals, women will have to waste time on trying to please men. So the gold bikini or any other form of male glaze fan service gets attacked as inherently anti-feminist.

    The issue is that this is a reason where everybody is right and there are no easy solutions. Pre-feminist societies sought to control female sexuality in two ways. On one hand, they severely limited female opportunities to have sex or even engage in light flirting by imposing purity requirements. On the other hand, it said that women need to be pretty, charming helpmates for men and make them happy. Feminism naturally wanted to attack both. The problem is that men are going to want to engage in romance/sex with women they find attractive and/or fun rather than moral scolds for the most part. Just like how women don’t want to have relationships with men that put their creep detector on high alert mode. People who are generically attractive to the gender of their choice are going to have the most sex and romance. So a lot of though is put into trying to create a system where women can freely have sex with men but not have to be walking fan service. There doesn’t seem to be a good solution yet.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to LeeEsq
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      I wish we could get to a point where people begin to accept that some of this stuff is simply innate and not deliberate. Viewing innate preferences that we honestly cannot change (both for men and women) as signs of some sinister intent will not change those innate preferences and simply demonizes people for things they cannot change.Report

  4. Avatar George Turner
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    It only takes a quick look at 19th century photos of European royalty to dispel the myth that princesses have to be pretty and princes have to be handsome. “People of Walmart” comes to mind.Report

  5. Avatar Doctor Jay
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    I’m with you on this. I’m foursquare solid on “she choked her captor to death with her own chain” reading. (So is MrsJay).

    I think the point where I raise eyebrows is the fact that the full length white gown we first see her in covers everything, but she wears no bra under it. Lucas, it turns out, sold this to Fisher by saying, “It’s space, there’s no gravity. So nobody wears bras.” Wow, that does not sound like good faith to me. Especially since there are exactly zero “no gravity” scenes in the original trilogy. (She finally gets one in “The Last Jedi” but I think she’s wearing a bra at that point).

    So, not so much trust in Lucas on this point.

    I have far more mixed feelings about the “princess” trope. To me “princess” embodies everything about Mary Sue that you enumerated. Princesses have their privilege by birthright (which is usually expressed in film as good looks and nice clothing), not by any agency. Everyone always loves them and wants to talk to them.

    My favorite Disney “princess” is Mulan, and she isn’t a princess at all, and she shows agency at every turn. The worst two (in the book of Dr. J) are Cinderella and Rapunzel (of “Tangled”). The latter is able to win over a tavern full of questionable types in spite of having spent her entire youth estranged from her true parents and locked up in a tower with exactly one other person. (To be fair, I still like the film, mostly because Mother Gothel is one of the best villains of all time).Report

    • Avatar PD Shaw in reply to Doctor Jay
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      I think Lucas directed her to strap her breasts down with electric tape, so it wasn’t like he was emphasizing the breasts.

      I think in the first two movies she doesn’t show any skin below her neck. Given many of the influences on the movie(*), which use women’s exotic dress to convey a sense that we are in a different land with different customs, that seems like a deliberate choice to avoid that convention.

      (*) In particular, Princess of Mars, where we learn the Martians where almost no clothing.Report

    • Avatar Kristin Devine in reply to Doctor Jay
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      I have a piece on “The Princess Problem” I’ve been tinkering with forever – great point about Rapunzel. While I like that movie overall I find it problematic in a number of ways and that’s an interesting take on the character. Why would she be so friendly and open with people, she’d been raised to think everyone was out to get her?Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Doctor Jay
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      It has recently been explained to me that the Princess trope is popular because a princess is a girl you have to listen to. I’m still not exactly sure if that justifies the princess trope because princesses still carry a lot of historical and mythological baggage like you pointed out above. Since I also believe we made much more progress on gender issues than many people on my side believe, I don’t think the girl you have to listen to is really that big.Report

  6. Avatar DavidTC
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    The entire start of that movie makes no sense at all. The rescue plan is completely incoherent.

    That said, I think some of the objection to the bikini is that it often gets shown as Leia being ‘sexy’, or worn by others to be sexy, and it’s…not. It’s just ‘Let’s do it as a sexy Halloween costume’ is…ugh. It’s Leia captured, and without any agency, until she strangles a slug. It’s like dressing up as ‘Sexy Cersei Walk of Shame’. (I’m aware that would generally not be legal, but you get my point.)

    And I agree that the ‘strangling Jabba with her chains’ makes it reasonable within the movie. Yes, Leia gets captured, but so does Han, and so does Luke, and I actually think everyone gets captured at least once more at various times, and honestly the movie is actually really good at being somewhat gender-neutral in the roles, especially for its time. It might start off as ‘damsel in distress’, but it quickly deconstructs that.

    Except…for the longest time, Leia’s role in the trilogy was almost shorthanded as ‘metal bikini’. That was the most remembered part. This says less about the movie than it does the toxic atmosphere in which a lot of men watch movies.

    Artist intent isn’t some magical thing, and while I have no idea what Lucas’ intent actually was there, the fact that people watched a scene that is probably supposed to be ‘main character humiliated’ and walked about with ‘Sexy metal space bikini’ is…art failure. So, under that logic, the movie, _artistically_, would have been better to show her in some better outfit…

    …I say, pretending we don’t know full well the point was to just to get some T&A in there. It’s T&A that’s justified by the plot, but, as others pointed out, the plot isn’t some magical thing that appears, and honestly not only could it be removed and the plot stay the same, it actually doesn’t make sense…and I don’t mean for her to be captured like that, which also doesn’t make sense. I mean Jabba really shouldn’t have any interests in sexualizing Leia anyway, Hutts don’t have genders. The entire scene is stupid. If Leia needs to be humiliated, chaining her up and making her do the bidding of Jabba was more than enough.

    But that’s not really where the pushback on the bikini is aimed. The pushback is, for basically since the movie came out until fairly recently, that outfit was treated as sexy. And a society that looks at ‘half dressed kidnapped woman forced to wear skimpy outfit’ and says ‘Woo! Skimpy outfit!’ has problems….even if, in all likelihood, that’s what the movie wanted, and spent some effort justifying.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to DavidTC
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      I think what’s odd is the idea that we’re supposed to be happy about fanservice like lightsabers and spaceships and lasergun battles, but fanservice like “attractive woman in a bikini” is Bad and Wrong and Must Never Happen.

      Someone pointed out that Star Trek Discovery managed to make Rebecca Romjin look unattractive, and it seems to me like there’s this idea that nerds need to be punished for saying that looking at sexy girls is fun.

      Oh, that means nerds think “sexy” is more valuable than “not sexy” and therefore we’ll ignore true worth to society in favor of the Unearned Privilege of sexiness? You’re missing the part where the kind of pulp stories that nerds love will always suggest that “sexy plus capable”–or even “capable, willing, and good-hearted”–is better than “bubblehead beauty”. Like, how many stories are there where the hero moons over the doofy princess but ends up with the spunky stable girl?Report

  7. Avatar DensityDuck
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    One thing I always wonder is:

    (Darth Vader crushes a dude’s throat) this is fine
    (Rebel pilots scream in agony as explosions incinerate them) this is fine
    (Luke Skywalker’s hand gets chopped off) this is fine
    (Carrie Fisher in a bikini) WHOOOOOOA THIS IS WRONG BAD CONTENT PROBLEMATIC NOBODY SHOULD EVER SUGGEST THAT SEX HAPPENS THANK YOU VERY MUCH

    Like, lines have already been crossed here, dude.Report

    • Avatar Maribou in reply to DensityDuck
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      @densityduck

      I entirely agree not only with this comment but also with the comment above. Wait, except for the second-hand and relatively minor claim that Rebecca Romijn managed to look unattractive in Discovery. I dispute that. I mean, they made her kinda non-photogenic in stills, comparatively – but in actual moving pictures, she’s still totally smoking.

      Otherwise, totally agree with @DensityDuck.

      How often has that ever happened?Report

      • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Maribou
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        I think it’s derived from the reasoning that goes:
        1) Sexual Assault Is Bad
        2) Sexual Assault is encouraged by seeing women as objects, commodities, holes to be filled, something used for the satisfaction of the male and otherwise irrelevant
        3) Popular media has the status of the arbiter of norms in culture, therefore what popular media shows is assumed to be an encouraged norm, same with the form of engagement with media and the responses to it
        4) Therefore if popular media depicts women as attractive objects, #3 suggests that the audience will develop the idea that viewing women as objects is the norm, and we thus proceed to #2 and so on to #1.

        Which is…not entirely wrong-headed, but it seems like the whole chain of reasoning has been reduced to “sexygirl doublebad”.Report

    • Avatar DavidTC in reply to DensityDuck
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      The fact you think of it as ‘Carrie Fisher in a bikini’ sorta shows the problem there. I’m not saying it’s _your_ fault, that’s pop culture osmosis controlling how people think about that scene, but…what pop culture osmosis has decided is the actual problematic thing, not the scene itself.

      If there was a scene where Leia dressed in a revealing outfit on her own, in some other context, sure.

      Having her most revealing outfit (In fact, it’s really the only slightly revealing thing she wears.) be against her will and during enslavement is fine if the intent in the movie is ‘This is a horrible thing being done to her’, and I’ll mostly accept the idea that’s what _Lucas_ intended…the problem is that pop culture and all of society seemingly has entirely forgotten that, or at least it did until recently and people started pushing back against it.

      It’s rather telling that, if you were to check television and whatnot for the past three decades for ‘What famous costume do characters in this talk about as sexy?’, the most popular choice, with probably as many mentions as all others combined, would be ‘That time a powerful woman was enslaved and put half-dressed into an outfit against her will’. Like…huh. That’s…weird.Report

    • Avatar atomickristin in reply to DensityDuck
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      I am of the opinion that seeing sexy stuff on screen affects the human brain differently than seeing violent stuff on screen does and I suspect most people share that opinion deep down inside, even if they’ve never inspected it very closely.

      And so I believe it’s that reason why people put Darth Vader choking a guy and Leia in a bikini in two different categories.

      It’s because they belong in two different categories.Report

  8. Avatar Jaybird
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    Not that it matters, but Carrie Fisher herself had a relevant opinion:

    Her best moment, she said, was killing the monstrous Jabba the Hutt. “I had a lot of fun killing Jabba the Hutt. They asked me on the day if I wanted to have a stunt double kill Jabba. No! That’s the best time I ever had as an actor. And the only reason to go into acting is if you can kill a giant monster.”

    Remember the “whatever will I tell my daughter?” thing? Carrie Fisher had an opinion on that too:

    “WSJ: There’s been some debate recently about whether there should be no more merchandise with you in the “Return of the Jedi” bikini.

    Fisher: I think that’s stupid.

    WSJ: To stop making the merchandise?

    Fisher: The father who flipped out about it, ‘What am I going to tell my kid about why she’s in that outfit?’ Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.”

    Looking at the bikini without looking at the scene in which she killed Jabba seems to be overlooking something fairly important.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Jaybird
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      (This comment isn’t me disagreeing with you. It’s me agreeing with you.)Report

    • Avatar George Turner in reply to Jaybird
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      Oh, so the privileged white princess thinks her best moment was strangling an alien space slug of color, whose people have struggled for mere social acceptability, because he didn’t fit her ideals of attractiveness and desirability? Then she and her cohorts ruthlessly slaughtered his entire multi-ethnic entourage just to bust out their trashy criminal friend who owed a lot of money to a smuggling cartel, so they could fly off and slaughter tens of thousands of innocent construction contractors in a terrorist attack on an orbital space station, while using cute little stone-age teddy bears as cannon fodder.

      How on Earth did this woman become a hero?

      *Is willing to re-explain Star Wars to all your youngin’s.*Report

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