The Quest for Queer Representation in Star Wars: Why It’s Needed, and How We Can Get There
text, images, and art by: Kaela Joseph, PhD
December 17, 2015 was a pivotal moment in my adult life. In a crowded theater in Daly City, CA, I watched with the rest of the world as a central woman character in a Star Wars film wielded a lightsaber for the first time. I gasped, I cried, I felt a cosmic shift in the universe! I was seeing, for the first time, what my childhood friends and I had always dreamed of- a world in which women got to use the Force, a world in which women were just as strong as the men. A world where we could see ourselves reflected in in our heroes.
Now, don’t think this means I am in any way dismissing the importance of our dear General Leia Organa, or the late great actor who portrayed her, Carrie Fisher. Leia was, in many ways, my first onscreen role model. She was the confident leader who could love the men in her life, but didn’t need to be defined by them. It always bothered me, however, that she never really got to use the Force for anything more than advanced intuition. I’d spend years of childhood play correcting this!
The Last Jedi did even more for the onscreen representation of women. Not only did we get a well-developed and likable woman force wielder, wrestling with deep fundamental questions of dark versus light, but we got a whole slew of women characters! One of them was even a woman of color! The character of Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, who herself is a first-generation child of Vietnamese, immigrant parents, is of particular importance. In a world where women of Asian heritage have often been hypersexualized or stereotyped as demure by Western media and pop-culture, Rose’s bravery and assertiveness are a welcome challenge to those tropes. She is not without a sexuality, but it is not her defining characteristic.
There was so much good the team behind The Last Jedi did to diversify our galaxy far, far away, and big screens in theaters across the globe, but there was one set of identities that was glaringly missing- LGBTQ identities.
It is no secret that many fans have long hoped for better representation of queer characters, in Star Wars and elsewhere. In fact, fans were so vocal, it has been addressed outright by Last Jedi writer-director, Rain Johnson. In a recent Buzzfeed article by Adam B. Vary, aptly titled “Why LGBT Representation Didn’t Make it Into ‘The Last Jedi,’” Johnson is quoted as saying the reason diverse sexualities didn’t make it into the film was that, “sexuality in general is not something that’s front of mind in any of these movies.” To me, this is the fundamental problem in how many non-LGBTQ identified writers think about queer characters- the idea that their sexuality needs to be the point of the story, and not just another aspect of a character’s many intersecting identities.
It’s easy to understand how writers could fall into this mythos about queer identity, after all, LGBTQ identities are often considered “invisible” identities. While sometimes made intentionally visible through clothing, hairstyles, and other forms of personal expression that bend or blend conventional notions of gender, the general rule of thumb is that we don’t know someone is LGBTQ until they identify themselves as such. So, unlike casting someone whose very image will evoke a sense of shared identity between like-identified people, such as casting women and people of color, we need more specificity with queer characters to know they are queer identified. What I pose to Johnson, and other creatives, is this- LGBTQ characters, like actual LGBTQ people, are more than who they do or don’t kiss by the film’s end. LGBTQ characters, again like actual LGBTQ people, can exist in storylines without overt sexual themes.
There are some examples of popular media in which this is done well. TV’s Walking Dead, for example, first introduces gay characters like Jesus and Aaron with little mention of their sexuality. We eventually come to know that they are gay, Aaron through his pre-existing partnership with boyfriend Eric, and Jesus through remarks about how he came to be with the Hilltop Colony. Their sexuality, however, it isn’t the most important thing about them. Similarly, the television show Supernatural introduces us to lesbian character Charlie as a brilliant IT specialist. Her queerness is later revealed when she is told to flirt with a man to create a diversion during a hacking mission gone awry. FX’s Legion is able to give layers of complexity to a character’s arc, through largely visual storytelling, that involves only about six 6 and a half minutes of screen time introducing that character’s multi-ethnic, LGBTQ family. Other properties, such as Steven Universe and Adventure Time, address sexuality and gender through children’s media, which is inherently non-sexual in nature.
Now, I, and many others, would love a fully fleshed out Star Wars film, dedicated to all the complexities of intersectional identities, including overt discussions of sex and gender at the story’s forefront (think the incredible Master of None bottle episode, “Thanksgiving,” in which writer-actor Lena Waithe explores the intersections of race, sexuality, and gender expression within a multigenerational family unit… but with spaceships). As amazing as that would be, it isn’t the only way to tell queer stories or introduce queer characters. It’s where we need to eventually get to, but there are a lot of possibilities in between.
So, if queer representation does not rely solely on the development of innately queer stories, why is it important at all? It’s important for the same reason that all representation is important- because being or feeling invisible separates us from critical connections with others. It’s why many of us flock to fandom in the first place- because we are looking for a society that plays by our own rules, not the ones of the heteronormative, dominant culture. Unlike merely being a fan of a show or movie, fandom is a community of people coming together around a particular medium to create a shared system of norms, values, and rituals that serve to maintain group cohesion- all things sociologist Emile Durkheim outlines as key structural components of a society. To put it more simply, we structure fandoms to mirror societies we want to be a part of, in much the same way that LGBTQ communities, and other subcultures do.
In some cases, such as with Star Wars, fandom, the franchise, and popular culture become so intertwined that they act as competing products of the dominant culture-all commenting on one another simultaneously to achieve a sort of equilibrium. Sociologist Talcott Parsons described this sort of equilibrium as “functionalism,” with the aforementioned Durkheim being a big proponent of the idea throughout his own work. When the largest and second largest weekend box-office grossing films of all time are two Star Wars films with a woman lead and a cast of color, in a real world were women and people of color are disenfranchised by a history of social structures that favor white men, it creates a vacuum in which one set of norms and values must shift to meet the other.
Writer-directors like JJ Abrams and Rain Johnson get that. It’s why they have both been quoted in the press as saying that LGBTQ storylines DO need to be explored at some point. The problem is, Abrams and Johnson don’t know how to write queer characters because they are themselves a product of the dominant culture. I don’t mean this negatively, thy just are straight, cisgender, white men. Their whole worldview is informed by that, whether they want it to be or not. They have the deference to acknowledge that LGBTQ representation is needed, but not the understanding of how to execute it well, so they’ve left it well enough alone.
It is worth mentioning that some LGBTQ representation does exists in the Star Wars expanded universe, made up of games, novels, and other story arcs that were either created or officially licensed by Lucsfilm, the production company under which Star Wars properties were made prior to Disney’s buyout of the production company in 2012. A brief history of LGBTQ characters in the expanded universe can be found in an article by Phil Owen titled, “LGBT ‘Star Wars’ Characters: A Brief History.” While the expanded universe still holds a great deal of importance within the Star Wars fandom, it’s audience is considerably smaller than the films. Additionally, the official canon of Star Wars, what the production companies behind the property consider to be influential in the events of the property as a whole, has changed considerably since the Disney buyout, making many of the characters in the aforementioned article non-canonical.
A more recent novel, Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi Leia, Princess of Alderaan, the character Amilyn Holdo is portrayed as being attracted to multiple genders and species. The portrayal comes from a small bit of dialogue in which Amilyn remarks that Leia’s attraction to “just humanoid males,” to Amilyn, “feels so limiting.” When it was announced that Amilyn Holdo would appear in The Last Jedi, portrayed by actor Laura Dern, many hoped her sexual identity would be addressed onscreen. The character even shares screen time with General Leia, meaning direct reference could have been made to their conversation from the novel. The movie universe version of Amilyn Holdo, however, was given no such lines or other context through which film audiences could know her sexual identity. Characters Poe Dameron and Finn, played by actors Oscar Isasac and John Boyega respectively, were other characters who many fans hoped might be confirmed as LGBTQ, but whose fictional love affair continues to exist only in fan fiction and fan art, for now.
To achieve better queer representation, we need something more than Abrams and Johnson, we need more queer writers and directors at the helms of major motion picture like the Star Wars films. We need queer script doctors, producers, actors, animators, etc. who can stand up and say, “you know, what if we did this one small thing differently to expand this character’s identity?” We need organizations like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLADD) to continue consulting with major players in Hollywood to make sure LGBTQ people are represented realistically and thoughtfully. Most of all we need queer voices in fandom to continue to speak out about the need for representation, voices like Rae Binstock.
In their Slate article “Why Do Queer People Write Fanfiction? To See Themselves in Mainstream Culture,” Brinstock compares being a queer person consuming popular media as akin to “being a diabetic invited to an ice-cream social: It’s fun until it starts to hurt, and at some point you’ll inevitably feel left out.” To bring Brinstock and Durkheim together, Brinstock is referring to a sense of social isolation that, at best can feel like being the lone person at a party unable to eat ice cream, and at worst can feel like the kind of social dis-integration, or anomie, that Derkheim discusses in his theories of suicide. While there is no literature directly linking something like queer representation in Star Wars to LGBTQ suicides, we do know that social environments play a huge role in suicide risk reduction among LGBTQ youth. Likewise, we know that popular media plays a huge role in shaping modern social landscapes. So, why not create more media in which LGBTQ people can see themselves as strong and resilient people worthy of life in all its forms?
A recent call to action by GLADD to Disney stated this: “Sci-fi projects have the special opportunity to create unique worlds whose advanced societies can serve as a commentary on our own.” If The Last Jedi can do that with women and people of color, then it, and other films, must begin to reconsider how to also do this with LGBTQ characters.
I am no longer a little kid playing with plastic lightsabers. Over the years, I’ve been able to find other means to define my sexual and gender identities as a cisgender, bisexual woman in the context of other identities such as my whiteness, my Southern US upbringing, my trainings as a psychologist, and the many other things that make me who I am. While I would LOVE to see a queer character in a Star Wars film, I don’t NEED it in the way that younger audiences do. The same way The Last Jedi teaches us that some heroes and legends must die to make way for new ones, some old tropes about how to write queer characters must also die to make way for the kinds of stories fans have been passing around to one another in play, fan-fiction, and fan art for years. This is no new rebellion. Like Rey’s power in The Last Jedi, the desire for better LGBTQ representation by fans “has always been there, but now it’s awake.”