Space queers and queer spaces
Representation and inclusion in the Star Wars universe
In space, nobody can hear you insist that everyone is straight. Image via Nerdist. Even before I knew what the word ‘queer’ meant, I have always been able to relate to queerness. My dad owned a boxed set of the Star Wars original trilogy films on videotape. I used to run my fingers over the image of Darth Vader and copy the low haw-purr of his breathing in excitement as I opened the box to choose a film. It was usually The Empire Strikes Back, which is still my favourite of the saga to date.
I grew up on the 1997 special editions of the original trilogy. Image via eBay.co.uk.
As a kid, I liked Darth Vader the most. He was unmistakable and I liked the way that he prowled his ship, cloak sweeping behind him. I liked his majestic, imposing theme tune. I liked his eloquence and commanding presence. I liked him because he was mysterious and compelling. I liked that he had a purpose and a direction in life, even if it was to crush the Rebels and keep control of the Galaxy.
To me, queerness manifested as an overwhelming feeling of otherness. I knew there was something queer about Darth Vader. I recognized him as different; none of the other characters moved or acted or sounded or looked like him.
I liked that he was different, because I was different too.
From what I observed as a child, power and difference didn’t go hand-in-hand. I wanted nothing more than to be like everyone else, to be like the heroes I saw. I always preferred the villains in most fiction. It wasn't until I was much older until I figured out that I liked the bad guys because they tend to be racially and queer-coded. All I knew at the time was that I felt that I understood the motivations of the villainous characters more than I understood the motivations of the hero. If the bad guys had been ostracized for their differences, why wouldn't they want to change that? But Darth Vader’s differences set him apart. They aren't a detriment to his power — they're the source of it.
Darth Vader unleashes his power at the end of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Video via Kenneth Garaza on YouTube.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Darth Vader was my first queer hero.
The Force Awakens, the Force stays woke I was 21 when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. It holds a special place in my heart because it was the first Star Wars film that I was able to contextualize, to relate the message of the film to real-life events. Every time I think about the fact that the new protagonists are a woman, a Black man, and a Latino man, my heart swells. I can't wait to see Kelly Marie Tran's character, Rose Tico, in The Last Jedi.
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). Tran is the first Asian woman to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair. Image via Vanity Fair.
The Force Awakens prompted me to think about racial, gender, and sexual norms in the Star Wars universe, and in our universe. Star Wars, especially the prequels, is well-known for its negative racial stereotyping and alien coding. This was one of the reasons that I loved Rogue One so much. There were finally characters who looked like me, characters who were skilled, useful, loved, and needed. Rogue One was the first Star Wars film that had me cheering for the Rebel Alliance because I finally saw characters who resonated with me — and for once, they weren't the bad guys.
The heroic cast of Rogue One, left to right: Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), and Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen). Image via StarWars.com.
As for gender and sexuality, I get excited about the possibility of a canon queer relationship between Finn and Poe. Leading queer rights organizations agree. But I need this to be more than just a possibility, confined to the imaginations of fanfiction writers. Why is it that, in a film series where planets destroy each other and starships can travel at the speed of light, there aren't any confirmed queer or trans characters? Are queer and trans characters less believable than fighting with swords made from loops of plasma? Also, there are innumerable alien species and there's no way that our binary gender and sex system would be any use in trying to classify them.
Members of the Hutt species possess two different sets of reproductive organs. In our universe, we may deem them to be intersex. Image via Wikipedia.
There probably are queer and trans characters in the movies. But our assumptions that everyone is straight and cisgender until proven otherwise lead us to believe that there are none.
Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker, has said that viewers should interpret the characters and that interpretations that Luke is gay are valid.
"...fans are writing and ask all these questions, 'I'm bullied in school... I'm afraid to come out. They say to me, 'Could Luke be gay?' I'd say it is meant to be interpreted by the viewer... If you think Luke is gay, of course he is. You should not be ashamed of it. Judge Luke by his character, not by who he loves.”
— Mark Hamill responds to his queer fans in 2016.
It's reassuring to know that the actors welcome an array of interpretations. But I would argue that acceptance of fan interpretations isn't enough. At this stage, we need confirmation from the creators because for me, it would mean that I wouldn't have to imagine that there are characters like me in the Star Wars films becuase it would be an undeniable fact. It would mean that I wouldn't have to view Darth Vader as queer coded. It would mean that he just is queer.
Representation vs. inclusion
That's not to say that there are no canonically queer Star Wars characters, because there are! The Star Wars canon universe goes beyond the films. When I was watching the 1997 film editions, I didn't know that. But now I can enjoy the work of authors like Chuck Wendig, who have done a fantastic job of including queer and trans characters in the canon Star Wars novels. For example, in the Aftermath trilogy, we have Esmelle and Shirene who are a married couple with the Rebels. Wendig also confirmed that Grand Admiral Rae Sloane is bisexual.
Rae Sloane. Image via Wookipedia.
Wendig has addressed fans who have questioned the inclusion of Eleodie Maracavanya, a space pirate who uses a variety of different pronouns in the series.
Wendig responds to fans who ask whether Eleodie Maracavanya's "zhe/zher" pronouns are a mistake. Image via Twitter.
What I like best about these characters is that their sexual and gender identities don't dominate their narrative, but it's not just mentioned as an aside. It's a part of who they are. They're just queer and trans characters on a space adventure. I'm not interested in "representation" — I'm interested in inclusion. To me, representation means a character who is the standard for the group that they are supposed to represent. People who are not a member of that group look to the character for an example of what people from the group are like.
I'm not here for that. Inclusion, then, is about having characters who have different backgrounds, who aren't meant to be examples of their race, gender, or sexuality. They're complex; these aspects of their identity aren't the be-all and end-all of their character. I'm happy we have these characters in the books. But I also want them in the films. Young children, who are old enough to watch a movie but not old enough to read, need to see queer, trans, and racialized characters on screen. (And unlike in Rogue One, I need them to stay alive.)
In a world that teaches us that in order to be happy, successful, and loved, you need to be straight, white, and cisgender, we need characters whose stories counter that narrative. It's all well and good for me to look to Darth Vader as a character whose differences make him great, but that's still an interpretation on my part. It's nonetheless valid, but it's not the same as having external support, for the people who are behind such creations who can say that, yes, this character is queer and we wrote them with people like you in mind.