Film News & Debate: Petition to get gay character in Star Wars

Following the Orlando LGBTQ nigh club shooting in which 49 people died, over 10,000 people have signed a petition to have the makers of Star Wars include an LGBTQ character in the next film in the trilogy.

The petition is in tribute to Drew Leinonen who, alongside his boyfriend Juan Ramon Guerrero, was killed in the Pulse nightclub attack in June. Leinonen was known amongst friends for his love of the series, and the petition was started by his best friend, Joshua Yehl, in his memory.

“Drew was a beacon of positivity in Orlando, a force that brought people together”, Yehl described. “He loved Star Wars, yes, but he also loved his friends and his family, and he was warm and welcoming to everyone he ever met. Nothing would make him happier than for all the little gay nerds out there to have their own Star Wars character to look up to”.

The latest film in the franchise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, was praised for its diversity, with its two leading roles being played by Daisy Ridley and black actor John Boyega. The film was almost a statement against the lack of diversity for female and black actors in Hollywood, with the film self-consciously battling gender stereotypes in particular; at various points in the film Ridley’s character, Rey, showed her disdain at male characters who tried to assist her.

Director, J.J. Abrams, suggested the film series could yet to include an LGBTQ character, stating “to me, the fun of Star Wars is the glory of possibility. So it seems insanely narrow-minded and counterintuitive to say that there wouldn’t be a homosexual character in that world.”

Abrams comments can be seen as a welcome to LGBTQ activists, with Yehl going on to describe how “[Star Wars] is a universe with Wookies, Jawas, and Hutts, so why can’t there be a visible LGBT character on-screen?”

“It’s vitally important that LGBT people are included in mainstream media because it will show that we don’t need to be feared or hated or hidden. We can be part of the rebellion and we can fight evil, and we can do it while being who we are with pride.”

This being said, LGBTQ visibility in cinema is changing. The trailer for Finding Dorycaused online sensation after appearing to feature a possible lesbian couple, and Star Trekco-writer Simon Pegg announcing that the film’s prolific character Hikaru Sulu is gay.

However, with the rise LGBTQ appearances in mainstream cinema, we have to ask: is this new-found phase desirable?

What the petition to get a new gay character in a franchise like Star Wars risks for example is for these characters being defined by their sexuality. And isn’t that what LGBTQ activists have been campaigning against for all these years? We should not be defined by our sexuality, in the same way that Rey shows that her gender does not define her.

In introducing a character simply to be ‘the gay one’ is to treat LGBTQ as an ‘other’. What we don’t need are token gay characters that risk falling into damaging stereotypes. Yes, while it is important to normalise homo- and bisexuality to children and society as a whole, it is also important to let them know that their sexuality is not the only central thing about them. In introducing a gay character for the sake of diversity, these characters become a concept rather than an individual.

In defending his decision to ‘rewrite’ Sulu as gay, Pegg said: “we could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?”

hikaru sulu john cho main main

The character’s current actor, John Cho, approved of the decision, describing that “I liked the approach, which was not to make a big thing out of it, which is where I hope we are going as a species, to not politicise one’s personal orientations.” The decision to rewrite Sulu as gay is in dedication of George Takei, the original actor of the character, who was openly gay and a prominent LGBTQ activist.

The issue perhaps points to a wider societal issue. When you belong to a minority group, your status as an outsider becomes a defining feature of your identity. As we have seen with the appointment of the new Prime Minister, Theresa May, your status as something outside of the norm comes to define you. This is something that needs to end, and will only come about throughout an increase in representation.

At the moment while the film industry still finds its feet in dealing with the rising LGBTQ interest, it is perhaps inevitable that there will be controversy with how best to deal with the representation of such characters. Hollywood must find the right balance to ensure it does not fall into type-casting LGBTQ characters and perpetuate damaging stereotypes or define such characters by their differences to the mainstream.

The aim, after all, is to normalise such identities, not to put them under the spotlight.

Words by Juliette Rowsell

Originally posted on The Indiependent

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