Queer Representation in Star Wars: More a Starting Point Than a Final Destination

aphra-sana

There’s a lot to be said for how quickly Star Wars went from no canonically queer characters to more than a handful. Considering that Star Wars had an Expanded Universe that carried on for over thirty years with barely a mention of gay characters,1 the last few years have had a veritable boom of queerness. There was a point in the past where I could count the number of queer characters on one hand, but that’s not where we are anymore.

So: the canon representation is better than before. We can all agree that it’s better than nothing. But better enough? Not quite.

I think that for many of us—queer fans in particular—it’s been a long time coming to see characters like Sinjir Rath Velus, Kaeden Larte, and even Moff Mors in such a beloved universe. Long enough that, understandably, characters and stories that resonate with fans end up on pedestals of a kind. When underrepresented fans find a character they can see themselves in for the first time, it’s not uncommon for them to then turn around and find a large chunk of fans railing against the existence of so-called “forced” inclusivity. Cue sighs.

Except, when even unremarkable diversity is vehemently defended from all objections, the universe isn’t given a chance to grow in a better direction. We butt up against two main issues here: implicit representation—AKA author headcanon, or Word Of God—and just generally average writing that isn’t always given room to be criticized. (And I think it’s not exactly difficult to figure out which trilogy I might be talking about here.)

Word Of God, most often seen in Star Wars literature as, “I think of this character as [queer] but I didn’t actually write it into the story,” is something that’s come up ever since JK Rowling told the world that Dumbledore is actually gay, even though it’s not explicit in the books. We, as queer fans, end up with characters in a strange grey area where we know that the author supposed they were gay, but we can never assume that’s the actual truth in-universe lest another author make them straight in a new story.

ahsoka-novel

…maayybe?

Or, they’re a character that appears within the cinematic or animated stories, and can therefore not be confirmed as whatever non-straight sexuality the author imagined because—well, I don’t really have a “because” for this except a general assumption that Disney might be worried about wider audience reactions. See: Ahsoka in Ahsoka, or Phasma in Phasma. Ahsoka’s sexuality is left frustratingly with no hint of closure, whereas Delilah S. Dawson said she saw Phasma as asexual, but probably holds little sway over where the films go with the character.

Headcanon can only go so far, even when it’s the headcanon of licensed authors. Headcanon does not equal canon. It barely counts as representation, if at all. Implied diversity is easily missed, easily disregarded, easily overwritten. Implied diversity feels like an afterthought, even if it’s not intended to be. As if a friend doesn’t invite you to their party, assuming you’ll know you’re implicitly invited, and you instead think they don’t want you there and miss out because nobody bothered to tell you.

But underrepresented fans will take what they can get, even if it’s not actually there in the text. Even if, overall, the writing or the story or the characterization falls flat for them or for others. Fandom and official literature ends up in a feedback loop of sorts: weak stories and implicitly queer characters are praised for what little they give us, and therefore we are given more of what we praise. Not better, not different, but more.

I don’t mean to disrespect Aftermath, which was trolled for its unique writing style and explicitly queer characters, because I genuinely enjoyed the first novel when I read it. However, as the two following books were released, more genuine criticism began to emerge that was often disregarded alongside the initial trolling efforts. A lot of people love the trilogy, and a lot of people don’t. That’s expected for any series, really. The big difference with Aftermath is that it gets increasingly difficult to express distaste for aspects of the books without fans becoming defensive. Discussion doesn’t happen between those of us who love the novels and those of us who don’t, and nobody gets any closer to a real understanding of what other fans are truly yearning for.

I think the final book is incredibly weak, especially in its portrayal of Sinjir Rath Velus, one of the leading gay characters in Star Wars. I think that Chuck Wendig genuinely wants to do good by his queer characters, though he is a straight man who can only draw on secondhand experiences of what queerness is. I think that discussing the good and bad of characters like Sinjir is how both fans and authors move forward with better interpretations of queerness in Star Wars. I think Aftermath is more a starting point than a final destination when it comes to diversity in Star Wars.

These are things that we struggle with: finding the line between honestly tearing apart something that is trying its best, and wholeheartedly loving a piece of media that speaks to us in a way that nothing else ever has.

In the end, Star Wars has reached out to queer fans in ways that nobody truly expected back in 2012. Moff Mors no longer stands as the sole, questionably hedonistic lesbian in the entire universe. She’s part of the many; simply a terrible human rather than terrible representation. Star Wars is taking steps, but we can’t let ourselves forget that they’re still baby steps. Let’s not let up just yet.

  1. Yes, I know about the married Mandalorian guys. []

8 comments

  1. chriswerms says:

    So, if I’m reading this correctly, the two main problems are: 1) that authors aren’t allowed the freedom to canonically describe character’s sexuality, so that their headcanons can be overwritten, and 2) a lot of current LGBT representation happens in bad books, meaning conversation is harder to have in order to critique and refine these representations, correct? What did you think about From a Certain Point of View which had (no spoilers!) what felt like more than a few LGBT characters (and a very surprising one!)? Was that a good step forward, even a baby step?

  2. passcod says:

    I wouldn’t say “bad books”: more like “average books.”

    Johnston’s Ahsoka in particular fell short of describing *anything* about Ahsoka apart from fleeting feelings as she went about her adventure. At the end of the book, I knew about two planets and a rebellion she had fomented, but I didn’t really know more about who she was, how she thought, what her inner struggles and desires were.

    That thx works are not so terrible that their only redeeming point is the representation but also not very good is really the crux of the argument, I think: it would be easier to critique bad books, but because they’re merely average, criticism is more subjective and can be seen as finding nits to pick in an otherwise decent take, and that’s when many get defensive.

    • Kind of? On one hand, yes, but on the other hand “bad” books are kind of subjective no matter what, and for a lot of people (not me) the Aftermath books come across as bad. So, it depends. “Bad” ends up with the very divided sides, “average” has exactly the issues you say.

  3. Eric Brown says:

    If I may ask – what would you *want* to see (what would be your ideal look like) and how do you think that could come about?

    • Honestly, Twilight Company is kind of my fave sort of book—but I’d want something like that with a bit more explicitness of, say, Brand being a lesbian. What I want to see is very tight storytelling that makes representation explicit, but doesn’t 1. make it all the character/story exists for and 2. doesn’t dance around canon characters in weird ways, if that makes sense. I think that comes about from bringing in diverse authors from other backgrounds, in all honesty.

  4. Pizzafishjedi2 says:

    Not just the Mandalorians–also Juhani from KOTOR. And Theron Shan amd Lana Beniko from The Old Republic!

Chime In

%d bloggers like this: