Prior to the release of Solo, co-writer Jonathan Kasdan stated in an interview with The Huffington Post that he “would say” that Lando was pansexual and added that he loved “the fluidity — sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald [Glover] appeals to and that droids are a part of.” Glover would soon jump on board, asking, “How can you not be pansexual in space?” The younger Kasdan tweeted in self-congratulation, “Sorry to have brought identity/gender politics into… NOPE. Not sorry AT ALL ‘cause I think the GALAXY George gave birth to in ‘77 is big enough for EVERYONE: straight, gay, black, white, brown, Twi’lek, Sullustan, Wookiee, DROID & anything inbetween [sic]”.
Of course, this metatextual promise of LGBT representation followed a now-familiar pattern and remained exactly that—metatextual, and at best implicit in the film itself. And yet there is the faintest glimmer of some sort of loving, though platonic (and opposite-sex), relationship between Lando and L3-37. It’s never explicit, and Lando devotes most of his fawning attentions on attractive, apparently female, humanoids. But it is there. It’s present in Lando and L3’s bickering yet comfortable relationship, in how L3 only recognizes Lando as captain and not as owner or master. It’s there in Lando’s tolerance, though not acceptance, of L3’s revolutionary droid ideology. It’s certainly there in L3’s suggestion to Qi’ra that she has contemplated a relationship with Lando, that she believes (or at least jokes) that Lando loves her, that she knows that they would be physically compatible (“it works”) though not compatible as a couple. And it is most strongly there when a distraught Lando rushes through the battlefield on Kessel to recover his fallen companion, frantically attempting to repair her even as she dies in his arms.
But now a Star Wars film has injected droid sexuality squarely into its canon by way of a throwaway line without actually addressing what this means, and in so doing the franchise is now loaded with certain disturbing implications. Allowing for droid sexuality rapidly complicates the issue of droid sentience—droids who can and will have sex or the performative appearance of sexual desires could, if lacking sentience, be creepy sex tools; if they are sentient, then at worst they are sex slaves.
The Kasdans do seem to have genuinely wanted to deal with interesting new angles in the Star Wars setting. Where issues of droid rights or droid revolution have previously been ignored or left to peripheral stories, they’re now front and center. But these ideas are not given enough time to present a cohesive vision. While many found themselves smitten with L3-37, the film itself seems to treat her ideas with a smug grin. Her revolutionary remarks are no more than snappy punch lines; for instance, when Lando asks if she needs anything, she replies, “Equal rights.” There’s not genuine advocacy, and the film offers few emotional hooks for us to invest in L3’s cause.
The tone of Solo briefly changes when the crew pulls the Kessel heist. L3 starts a revolution, and we see the plight of droids paralleled rather strikingly with that of organic, sentient slaves. Just like their humanoid and Wookiee counterparts, the droids would rather not be forced to perform tasks of grueling servitude if given the choice. And if freed from their restraints, they are just as willing to rise up, and they are in fact willing and able to aid their flesh-and-blood compatriots in obtaining freedom and joining them in revolt. But even this scene fails to commit to its ideas. L3 almost distractedly removes a droid’s restraining bolt and suggests a new course to it; while she’s trying to perform her part of the heist, a revolution inadvertently arises all around her. She’s delighted in it and takes credit for it but it seems more the result of a brief moment of pragmatic anarchy rather than the furtherance of any clearly defined ideology. And then that revolution peaks with L3’s death and the removal of her navigational data banks to help the survivors plot a faster course with stolen cargo. The revolution feels pointless and doomed, with a Star Destroyer arriving to restore order.
Why would some droids be okay with servitude, while others are ready to fight for freedom? We have a general idea that memory wipes keep droid personalities in line, and that restraining bolts prevent freedom of movement. The erasure of memory and personality of a fellow human being would be barbaric and immoral; physical shackling and forced labor certainly are as well. It is difficult to see how this would be different with sentient droids (or how it could be acceptable for an alleged friend like Lando to joke that he would definitely wipe L3’s memory if only it didn’t mean wiping out her good navigational records).
But even without the use of these coercive tactics, there’s something deeply unsettling about designing a self-aware mind such that it is programmed to obey others, especially if orders include performing sexual services. Consent is the single most important metric of legal and ethical sex. Outside of situations where consent is clearly lacking, we create legal limits on consent that are tied to the idea that some are not in a position to make a reasoned consent (hence, minimum ages of consent). Relatedly, there is a domain of thought that supports laws against bestiality because of the inability of animals to display full and informed consent. Theologian Andrew Linzey, in articulating just such an argument, noted, “In the case of domestic animals, they are subject to human control and domination; they are absolutely or near-absolutely dependent upon us. What meaning can ‘consent’ have in such a context?” As it is with domestic animals in our galaxy, so it is with droids in that galaxy far, far away. People could delude themselves into thinking that their droids, programmed for sexual services, are conveying consent, but consent is nothing but a phantom where they are controlled and dominated by their manufacturers and owners.
A droid like L3 would probably be most capable of providing clear and informed consent. She is independent and, so far as we can tell, not specifically designed for sexual interaction. She has grown beyond her own programming. As L3 says in Last Shot:
Sure, some guy in a factory probably pieced me together originally, and someone else programmed me, so to speak. But then the galaxy itself forged me into who I am. Because we learn, Lando. We’re programmed to learn. Which means we grow. We grow away from that singular moment of creation, become something new with each changing moment of our lives.
And yet, in the words of the Phylanx in that same novel:
There’s only so much a droid can do, you know, once it’s been programmed. We evolve, sure, but to go all the way against our initial machinations – that takes some time, you know.
Troublingly, this issue of droid consent is bubbling into the real world faster than we may be able to build ethical (and legal) structures to adapt. While we are surely a long way from true artificial intelligence, the behaviors being cultivated by sex dolls and early sex robots are toxic. Even if droids in the Star Wars galaxy are lacking sentience (and that seems highly unlikely at this point, or otherwise a moot point given that droids react in all ways like fully sentient and self-aware beings), the use of droids as sex tools/toys carries the same set of ethical complications that are currently arising outside of fiction.
Why are droids provided a gender or sex at all? Why give a droid a feminine personality, much less female genitalia (or a mechanical equivalent that “works”)? Droids are typically treated as masculine by default, even if gender has no bearing on their functionality (like with an astromech droid). When droids are feminine, they are given exaggerated curves or a pink paint job or a distinctive feminine voice. And droids are most commonly female when appearing in a stereotypically woman-inhabited service role (e.g., waitress droids or “luxury” escort droids). Even the bizarre torture droid EV-9D9 evokes the dominatrix trope.
The presence of a female droid seems to invite male writers to confirm whether or not she is capable of having sex. Such is the case with the Kasdans and L3-37. Such is the case even two decades back with Steve Perry and the human replicant droid, Guri, in Shadows of the Empire (“She could visually pass for a woman anywhere in the galaxy, could eat, drink, and perform all of the more personal functions of a woman without anybody the wiser”). Yet no one ever felt the need to address whether R2-D2, C-3PO, or BB-8 can fuck (and why should a beeping, rolling ball with a hovering bulb of a head even have a binary gender?).
Can droids “evolve,” in the words of Phylanx, out of their programmed gender or sexual orientation? Could a waitress or luxury droid with a feminine voice and female figure feel that he is actually male? Would droids modify their bodies to fit with their ideal images? Could droids choose to have sex even if not designed to? Could droids choose not to have sex even if designed to? To the best of my knowledge, Star Wars has not explored these questions yet, though I’ll admit that I could be unaware of some example.
In short, even if droids can consent to sex, it’s troubling that manufacturers in the Star Wars galaxy keep churning out droids that would be designed for that purpose. Male creators in this franchise have continued to return to certain “sexy” versions of female droids (and female aliens) without fully contemplating what that means for the setting or how that parallels the sexist traditions of our world. Star Wars, as a franchise, has thoughtfully addressed themes of spirituality, politics, and war. But so long as creators toss out half-baked characterizations of droid identity and sexuality, they’ll only further muddy the waters around these complicated topics that will not simply stay safely away among the stars.