To Boldy Go
It’s an interesting time to be a Star Trek fan…or a fan of franchises in general. There’s an overall celebration of nostalgia that is permeating the box office lately, because studios want to desperately remind you that things used to exist. As these franchises get rebooted, however, they often get a fresh coat of paint in one way or another. Some of the more social justice-minded studios recognize that franchises of yesteryear were filled to the brim with white, straight men in the majority of leading roles. Diversity and minority representation has become one of the most talked about topics in nearly every franchise. Star Wars now has a leading woman and black man in the movies. Thor is a female in the comics. And the most recent revelation is that Sulu is a gay man in the new film Star Trek: Beyond.
When I first read the news of Sulu being homosexual, I was 100% on board. After all, the actor who played Sulu in the Original Series, George Takei, is openly gay now, but was closeted at the time. As a tribute to his real-life struggle and as a way to increase homosexual representation in film, this seems like a no-brainer. Couple that with Star Trek’s history of sexual progressiveness…Trek was the first time an interracial kiss was ever televised in the United States. Could you really argue with this logic?
There is an argument that pervades gender-, race-, and orientation-bending: “Why change an old character? Why not make a new one?” I’ve never really subscribed to that school of thought. I’ve found it sort of “cop out” way of saying “I don’t want things to be different!” At its core, identity-bending should make absolutely no difference if what you’re changing doesn’t inform the character. For example, Hermione Granger’s race doesn’t factor into the decisions she makes in Harry Potter, nor did it play any role in her back story. Casting a black woman to portray her in the recent play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is fine since, at her core, Hermione is not defined by her race. In contrast, a character like Marvel’s Black Panther needs to be black because his race is tied to his character (not just his name). Black Panther has fought systematic racism in his comics and stands as a cultural figurehead for his country of Wakanda. Race-bending him would strip his character of his core definition.
So let’s bring it back around to Sulu. Was the character ever defined by his sexuality? The short answer is: no. The long answer is: no, except for in Star Trek: Generations where it’s revealed that Sulu has a daughter, although technically his wife is never mentioned. In either case, Sulu very well could be straight or gay, it’s never mentioned, so it’s surely not a core component of his character.
When it comes to “making a new character,” that can be a messy business for a multitude of reasons. In comics, making a new character to headline a new comics can jeopardize sales. Will consumers seek out some random character, or will the legacy of Iron Man keep his sales up and, eventually, suffocate the new character? Or, in the case of Star Trek, how would fans react to adding a character to the crew who didn’t exist in the show? The cast of Star Trek (Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Sulu, Uhara, Scotty, and Chekov) is a timeless team…would you jeopardize that chemistry with a new character? That’ll draw attention to what should otherwise be a non-issue, and it will only fuel the fires of the second argument that often comes up.
That second argument is: “Why does it matter? Can’t we just have a story without shoe-horning in a pointless trait for the sake of political correctness?” Again, I tend to disregard this argument because it feels like every movie ever has shoehorned in a needless love story. It’s almost self-parody…turn on an action flick and you can pinpoint which woman (usually the only one) will end up in love with the protagonist. Even the first reboot of Star Trek did this! If you watch the Original Series, you will find only a smattering of passing references to Vulcan relationships and no long-term love interest for Spock. The reboot of Spock, however, maintains a relationship with Uhura because…um…why not? His relationship with Uhura informs the main plot very little, so to single out Sulu’s passing reference to homosexuality as “shoehorned,” “superfluous,” and “out of place” can be pretty hypocritical.
So let’s recap: Star Trek is a forward-thinking sci-fi franchise with a history of progressive representation. Given that there were no gay characters on the Original Series, making Sulu, a character whose sexuality was never discussed, homosexual is not out of place or in conflict with the original core of the character. Since George Takei, the original actor, is gay, it would be a nice tribute to the actor. The rebooted series has gone out of their way to add extra romantic tie-ins for other characters, so why not humanize Sulu and add some extra diversity to the screen? It makes perfect sense, right?
Well, here is where things get tricky. After news broke about Sulu’s homosexuality, it was revealed that George Takei disagrees with the change, using the very same “don’t change an existing character, make a new one” argument that I disregard. When I read George’s comments, my initial knee-jerk reaction was “Oh, come on, George!” And that’s not a good reaction for me to have.
Shortly after thinking that, I realized that I, a straight man, was telling a gay man how he should feel about his own representation. That’s not right. But at the same time, the beliefs I hold and listed above are still intact. I still tend to disregard the argument that you can’t race-bend a character (Nick Fury works great!), that you can’t gender-bend a character (Jeri Hogarth works great!), and that you can’t orientation-bend a character. But here, right before me, is a gay man telling me that the orientation-bending of a character is a bad thing.
So the question that remains is how to reconcile this with…everything else? Okay, if George Takei tells me that the orientation-bending of Sulu is a problem, I’ll accept it because, well, he’s the authority on it, not me. But the question then remains…is that the rule? Can you not bend a character? On the flip side to this whole argument is J.K. Rowling, who glowingly endorsed “Black Hermione” and still defends that casting on Twitter.
If a creator (like Rowling) or actor who was close to the creator (like Takei) weighs in on the issue, then yeah, you have a pretty good idea of whether or not the change is problematic. But what about everything in between? What if there is no authority on the character? Then do you trust that the bending is a strong way to include minority representation, or is it actually destroying the integrity of the character? In the past few days, Takei has softened his stance a bit, and the cast of the film (along with producer JJ Abrams) have stood by theirs. It’s a crazy hodge-podge of changing ideas and stances that make the whole issue a bit more gray. Regardless of the shifting sands of creator opinions, let’s turn this conversation a bit more inwards.
Fandom is weird. We have a sense of ownership of the characters that we love. Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk, Spider-Man, Daredevil…at times it feels like the characters I grew up with are all part of my very soul. So when these characters change, it can be very jarring. But who do these characters belong to? Well, three-fourths of the characters I mentioned belong to Disney, but on a more ethereal level, who owns them as characters? And who is the authority on issues that had previously never been discussed? How do you reconcile you’re wants for the characters with what others want for the character?
I don’t know. And that’s a pretty anti-climactic way to end such a long diatribe, but it’s true. I don’t know. Part of me wants to disagree with George Takei and push for more inclusion, but another part of me recognizes that I, as a straight, white dude, have literally no right to disagree with him. It’s not my character, legally or representationally, so who am I to say if it’s right or wrong? There really isn’t a clean solution.
Oh wait, yes there is. STOP REBOOTING OLD FRANCHISES FOR THE SAKE OF NOSTALGIA AND GIVE US SOMETHING NEW FOR ONCE.
Alex Russo is probably going to stir up controversy with this opinion piece. You can yell at him on Twitter.