You would be forgiven for thinking that the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, sticks all too closely to the template of A New Hope. The three leads are once again two men and one woman, all with immense and easy chemistry that could, like Star Wars’ original trilogy, set up a love triangle in future instalments. But if the filmmakers heed the internet chatter since the film’s first screenings, it would not be Daisy Ridley’s Rey at the apex of that triangle, but John Boyega’s Finn as a love interest for both Rey and Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron. Internet fandom would have us believe that there’s a romantic spark on Poe’s part, because Poe is gay.
Partly this comes from the modern internet tendency to read all intense male friendships as secret romances – a tendency almost as damaging as assuming that none are. But there could, theoretically, be something in it this time. Poe gives Finn his name, replacing the Stormtrooper designation FN-2187, and then gives him a jacket. When reunited after believing one another dead, Poe runs towards Finn and throws himself into an embrace; if Finn were a woman, we’d be in little doubt that that was enough to signal interest. Should we doubt it just because they’re both men? The Force Awakens radically put a woman and a black man front-and-centre; why not add a gay man and complete a trifecta of the underrepresented?
“I think it’s very subtle romance that’s happening; you have to watch it a few times to see the little hints. At least I was playing romance; in the cockpit I was playing romance,” joked Oscar Isaac on Ellen the day before the movie came out. Boyega agreed, “I was playing romance,” – though it wasn’t clear that he was talking about the same scene, or that he was any more serious. Isaac finished by saying, “I won’t say with which character. It could be a droid.”
Hardly a smoking gun, and the hugs and shoulder-slapping between Poe and Finn more closely echoes the camaraderie of Han and Luke at the end of A New Hope that it does the relationship of either man with Princess Leia. The difference is that Poe has almost no connection with Rey at all, so the audience has no female love interest to mentally hang on this Han Solo-alike daredevil. And that is relatively unusual, so perhaps we are at least meant to wonder.
If Poe were to be gay, it would be a true landmark, and Star Wars would be the first major Hollywood franchise to have a central, heroic gay character. Very few big films have any LGBT characters outside comedies and awards-focused dramas. Even JK Rowling’s revelation that Dumbledore is canonically gay came after the films were released and was not referred to onscreen. Aside from two supporting characters in The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and some characters in the rather counter-cultural V For Vendetta, gay people are notable by their total absence from action films. Moreover, Star Wars would be the first family franchise to have a key character who is gay. ParaNorman led the way with the first openly gay character in a kids film, while Disney’s Frozen unleashed a storm of controversy over a single shot which suggested that an incidental male character might be married to another man.
The time would seem to be coming where we could and should have a hotshot X-wing pilot who happens to be gay. US public opinion is firmly behind marriage equality now, as is British opinion, and the critical raves for films like Carol suggest that it should not be too far a leap. But the Frozen outcry demonstrated that America’s right-wing is still ready and willing to scream immorality at positive portrayals of gay people, and parts of the rest of the world are similarly unwelcoming. China only removed homosexuality from the Ministry of Health’s list of mental illnesses in 2001 and has no anti-discrimination legislation to protect LGBT people, but it’s also one of the fastest-growing and most lucrative film markets in the world.
Positive depictions of gay relationships are generally censored by the Chinese film board – and with only a small number of foreign films approved for release each year, Hollywood faces a potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars if they produce a film that won’t be screened in China. The perceived Hollywood wisdom – though it’s largely untested – is that other swathes of the globe are also religiously or culturally inhospitable to gay characters. With a $4 billion investment in the Star Wars franchise to recoup, Disney faces a serious financial test of its commitment to equality if its filmmakers include a gay character and fail to break records as a result.
But the pressure to portray humanity as it is keeps growing. Right now, filmmakers – at best – leave the question of sexuality open. Another Disney franchise, Captain America, seems to be following that model when faced with a similar internet storm. After its second instalment, The Winter Soldier, it became the subject of fervent online speculation about the passionate friendship between Steve Rogers and his childhood friend Bucky Barnes. Director Joe Russo recently said, “People have interpreted that relationship all kinds of ways, and it’s great to see people argue about it what that relationship means to them. We will never define it as filmmakers, explicitly, but however people want to interpret it they can interpret it.”
He went on, however, to claim that he saw it as more a band of brotherhood than anything else. But with Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers spending The Winter Soldier turning down dates suggested by the gorgeous Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and then Avengers: Age Of Ultron trying to set her up with Hulk, there has been little effort to put out the fire.
So now the Star Wars brain trust faces a choice. There could be some compelling reason in the already-planned stories of Episodes VIII and Episode IX why Poe should canonically be straight, in which case they could ignore the online speculation and continue as planned. But they have an opportunity to make an ardent group of fans happy, and to make history, by giving us the first openly gay lead in a major action film. There could be a financial penalty for making Poe gay, but surely Star Wars of all franchises could afford it. And there would also be a quietly powerful statement that Disney – now by some distance the most powerful pop-culture force in filmmaking – values everyone and not just the straight, white heroes of yesteryear.
The perceived wisdom is that it was a risk to have a film led by an unknown young woman and a black man, but the box-office has shattered that argument. Perhaps Star Wars can risk a few more bucks to make history once more, because if Rey and Finn show how far we’ve come, perhaps Poe shows how far we still have to go.