Image Courtesy of Bad Robot
In the past (and perhaps in the present too) there has been the idea of gender exclusive clubhouses. Boys would post signs that said, “No girls allowed,” and those signs would exclude girls, causing many a sister or friend to weep at being left out. In that same past, people of different ethnicities have been excluded from schools, churches, sports, and other events and activities because of such menial differences as skin color. Today, some of us exclude because of sexual preference, leaving one more group left out of the clubhouse of life. As a high school English teacher, I combat exclusion all the time. Through discussion of articles, videos, and literary works, I encourage students to challenge themselves to include others in their lives, even people that they may disagree with on some level. Because I love Star Wars, I will often write my own lessons or use one of the phenomenal lessons from Star Wars in the Classroom to use that saga from a galaxy far, far away to instruct my students. In my mind, I imagine that Star Wars will be interesting to my students and will unite all of them together, leading to better instruction; unfortunately, that is not always the case. Star Wars as a fandom (and science-fiction in general) has also excluded others. For a long time, our fangirls have been left out and told they cannot be a part of our little club (and in some ways, they are still being told that), people of different ethnicities have been told to just be happy with the handful of people of color in a huge galaxy of aliens and humanoids working together, and people who are not straight have just now been told that they can see themselves in Star Wars but only in the books. Using Star Wars in the classroom has been a struggle because inadvertently, I found that I was fighting to open a clubhouse door that had excluded so many for so long. Now, with The Force Awakens in theaters and many more films, books, comics, toys, and videogames in bound, perhaps Star Wars as a property and we as fans of the saga can remove that old, gnarled clubhouse door once and for all.
To say that my female students haven’t been thrilled to have Star Wars injected into their classroom lessons is at least partially not true. Many times one of my female proteges has turned around quickly and communicated their excitement through a series of gestures that to the uninitiated would communicate that they were supposed to steal third or break out into an air guitar solo. After the lesson, these same students can barely contain their excitement as they bound up and share with me how much they love Leia, Padme, and Ahsoka, and we nerd out for a bit, sharing our favorite stories featuring that holy trinity of female Star Wars characters. For each of these students, I also see a look of confusion or a heavy eye roll coming from one of their friends who just doesn’t understand why a girl would possibly like Star Wars. Usually those students are the ones that I can hear telling their excited friends, “I just don’t know. I’ve never watched Star Wars. It’s something my dad and my brother watch together.” At that point, the excited ones have already told me through their gesture kung-fu and flurry of words that their dad, or in some cases their mom, shared it with them. Interest in Star Wars for many of my female students seems to come down to that clubhouse mentality. If they have had someone in their family pull a trailer Luke and tell them, “I like Star Wars. My father or mother liked Star Wars. You can like Star Wars, too,” they tend to be interested. It’s always easier to like something when you feel like you’ve been invited into it.
I think this is why I’ve been so excited by the marketing leading up to The Force Awakens as well as the film itself. It continues to remove the “No girls allowed” sign that the Star Wars clubhouse has worn for so long. Many of the advertisements leading up to The Force Awakens featured girls of all ages sharing their love of Star Wars with other fans of both genders. Before we’d even seen the film, girls were told that Star Wars was for them, and who had the right to tell them that it wasn’t anyways? Any doubts that girls had about the value of their place in the Star Wars films will hopefully be at least partially answered in how important Rey is to the future of the franchise. (A quick interjection, while girls are being invited into the fandom very well through the television shows, films, books, and comics, it seems they are still only now being invited into the Star Wars toy isles. There is still a great struggle going on to change the mind of toy executives who have only seen Star Wars as a boy’s franchise. Tweets asking #WheresHera and #WheresRey have spilled forth from many fangirls and friends and fathers of fangirls, and it’s a fight that we’ll continue to engage in, but it’s not the focus of this article. I’m only looking at how The Force Awakens as a film might change the exclusion that the Star Wars franchise has perpetuated; the toys and other merchandise will continue to be its own separate topic that may be addressed in a future post.) Not only is Rey a strong, hyper-competent (but not overly so), caring woman, but she is also without a doubt the main character of the sequel trilogy. I could not ask for another more awesome Star Wars role model for my young daughter, and I just pray that we don’t see her lose agency and put on the back burner like we’ve seen happen to other female leads in Star Wars. Padme in particular lost something as she transitioned from the strong, political, strategically savvy queen we saw in The Phantom Menace before moving into the more gender traditional roles of wife and mother where much of her importance was based on upon Anakin and her unborn twins. I hope we don’t see a similar fate for Rey in Episodes VIII and IX. Our girls need to see that as they move through their own stories and interweave them with men and women in their lives, their tales do not get lost. Their tales just go from novels to being epics or maybe even space operas.
Rarely have I seen the look of excitement in my African-American students faces that I see in those of students of other ethnic groups. One day, I decided I needed to solve that mystery, so I asked one of my students why they didn’t like Star Wars. Their response was a very honest one: “I don’t know. I guess Star Wars just always seemed like a show for white men.” At the time, I don’t know that I fully agreed with that statement, but it did get me thinking. Within my African-American subgroup of students, some of the boys seemed to be interested, but very few of the girls seemed to like it at all and a few of them even vocally disliked when Star Wars was used in lessons. To continue my research, I asked them why they didn’t like when I used Star Wars in my lessons, and I got a very similar answer to the one above. The one twist that they added was one of gender: “It’s not like I see any little black girls running around being Jedi.” That bullseyed the womprat. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Star Wars. It was that they didn’t see themselves in Star Wars. They didn’t see the strong, confident young woman they were growing up to be. The boys didn’t see the caring, young men of integrity that they were working their way to being. Of course they wouldn’t care for Star Wars. According to what they were seeing on the screen and in the stores, did Star Wars care about them?
While I don’t know that my African-American students will feel like Star Wars care about them a lot after having seen The Force Awakens, I do hope that they feel like it cares about them more. The character of Finn is given great prominence in the film and fills an interesting place. Where Mace Windu ping-ponged between seeming too prudish to just a big jerk (especially for his weak apology to Ahsoka after the Jedi Order kicked her out of the Jedi Order), Finn is humorous, kind, and mostly brave. I appreciate that it is his kindness and the way he cares for other is his biggest strength, and he rarely feels the need to show how tough he is. While he has moments of cowardice, they stand against the moments where he turns his back on a group that has raised him since birth and where he stands before a physically superior Kylo Ren and fights to save his friend, Rey. There can be no braver person than someone who stands up for what they believe in and for their friends. Finn adds one more person of color to a galaxy that has too few, and it is my hope that for my African-American students he is a character that works with others like Lando, Mace Windu, and even Captain Typho to remove the door on the Star Wars clubhouse that has shut many of them out.
My Latino students have always been a part of the group that flails when I use a Star Wars-based lesson, but that doesn’t keep me from being excited to see them being represented in The Force Awakens. Oscar Isaac, who plays hot shot X-Wing ace Poe Dameron, is from Guatemala, and while he may not come from the exact geographical region as many of my students, it’s a good start. Now, they can look to the screen and see someone who at least looks like them. They will see someone who is unswervingly loyal, unflinchingly brave, and unabashedly fun-loving. I don’t think that we see anyone in Star Wars having quite as much fun as Poe does flying his X-Wing (aside from maybe Anakin flying an airspeeder, but I always feel like there’s a sense of sort of psychotic arrogance there, too). If the strength of Rey removes the door on the clubhouse and the humor and kindness of Finn removes the door on the clubhouse, Poe’s joyfulness removes the hinges on the door frame. With any luck, in Episode VIII, Poe’s portrayal may just spackle over the holes that once held those screws holding the clubhouse door in place.
Could Poe Dameron be gay? This question has inspired a lot of art, fanfiction, and debate among fans since The Force Awakens debuted. Some believe that he is not, and they imagine the lines that Oscar Isaac might deliver to Rey in Episode VIII. With his looks and delivery, Oscar Isaac might just be able to incite fits of weak knees and swooning to rival Billy Dee Williams’s Lando Calrissian in female fans all over the world. That would be fun to see. After watching them sing a duet to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I can only imagine the awesome scenes that Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac could have together. Those scenes could still happen, but they don’t necessarily need Poe to be romantically involved with Rey for them to be memorable. That character pairing could still create scenes to rival those of Han and Leia or Anakin and Padme without them being romantically involved. They could easily bond over their shared love for BB-8 or Finn or piloting or the fact that they are just both so awesome. While I’m sure I would love a Poe Dameron who is straight, a Poe Dameron who is gay would still be just as awesome but would work to invite in even more fans to our fan community.
While I didn’t even think about it while watching the film (which probably says more about me than anything), I could see how fans could see that Poe might be gay. The biggest relationship we see Poe have in the film is between he and Finn. The biggest piece of evidence that points to Poe being gay is the scene where Poe and Finn are reunited at the Resistance Base on D’Qar. The two heroes run up to each other and give each other an atomic, super hug right before Poe gives Finn his jacket and bites his lip while saying, “Keep it. It suits you.” Now, this is hardly conclusive evidence. I have given many of my male friends hugs that are not manly, three pat on the back kind of hugs. We’re bros and comfortable with it. I’ll give my male friends REAL hugs. I have also offered to let my male friends use my jacket when we’re out. They don’t often take me up on it, but the offer is still there. The question of Poe’s orientation is like the question of Rey’s heritage: it’s not going to be answered right now. The question I would pose is, “Should Poe be gay?”, while at the same time, recognizing that it’s not a decision I have any right to ask. The answer we should give as loving, inclusive fans of Star Wars is, “Why not?”
(Video Courtesy of Lucasfilm)
I love Poe because he’s an X-Wing pilot who loves flying, and he’s amazing at it. In one of my favorite shots in The Force Awakens, he averages a fiery TIE explosion a second as he rips through almost an entire squadron along with the poor stormtroopers holding Han, Chewie, and Finn captive. He’s an X-Wing fan’s dream character. Would him being gay change my feelings about him? I don’t think it would because it wouldn’t change the fundamentals of the character. Would him being gay change how kind and loyal he is to BB-8, Finn, and his fellow pilots? Would it make him any less brave (and slightly reckless) for flying through a tiny crack in the oscillator to take out Starkiller base? Would it change how awesome it is to see a kickass male hero who takes joy in his fight instead of brooding about it (insert Batman-style voice over, “I’m Poe,” here)? No, it would not. Poe would be the same character regardless of his sexual orientation. It would only be our perceptions of him that would change. Based on our own feelings and prejudices, our interest would fall or rise. It would be a risky move for Disney. Some people would inevitably be bothered by the choice; after all, some people were bothered and fought against the idea of an African-American stormtrooper and a female lead in a Star Wars film. It could be worth the risk though if even one person, young or old, is able to look at Poe and say, “I see myself in Star Wars.” That clubhouse door and its hurtful, excluding memory would be one step closer to being forgotten.
At the risk of giving Star Wars fans a feeling like a vampire being forced into the sunlight, I’m going to make a Star Trek reference. When the original Star Trek television show came out, one of the things it did so well was show a future where people of differing skin colors and ethnicities worked together. You had Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Sulu, and Chekov working together to explore new worlds, and it challenged us to accept that this future where all those things that could alienate us from each other where forgotten should be the future we worked towards. Star Wars finds itself in a similar position now. It is pushing forward and challenging those of us who believed that stormtroopers were only white guys to accept that they could be any skin color and either gender. It’s challenging some of us to believe that not only can a woman be the lead of a Star Wars film, but that she could, in fact, be one of the best leads in a science-fiction film to date. It’s asking us to believe that a character’s sexual orientation doesn’t change who he is and shouldn’t change how we feel about him. It’s welcoming in all fans regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual preference and asking us to be welcoming to them because that’s what the future should be all about; after all, Star Wars is for everyone, and happiness should be too.