Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Oh Myyyyyy!

Last week, I published my review of the new Star Trek Beyond. In it, I mentioned the new film's treatment of Sulu, and promised to come back to the subject in a future post. Many of you will have seen the movie by now, but I'll still warn everyone that even though I'm talking about only a specific aspect of the movie, you might get spoiled (by me, or by a potential commenter). Proceed accordingly.

So... as was widely reported in the run-up to the film, Star Trek Beyond reveals that Sulu is gay -- married to a man and raising a daughter (the latter fact already established in Generations, in the original, non-Kelvin timeline). Gay Sulu made waves because, as progressive as Star Trek is, as focused on integration and positive role-modeling, there has never in the franchise's 50 years been an LGBT main character in any of its incarnations. While this was understandable in 1966 (the original series' premiere), frustrating in 1987 (The Next Generation's premiere), and galling in 2001 (Enterprise's premiere), it's inexcusable in 2016.

Many of the people involved with Star Trek Beyond gave interviews in which this development was discussed -- most notably John Cho (Sulu), Simon Pegg (Scotty, and co-writer of the script), Zachary Quinto (Spock, and openly gay), and J.J. Abrams (producer, and all-around "shepherd" of the re-boot movies). The main takeaways from these interviews were that "it was about time" (and they're absolutely right about that), and that they're all proud of the nonchalant way in which their film handles this development: Sulu's gay; it's no big deal.

On that second point, I must disagree. I understand and even agree with the sentiment, that it shouldn't be a big deal that Sulu is gay. But I don't think the movie is nonchalant about this fact; I think it's cowardly. The relationship is depicted in a "blink and you'll miss it" way. Sulu has a photo of his daughter at his station, but not of his husband. When his family is reunited in the film for what we're told is the first time in nearly three years, we see him kiss his daughter, but not his husband (played by the movie's other co-writer, Doug Jung).

According to John Cho, a kiss was filmed. It didn't make the final cut of the movie. Obviously, the film was not running two to three seconds long, necessitating this cut. No, this happened because these movies are no longer just Star Trek films, they're summer action tentpoles meant for international audiences. Paramount can't risk being shut out of the market in Russia, China, or other countries that drive foreign box office (and an increasingly large percentage of any big movie's overall take). Yet rather than making two cuts of the movie for different markets, Star Trek Beyond "takes a stand" in the least challenging way possible: leaving bigots to just assume the man with Sulu could be his brother, or whoever. I can only hope that when Star Trek: Discovery starts up next year, it's more direct. Yes, Sulu and his husband do put their arms around each other -- and that itself is risky public behavior for a modern gay couple in many contexts. But would the movie really have omitted the kiss if Sulu's spouse had been a woman?

There's another significant aspect of the gay Sulu reveal: George Takei's reaction to it. The original Sulu actor (and openly gay man, and master of the internet) was asked what he thought of the development. While there was nuance to his opinion (which he later had to clarify), it boiled down to this: he was thrilled to have a gay character on Star Trek, but would have preferred that it be a new character rather than Sulu. The response from Beyond's creative forces: we talked about that possibility, but we felt it would be a token representation to make a new minor character who would essentially be defined by their sexual orientation and nothing else. Setting aside the fact that there were multiple new characters in this film with other roles in the plot that could have been gay or lesbian and defined by more than their orientation, I here again understand and even agree with the sentiment. But it feels to me like a token representation is exactly what they ended up with, because they weren't willing to do anything more than the barest, token acknowledgement that Sulu is gay.

Then there are the likely unintended implications of having Sulu be gay. Among George Takei's reservations on the reveal was the fact the character -- as he knew and played him, as he says Gene Roddenberry conceived him -- is straight. At the moment, I can't recall any original series episodes that gave Sulu a love interest, but we did see him get flirtatious with Uhura on a few occasions. ("The Naked Time," "Mirror, Mirror.") From what we've seen on screen (large and small), it's certainly possible that Sulu is bisexual, but that's not what the current powers-that-be were trumpeting; they were proud of gay Sulu.

So what does it say that Sulu is straight in one timeline and gay in another? In my view, unfortunately, nothing good. It can certainly be read as subtle endorsement of the myth that "sexuality is a choice"; Sulu is gay only in the altered "Kelvin timeline," so he must have chosen that. Or you could say that "original Sulu" was closeted, and that it took some big, scary events like the destruction of Vulcan to make him realize that life's short and decide to come out. But that assumption fixes one problem by introducing another; do we really want to say that being closeted is even a thing in the bright and hopeful future of Star Trek?

I do feel that everyone involved was trying to do a good thing here. But I also feel like they didn't really look at it from all the angles -- a feeling that's underscored for me when you consider that the movie then takes its newly minted gay man and makes him a "damsel in distress" for half the run time. (As I alluded to in my original review, Uhura and Sulu -- the minorities of this cast in race, gender, and now sexuality -- spend the bulk of the story as prisoners.)

To be clear, Star Trek Beyond was never going to be the "Sulu movie," and I wasn't asking for that. But I do think they needed to do better with "Star Trek's first gay main character" if they were going to be bragging about it in the media.

Even if Star Trek Beyond had unassailably nailed the nonchalant approach to a gay character that it was attempting here, there would still be light years to go. One day, I want to go see a big, crowd-pleasing blockbuster full of explosions and action in which a shoehorned-in subplot sees the main guy getting the guy in the end. I want that to not be a big deal. You know, just like any other tacked-on heterosexual romantic subplot in any other big, crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

Is that 10 years off, maybe? 25? Someday, I hope.

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