Time to Walk the Walk: Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Problem of Queerbaiting

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is going to cause a lot of trouble come December. Why? Because the franchise is trying to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the fan pairing of Finn and Poe (AKA “Stormpilot,” or the more straightforward “Finnpoe”).

Let’s set the scene, shall we? During the Star Wars Celebration in Orlando in April, the big news was, of course, the new trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The trailer itself is exciting, positioning Rey’s journey with a jaded Luke Skywalker as the center of the film; the arcs of the other characters—including Finn—orbit around Rey’s interactions with the former Jedi master. In the trailer, we see Finn recovering (hopefully) in a sickbed/stasis pod of some sort. The very next shot we see is Poe frantically running to his starfighter only to have the ship blow up before he can get to it. For many fans online, those two brief scenes, buttressed against one another, were enough to re-cement the popularity and potential canonization of Stormpilot.

To make matters more intense, John Boyega (who plays Finn in the series) has done a bang-up job of giving the most diehard Stormpilot fans plenty of fodder to work with statements like: “Poe’s my boy, that’s my dude…the love is potent.” This kind of recognition and tacit approval of the fan response can only encourage the Stormpilot fanbase. (Boyega also admitted that fans had been sending him some rather steamy Stormpilot fanworks, which could be the start of a whole different post about ethics and respecting the boundaries and personhood of a celebrity, but I’ll get back to the topic at hand.) In the wake of the star’s openness to the possibility of a Finnpoe relationship, it’s safe to say that many fans would be sorely disappointed to find out that their favorite ship might remain forever stuck out in the fringes of fandom.

Enter Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy, who stated in an interview with Ecartelera that a Finn and Poe romance isn’t in the works—at least not in The Last Jedi:

We’ve talked about it, but I think you’re not going to see it in The Last Jedi,” she said. “In the next six or eight months we will have some meetings about the stories that we will develop next… After 40 years of adventures, people have a lot of information and a lot of theories about the path these stories can take, and sometimes those theories that come up are new ideas for us to listen to, read and pay attention to.

Now, to be fair, this is hardly an out-and-out evil villainess’s response by any stretch, although it was treated as such by at least a few fans on Tumblr after Kennedy’s interview first appeared. But, as far as The Last Jedi is concerned, it’s a definite “no” on a Stormpilot romance in The Last Jedi, and that means that if we were in Fandom Supreme Court, we’d have the grounds to argue that the film’s marketing strategy (including celebrity interviews) has, up until now, been engaging in queerbaiting.

Let’s break down the charges. Stormpilot is, first and foremost, an invention of the internet. It’s something that, if Lucasfilm really wanted to, the people behind the film could ignore or dismiss by saying that this particular fan theory/interpretation is not part of the stories they want to tell with the new Star Wars movies, regardless of how big the Stormpilot frenzy has gotten (which includes major coverage from sites like E! Online, Buzzfeed, Hypable, Vanity Fair, USA Today, Metro, Pink News, Comic Book Resources, The Mary Sue, Bleeding Cool, and MoviePilot, among other outlets). If they had simply done this from the beginning, I don’t think anyone would have their hopes or expectations set on seeing a broader scope of representation or anything startlingly progressive to come from this new series of films.

However, Lucasfilm has failed to prevent its contractors—its stars, directors, producers, etc.—from fanning the hopes and expectations of fans when it comes to not just Stormpilot, but gay representation in general. Likely encouraged, at first, by how big of a splash the fan-based Stormpilot craze made with the mainstream media, plus the realization of the extent that online fandom was driving the conversation surrounding the new Star Wars films, other members of the Star Wars family soon started sharing their two cents about Stormpilot and wading into the larger discussion about the lack of gay representation in the franchise as a whole.

Last year, the director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, gave his seal of approval to a piece of Stormpilot fan art on Twitter by giving it a retweet. The Force Awakens director and The Last Jedi producer J.J. Abrams also said last year that there’s a plan in place to include gay characters in the Star Wars cinematic universe. “To me, the fun of Star Wars is the glory of possibility,” he said. “So, it seems insanely narrow-minded and counterintuitive to say that there wouldn’t be a homosexual character in that world.” Boyega, again, entered the fray, changing his initial interpretation of the characters’ chemistry (in which he described Finn and Poe as having a brotherly relationship) to one of infinite possibility when it comes to where Finn and Poe’s relationship might actually end up. “As far as I’m concerned, when J.J. [Abrams] sat down to go through the script, it was a bromance… But now I’m learning what Mark Hammill said before when he didn’t know that Darth Vader was Luke’s father: you never know what they’re going to pull,” he told Radio Times. “I’m looking at the director Rian [Johnson] closely so he can get me involved early, so I can prepare myself. So, who knows?”

Some of what has been said, like Abrams’ statements about including gay representation in the franchise as a whole, are par for the course nowadays, and knowing Abrams’ track record, I’m sure he can deliver on this macro-promise, especially since it doesn’t necessarily pertain specifically to Poe or Finn. But as for retweeting fan art dedicated to the pairing and giving coy, will-they-won’t-they answers, those are acts that could be seen as queerbaiting, willingly raising a group’s hopes of being included, only to let down at the end of the day. Seeing as how there won’t be any Finn and Poe romance in The Last Jedi, it would seem that the letdown is coming, and when it finally hits, the franchise is going to have, as the characters in Fantastic Mr. Fox would say, a real cluster-cuss of a problem.

The only way I can see to avoid the ill effects of fan disappointment and potential backlash is for the creators to actually address the issue, beyond simply dropping hints and off-screen speculation, in the upcoming third film (or beyond, if this particular series is going to utilize the characters of Finn and Poe in additional movies). Kennedy says that the Lucasfilm team are going to discuss the possibilities of other storylines including Finn and Poe’s relationship, right? So if that’s the case, they need to decide carefully what they’re going to do—otherwise they could stand to alienate a portion of their audience: the same portion that has been so effective at drumming up support and interest in The Force Awakens and its sequels from the very beginning.

Alienating your audience in this manner generally results not only in a loss of online support and momentum but in the former fans’ money being used for things other than purchasing Star Wars tickets or merchandise. Of course, the argument can be made that this group of avid Finn/Poe shippers is a small subset of Star Wars fans, but even if that’s true, the fact remains that there’s a whole population of gay Star Wars fans who would like to see themselves represented on screen, in general. I don’t have any official Lucasfilm numbers in front of me, but I would wager that the amount of gay Star Wars fans who trek to the films’ releases is pretty high—so high, in fact, that Mark Hamill has spoken about the kinds of questions he fields from fans, and their evident desire to see their own experience reflected in the character of Luke Skywalker: “…[F]ans are writing and ask all these questions, ‘I’m bullied in school…I’m afraid to come out.’ They say to me, ‘Could Luke be gay?’” he said to The Sun. “I’d say it is meant to be interpreted by the viewer…If you think Luke is gay, of course he is. You should not be ashamed of it. Judge Luke by his character, not by who he loves.”

I think that the same powerful hope motivating these questions, this same impulse and need on the part of fans is something the Lucasfilm think tank will have to reckon with, sooner rather than later. Could Finn and Poe be gay? Could Rey be gay, or bisexual, or asexual? Could there be other characters, established or otherwise, on the LGBT spectrum? Of course. The crucial question is this: could Star Wars be the mainstream franchise that finally breaks the glass ceiling for LGBT characters in a blockbuster? Definitely. The opportunity is as ripe as it will ever be.

As Yoda himself has said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” For Lucasfilm, they’re now faced with the decision to either do something positive—to make fans happy, make them feel included in the stories they love, which could also lead to higher ticket and merchandise sales—or, once again, do not.

Monique Jones is an entertainment journalist, blogger, and founder of JUST ADD COLOR, a multicultural pop culture site. Jones has acted as a consultant for Magic: The Gathering and her writing has been featured on Ebony.com, Comic Book Resources, Entertainment Weekly’s Community Blog, The Miami New Times, and more.

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