Force-ghosts jumping from Imperial warships into apprentices’ bodies. Assassins falling in love with the Jedi they’re programmed to kill. Hapan queens trading one-night-stands for heirs. Reptilian crime lords spraying unsuspecting princesses with pheromones to broker a (eyebrow wiggle) trade. Jedi/Yuuzhan Vong hybrids caught between dead best friends/unrequited loves and their new, fallen-to-the-dark-side masters. Love—or, at least, sex and sometimes romance—in the Star Wars universe used to be a hot mess.
But what I grew up with as the Expanded Universe has now been mostly struck from the record—or, rather, redefined as “Star Wars Legends,” with an entirely new canon built around The Force Awakens and its subsequent new EU: prequel novels filling in the years between trilogies, tie-in comic books, and of course films like Rogue One and The Last Jedi. The introduction of new characters brings new romantic dramas that, surprisingly, are a lot stabler, healthier, or simply just more realistic than the soapy stories we’ve seen before.
That said, just because you take out the soapiness doesn’t mean you automatically get a happy ending.
Spoilers for all of the Star Wars films and the Doctor Aphra comic book series.
Happily Ever After Not Guaranteed
In the Legends books written in the 1990s and 2000s, the princess and the smuggler, who sparked so well in the original trilogy, made it to their Happily Ever After (or HEA, as the romance genre calls it) with fairly smooth sailing. Sure, Han did abduct Leia to Dathomir to convince her to marry him, and their kids did get snatched by dark side users more than once, but their love got them through.
With the new continuity, we get a different story entirely—and while we’re still learning of new points on the timeline, here’s the current canon: Han and Leia got married immediately on Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi and settled into domestic bliss, but somewhere along the way to the new trilogy, things broke down. Sending Ben to Uncle Luke’s Jedi training school, though well-intentioned, blew up in their faces. Especially since they had fumbled the most important part of this childhood, i.e., explaining the truth about Darth Vader and his heritage. Once Ben became Kylo Ren, Han and Leia’s marriage couldn’t weather the death and betrayal left in his wake.
But when we started The Force Awakens and realized that they had not been in each other’s lives for years, we got a more interesting story. Nothing that we were promised at the end of Return of the Jedi had come to pass: The Empire hadn’t disappeared, Luke hadn’t resurrected the Jedi Order, Han and Leia hadn’t settled into a lifetime of trading “I love you”/“I know”s. But who’s to say they ever had a chance? All we ever saw was them taking turns rescuing each other, fighting in Rebel bases, and macking on the Falcon—adrenaline-fueled scenarios, not necessarily the foundation for a stable relationship.
The past several years have seen the romance genre grapple with a sea change: Fewer authors feel beholden to the HEA, opting instead for more realistic endings where the couple can’t make it work, or where they get each other but lose something else. Writing for Ravishly in 2015, Noah Berlatsky emphasized how for him as a reader, what’s most important about the romance novel is the optimism:
…I prefer to leave the door open for unhappy endings in my romance novels for some of the same reasons I like and admire and respond to the happily ever after when it comes. The thing I love about romance novels is the way they insist that love and happiness are important and real and true. You can show that insistence by defiantly giving your audience the happy ending. But you can also do it by acknowledging that some stories don’t end that way, while still honoring the impulse to believe that they should.
Part of that acknowledgment is realizing that just because someone is a love interest, that doesn’t necessarily make them a romantic hero. That was the sticking point for Sarah MacLean, one of romance’s wittiest authors and one whose work helped convince me to take the genre seriously, after she saw The Force Awakens. Writing for Book Riot Comics (formerly Panels), MacLean explains how, for all of his swagger and dramatic heroics, Han Solo is not a romantic hero:
To be a real romantic hero, he has to change. He can change however he likes, but it helps if it’s because of love. But the reality is this: He never changes. He leaves her and only returns because he is kind of shamed into it. Because he knows he did wrong. He’s ashamed of himself. And he knows he can’t really live up to his ONE JOB, which is being Leia’s partner in all this horrible stuff. And then […] when he finally returns and they finally talk about losing their child, he says what is possibly the worst thing ever. “He just had too much Vader in him.”
[…] This isn’t a tragic love story because he dies. This is a tragic love story because Leia would have been better off with just about anyone else as a husband instead of this narcissistic, self-loathing man-child who can’t get out of his head enough to realize that his wife and the mother of his child might need him at one of the worst times of her life, and that… oh, hey, the world is ending and it’s not about him. I mean. Please. Sure, he’ll fly into a giant Death Star with every intention of not coming back alive, but fancy explosions will never ever make me forget that when shit got real, like really, emotionally, no-holds-barred-real… Han beat the hell out of dodge.
Han and Leia are literally in a romance-novel-cover clinch on the Empire Strikes Back poster, but it’s one thing to code a male lead who’s a love interest as a romantic hero, and another for him to actually act like one. Their romance in the original movies is built on passion, but it simply didn’t bear out in the long run. And that’s OK! If anything, it can be more emotionally satisfying, more cathartic, than the princess and the smuggler getting hitched and living HEA. In a discussion on All About Romance, author Jennifer Crusie explains why romance novels should provide the reader with a sense of catharsis, even if the ending is “just” instead of “happy”:
But a “just” ending can also mean a “sadder but wiser” ending (like Scarlett O’Hara’s) or a noble sacrifice ending (like the one in movie Sommersby) or a “pick-up-the-pieces-and-go-on” ending in which it’s clear the characters will not have perfect, easy lives thereafter, but are better off because of the struggles they’ve won and the life lessons they’ve learned.
So if HEA means a perfect marriage with perfect children in the offing, no, absolutely not, the romance doesn’t require this. But if HEA means all the pressing problems solved with hope for the future and a feeling of personal achievement and of justice served for both the characters and the reader, then, yes.
Speaking of personal achievements and justice…
Love for the Cause
Despite this stirring final image in Rogue One, I wouldn’t necessarily classify Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor’s bond as a romance. There might be an attraction in the sly smirks and side-eyes they throw one another, but those are fleeting moments that pale in comparison to the much more pressing matters at the heart of the movie—that is, stealing the Death Star plans, not to mention their competing interests of rescuing Galen Erso (Jyn) and killing him (Cassian).
When they embrace on the sand on Scarif, it’s a final moment of connection, of camaraderie and shared love for the Rebellion. It’s the noble sacrifice that Jennifer Crusie mentioned, providing more catharsis than if these characters had been retconned into the original trilogy. It also sets up the expectation that, a generation later, we’re going to see this kind of noble sacrifice again, with Paige Tico:
And again, with Amilyn Holdo:
Yet while those quiet, selfless heroics change the course of their respective fights, they’re not the key to victory. After forcibly stopping Finn from his own self-sabotaging sacrifice in The Last Jedi, Rose Tico, still mourning her sister’s death, sums it up: “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love.” And even though she says this right after having knocked him out of the way of a death beam, and before kissing him then slumping into unconsciousness, I didn’t read that line as being tacitly about Finn himself, or about whatever feelings Rose has developed for him over the course of the film. That said, we’ll see if there is a potential romance building between Rose and Finn in Episode IX, though personally I ’ship him with someone else…
Love is Love is Love
We knew that Poe Dameron was going to be a hunky X-Wing pilot. We knew that Finn would be an adorable stormtrooper-turned-hero. What we never anticipated was how much chemistry Oscar Isaac and John Boyega would have, nor how many little moments in The Force Awakens would seem to support Finn/Poe as certainly a fan ’ship and possibly even an official pairing. The lip biting and gripping each other and running into each other’s arms seemed almost too deliberate, as if the writers were trying to tell us something without saying it outright.
Fandom christened them Stormpilot, with Tumblr and Archive of Our Own collecting a staggering amount of artwork, GIFs, fanfiction, and fan videos (and songs! listen to “It Suits You”) exploring every nook and cranny of this imagined relationship. You even have a straight-faced Isaac saying things like (on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in 2015) “Well, I was playing it as romance” (although if you watch the entire video, he doesn’t actually say who he was playing romance to):
Let’s level for a second. Most likely, Stormpilot will never be a reality outside of fandom. If franchise owners are afraid of putting one girl in the package, you can bet they won’t market (gasp) gay characters. (There has been plenty of fan speculation that Poe is bisexual or pansexual. However, I believe that if an onscreen Star Wars character is going to be explicitly not heterosexual, the screenwriters would have that person be gay or lesbian, to prevent confusion for people who don’t understand the queer community.) However, the gift that Finn/Poe has given us is the sheer ability to imagine this, the mere thought that this could happen. (And let us not forget that time The Last Jedi writer/director Rian Johnson retweeted some Stormpilot fan art.)
The new EU books have had a little more leeway in depicting queer characters. Lords of the Sith introduced us to Moff Delian Mors, an Imperial officer who loses her wife in an accident; Star Wars: Aftermath featured Imperial turncoat Sinjir Rath Velus, who is interested only in men. But neither is perfect: One’s spouse is fridged, while the other must fight off the advances of a woman.
And then you have Doctor Aphra.
Chelli Lona Aphra is one of the most fascinating characters to come out of the new EU, primarily in the comics and in the A Certain Point of View story “The Trigger”: an archaeologist with questionable morality and a talent for reprogramming assassin droids, she finds herself in the employ of Darth Vader—managing to hold that position for a lot longer than most people. This involves helping to track down a certain Rebel Alliance pilot responsible for blowing up the Death Star, but also causes her to cross paths with ex Sana Starros.
Aphra is too multifaceted a character for her queerness to be a defining characteristic, but it lends compelling texture to her misadventures: her encounters with Sana being not just about Rebellion versus Alliance but also how awfully Aphra messed things up when they were younger; and, lately, Aphra’s cat-and-mouse interactions with Imperial captain Magna Tolvan.
The recent arc of Star Wars: Doctor Aphra has seen the archaeologist match wits with the captain, culminating in a oh-fuck-it-we’re-gonna-die kiss made so much more amusing by the fact that they managed not to get blown up. Sure, it’s high-stakes fun, but it’s not without a foundation: In an earlier issue, when Aphra took Tolvan hostage, the two had unexpectedly found common ground not only in appearances (Aphra being attracted to Tolvan despite the latter’s self-consciousness over her “deformations”), but also in both having nothing to lose.
While this arc of Aphra’s story is still unfolding, perhaps that detail has changed.
Realistic Partnerships > Passion
In early 2016, New York Magazine’s The Cut published Alana Massey’s piece “Marriage and Two Kids: A Most Scandalous Fantasy.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek (but also not) examination of how, despite more open-minded attitudes about dating, it has become taboo to want to just settle down. Take Shara Bey and Kes Dameron, who appear in the comic Shattered Empire: These sexy young things help win the Battle of Endor alongside Luke, Leia, and Han, participate in a few more top-secret missions, then go into retirement on Yavin 4 with their little son Poe. They get their HEA, and Poe eventually follows in his mother’s footsteps by becoming a pilot, first for the New Republic and then defecting to the Resistance.
Unlike Han and Leia, Shara and Kes seem to have a relationship built on more than just passion, a real partnership instead of just two spitfires trying and failing to match up. They also demonstrate something I think we’ll be seeing a lot more in the new trilogy: exploration of different kinds of families. Poe comes from a fairly stable household, though interestingly his mother didn’t talk much about the war and he had to learn about some of her more heroic moments after her death. His parents’ sacrifice of their exciting Rebellion lives to raise him, their loving attention to their child, makes him one of the more stable characters in The Force Awakens. Ben’s turn to the dark side is undoubtedly influenced in part by his parents’ tempestuous relationship. Despite waiting for her parents on Jakku for years, in The Last Jedi Rey finally confronts the truth she’s long hidden from herself: Her parents were nobodies, who sold her for beer money and never intended to return for her. Finn’s biological parentage is N/A, as the First Order trains its recruits basically from birth and becomes the only family they know.
But we watch Finn grab Rey’s hand as they run to safety. We see Poe embrace BB-8 and Finn with equal fervor. We choke back tears as Han and Leia awkwardly, emotionally reunite. We cringe sympathetically as Aphra encounters those whose hearts she’s broken, and watch her consider opening herself up for that same pain but also that same hopeful promise. Love is suffused in the new Star Wars universe in a way it wasn’t before The Force Awakens. When this trilogy ends in a few years, it will be cathartic, and hopefully just, and that will still mean a Happily Ever After.
This post has been updated since its original publication in February 2016.
Can you tell that Natalie Zutter has now become a Doctor Aphra fangirl? BRB, catching up on all the new Star Wars comics… Talk love in the Star Wars universe with her on Twitter!