Star Wars finally did it. It may have taken over four decades—and at least four of those years promising it—but The Rise of Skywalker managed to depict queer characters in the galaxy far, far away on the big screen. It was...barely even a Baby Yoda step (better than Disney’s other representation attempt of 2019 in Avengers: Endgame), but it’s what surrounds that moment that makes it all the more frustrating.
The Rise of Skywalker culminates with a grand battle between the Resistance and the Sith Empire’s fleet above Exegol, and, because it’s a Star Wars movie, good triumphs over evil and our heroes return to home base for a much-needed moment of celebration. As everyone whoops and hugs, two characters come together and share a fleeting kiss: Commander Larma D’Acy, played by Amanda Lawrence in The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and now Rise, and Lieutenant Wrobie Tyce (Vinette Robinson).
It is, after a long time, a moment of Star Wars history: the first on-screen queer kiss in the franchise. And yet, it’s an uneasy history to make.
Star Wars’ long road to integrating and better representing diverse characters—regardless of the spectrum of gender, sexuality, or race—especially in the era of its stewardship under Disney, has been a slow and incremental struggle. Queer characters specifically have been slowly but surely appearing in books and comics. The recent TV shows played catchup too, but just as slowly and not without a few hitches along the way. Meanwhile, stars of the movie saga that drives it all were left to tease fans along with the possibility of seeing LGBTQ+ characters on screen—or, in Solo’s case, touted representation that didn’t even explicitly appear in the text itself.
For the sequels, this most notably involved Oscar Isaac and John Boyega, whose electric chemistry as heroes Poe Dameron and Finn sparked a wave of fan art and fiction pairing the two characters together almost immediately in the wake of their debut in The Force Awakens. That particular ship was put to bed just before Rise’s release with the offer that, if it would not be Finn and Poe sharing a celebratory smooch by the film’s end, at least there would at least be a queer person on screen, at some point.
Instead of two of the biggest characters in Rise making a landmark moment for LGBTQ+ representation at the box office, we spent a second with a background character with a handful of lines across the three Star Wars sequels, and a new character made for the film—with even fewer lines to her name. Since she’s only given a surname in its credits, we would only learn that Tyce was Wrobie Tyce, and that she was in fact D’Acy’s wife, following her partner into the Resistance when Leia recruited her, in the tie-in “Visual Dictionary” released alongside the film. Because, really, one should always need to come prepared with an accompanying dictionary to truly understand the depth of a film’s queer representation, yes?
That Rise’s foray into LGBTQ+ representation is somehow both the most incremental of steps, and yet also the largest one Disney took at the box office last year, isn’t really the most disappointing thing about how the film handled the conversations surrounding representation that have occurred since this final trilogy began. It’s not even that the existence of this moment was seeded in pre-release press circuit interviews, as if taking so long to achieve the barest of minimum when it came to putting LGBTQ+ characters on screen was worth advertising the film with, or of particular lauding. It’s that, really, in spite of all that context going into this film in mind—about Finn and Poe, about queer representation in general, hell, even with the other potential ‘ships of the galaxy far, far away—Rise is an incredibly straight movie. Almost unnecessarily so!
That in and of itself is not a surprise, either. Heteronormativity is, well, the norm. Even as the slow arc of progress leans toward better representation of diverse voices and characters in mainstream media, the lens of that media is still overwhelmingly straight and cisgendered, with the expectation it will be engaged with by a primarily straight and cisgendered audience. But The Rise of Skywalker goes out of its way to deliberately code and frame characters within traditionally-minded relationships with each other. It does so fleetingly with Rey and Ben Solo, as they share a kiss before the latter passes on into the Force—a moment likewise as brief as D’Arcy and Tryce’s peck that it has not exactly satisfied the legions of fans hoping for a “Reylo” romance coming into the movie. But perhaps more damning is its handling of Poe Dameron.
One of Rise’s most peculiar, random asides is the revelation that, before he flew as a pilot in the New Republic Navy (and eventually jumped ship to the Resistance), Poe trucked with a gang of space pirates called the Spice Runners of Kijimi as a teen. When the quest to track down the planet Exegol leads Rey, Finn, and Poe to Kijimi in order to find a droid technician that can help C-3PO decode some ancient Sith scripture, Poe is forced to confront his roguish past. Literally, when he runs into Zorii Bliss (played by Keri Russell), who now leads the Spice Runners in their pushback against First Order occupations on Kijimi—and still has simmering discontent over Poe’s decision to leave the Spice Runners and join the Navy.
Their rooftop reunion is underpinned with a romantic tension—a frankly unavoidable one, since it’s Keri Russell and Oscar Isaac one-on-one—but their interest in each other is confirmed when, forced to be separated once more as the Resistance team makes its move against the First Order, Poe cheekily asks Zorii for a parting kiss (she rebuffs him, because when there are space fascists knocking at doors and causing havoc, who has the time?). And when Zorii joins in for the final battle above Exegol, in the ensuing victory afterward, as Poe mingles among his fellow pilots and soldiers, their eyes cross again—and from a distance, with an eyebrow here and a nod there, Poe makes another (excruciatingly cheesy) attempt at a flirtatious liaison with her, only to once again be rebuffed.
That part of Poe’s arc in Rise is given over to this heteronormative flirtation feels disappointing. Given that so much of the film’s indulgent fanservice comes across as pointed attempts to appeal to fans’ critiques of The Force Awakens (and certain vocal groups’ criticisms of The Last Jedi), it’s hard not to feel like this progression for the character, in turn, could be a particularly pointed response to fandom circles. The same circles eager to have seen Poe be confirmed as what could’ve been one of Star Wars’ most prominent queer characters—and have done so ever since Poe bit the lip felt ‘round the world back in The Force Awakens. It’s a feeling amplified by the fact that Isaac himself has, in the wake of the movie, made repeated comments to press outlets expressing an explicit disappointment that Poe’s arc did not see the character become involved in a queer relationship, despite the potential to do so.
Whether it could have been specifically with Finn or with another character, that the opportunity (and precious on-screen time) was instead used to interweave Poe taking over the Resistance with trying to hook up with a female figure from his past—one he’s apparently not seen since he was a teenager—feels like more than a missed opportunity. It feels like cowardice, pushing Star Wars’ first tentative attempts at onscreen LGBTQ+ romance away from one of the major characters of this trilogy of films and onto two background figures with barely a paragraph of dialogue between them. Also, it’s a moment that can be conveniently edited out to play to the whims of sociopolitically regressive markets Disney would still like some Star Wars money from—as it has been in countries like Singapore.
Once again, it has fallen upon Star Wars fans to find the representation they desired in their own ways. Primarily presenting Poe as a straight-leaning in Rise doesn’t erase years of fanfiction that has depicted him as a queer character (the film’s pairing of him and Zorri also doesn’t erase the possibility of him being bi, or pansexual). Some fans have gone even further in biting their thumb at the decision to pair Zorii and Poe together and interpreted the former in art and stories as a queer character herself. But it should not be upon these fans to have to create their own queer stories in this realm because the actual text they’re inspired by is too insipid to do so itself.
A massive, monolithic megacorporation attempting to be all things to all people like Disney is perhaps not going to be the place to go for truly meaningful LGBTQ+ representation in media—queer artists, independent of the sprawling mass of major studios, will lead the vanguard on telling queer stories, and have been doing so for years anyway. But given the ever-present and ever-increasing dominance Disney has over the media we experience—given the reach of a cultural force like Star Wars, a story that has transcended generations of people—demanding that they do better than the barest of minimums is not a thing to dismiss.
If these are the stories the world will be offered, if Star Wars is to continue beyond its tale of Skywalkers, then we need stories that properly reflect the world and society we live in. Let queer characters kiss. Let them love. Let them live, beyond the shadow of a straight, cisgendered lens. That 40 years led Star Wars to this should not be a sign we’ll have to wait 40 more to get LGBTQ+ characters who are simply allowed to exist on screen, beyond a single moment. And until that happens, we have to keep asking Disney and studios like it to do better.
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