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Fandom vs. Canon: On Queer Representation in The Force Awakens

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Last week, a friend of mine who hadn’t yet seen The Force Awakens pulled me aside to check about a spoiler she’d seen on the internet. She wanted me to clarify: was it true that this movie featured a canonical polyamorous triad in Poe, Finn, and Rey? Because she kept seeing people on the internet thanking their lucky stars for the fact that this movie finally features a multi-racial multi-gender sex-positive polyamorous threesome. It sounds too good to be true. Because, y’know … it is.

I laughed when she asked, of course, but I also couldn’t blame my friend for checking to make sure that everyone was joking. As soon as this movie came out, I saw tons of people tweeting that Poe and Finn and Rey are canon. I mean, they’re joking – none of those three characters date or even kiss each other in the film, at any point – but I’ve seen a lot of joke tweets about how various pairings are “canon.” It’s fun to do that! It’s fun to use the word “canon” as a joke. And as a result, a lot of people who haven’t seen Star Wars think that there might actually be a queer romance featured in it. They might be slightly disappointed to learn that there isn’t one.

Or is there?? I’ve mostly written about the supposed poly triad between Rey/Poe/Finn, but the significantly more popular fandom – the one that has risen above all others, to a point where it almost feels real – is that of a romance between Poe and Finn. We may yet be a long way off from a positive representation of polyamory in a movie, but a romantic relationship between two consenting adult men? Seems pretty typical.

It’s downright commonplace to see such a pairing in real life. But it sure wouldn’t be commonplace to see it in a big-budget tentpole Disney movie! Maybe a throwaway side character or two could be implied to be gay … but two same-gender protagonists? Falling in love? Dating? What??? Don’t hold your breath!

Most of the coverage I’ve read about Poe/Finn places their relationship squarely in fictional territory; some of that coverage feels unnecessarily condescending and jokey, and some of it feels hopeful and giddy. (I tend to lean towards the latter side, in case you hadn’t already surmised.) I’ve only seen one piece so far that lands in a third category: Natalie Fisher wrote an article at Hypable outlining her belief that Poe could be intentionally meant as a queer character, and that future Star Wars films will likely take this into account. This writer lays out the evidence for her theory, citing an interview Oscar Isaac did on Ellen in which he seemed to imply that Poe and Finn might have a romance – an implication which John Boyega seems to corroborate. The entire exchange comes off as a joke – or does it?

When I read the Hypable piece for the first time, I didn’t feel so great. I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I thought to myself, “This will never happen.” Much as I would love to see a queer character appear on a big-screen Star Wars movie – not in a book, not in the extended universe, but in a highly visible space as one of the big-release movies would be – I have extreme doubts that it will unfold. I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime feeling let down by this sort of thing, though. I’ve written fan-fictions since middle school, and I have dozens of fan theories that I hoped would get confirmed by the source material someday. For example, one big reason why Metroid: Other M felt like a let-down to me was not its clumsy narrative or boring gameplay, but rather its implication that Samus Aran wasn’t the homoromantic asexual that I’d always assumed her to be. And that’s just one example out of gazillions – we all have our head-canons.

I am well-familiar with the practice of laying out one’s reasoning for justifying a fan theory. After all, I did precisely that here at this website a week ago: I put together a comprehensive list of reasons why I believe Finn is force-sensitive. Just like Fisher at Hypable, I compiled my evidence and outlined my plausible reasons. But also like Fisher, I know that this decision is ultimately out of my hands. Yes, there are aspects of the movie that suggest Finn might be a Jedi. That question is left open to interpretation, perhaps intentionally. It’s up to the next writers and directors of Star Wars to decide whether they want that to occur.

The exact same appears to be true for Poe’s sexuality, unfortunately. Sure, there’s a possibility that he’s a queer character. It’s even possible that Oscar Isaac sees him that way and wants that to become a part of his representation in the films. But as for whether or not it will become canon? It’s not up to us to decide that — no matter how much evidence we lay out. It’s up to a bunch of writers and directors and actors. Maybe they’ll read our fan theories and crack a smile at our comics. But the story about these characters that will be seen most often and watched again and again — that version of the story isn’t up to us.

In both cases, I admit I’m biased by my own feelings. I love the cast of The Force Awakens; earlier today, I joked to a friend that “It’s like someone wrote a A New Hope fan-fiction where the characters look like me and my friends.” It’s not just that I am charmed by Finn as a character – it’s also that I want Star Wars to feature a black hero who wields a lightsaber and uses the Force, because that would be cool. That’s how I want the world of Star Wars to be. Sure, we’ve seen Mace Windu, but he didn’t get to do very much – and also, doing something once isn’t really enough. You have to keep moving forward with inclusion or else it feels like you’re just tokenizing.

The same goes for my feelings about Poe, and also a potential romance between Poe and Finn. I have my own personal feelings about how much I want it to happen – to me, it feels like something that would make for a story that I can better relate to, and also an important story to tell and have visible within the universe of Star Wars. And I know that Fisher’s own feelings about that contributed to why she wrote her collection of evidence for Hypable, because she said so. I feel the same way, even though I may be having a bit more trouble feeling hopeful about it right now.

This all seems to be part of a larger conversation that I’ve seen happening lately, across fandoms in genre fiction everywhere: how much should canon matter? How much should creators’ opinions matter? Can our own passion for what we believe the canon should be overpower what the “truth” of the source material is? And does the “truth” really matter, at that point? Can fandom bring about Death of the Author so effectively that we make our own “truth”? Even referring to the canon as “truth” here makes me squirm, because it suggests that fan-fiction and fan-art and fan interpretations are somehow false and therefore wrong … which they may be, according to the source material, but they feel true and so valid and so life-affirming to fans.

I’m not saying all fandom “truths” are created equal, mind you. I realize there are “fans” of The Hunger Games that have decided that in their opinion, all of the characters are white, even though the source material clearly specifies otherwise. In some cases, people will use the supposed power of “fan interpretation” to erase representation. That probably happens just as often as the alternative. In these cases, other fans can point to the source material of The Hunger Games or Steven Universe or Star Wars or Harry Potter whatever it may be, and use “the canon” to their advantage, trying to argue that actually these texts are diverse.

So then is it hypocritical of us to reject that same methodology now when it contradicts what we want? Either we believe that “the canon” matters, or we don’t, right? But, of course, human nature doesn’t work that way. And even individual people might feel very differently from one another about which interpretations are “fair” or not. I’ve seen fans argue over whether Link from The Legend of Zelda is a trans girl, a trans boy, a cis girl, a cis boy, a nonbinary person – each with their own collected evidence in hand. And yet “confirmation” of any of the above would not necessarily end these arguments – nor should it, necessarily.

I am not going to end this piece with some sort of smug wishy-washy assertion that all these ideas are valid and it’s just so great that we’re discussing them. I suppose that would be a more positive way to end this piece, but it’s not how I feel, so I can’t. I’m going to take the unpopular view: I think creators’ original opinions do matter, in spite of the fact that I’m a media critic who regularly employs the “Death of the Author” tactic for writing her criticism.

If you are a person in a position of power – either as a highly visible artist, or perhaps a director of a high-profile science fiction franchise, or similar – then your voice can be heard by more people. It is irritating, but nonetheless true, that more people will be familiar with the collection of queer romances available in a big-budget game like Dragon Age than with the stories in much smaller indie games like We Know the Devil. It doesn’t mean that games like We Know the Devil are less important – it simply means that fewer people know about that game and have played it (you should play it, by the way).

Think of this as a “trickle-up” effect: smaller indie creators can push back against the larger problems with representation in stories by making their own stories, whether it’s fan-fiction or original works. Then, people who work for massive companies that are creating more corporate and slick stories might be inspired to find ways to be subversive within those formats. Indie creators with a smaller scale can take more risks because they don’t have to worry about appealing to a wide base. But also, corporate entities would do well to realize that being more inclusive does appeal to a wide base — and they have indies to thank for paving the way there.

It’s a frustrating trade-off, though, because we know that a property like Star Wars is only ever going to be subversive in the slowest, gentlest, most corporate of ways. If Poe is gay, then will Disney still be able to sell as many toys? If Oscaar Isaac keeps making jokes about it on a press tour, will PR professionals pull him aside and tell him to stop – or will they tell him to go for it, because it’s drumming up more press and money surrounding the film? Those are the types of discussions that will happen behind closed doors; every decision made will be weighed out. The Force Awakens has proven that it’s possible to get more butts in seats if you appeal across gender and racial lines. Perhaps that also extends to queer representation. Or perhaps not. Again, it’s not up to us.

It does matter, though. It matters because queer-baiting a romance — making jokes about it, suggesting it, inviting fans to enjoy it, but never confirming it — isn’t actually enough. It makes a tangible difference to see highly visible characters who remind you of yourself and your peers, as part of the big flashy stories that become the backdrop for our culture. Those characters can’t be throwaway jokes or mere implications. They need to be part of the story, their experiences and lives respected as fully realized entities.

It is almost annoying how much it matters – it would be a lot easier, I think, if we could convince ourselves that it didn’t really matter if anyone ever got represented anywhere, and that our own head-canons are enough. Sometimes, that’s all we have, so our head-canons have to be enough. They’ve had to be enough for a very long time already. And I’m not saying our head-canons aren’t vastly important. Head-canons can save your life, sometimes. But that doesn’t make us somehow ungrateful or naïve or petty to wish for something more.

I can understand the bitterness of fans who feel like it’s silly to even care about big properties like Star Wars or Marvel or DC or Harry Potter or what have you. “They’re never going to care about you,” people say. “And even if they do include someone like you, they won’t get it right.” That’s inarguably true – and yet I cling to my examples of bad representation anyway (refer to my perhaps-too-forgiving Deadpool fandom, for example – not to mention the trash fire that is the extended Metroid universe). I understand why people feel bitter and angry and why they tell people to only check out independent media and to go make their own stuff and so on and so forth. I don’t even disagree with that; you should support independent media and you should absolutely make your own stuff if that’s your thing.

But I also think it’s okay to love Star Wars and to really hope that Star Wars loves you back. Even if Star Wars only loves me for my money – you don’t have to keep telling me that, you know? Consenting adults, and all that. Just … let us have this.

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