SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS
JUST GO SEE IT ALREADY!
When I went to go see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on opening night, one of my lingering questions when the lights came up was…
Did anyone else notice the bromance going on between Poe and Finn?
I mean, they were super adorable, right? They only knew each other for a heated moment, but when they reconnected at the Rebel Base it was all hugs and significant glances and “keep my jacket, it suits you.”
One’s a First Order Stormtrooper with a heart of gold. The other’s the best pilot in the galaxy. And it’s a bromance whose fires could only be stoked on a Star Destroyer.
Just a few minutes of screen time, really, but, oh, has their relationship inspired the Internet with memes, artwork, fan fiction and all sorts of other things to celebrate #Stormpilot. Or #FinnPoe. Or #Pinn. Or #FoeDameron. Whatever it’s called today.
In fact, Oscar Issac (Poe Dameron) has confirmed that romance was on his mind as he played scenes with Finn (John Boyega)
And while that doesn’t exactly make #FinnPoe “canon” it does represent, to me, a very interesting move in geek culture.
Fan fiction has been a part of geek culture (and literary culture) for a long time, and it has often been queer. In fact, George Lucas is somewhat famous for being vocal about attempting to prevent fans from using his characters to write “non-family friendly” (read: non-erotic) stories.
In many cult properties, creators work to court the “slash fic” (so named for the / that divides/unites the two characters written into a romantic or sexual relationship as in Kirk/Spock or Holmes/Watson or Xena/Gabriele) crowd by embedding queer subtext into the work, essentially winking at slash fic writers and inviting them to “ship” certain characters together (aka: imagine them in a romantic relationship).
But these creators were always careful to keep the “canon” relationships straight lest they alienate certain members of the audience (or, in the case of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to punish lesbian characters with madness and death).
So having the actors from Star Wars: The Force Awakens talk about how they were explicitly working to make the subtext into part of the text of the film (or at least the paratext of the film’s marketing machine) is still a Pretty Big Deal.
It seemingly signals a willingness on the part of actors, directors, and even gigantic family-entertainment studios like Disney to recognize queer audience members as audience members, to recognize queer geeks as geeks. Moments like this suggest that the profit motive has shifted from courting feminist and queer viewers from the shadows while paying lip service to the notion that their “true” constituency was the nuclear family to opening courting a diverse audience at the risk of drawing the ire of those who are actively bigoted against LGBTQ folks. Creators are starting to realize that there is more money to be made actively pushing back against the assholes then there is to be made cowtowing to them while whispering to minorities that “its okay, they can play in the Star Wars sandbox too, just so long as no one sees them.”
And of course, there has been some anger about the sexual politics of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, much of it hilarious. This image was cracking me up on Twitter earlier today:
And then there are claims that Rey is nothing more than a “Mary Sue.” Mary Sues are a staple of certain types of fan fiction: they are self-insert wish-fulfillment characters designed to represent the author. They are good at everything and all of the eligible singles of their preferred gender are in love with them and they are often the butt of jokes within the fan fiction community.
According to the brilliant Charlie Jane Anders at io9
The thing about Rey, and characters like her, is that she subverts the actual awful trope that is ruining everything: the female character who is badass until the final act of the movie. Most films, with a character like Rey, would have her be ridiculously competent and brilliant until the final 20 or 30 minutes of the film, at which point she suddenly becomes useless and Finn has to solve everything. This is a trope that I have seen in approximately seven billion movies: the super-awesome woman who becomes suddenly less awesome as the male hero takes control of his power.
So yes, Rey is a tad unrealistic. Not unlike everything else in this universe with a magic space elf and fantasy mind powers and spaceships that can jump across the galaxy at the push of a button. What she isn’t, is more unrealistic than most of the other characters.
What the “Mary Sue” thing shows—other than that people will find any craptastic excuse to tear down female characters—is that memes have a decay rate. After a while, they wear out and you gotta find new ones. Fan culture is good at putting its finger on that one thing that’s bugging us at this one specific moment, but then absolutely terrible at generalizing and extrapolating, until you reach the heat death of criticism: total loss of information. This is a failure mode of fan culture, and it’s something to watch out for.
Each of these mini-tantrums is, at its root, about identifying who is “allowed” to be a Star Wars fan. The image above is angry about the fact that the straight white male leads we are used to in the Star Wars movies (Luke and Han in the original Trilogy and Obi-Wan and Akakin in the prequels) have been replaced by a woman and a black man and furthermore that the female lead is an inferior character, a blank slate for little girls to project themselves onto instead of a fully fleshed out, complex human being like we got in the other films.
Of course, this position ignores the fact that Luke and Han are both themselves wish-fulfillment vessels for young boys. It seems a character only counts as a Mary Sue if straight white male geeks don’t/choose not to identify with her. She wasn’t made for them and therefore she must not be “canon” in the same way that previous characters are canon.
The creation of a canon is about which storylines are officially recognized by media creators and which are mere figments of fans’ imaginations. We geeks are obsessed with pouring over the details of canon, figuring out what factoids about our favorite fictional universes came from which texts. Star Wars used to have an exceedingly difficult to follow canon with multiple layers of officialness, from the films to the Extended Universe of officially licensed materials to the abhorrent Star Wars Christmas Special. Now, in the wake of Disney’s acquisition of LucasArts, the canon has been much simplified.
But the creation of a canon is also about who is authorized to do the creating. By declaring Rey a Mary Sue and calling for boycotts of Star Wars for displacing the straight white male lead in favor of a woman and a black man, a certain group of fans is essentially claiming the right to determine what is canon.
By acknowledging the Poe/Finn bromance and laughing at those who prefer that only their own race and gender be represented in fandom, the creators of Star Wars: The Force Awakens are suggesting that everyone is now invited into geekdom, and those who don’t like it should “get used to it.”
And THAT is canon.
Let’s celebrate with some Finn/Poe fan art!
Update: The Mary Sue has a great piece up by Maddy Myers on this same topic. Go check it out!