In part one of this roundtable, WWAC contributors discuss the recent revelation that helmsman Hikaru Sulu is in a same sex relationship in the upcoming film Star Trek: Beyond, and the paucity of LGBTQA representation in Star Trek up until now.
In part two of this roundtable, they will discuss which Star Trek they found their home in.
In the new film Star Trek: Beyond, Hikaru Sulu, once played by George Takei, now played by John Cho, will be revealed to be queer. What do you think of this decision and Takei’s criticisms of it?
Ray Sonne: Making Sulu queer is actually something I once said that I really wished the filmmakers would do, particularly because I thought it would honor Takei. So seeing the news drove me into more excitement than I’ve ever felt for a franchise. I wouldn’t say that Sulu was the only obvious choice (the friendship between Kirk and Spock has launched more than a million homoerotic feelings since Star Trek: The Original Series, permanently defining certain areas of fandom), but the fact that they’re taking a chance at all seems revolutionary even though it shouldn’t be.
On the other hand, I’m a little saddened by Takei’s feelings on the matter. While Gene Roddenberry created the show and had some genius ideas–some he managed to bring to the screen and some the network banned for being too “radical” at the time–Star Trek moved on after his death and continues to grow beyond him. There’s no reason a 53-year-old franchise should chain itself to the vision of a man who lived in an era that now seems like the deep past to a lot of fans. I’m sorry that Takei doesn’t feel honored by this decision, but as a queer woman I certainly felt a beautiful bond with my fellow queer Trekkies when we celebrated at the news together. Star Trek is one of our society’s beloved classics and queers have envisioned themselves in its universe for decades. Now we finally get one character of representation; although we will fight for more.
[pullquote]I think at least some kind of worry or concern about Roddenberry’s vision is warranted, not necessary because he was a visionary or shouldn’t be questioned, but because this franchise has strayed so far from the values and sensibilities that made Star Trek so transformative in the first place, whether it’s stuff like making Kirk even more crass and misogynist in Into Darkness or casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. [/pullquote]Emma Houxbois: Ambivalent. I think what bugs me the most about it is how Simon Pegg and Justin Lin executed the idea with the intent of honoring Takei without actually consulting with him or entering into a dialogue about his reservations, according to Takei’s version of events. These are straight guys just sort of presuming what the best course here is and that doesn’t make me feel great. I get why Takei said he’d have preferred the gay character to be a new one rather than revise Sulu’s characterization and I don’t think that’s all that controversial. Takei played Sulu for a long time and was very intimately acquainted with/loyal to Roddenberry’s vision, so he’s going to have some closely held beliefs about it.
Also, I think at least some kind of worry or concern about Roddenberry’s vision is warranted, not necessary because he was a visionary or shouldn’t be questioned, but because this franchise has strayed so far from the values and sensibilities that made Star Trek so transformative in the first place, whether it’s stuff like making Kirk even more crass and misogynist in Into Darkness or casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan. Interpreting Roddenberry’s vision is like Kirk and Spock negotiating the spirit and the letter of the Prime Directive. You have to reckon with it in one way or another. In Simon Pegg’s most recent statement on the whole thing he referenced the Vulcan philosophy Kol-Ut-Shan, or “infinite diversity in infinite combinations,” and I think he certainly had the right idea there. I think the best way to conceive of and measure Roddenberry’s vision is by the spirit of it, lore like that, instead of an assessment of what he got done in the ’60s.
The full dimensions of the situation are just weird. I mean, like, there’s already an out gay actor in the main cast. Zachary Quinto is Spock. I’m guessing Beyond is going to look to further his relationship with Uhura, but there’s no particular reason why he couldn’t be bisexual or have a sexual history that includes men. On the other hand, we definitely need better representation of queer Asian men in specific. But either way, the statements from Cho, Takei, Pegg, Lin, and most of the commentary is like either he’s gay or he’s straight. Like yeah, sure, him being absolutely rigidly monosexual would problematize something that was depicted in a novel published in 1995 and belonging to a separate continuity, but that’s one of at least four possible interpretations. Sexuality is frequently fluid, and Sulu’s daughter, if again, that’s a hill anyone really wants to die on, was conceived in a one night stand. There’s lots of ways to interpret that.
Clara Mae: I agree with Emma that I don’t feel great about Takei being left out of the decision to make Sulu queer when its supposed to be in honor of him. It sounds like Takei isn’t the kind of person who likes to mix up his real life with his work, and yet this is a decision that very explicitly welds the two together. According to the original Hollywood Reporter article, Cho brought up the idea to Takei last year, to which Takei said he was uncomfortable with it. Yet here we are months later and they went ahead with it anyway, despite knowing Takei’s reservations. That to me is just a little disrespectful on Pegg, Lin, and Cho’s part.
And I think it’s reasonable that Takei is worried exactly how the reveal is going to go, considering the last two films so far haven’t exactly been subtle with how they’ve dealt with gender and sexuality, for example. It seems his big worry is it’s going to be kind of played as a hilarious closet moment. Chris Pine and Simon Pegg’s characters are both pretty crass, and I think it’s understandable if Takei is worried the scene will include either of them yelling, “Wait, you’re GAY?” I mean, I don’t think Pegg or Lin would ever do something so tone-deaf, but I also don’t think Takei’s fears are totally unfounded.
With all that said, I was ecstatic about hearing the news and spent basically the whole morning yelling about it. I think there’s a lot of film-only fans, especially kids, and for them I think it’s very important for them to see a positive queer Asian character. As long as it’s tastefully done, and treated as a complete non issue by all the characters, I think it’s going to end up being great!
[pullquote]He’s a legend, he’s a survivor of the U.S.’s war crimes, and he’s a gay advocate with a lot of klout. What he isn’t is Gene Roddenberry’s spirit medium or the gatekeeper of the Star Trek canon. Love you, bless you, George, but I want to see a gay character in Star Trek and I’m ecstatic that it’s Sulu.[/pullquote]Jo Fu: I couldn’t help myself — when I saw the news via John Cho, I got SO excited. I remembered watching House, MD when he played a masochist character, and my eyes turned into happy stars, even though the portrayal was really unhealthy. One step at a time, more Asian-Americans are coming out as a gay and portraying gay characters; my community has not always had an easy relationship with homosexuality, so having people challenge the norms in popular media is really important to me.
I don’t have any feelings about George Takei’s response. He’s a legend, he’s a survivor of the U.S.’s war crimes, and he’s a gay advocate with a lot of klout. What he isn’t is Gene Roddenberry’s spirit medium or the gatekeeper of the Star Trek canon. Love you, bless you, George, but I want to see a gay character in Star Trek and I’m ecstatic that it’s Sulu.
Oh, one note though: I think Simon Pegg should’ve been braver about his justification. Saying that sexuality can be fluid across dimensions seems like he’s paying too much deference to the ‘source material’. Whatever, dude; if you and Justin Lin wanted Sulu to be gay just because he’s cool, I think that’s good! Because gayness is too often portrayed as traumatic or difficult in media. I think giving gayness a space to be cool is admirable!
Jamie Kingston: NuTrek is established to be an alternate universe. Kirk is not the same Kirk William Shatner played. Spock is definitely not the same Spock as portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. Quinto’s Spock is different in multiple ways from Nimoy’s, and that’s before taking into account his relationship with Uhura. So Sulu being different from George Takei’s is not a problem for me. I’m not sure why it is for Mr. Takei either, since his portrayal of Sulu remains untouched.
Maddy Beaupré: I think it’s a big step forward for a Star Trek movie or TV show to have a gay main character. They haven’t really had that before. Sexual orientation and gender have been touched on in plots and hinted at, but there haven’t been any main characters in same-sex relationships.
It’s understandable why George Takei might not be thrilled with the decision, especially if he wasn’t consulted on it. The TOS actors all seem to have had a serious hand in developing their characters in collaboration with Roddenberry. If Takei always intended to play Sulu as straight, I wonder if he feels as though his portrayal has been retroactively changed because of his real life? There may be some frustration at the idea that as a gay actor, his character must also be gay.
I also agree with Ray that it might have been more fitting to explore the Kirk/Spock relationship as more than platonic. There’s so much to that relationship, and there’s nothing about them that insists or implies they must be 100% straight. That said, I enjoy the Spock/Uhura relationship and the prospect of Kirk/Spock in this universe immediately makes me think that Uhura would get more sidelined as a character if she wasn’t in a relationship with Spock in this universe (The movies with the original cast always focused on Kirk, Spock, and McCoy more than anyone else).
All in all, it’s a step forward that’s way overdue, and it’s good it’s happening. It didn’t have to be Sulu, and it sounds as though they could have been more sensitive and consultative in bringing it into reality.
[pullquote]I really respect George Takei — his life, his activism, everything he does with his platform — but I disagree that this is antithetical to Roddenberry’s vision.[/pullquote]Kat Overland: I was honestly ecstatic to hear that Sulu was going to be gay in Beyond — a queer main character, and he was a POC as well? This felt huge, and felt like it was filling a hole that the long canon of Star Trek shows and movies never even attempted to. Even as a kid, I thought it was strange that there weren’t any
It makes me sad that George Takei disagrees with this decision, but the only thing I really feel uncomfortable with is the idea that it’s “honoring” him sans consultation. I don’t think the new franchise requires input from the original actors — though the current actors seem to appreciate it. I know John Cho had discussed the possibility with Takei before, and that makes me think Cho takes this quite seriously as well. I really respect George Takei — his life, his activism, everything he does with his platform — but I disagree that this is antithetical to Roddenberry’s vision. Roddenberry was very supportive of gay characters, even crew members, appearing in The Next Generation, but they never actually materialized after his death. I think these are the characters we have right now, and while there absolutely has to be a queer character in the upcoming series, making this timeline’s Sulu gay is in a way helping fulfill Roddenberry’s plans to be inclusive.
So generally I’m with Jo on this.
Stephanie Austin: Fantastic! I have always seen Star Trek as humanity’s goal — discovery, knowledge, delighting in differences. It shows us all we could accomplish. Star Trek always gave hope. And right now, nothing gives me more hope than a badass queer Asian male character in an action film.
I agree with Jamie — as much as I understand Takei’s hold on a character he feels is his, this Sulu is not necessarily the same Sulu. The Star Trek reboot introduced an alternate timeline. It is possible that the Takei Sulu is straight and the Cho Sulu is queer. And when it comes to his daughter, Demora (whose origins change from material to material anyway…) — it’s possible for Hikaru Sulu to be a queer man and have a child without sleeping with a woman.
This is Star Trek’s FIRST major cast queer character. Why do you think it took them so long?
Ray: Societal queerphobia and no queers running the show (metaphorically and literally) so that they could combat it. I anxiously await Bryan Fuller’s new Star Trek series to see who he’ll add to the universe. He’s at the point of his career where he can do whatever the hell he wants with little consequence, he champions diversity, and he’s in touch with fandom so I have high hopes.
Houxbois: The Hollywood Reporter article detailing Takei’s stance framed it as Roddenberry not wanting to push the envelope any further after they’d taken such a huge hit to the ratings over the interracial kiss, so that may or may not account for the original series, but it is what it is. I don’t think anyone really tried or cared to, but I mean, how are we defining major cast because wasn’t Jadzia Dax in DS9 bisexual?
I personally have no faith in Bryan Fuller whatsoever and have kind of loathed him since Hannibal. He didn’t expand LBGTQIA representation in that franchise at all and played really coy with the queerbaiting between Hannibal and Will. You can have fun with it and read those characters however you want, but that wasn’t representation. I’m still frustrated and annoyed by how he handled Margot Verger and his absolutely abysmal response to criticism about her portrayal.
[pullquote]I anxiously await Bryan Fuller’s new Star Trek series to see who he’ll add to the universe. He’s at the point of his career where he can do whatever the hell he wants with little consequence, he champions diversity, and he’s in touch with fandom so I have high hopes.[/pullquote]It’s another really bizarre situation because the Margot Verger in the original Thomas Harris novel was a lesbian for sure, but she was also this really weirdly written bodybuilder who was cut entirely from the Ridley Scott film. After the episode where the Fuller version of the character, played by Katharine Isabelle, slept with Will, there was heavy criticism from queer female viewers. Fuller responded by joking on Twitter about it being any guy’s dream to get propositioned by a hot lesbian. The plot line didn’t really have anything to do with romantic attraction at all, and he could have had some class in keeping it framed as a desperation move on her part, but his priority was to behave like a straight fratboy about it. So I could do without Fuller overseeing any queer female characters again any time soon.
Clara: I think it’s a reflection of the times. I mean, they couldn’t even show an interracial kiss in the original series, around the time when anti-miscegenation laws still existed (and were deemed unconstitutional a year after Star Trek’s debut). Today we’re still fighting for LGBT marriage and employee protection across all fifty states, so I feel like that fact that we’re only now getting a queer character is a reflection of all that slow progress.
Jo: Clara, you can’t tell me that there was nothing between Kim and Paris in Voyager, right? Like, actually nothing?
My tiny frustration is that fanfic has long celebrated Kirk x Spock, and we don’t get a single glimmer of that in the new movies. If anything, the previous writing teams have gone out of their way to prove Kirk and Spock’s respective het virility, entrenching Kirk with meaningless and nameless women, and forcing Uhura on Spock like they were meant to be. What would Gene think about that, considering his long affair with Nichelle Nichols?
Jamie: I guess the Daxes don’t count from TNG because they’re not core characters? But I’d agree with Ray. It is a known truth of diversity that you need diverse people for diversity to happen properly, because the cis-heteronormative-white people don’t think it’s important enough to bother with. When they do it they seem to be checking off boxes on a list, or because it will avoid fan backlash.
Gay characters, any character at all that isn’t just cis-heteronormative-white as default is true to Roddenberry’s vision, IMO. His whole point was diversity and a future wherein people were people no matter what.
That said, I am not sure I trust Fuller. I adored the taken-too-soon Pushing Daisies. I didn’t watch Hannibal, but you can’t completely avoid hearing about it on the internet even if you don’t watch. I will try to have faith, though, because he’s trying with his heart in the right place as near as I am able to determine.
Maddy: Homophobia, obviously, and that fear of “rocking the boat” or losing money, advertisers, or ratings because of something controversial, have both played a part.
It seems to me that Star Trek’s approach to diversity has often been to start off with their default white male cast, and then consciously change or add characters that aren’t. Star Trek stands apart, historically, because at least it consciously took that step, but there’s always been huge room for improvement.
I recently decided to re-watch Enterprise for some reason, and it’s amazing how so many characters in the first episode are aggressively Average American Straight White Dude. I don’t know how else to describe it, haha.
[pullquote]I think one thing about the history of LGBTQ representation in Star Trek that is interesting is that the cast members often supported it, vocally. [/pullquote]Kat: Oh, Maddy, Enterprise is so rife with that character it’s absurd. And Jo — at least Nichelle Nichols is on board with it, she’s said that Spock and Uhura have always had an understanding.
I think one thing about the history of LGBTQ representation in Star Trek that is interesting is that the cast members often supported it, vocally. Leonard Nimoy wrote in an article to the Los Angeles Times in favor of gay and lesbians appearing “unobtrusively” on the Enterprise, and Kate Mulgrew has said she approached producer Rick Berman multiple times about getting a gay character on the show, but was told “In due time.” So there were people behind the scenes who were advocating — just not the producers. It’s interesting reading more recent interviews, however, as there seems to be some regret in not being more forward thinking in representation and “issue” episodes.
I’m not sure if Jadzia Dax counts as a main character, but she was certainly bisexual, but I hated thinking that the only reason she was shown as bisexual was due to the Trill symbiote — that there weren’t any just regular queer people walking around Deep Space Nine. It was extra-othering, even to me as a kid watching it.
Stephanie Austin: As liberal and advancing as a show/movie/book/etc may be, it still needs to sell. It’s a business, and still needs to appeal to the masses to get a return on the investment. I think it took this long to get a director, writers, producers, and actors to agree that it’s time. We’re ready. Hopefully, as we now look at the risks in story and characters the 50-year-old Original Series took, people will look at Beyond’s queer Sulu 50 years from now as the norm.
Re: all this Jazdia Dax talk – I don’t believe she was bisexual. It was a sneaky way to include a woman-woman kiss on the small screen because the creators could always fall back on the “It’s not her; it’s the symbiote” defence. Lenara, the other half of that kiss, was married to one of the symbiote’s prior hosts, a man.