Representation of minorities and women have always been important, and they’ve become increasingly important to the public over the past few years. For political reasons both flimsy and painfully real — the Black Lives Matter movement and all the death that started and sustains it plays into this — demands for proportional onscreen representation have become louder, and they’ve been heard. Studios are finally beginning to realize that people who aren’t straight white males also see movies and the straight white male crowd is mostly mature enough to handle seeing movies about other kinds of people anyway. The Academy is forcefully diversifying. This is by-and-large a good thing — black actors are getting more work and black children have more characters and action figures who look like them to look up to and grow up playing with.
But with LGBTs, it gets a little more complicated because of the closet. There are far, far more actors in Hollywood who are gay or bisexual than we publicly know about, as confirmed by common sense, anyone who’s ever stepped foot in a drama class and Matt Damon. Additionally, sexuality is a character trait that isn’t always spelled out expressly, so there’s nothing saying Mad Max isn’t gay or James Bond isn’t bisexual. You can’t usually hide an actor or character’s skin color, so black actors need black characters for work and any black character will obviously be black, but none of that applies for LGBT actors and characters.
While representation is important, it’s kind of a low-level goal. It opens the door for tokenism and new-wave exploitation films like Ghostbusters, which exploits not its actors, but the social justice sensibilities of its target audience, but those doors were always open. The real goal is, or should be, representation in the decision-making process to drive depictions of black and female and LGBT persons in film that are actually accurate to their experience. You cannot speak for an experience you have not lived. Nobody likes or wants to be that one straight, cisgender white guy talking about how bad institutional racism or homosexism is as if he isn’t a part of it. The best way to avoid this is to bring in non-straight, non-white, non-male voices and listen to their input, ideally about everything, but especially on how characters of the subgroups they represent are portrayed. It is completely OK to call your black friend and ask whether or not something is racist in this context, but only if you’re actually open to listening to them even if you don’t like their answer.
So, if you want to include a gay person in your movie, and you want to make sure you do it in a way that the LGBT community will be open to, and you have access to an icon of not just Hollywood but of the gay and Asian-American communities, someone like, I don’t know, George Takei, and he expressly tells you not to do it the way you’re planning to do it, you better fucking listen.
There are several reasons Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) being recast as gay in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond really smells bad. Normally, analyzing a decision like this involves a lot of pure speculation, but fortunately, Star Trek Beyond writer and star Simon Pegg has his own blog and has explained the decision in detail. Unfortunately, it smells just as bad as the speculation did. From Pegg-
The main thrust for those who aren’t keen on our LGBT Sulu,
See, no. Stop. There’s already a problem here. LGBT stands for lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender. It’s an acronym for referring to communities that face similar difficulties and often face them together, but there’s no such thing as an individual who is all four L, G, B and T. When you’re referring to an individual character like new-Sulu, and you know his sexual and gender preferences, you don’t call him LGBT because three of those things don’t apply. He’s gay, so you call him gay. This is a minor thing, but it’s a window into the mindset at play here. They aren’t doing this to enhance the character or the story, they’re doing this because they want to say they have a gay character — because they want to say they have a LGBT character — in Star Trek. Though Pegg goes on to say this is something he wanted to avoid, this is the textbook definition of tokenism.
The fact is, we chose Sulu because of George, there was something sweet and poetic about it. Introducing a new gay character had its own set of problems, as I mentioned before, the sexuality of that character would have to be addressed immediately and pointedly and the new characters in Star Trek Beyond have enough on their plate, without stopping to give us the intimate details of their personal lives. We were concerned it might seem clumsy, tokenistic or worse, too little too late, raising and exasperated, “finally!” from those who’ve been waiting for representation for the last 50 years.
So why persist when George Takei wasn’t keen? The thinking behind embracing an existing character was that it felt as though it retroactively put right something that had long been wrong. By the time, we mentioned it to GT, the idea had taken shape, it felt good, interesting and worthy of thought and conversation. We were disappointed that George didn’t see it that way but, truth be told, Sulu Prime seemed to be missing a very important point. With galaxies of respect to the great man, this is not his Sulu. John Cho does not play a young George Takei, nor does he play the same character George Takei played in the original series. He is a different Sulu.
So they’re doing it because series creator Gene Roddenberry, who died seven years before Pegg’s first feature film, would have wanted it and because Takei, who played Sulu in the original series, came out more than 30 years later and has since become a major social media personality, and they’re going through with it even though he said they shouldn’t because they really, really wanted to.
We live in an emerging era of commodified minorities, where Marvel and DC are in an active arms race over who can have the most black and female superheroes, where studios are desperate to be seen as progressive because they think it’s profitable, but their methods of seeming progressive are usually shortcuts. Should Captain America, who built more than 70 years of history as a white superhero, suddenly be made black for a few issues, or should Marvel write a black superhero and elevate him to that level of cultural iconography as a black superhero? One of these things represents actual social progress, the other is a gimmick to get comics back in the headlines. The decision to release new-Sulu’s sexuality to the media several days ahead of a film that wasn’t generating a lot of excitement after an unpopular trailer smells badly of the same kind of publicity stunt.
This isn’t about Roddenberry’s vision or empowering the gay community. This is a cynical cashgrab that steps on Roddenberry’s vision and silences a very prominent gay voice.