The Gay Characters of ‘Star Trek Beyond’ and ‘Independence Day: Resurgence’ Are Progress, But Is It Enough?Erin Whitney |
The following post contains SPOILERS for Star Trek Beyond and Independence Day: Resurgence.
You’ll find something in this year’s summer movies that has never happened before: two gay couples in two major franchise films. Considering the scarcity of LGBTQ characters in Hollywood, that’s a pretty big deal.
When it comes to representation in pop culture we often talk about numbers. Statistics, percentages, and year-by-year comparison charts are great for gauging the larger scope of a problem and highlighting why it needs fixing. But the call for more diversity in film isn’t just about how many LGBTQ characters show up, it’s about how those characters are portrayed, how their sexualities and gender identities are approached within the narrative, especially compared to their heterosexual, cisgender counterparts, and whether a movie proudly stands behind them or skirts around the subject.
In Justin Lin’s Star Trek Beyond, co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung reveal that John Cho’s Sulu is raising his daughter with a husband. In Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich reveals Brent Spiner’s Dr. Brakish Okun and John Storey’s Dr. Isaacs are a couple. But while two supporting gay characters in major studio movies may look like progress, these films aren’t necessarily the solution to Hollywood’s diversity problem.
Early into Star Trek Beyond, we see Cho’s Sulu glance down at a photo of his young daughter tucked into the corner of his control panel. We’ve known for years that Sulu had a daughter in the Star Trek universe, but Beyond reveals who Sulu has been raising that daughter with. When the crew arrives at the Yorktown Starbase, Sulu is the only character we see reunite with family. An Asian man stands beside the young girl from the photo, she runs up to Sulu for an embrace, and the three walk away together in a half-hugging embrace. From the two men’s arms, wrapped around each other with Sulu’s thumb gently rubbing the other man’s back (who is played by co-writer Jung), it’s clear that they’re a couple.
It’s a tender though very brief moment that feels both familiar and unprecedented. What’s so familiar is how it plays like any other airport-style reunion we see in real-life or the movies. It’s a glimpse at a gay couple portrayed the same way they would be if the characters were straight (and while that sounds obvious, it is a rare find in movies). But the scene is also incredibly progressive for showing not only two gay men of color, but two gay men of color raising a child in a world where that’s okay. That’s never been shown in a major studio franchise before.
Sulu’s sexuality in Star Trek Beyond is approached with subtlety, which is something that’s commendable in some ways and a disappointment in others. Hollywood has an ugly history of portraying LGBTQ characters with offensive stereotypes, especially with gay male characters and queer Asian men (just think of The Hangover’s effeminate bisexual Leslie Chow). To see Star Trek Beyond represent Sulu the same way he’s been in the previous two Star Treks, and not suddenly reduced to stereotypes simply because he’s gay, is a praiseworthy accomplishment. Lin’s film gives Hollywood its first openly gay hero — Sulu gets to save the Enterprise in one of the movie’s major action sequences. We want to see LGBTQ characters represented as they are written, outside of clichés and offensive reductive traits, and we get that with Sulu.
But Star Trek Beyond could still have done better. Cho revealed in an interview with Vulture that a kiss between him and Jung was cut from the final film. He went on to say filming the scene was “pretty tough” since he and Jung had to convincingly create a sense of loving intimacy together. But from watching the roughly five-second scene in the actual film, which includes more of a reaction shot from Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk than from either Cho or Jung’s characters, it was clear to me that something was missing. Sulu had been on the Enterprise for 966 days and upon seeing his husband for the first time they merely share a casual embrace? Surely there was a little more intimacy that Lin could’ve included in the final cut.
Now I hate to lament the flaws of Star Trek Beyond when it’s commendable for introducing the first gay Asian character into Star Trek and Hollywood. Part of me says, It’s a step in the right direction, just be happy with what they offered. And I am overjoyed that the film shows Sulu’s husband and daughter two more times throughout the movie instead of quickly forgetting them. But I also can’t help but feel that it’s simply not enough, and such a brief scene and a lack of intimacy makes the film appear more cautious than it could’ve been. I don’t need a full-blown makeout scene. I don’t need to see a Sulu coming-out speech or a rainbow pin on his uniform. But by including a kiss, the film could have made one of the most powerful statements we’ve ever seen in any blockbuster movie.
Considering the current political climate, a kiss between two men in a Hollywood film is more significant now than ever before. Last month the murders of 49 LGBTQ people in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub was reportedly sparked by the sight of two men kissing; if watching queer people kiss has the power to take lives, it could also have the power to change minds, and to show audiences that their cinematic heroes can still be valiant if they’re gay. Not all movies need to comment on real-life issues, but the main message of Star Trek Beyond is a political one, suggesting that the power and strength in unity can triumph over hatred and evil. If Lin’s film is willing to champion such an optimistic message about the unification of various identities, then it also could have approached Sulu’s sexuality more explicitly.
Mild disappointment and all, Sulu’s portrayal in Star Trek Beyond is still light-years ahead of the timid one in Independence Day: Resurgence. Emmerich revealed a year before his film opened that it would feature a gay couple, telling The Hollywood Reporter that the movie doesn’t “make a big deal“ out of it. If not making a big deal means completely failing to depict something, then he was right. During the scene where we first see ID:R’s gay couple, there are absolutely no direct references to the fact that either character is gay or that the two are engaged in anything beyond a platonic relationship.
Storey’s Dr. Milton Isaacs’ walks into a hospital room where Spiner’s Dr. Brakish Okun is in a coma, cordially addressing him as a doctor would a patient. When Brakish suddenly wakes up from the coma, Milton rushes to his side, but there’s no subtext to suggest either of these men are more than the friendly coworkers they were in the 1996 film. Like Sulu and his husband, Brakish and Milton have had their own lengthy separation; the former’s been in a coma for 7,300 days! But Milton doesn’t react as if his life partner has just woken for the first time in 20 years. More like he’s just getting up after a short nap.
Brackish and Milton share a handful of scenes together throughout the film where they call each other “baby,” but the lines feel so forced and unnatural that it sounds like an inside joke. It’s not fully clear that these two are actually romantic partners until the final act of the movie when they grab hands before an alien kills Milton, followed by a weepy death scene where Brackish holds Milton in his arms. Even with that moment, someone could easily read their entire relationship as two close friends who like to knit and maybe have some latent romantic desires. Do couples simply not show each other affection in Emmerich’s fictional world? Not if they’re gay.
I closely watched the dialogue and body language between the heterosexual characters in Resurgence, which stood in stark contrast with what we see between Brackish and Milton. There are constant descriptors of characters’ relationships to their significant others, even overtly at times. Maika Monroe’s Patricia stares googly-eyed at Liam Hemsworth’s Jake in a video call, calling him “my fiancé.” The two embrace and kiss multiple times, with Jake later reminding the audience that the two are getting married. Jake’s best friend Floyd (Nicolas Wright) continually hits on Rain Lao (Angelababy), and William Fichtner’s General Adams laments being called into work and having to leave his “wife.”
It’s clear that every straight character in the movie is straight, with their sexuality and relationships continually referenced, often at times when it’s superfluous to the plot. So why doesn’t Emmerich give his gay couple the same treatment? While Emmerich may be attempting to portray his characters with a similar level of subtlety as the way Lin portrays Sulu in Star Trek Beyond, in Independence Day: Resurgence it comes off as incredibly coy and even fearful. Despite being an openly gay filmmaker, Emmerich has a pretty bad track record when it comes to representing queer people authentically (See: Stonewall.) Resurgence was his chance to fix that. He didn’t.
In comparison to Emmerich’s characters, Star Trek Beyond looks like a model approach to featuring openly gay characters in major franchises. Writers Pegg and Jung have given us the best depiction of queer diversity a major Hollywood film ever has, and I’ve said before how a gay Sulu is significant for the future of representation; but it’s a small step in a series of leaps studios need to make. Revealing Sulu as gay with a one-armed hug is the equivalent of Captain Kirk distracting Krall’s henchmen while the Enterprise crew escapes to safety: They still have to beam back, fix the broken ship, return to Yorktown, stop the drones, and then defeat the bad guy. It’s progress, but there’s still a long way to go. Right now, the problem still isn’t solved.
Queer representation in movies at the current moment is a lot like this summer movie season — in short, it sucks. Hollywood is still doing a terrible job of representing the queer community, with only 17.5% of last year’s major studio movies featuring lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender characters according to GLAAD. This year has been slightly better, considering the gay subplot of Neighbors 2, and the fact that we actually have gay movie characters to analyze and discuss. But while Independence Day: Resurgence and Star Trek Beyond are signs of progress, right now the conversation should be about quality as much as it’s about quantity, and about clarity over ambiguity.
Reflecting on this summer movie season of implicitly queer and maybe-gay characters, like Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters or the possibly lesbian couple in Finding Dory, I keep asking myself if these tacit depictions of queerness are enough. Should we be grateful that Hollywood is at least trying? When the writing is positive and done with thoughtful consideration, as interviews with both Cho and Pegg have shown, then we should celebrate. But we can celebrate while acknowledging there is more work to do. If studios see Emmerich get away with cautiously tip-toeing around gay characters, if screenwriters think they don’t need to give their queer characters the same moments of intimacy as straight characters, then little will change.
When Finding Dory‘s Andrew Stanton says his background characters are “whatever you want them to be,” when Mark Hamill says Luke Skywalker’s sexuality is up to audience interpretation, it perpetuates a message that’s more harmful than helpful. While these comments may come from a place of support and goodwill, they suggest that filmmakers need only make an attempt at diversity, instead of taking true risks. What’s to stop someone from giving a character a husband who’s more like a friend, claiming he’s gay on the press tour, then taking credit for being groundbreaking?
Being an ally doesn’t mean just showing up to the protest and tweeting a hashtag; it means grabbing a sign and jumping into the street to push back for change. If filmmakers actually want to make a difference and diversify what we see onscreen, they need to give us unambiguously LGBTQ characters and they need to treat them with the same consideration as hetero, cisgender characters.
Star Trek Beyond‘s Sulu isn’t the ideal portrayal of a gay hero, but he is a major step forward. In keeping with the series’ famous tagline, Star Trek Beyond goes where no blockbuster has gone before. From this moment forward, though, it’s time for filmmakers to show us how bold they can truly be.