Why Star Trek’s New Sulu Is an Important Step for the Future of Hollywood
This week brought some great news for the future of diversity in Hollywood. John Cho announced his Star Trek Beyond character, Hikaru Sulu, would be revealed as gay in the upcoming movie. Sadly, not everyone was thrilled about it.
George Takei, who originated in the role of Sulu in the Star Trek TV series, voiced his disapproval of the character’s newly revealed sexuality. While the openly gay actor and LGBTQ activist was glad the movie will have a gay character, he wasn’t happy with retrofitting the sexuality of his character. The actor called Sulu’s sexuality “really unfortunate,” saying it was “twisting” Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s creation, whom Takei said had always envisioned Sulu as heterosexual. But Simon Pegg, who co-wrote Beyond with Doug Jung, and Star Trek star Zachary Quinto have both since spoken out against Takei’s comments, the latter calling the actor’s criticisms “disappointing.”
Pegg, who also reprises his role as Scotty in the upcoming film, told The Guardian that while he admires Takei, he “respectfully disagrees” with the actor’s comments. Pegg defended his and director Justin Lin’s decision to write an existing Star Trek character as gay – which was their “nod to” Takei – instead of introducing a new one:
We could have introduced a new gay character, but he or she would have been primarily defined by their sexuality, seen as the ‘gay character’, rather than simply for who they are, and isn’t that tokenism?
Pegg’s argument showcases an awareness that’s not often shown in the film industry and one worth acknowledging. Pegg said a character’s sexual orientation should be “just one of many personal aspects, not the defining characteristic,” which is presumably how he and Jung wrote Sulu in Beyond, and the ideal way LGBTQ characters should be written. We need more screenwriters and filmmakers like this, who are aware of how they depict a character’s sexuality and how much the character’s narrative is defined by it. The last thing Hollywood needs are more stereotyped queer characters whose personalities and actions are founded on their identities alone.
However, I also have some issues with Pegg’s statement, which seems to insist that writing a new character as gay automatically establishes prejudice within the audience. There are ways to introduce new queer characters into an existing franchise who are as well-rounded and multifaceted as their straight counterparts, and whose sexuality can be just as nuanced as Pegg seemingly intends Sulu’s to be – though we won’t know how Sulu’s sexuality is actually handled until the movie opens on July 22. Making an old character gay may be the first step to introducing queer identities into tentpole films, but studios shouldn’t shudder away from the much more challenging task of learning how to write original LGBTQ characters audiences can connect with outside of their sexuality or gender identity.
Pegg also responded to Takei’s biggest issue with the news: Changing Roddenberry’s vision. He’s of the opinion that Beyond simply diversifies the franchise in ways its creator may not have been able to at the time, rather than altered his intentions. “I don’t believe Gene Roddenberry’s decision to make the prime timeline’s Enterprise crew straight was an artistic one, more a necessity of the time,” Pegg said. While the TV series is known for showing the first interracial kiss on television, Pegg added that it was likely the more conservative political climate of the era that “must have forced Roddenberry to modulate his innovation.”
We can run in circles all day debating what Roddenberry would have or could have done had circumstances been different at the time. But the fact is we’re talking about Star Trek here, a sci-fi universe full of infinite possibilities and specifically a new franchise that follows an alternate timeline with, as Pegg said, “alternate details.” Why should modern versions of a franchise echo the same perspectives of a time that was far less progressive after all? Out culture has begun to evolve into a more accepting place for minorities, so one of the most inclusive fictional universes should as well.
Even if we consider Sulu’s sexuality in the new movies in accordance with character’s previous history, there was never an instance where Sulu’s sexuality was directly alluded to before. Some fans may point to the 1995 tie-in novel that reveals his daughter Demora was conceived in a one-night stand with a “stunningly gorgeous woman,” as Takei described. Yet who’s to say a gay man can’t have a one-night stand with a woman? Pegg said in his statement (which is somewhat contradictory to his comments on the alternate timelines) that in his mind, the gay Sulu was never closeted. So we can interpret Cho’s Sulu as an alternate version of Takei’s, or the same one with a more fluid perspective on sexuality. It’s open to interpretation and that’s what’s so wonderful about it. As Pegg said, Sulu being gay “suggests that in a hypothetical multiverse, across an infinite matrix of alternate realities, we are all LGBT somewhere.” Star Trek is a great area to explore the many possibilities of queer sexuality, so why condemn it?
Takei and fans could nitpick all day, but the main takeaway from this is that Pegg, Jung, and Lin are giving Hollywood its first queer hero of color in a franchise movie. Why expend energy complaining about retrofitting a character, debate artist intentions, or squabble over timelines when this news is a positive step forward for blockbusters movies? A gay member of the Enterprise makes room for more diverse and positive representations of minorities in film, which are incredibly lacking. In 2015 alone only 17.5 percent of movies from the highest grossing studios featured LGBTQ characters, with a significant decrease in queer characters of color. And this isn’t just about the movies being more representative of the world we live in. I’ve made the case before for how positive depictions of queer characters in blockbuster films can have huge impacts off screen, helping to instill political and social changes in the real world.
Quinto, who is openly gay and plays Spock in the films, echoed this in his response to Takei’s comments to Pedestrian.TV. The actor highlighted how a gay character in the upcoming movie is important for increasing acceptance of LGBTQ identities.
And my hope is that eventually George can be strengthened by the enormously positive response from especially young people, who are heartened by and inspired by this really tasteful and beautiful portrayal of something that I think is gaining acceptance and inclusion in our societies across the world — and should be.
Who cares if Sulu wasn’t envisioned as gay, or if his current sexuality doesn’t perfectly align with his previous incarnations? If Pegg, Jung, and Lin bring queer characters to the Star Trek universe they can in turn help bring about more diversity within the industry, paving the way for more queer heroes of color to fill our screens. We need that, and that’s something far more important than personal grievances over a fictional character of the past.