Last Thursday, actor John Cho announced that Hikaru Sulu — helmsman of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek, whom Cho portrays in the reboot — is gay. But worry not, says the writer-director team, the declaration is not a cheap ploy to boost publicity or viewership or to advance a certain political narrative. No, instead, it is a way to pay homage to George Takei, the gay LGBT activist who played the original Sulu 50 years ago.
There’s just one tiny problem with the homage rationale: George Takei thinks that changing Sulu’s sexual orientation is “really unfortunate” and twists Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s original vision for the character. Whoops.
This effort to change the sexuality of a long-known character isn’t a new phenomenon. Over the past few years, progressive activists have been pushing for classic characters to be “reimagined” as a way to increase the representation of both LGBT people and women in cinema. For reference, see “#GiveElsaAGirlfriend” (the campaign to put Disney’s Frozen princess in a same-sex relationship in the forthcoming sequel), the push for Captain America to get busy with sidekick Bucky Barnes, the calls for a Jane Bond rather than a James, the implication by Mark Hammill that Luke Skywalker could be gay, and, most concretely, the re-packaging of the Ghostbusters crew into a band of women.
The problem with changing characters into new-age icons of the progressive movement is that in order to do so, the characters’ backgrounds would have to be altered to the point of absurdity. Before crashing into the ice, Captain America had a girlfriend, and after getting out, still daydreamed about her. But suddenly, he’s going to be smitten with his longtime best friend? I don’t mean to discount bisexuality, but changing Cap’s sexual orientation would be a complete 180 from the straight-laced, traditional-values-driven superhero that made him so unusual in the first place. Similarly, James Bond as a woman? Bond is a misogynistic serial womanizer whose entire film franchise is based on an amplified and often noxious machismo — I can’t see how that would or could reasonably translate into a Jane franchise.
Giving characters an LGBT identity or updating them into women exacerbates the problem activists purport to be addressing.
Moreover, giving characters an LGBT identity or updating them into women exacerbates the problem activists purport to be addressing. A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to see Fully Committed, a Broadway comedy starring Jesse Tyler Ferguson (who, it so happens, is gay) as Sam, an aspiring actor working as a reservationist at one of New York City’s busiest restaurants. Throughout the course of the play, we get to know Sam as a stressed, overworked, but good-natured guy who does his best against increasingly ridiculous odds. Then, during a monologue where he explains why he’s ready to have a breakdown, he mentions how his boyfriend just moved out, leaving him with a suddenly doubled rent payment.
It was refreshing. Sam wasn’t a gay stereotype (looking at you, Titus Andromedon of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt); nor was he an attempt to beat the audience over the head with progressive talking points (looking at you, heavy-handed monologue at the end of Zootopia); he was just a deep and likable character, and his sexuality was incidental to a larger plot point about financial problems and emotional distress.
Sexuality and gender changes to well-known characters will never allow those details to be incidental to the plot; the new Ghostbusters ensemble will always be the female Ghostbusters; a new Captain America movie with a Bucky romance would always be the “Cap is gay now” movie; Jane Bond would simply be a female Bond. In other words, LGBT and female characters would always be defined in relation to their straight, male counterparts, and their representation would never achieve normalization. Some could argue that such context indicates “heteronormativity” or other conservative sinisterisms, but the point is that updates are not the most effective agents of change in addressing media representation of different communities.
#share#Which raises the question: Why do we need to alter the sexuality or gender of existing characters when we could just create new ones who do provide representations for the communities supporting these changes? Takei expressed support for this view when he said the Sulu change was disappointing.
Many popular TV shows feature prominent LGBT and female characters. In Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, Sense8, Orange Is the New Black, and Game of Thrones, the LGBT characters are defined not by their sexuality or gender but by what they contribute to the plot. If Hollywood leftists who lament the lack of diversity at the Oscars were as serious about the issue as they say, they would expand these TV practices into cinema. And what about untapped potential for original films? Why do we need to morph James Bond into Jane when fans would kill to have Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in her own movie? Why do we need to re-imagine Ghostbusters with women when many of the cast members proved that theater-goers want new, female-centric movies such as Bridesmaids? Why aren’t these activists pushing for fresh content with new characters who represent the identities and ideals they are looking for?
The new Ghostbusters ensemble will always be the female Ghostbusters.
Because contrary to what the rhetoric of their insular Twitterverse would have you believe, simply increasing representation of LGBT people and women is not the goal of these fringe progressives. Instead, they have a desire to tear down, to re-mold the media industry in a new image. These activists’ odd doctrine of social mercantilism dictates that every straight, male character represents a loss for women and gay people in a zero-sum game as contrived as the rhetorical overtures they make to diversity and equality — under their paradigm, there’s not enough room in the movie industry to carve out space for a wide range of identities. Something has to give – namely, straightness and maleness.
But to those who advocate changing current characters, a call for new, strong female and LGBT characters of depth is not a celebration of differences; it’s a relegation, a dismissal, a banishment to the corner of the room. Not good enough, they say. Represent us, they demand. They want to “win.” Win the fight over characters. Win the fight over movies. Win the fight over theatergoers in general. Because yes, it’s about more gay characters, more female characters, more diverse characters. But before that, it’s about pushing for a societal imprimatur. It’s not about creating something for consumption — it’s about force-feeding us their preferred ideology. We made Captain America gay. We Jane’d James Bond. We gave Elsa a girlfriend. We changed things. Get on board, lest you be labeled a sexist, a homophobe, a bigot.
#related#Increased representation of women and minority groups in media has the potential to tell better stories and capture a broader picture of the human experience. But that’s not what is at stake with this push to mold existing characters in the image of progressive Twitter activists — TV (and to a lesser extent, film) has quietly been expanding its slate of LGBT and female characters for several years. Instead, it’s about an arm-chair revolution starring change for change’s sake — if it wasn’t, progressives would push for the introduction of new characters whom new generations could grow up relating to. And that would be more likely to achieve the social progress they so breathlessly call for. Which is unfortunate, because I, George Takei, and more than a few others would rather go see movies with characters such as Sam than with characters such as new-and-improved Sulu.