It was only this morning that we learned Hiraku Sulu, the role originated by George Takei and now played in prequels by John Cho, will be an explicitly gay character in the upcoming Star Trek Beyond. Most of us (based on your comments earlier) were thrilled by this news.
Representation in entertainment, especially franchise blockbusters, is so important, and for JK Rowling to tell us after the fact that Dumbledore was gay, or for Oscar Isaac and John Boyega to join us in our (so far!) non-canonical Poe & Finn ‘shipping— that kind of stuff is awesome. But it’s very different from seeing a major character revealed to be gay, onscreen. Especially the way John Cho makes it sound, where it doesn’t sound like an actual “reveal,” no big show, but instead will just include a scene “in which Sulu is pictured with a male spouse raising their infant child.” No big fanfare or outright comment on the pairing, just gay characters, simply existing. You know, like straight characters do in every movie ever.
So it may be surprising to hear that the original Sulu and prominent gay figure George Takei isn’t a fan of this decision. In fact, in talking to The Hollywood Reporter, he called it “really unfortunate.”
Takei first learned of Sulu’s recent same-sex leanings last year, when Cho called him to reveal the big news. Takei tried to convince him to make a new character gay instead. “I told him, ‘Be imaginative and create a character who has a history of being gay, rather than Sulu, who had been straight all this time, suddenly being revealed as being closeted.’” (Takei had enough negative experiences inside the Hollywood closet, he says, and strongly feels a character who came of age in the 23rd Century would never find his way inside one.)
Takei defends the care Gene Roddenberry took to fully develop his characters, and that to change the character so drastically is “a twisting of Gene’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.”
He also notes, however, that it may not have been so much a “choice” as a lack of options leading to Sulu’s presumed heterosexuality. (He never had a romantic partner on the show, because Hollywood’s desexualization of Asian men is nothing new.)
“He was a strong supporter of LGBT equality,” recalls Takei, now 79. “But he said he has been pushing the envelope and walking a very tight rope — and if he pushed too hard, the show would not be on the air.”
While the degree to which franchises and reboots and sequels are expected to preserve the characters and intentions of their originals is a major topic of a lot of conversations right now, it’s Takei’s other point that feels more convincing: that of course there should be a major gay character in this movie. We are on a very slow climb to oust straight, white, male, and cis as the permanent default settings for a character, to be considered the prototype character in all stories unless there’s a reason for something else. Wider representation for other communities is growing, and a major character is reason for HUGE celebration, but it’s not a coincidence that Justin Lin and Simon Pegg chose Sulu for this part, rather than another character, or someone new, not already established in the original series.
Takei came out in 2005, and since then, has risen to such prominence as a gay activist (and simply an out gay man), that a lot of Star Trek fans probably already have in our headcanon the idea that Sulu is gay. (Just because the role here is being played by Cho, Sulu is still, for most of us, inextricably tied to our image of Takei.) And it’s a very thin line between celebrating the original actor, and seeing this as an exceptionally palatable change for longtime fans. Most likely, it’s both. Neither is good or bad, or a right or wrong choice; and just because it’s easy, doesn’t mean it’s worse. But we’re allowed to dream bigger, or at least different.
We can celebrate a female director being brought in for Wonder Woman, or a black director for Black Panther, and still wish studio heads as well as audiences had the imagination to believe those directors could also tell those ‘regular’ (read: white, male, etc.) stories. And we can be thrilled about a gay character, and still wish that it didn’t have to be founded on our acceptance of the actor’s sexuality first.
Obviously, we’re all free to agree with Takei or to continue celebrating. Or, again, both. Just because he originated the role doesn’t mean he has the “right” answer. He has, though— even if most of us wish he were onboard with this— added perhaps an overwhelming depth of nuance to this whole conversation.