Is JJ Abrams’ LGBTQ Tease for ‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’ Just More Queerbaiting? (Commentary)

The director dashed hopes of a Finn-Poe romance in “Rise of Skywalker” but promised LGBTQ community will “feel that they’re being represented”

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker John Boyega
Photo credit: Walt Disney Studios

Director J.J. Abrams is in the midst of doing press for the upcoming “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and naturally, questions have arisen about the close relationship between Resistance fighters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Issac). Abrams, which he established in his first “Star Wars” film, 2015’s “The Force Awakens.”

And he was quick to dash the hopes of fans who read a lot into Poe and Finn’s reunion halfway through the film (which you can watch here) that includes a deep embrace and long looks between the two characters. That interaction led audiences to believe that franchise would have its same same-sex romance but instead turned out to be the latest case of queerbaiting — when creators tease a same-sex relationship to draw in an LGBT audience but don’t actually depict the relationship on screen.

Speaking with Variety on Tuesday, Abrams denied an onscreen romance between Finn and Poe in this month’s “The Rise of Skywalker,” defining their relationship as a “far deeper one than a romantic one. It is a deep bond that these two have, not just because of the trial by fire in which they met, but also because of their willingness to be as intimate as they are, as afraid as they, as unsure as they are, and still be bold, and still be daring and brave.”

Later in the same piece, Boyega confirmed that Finn and Poe’s relationship does not become romantic, stating “they are just platonic at the moment.”

A gay relationship between Finn and Poe — which fans have dubbed #FinnPoe or #Stormpilot — could hardly be seen as controversial, as the franchise has flirted with incest (Luke and Leia), abuse (Anakin and Padme) and estrangement (Han and Leia) in previous films. (Finn and Poe were separated again in 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” with director Rian Johnson admitting “there wasn’t an opportunity” in the story to develop their bond.)

But Abrams’ additional comments about gay representation in the Variety interview were even more problematic. After dashing hopes for a Finn-Poe coupling, Abrams noted: “In the case of the LGBTQ community, it was important to me that people who go to see this movie feel that they’re being represented in the film.”

He declined to offer any further detail, saying, “I will say I’m giving away nothing about what happens in the movie. But I did just say what I just said.”

Anyone (including myself) who has interviewed Abrams for any of his projects knows this is his modus operandi. He never spoils details from his films (even his trailers remain opaque about plot points). But to say the LGBTQ community will “feel like they’re being represented in the film” is literally baiting “queers.”

First, no single scene is representative to the entire LGBT community. The term LGBT encompasses many different things, not just lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (the L, the G, the B, the T and the Q).

It’s presumptuous for cis straight men like Abrams to believe all LGBTQ viewers recognize and feel represented by a singular representation, whatever that turns out to be. Even if Finn and Poe were to walk off holding hands as the suns of Tatooine set, they would only represent a same-sex, cis male-cis male relationship.

And any gay relationship outside of Finn and Poe in the final film would be coming out (pardon the pun) of nowhere, last-minute, and as a result, underdeveloped.

Second, the “LGBTQ community” isn’t solely defined by sexuality. Representation may refer to gender identity and not sexuality.

A new character, or one we haven’t seen in a while, may be transgender or non-gendered. But in a sci-fi world where aliens and robots and droids may have undefined or no genders at all, that doesn’t seem like a stretch of the imagination.

Ironically, the last time LGBTQ representation was so callously teased in a big blockbuster was for another Disney movie, 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Director Bill Condon told Attitude magazine that the movie included an “exclusively gay moment” with Josh Gad’s character, Le Fou. That “gay moment” ended up being a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, two-second dance between Le Fou and another man in the ending ballroom scene.

A gay moment doesn’t have to hit viewers over the head. When Justin Lin took over directing the “Star Trek” franchise from Abrams, he established Sulu as gay (by showing him reuniting with his husband and daughter). Representations don’t have to be overt to be meaningful. But they can’t be so subtle that most audiences miss them altogether.

That’s why Abrams’ wink-wink, “I did just say what I just said” is just more queerbaiting. For representation to be meaningful, all audiences, not keenly observant LGBTQ ones, should understand and feel its impact.

For the record: A previous version of this story mentioned actor Billy Dee Williams preferring to use gender-fluid pronouns. Williams later clarified and said his words were misinterpreted.