How No Man Has Loved Before: On Sulu’s Sexuality in Star Trek Beyond
Of all the aspects of Gene Roddenberry's vision the reboot has flubbed, making Sulu gay is not one of them.Movies Features
I was born 25 years after Gene Roddenberry’s groundbreaking series first aired, but that quarter of a century couldn’t stop the beloved starship Enterprise from earning yet another devoted fan. Or from Star Trek setting my impossibly high expectations for sci-fi television. This is probably why when the reboot was announced back in April of 2006, I was both eager and terrified. The pluses: Uhura, Bones, Sulu, Scotty—all of my favorites were coming back. Everything I loved as a kid could be new again. And like many “reboots” that feature dedicated followings, there was a particular burden of responsibility placed on director J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman to do right by Roddenbery. Unfortunately, “don’t fuck with the original” wasn’t written into their contracts.
I feared any potential lack of loyalty, and as fans learned, part of that fear was justified. Abrams did flub major character and thematic aspects in the franchise reboot’s first two installments, some of which he discussed after Into Darkness. From the choice to prioritize action sequences and VFX over social messages, to the unforgivable character assassination of Khan, to its smatterings of female objectification and even an offensive re-design of female officer’s uniforms, I was left feeling lukewarm about the third entry in the Kelvin timeline, Star Trek: Beyond. Then last week John Cho announced that Beyond was going to reveal Sulu as gay. For as progressive as the Star Trek universe had always been, it still lacked LGBTQ visibility. Until now. Thanks to Beyond, Roddenberry’s vision—a future of infinite diversity in infinite combinations—was complete.
That glow lasted about an hour. Not soon after the news broke, The Hollywood Reporter released an interview with George Takei, actor, LGBT activist and original Hikaru Sulu. In it the actor expresses extreme disappointment in the character’s new, “unfortunate” “same-sex leanings.” But why would Takei, a gay man and fierce advocate for diversity and visibility in Hollywood, be disappointed? It was pretty simple, actually: Takei felt like Beyond writer and star Simon Pegg, as well as director Justin Lin, had stepped on Roddenberry’s toes. Sulu was written as straight, according to Takei, and that creative choice should have been respected.
Fuming and fraught over the clash between old and reboot, I spent the day the news broke feeling defeated. How could this great thing have gone so horribly wrong? My answer came when I realized the entire debacle was based on the premise of respecting “legacy.” But what that legacy was remained unclear. Was it the legacy of artistic intent, or the legacy of progress? Did you have to give up one to respect the other? Most importantly, what did Roddenberry devotees actually believe his Star Trek legacy was?
It’s easy to understand where Takei is coming from: Roddenberry offered the actor an opportunity and level of support no one else dared at that particular time. Out of that grew a real and justifiable sense of respect and protection for Roddenberry’s carefully crafted creative choices. The actor, who suggested that the filmmakers should create a new gay character instead of retconning Sulu as gay, believed it was of the utmost importance to respect Roddenberry’s conceptualization of the character. Frankly, it’s a desire to honor Roddenberry that I think many of his fans share.
And while Roddenberry’s universe has never included an LGBTQ character before now, that THR interview reports that the showrunner was open to it—just not at the time. According to Takei, Roddenberry chose not to make any of his leads queer because he was also tackling gender, nationality and racial issues during one of the most turbulent social justice eras in America’s history. The visionary was imagining a future that included all of us, in a present where many of us didn’t have basic or equal rights. The resulting pushback from the network and viewers alike made things difficult. So, in order to win the culture war and tell his boundary-stretching story, he chose his battles based on their ability to test limits without taking the show off the air. Of course, he could have had his own queer character in the works if he wanted, designed and developed just like his straight ones.
The original Star Trek certainly wasn’t free of problematic elements, and its handling of sexism, racism and social justice wasn’t always perfect. But it was one of TV’s first major efforts towards offering everyone a representative place within our small screen stories. This is why Beyond’s choice to ignore Takei’s pleas might rub some the wrong way. In an effort to pay homage to Takei and to continue that work of Roddenberry’s groundbreaking and decade-spanning franchise, the reboot was once again stepping on its source material’s toes.
If this were any other series, the conversation would end there. But Star Trek was never just any series. It argued that TV can and should be used to creatively politicize social justice issues—from environmental, gender and civil rights, to war, personal sovereignty and nationalism. With progress at the core of his vision, Roddenberry imagined television as a force that could change the world. For all the ways the reboot may have seemingly failed fans, the choice to make Sulu gay is evidence that progress remains somewhere on its priority list. It certainly was when it came to Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), who received both recognition of her first name and her sexuality through a revealed relationship with Spock (Zachary Quinto).
As parts of the internet cried sexism, accusing the relationship of relegating the USS Enterprise communications officer to the role of “love interest,” others pointed out that the women who were actually relegated in the original Star Trek were the white ones. Even when they were in green paint. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) was never allowed to be sexual or romantically desirable, especially from the perspective of a white man, because that threatened our culture’s discriminatory racial hierarchy. She was in her own way the strong black woman who didn’t need any man. Not because of female empowerment, but because of racism. Abram’s reboot, allowing Uhura to be loved and desired, was as revolutionary as the series’ interracial kiss between her and Kirk (William Shatner), and ultimately her very existence in the universe.
That’s the same type of progress we’re seemingly getting with Sulu in Beyond. Like Uhura, Sulu was desexualized—the reasoning largely being that he was an Asian man in a deeply and openly racist society. That’s not to say he was never sexualized. There is a reference to him having relations in a comic, as the THR article points out, but it was a one-night-stand with an Amazonian woman that bore him a daughter, not a romantic development. By acknowledging this, however, we must admit that our one morsel of evidence that Sulu is straight was from something outside of Roddenberry’s original TV universe. In the end, Sulu was never sexualized, therefore he never formed an actual sexuality. And if Roddenberry said he wanted queer characters, but couldn’t fight for them at the time, it means that he limited himself in character construction based on the cultural times. This Jenga tower, if you will, opens the door to Sulu—or any character, really—being canonically gay.
It’s important, though, that it’s not just any character. Creating diverse utopian universes means we’re less interested in accepting tokens if we can have humanized nuance. In a penned response to Takei’s interview, Pegg makes a solid point: If Beyond had created a new gay character, that character likely would have become a means to filling a mandatory queer quota. Dubbing an established character as gay means we already define them by the content of their character, not by whom they love. And based on the trailer footage, and the way the Beyond “revelation” scene has been described, Sulu’s personality isn’t altered and his sexuality isn’t overt. It falls in line with both Roddenberry’s vision of visibility and our desire to skirt tokenism.
The decision to create a new queer character would have also reaped more responses from people who attempt to separate Roddenberry’s messages of equality, representation and acceptance from the epic narrative. Responses like this:
— ChillCat (@TheChillCat) July 8, 2016
The idea that including a gay character is somehow “propaganda” or agenda-setting is pretty dehumanizing, regardless of whether the character is new or established. But bringing in a new character also makes it seem like a bone that people can pick, instead of a natural part of the diverse community on the Enterprise. Not to mention, part of Roddenberry’s praise was derived from the fact that women and people of color could be in major roles. How would a new character follow that pattern of treatment without stepping on the preexisting and carefully constructed crew dynamic? They wouldn’t. Instead, the character would fill a supporting role. Worst case scenario: They are the supporting character killed off in the name of straight/white/male character development. If gender, race and nationality aren’t sidelined in Roddenberry’s universe, why should queerness be?
So what does it mean to honor Roddenberry’s vision? When even those involved with Star Trek can’t agree, this simple question becomes crucial. In the end, it must be about more than respecting careful universe building. It’s about honoring a man who changed the face of not only the genre and of television, but of our culture. Roddenberry’s legacy isn’t about how well he constructed characters, but the possibilities he presented by including them. In his mind, there was no place that couldn’t be reached and no person that couldn’t reach it. Sulu’s sexuality puts us one step closer to the expectations of the genre and Roddenberry’s universe by offering us the chance to see ourselves in even more infinite ways.
In the end, Roddenberry was constrained not by his own imagination, but by the discrimination of our society. For the many ways I feel like the Star Trek reboot may have failed his legacy, I struggle to accept this issue with Sulu as one of them. If given the chance to fully execute his vision of an inclusive world, would Roddenberry put queer people on the USS Enterprise? I’m inclined to believe so, which makes Beyond’s choice to reveal Sulu as gay simply a continuation—dare I say a fulfillment—of that grand vision. I want to preserve every part of Roddenberry’s legacy with every ounce of my nerdy, queer black woman being. But if Star Trek is only fighting for the visibility of some, I have to ask whether that legacy is worth preserving.
Abbey White is an entertainment and fandom culture writer based out of Cleveland, Ohio. When she’s not busy binge-watching shows on Netflix, you can find her running around some comic con. In addition to Paste, Abbey’s writing has appeared in The Mary Sue and ScreenSpy.