Thoughts I Had After Watching Star Trek Beyond with my Parents

There are two things every single member of my immediate family enjoys: science fiction, and Broadway musicals. Strange combination? Definitely. But Catholicism also used to be something we all had in common. While I’ve been dealing with family tension since I started to form my own opinions about religion and politics, I’ve still been able to enjoy science fiction and musicals with my parents, and I love that.

Sometimes though, a science fiction film or show does something progressive, and talking to my ultra-Catholic conservative parents about how awesome that is runs the risk of creating more conflict, so I’ll be reacting here instead.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Star Trek Beyond with my parents. As is often the case in Star Trek, there’s a scene where the characters are coming back to Starfleet after a mission, and greeting people they know. In one such scene, we see Sulu coming home to a man and a little girl. There’s no major PDA or anything, but you can tell the girl is meant to be their daughter, and Sulu and the other man walk together with their arms at each other’s backs. It’s subtle; the characters never talk about it, but it’s there: Sulu has a spouse or romantic partner, and it’s not a woman. For the first time ever, Star Trek has included a gay character, and they chose to make that character be Sulu–an important character on the bridge of the Enterprise–in a nod to George Takei, the actor who played Sulu in the original series. Takei came out as gay in 2005.

If you’re not a big sci fi fan, you may know George Takei from his Facebook posts. He’s amassed a huge following by sharing interesting tidbits of internet hilariousness, and you know, the weird stuff that gets shared on the internet. He’s also been vocal since he came out about gay rights. What I find particularly interesting though about this story is that Takei wasn’t happy with this decision to make Sulu gay in the new films. Takei explains:

I’m delighted that there’s a gay character. Unfortunately, it’s a twisting of Gene [Rodberry]’s creation, to which he put in so much thought. I think it’s really unfortunate.

Takei says that Sulu was always a heterosexual character, so this is a pretty big change that he doesn’t think makes much sense. This whole thing is fascinating to me as a former English major and total sci fi nerd. Takei has a good point. Sulu, as a character, has existed for a long time as a straight man. While it’s wonderful to have gay people represented in one of the most popular science fiction franchises ever, does it really make sense to change one of the franchise’s beloved characters in such a substantial way? Why not just introduce some new characters to the franchise? Part of me is a bit bothered by this, but it’s a very small part of me.

Today, when it seems like every other move that comes out is a sequal or remake of something pretty old, we’re going to have to accept that one of the ways the new versions can really stand out from the old ones is diversity. There was a time when no one would bat an eye to see an all white, mostly male cast, but that’s just not the case anymore. As much as I appreciate fan loyalty to a franchise and to the original versions of these beloved characters, I can’t help but think that maybe the progress we’re seeing is also improving these franchises in this one sense: showing that even in fictional worlds, people come in all shapes, sizes, colors, sexualities, and so forth.

Star Wars Episode VII, which debuted many new characters, was the first Star Wars episode I found particularly relatable. For the first time in the live action films (yes, I know we had Ahsoka in Clone Wars), we finally had a female force-sensitive character (Rey) who is portrayed as a hero rather than a sex object. While I loved some things about Leia in the original films, her character was so tainted by the male gaze that it was sometimes difficult to relate to her as a woman. She was portrayed as a sex object half the time. But there’s none of that with Rey. And knowing how I felt watching Rey kick ass in episode VII, and get taken seriously by all parties, I can’t help but think how much MORE incredible it must have been for the young black women watching the original Star Trek series when it first came out in the 1960s to see Uhura working as an equal to the other main characters. Uhura was a crew member on the bridge of the enterprise at a time when black women on the screen (and often in real life) were servants and could be nothing more. The series first aired in the 1960s, right around the time that Jim Crow was coming to an end. Decades later, maybe this moment with Sulu is Star Trek carrying on its tradition of progressiveness. Somewhere in the audience of Star Trek Beyond, there may be a gay man thinking, wow. Finally. Someone I can relate to.

Perhaps the most important thing about the scene in Star Trek though, is the fact that the characters didn’t talk about it. No one makes a big deal out of it. No one makes a joke about Sulu being gay. There are no awkward moments, just acceptance that this is part of Sulu’s life. We need more entertainment media like this. Where something as natural as people’s sexuality isn’t a joke or something to obsess over. It’s just part of life.

Since seeing the film, I kept waiting for my parents to say something about this brief moment showing Sulu’s sexuality, which was very obvious to me. My whole life, my parents have been the sort of people to say “is that really necessary?” out loud in response to everything from sex scenes that are a big part of the plot to characters being open about their sexualities–basically anything remotely related to “icky” sex. They didn’t say anything this time though. Which means either they didn’t notice at all, OR they did notice but don’t want to talk about it with me. I’m trying hard not to bring it up, but I’m curious which one it is.

Do you have thoughts about diversity in film, or about Star Trek Beyond? Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome. Just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy