One of the most visible online responses to Star Wars: The Force Awakens was fans “shipping” John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. For the un-inundated, a ’ship (short for “relationship”) is when fans get invested in the romantic involvement of two fictional characters, often times without such involvement being explicit in the text. It extends to fan fiction and fan art, and even the occasional attempts to externally influence the actual story canon. In that regard, Poe/Finn is a pretty standard fan ’ship, the kind of male/male “slash” pairing of (presumably) straight genre characters going back at least as far as Kirk and Spock in the original Star Trek. It’s nothing new, despite fanboys bemoaning Tumblr at every turn, and it often involves LGBTQ fans re-orienting existing characters due to lacking representation. Now that we’ve got our basics covered, it’s time to dive back into the conversation with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and a pair of characters that bring up a lot of interesting questions.
Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Îmwe and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus show up about a third of the way through Rogue One to fight off Stormtroopers on Jedha. The blind, mildly Force-sensitive Chirrut uses a staff to take out a squadron of armoured knuckle-heads, while Baze’s weapon of choice is a tank-fed rapid fire rifle. Their function within the broader plot is simple: protect the Jedi temple, fight the Empire once the temple gets blown to hell, and maybe make Jyn suspicious of her Rebel commander along the way. Their function as characters? That’s a little more complicated since they feel either underwritten to begin with, or underserviced by the edit. Like so many of the characters in Rogue One, it’s hard to really know them as people beyond their adjacency to the plot and their interpersonal dynamics, but it’s that dynamic that becomes a treat to watch regardless one's interpretation of their relationship.
These are two people who’ve clearly spent time together. Chirrut’s idiosyncratic Force-worship is looked at with skepticism by straight-shooter Baze, his self-professed good luck charm, and the casual ribbings they give each other from the get go feel characteristic of any close relationship regardless of gender or sexuality. One could easily read into the “I don’t need luck, I have you” line (I certainly do), but where things begin to feel a little more explicit is in the visual language of their death scenes. As Chirrut takes his final breath, Baze places his hand on his cheek. As Baze takes his moments later, after having his belief in the The Force renewed, he looks over at Chirrut. The last thing they see is each other… Hardly a smoking gun, of course, and even their exchange about being able to find each other “in The Force” comes adjacent to one of them calling the other “my friend,” but this is where we might need to parse intent a little more than usual.
Conversations about LGBTQ representation are happening constantly, and this isn’t limited to social media. Filmmakers are also aware of the need for inclusivity in mainstream cinema, and the reason studios haven’t yet diversified to a degree that feels remotely acceptable is, unfortunately, monetary. With all that in mind, it’s not hard to assume these conversations might bleed into the work itself. I’ve been told the filmmakers were aware of all this while making The Force Awakens, and regardless of whether or not the intent was to make people ’ship Poe and Finn, they likely became aware of the possibility at some point. So, at the very least, nothing happening there feels like a complete and total accident.
The same can easily be assumed of Rogue One. I say “assumed” based on what’s on screen and what came up behind-the-scenes during The Force Awakens; I have not talked to anyone within the production of this new installment, but in strict cinematic terms, it’s hard not to at least wonder if Baze and Chirrut had something more going on. This was a conversation bound to come up, and the reason we can’t definitively state whether the characters were or weren’t meant to be interpreted as romantic feels somewhat intentional. Either that or it’s a happy accident that slipped past every single person in the production along with the entire conversation itself, but that’s not exactly likely from a story group and creative team that spends time interacting with fans on Twitter. One might then ask questions about “queer baiting” and whether the idea is to draw queer fans in without any intent of explicit queer content in the future, but a black or white conclusion doesn’t seem possible if ambiguity is currently a step towards better representation. Testing the waters, so to speak.
The question of ’shipping comes up whenever you mention Poe and Finn, but does this terminology necessarily apply to Baze and Chirrut? For my money, as someone who has never had the need nor inclination to ’ship, they read very much queer to me in the text of the film. I’m sure I wouldn’t be opposed to some cute fan art either, but to what degree is this different from Poe and Finn? Can the same conclusions be drawn textually from their interactions regardless of intent (That lip bite, though)? Or is trying to draw a hard line between what “is” and “isn’t” in the text a folly in cases like this, where the debate itself feels textual? Part of it is certainly projection, sure, and Poe and Finn’s limited interactions being developed into something romantic in the sequels is extremely unlikely (the #GivePoeDameronAHusband hashtag is something I’m not opposed to, on the other hand), but in the case of Baze and Chirrut, where we have this one finite text to go on – one in which their relationship is a huge factor, and many of us are drawing conclusions from the way they’re presented through creative choices – is it still “projection” by way of self-projection/wishful thinking, or “projection” the same way any experiencing and interpreting of art is “projection”?
Once again, there’s no hard line here, and the distinction between Baze/Chirrut and Poe/Finn might seem clear only to me. To others, both might be textually queer, or perhaps even neither. There are people who outright do not see Rogue One as having any queer subtext (for others, it’s overt), and regardless of anyone’s intent or perspective when it comes to seeing the characters as straight, ambiguity being built into this conversation feels very much of-the-now. The solution, of course, is characters whose sexuality is made explicit in the text, but that would be little more than stating the obvious, especially if one were to try suggesting it to Lucasfilm and/or Disney and/or Kathleen Kennedy. The reality of this situation is bitter, in that people’s very identities are seen as a hurdle (and are made such by financial interests in markets all over the world, including the United States), but would it be entirely fair to classify these ambiguous baby steps as inconsequential when the ensuing conversations might help push things forward?
It can’t be denied that even hints of mainstream representation, explicit or not, will be a good thing for a lot of folks. I don’t begrudge anyone their ’ships, and to me, Chirrut and Baze being more than platonic feels very much part of the text. I don’t begrudge anyone who feels differently (even some queer folks might feel this way, for any number of reasons), but this isn’t to say that conflict between these perspectives shouldn’t take place either.
Star Wars has always been a potent conversation topic within popular culture, so perhaps it makes sense for this to be an added talking point for the world’s most enduring franchise. It’s the bare minimum of the conversation, even if that, and it’s a conversation that shifts the onus onto the rest of us, but the fan-creator feedback loop is catching up on the big screen, and perhaps our LGBTQ siblings won’t be left behind much longer if we keep this discussion going.