December 22, 2019 at 6:14 pm EST | by John Paul King
‘Rise of Skywalker’ gets a pass from Chinese censors – but not from toxic fans
Joonas Suotamo, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, and Daisy Ridley in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” (Image courtesy of Lucasfilm/DIsney)

The opening weekend for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” brings a mixed bag of news – some of it good, some not-so-good, depending on how you look at it.

In the former category, as reported in Variety, a same-sex kiss between two female characters slipped by censors in China, allowing the film to be released uncut in a country where government censorship has been historically strict about LGBTQ content, despite the decriminalization of same-sex sexuality and the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness.

The kiss, which takes place late in the film and could easily be described as a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” moment between minor characters, was teased by the film’s director and co-writer J.J. Abrams a few weeks ahead of the movie’s release, when he told Variety he has always wanted the people of “Star Wars” to look “more the way the world looks than not,” and that, regarding 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.”

The representation can be seen an important step in the struggle for global advancement of LGBTQ acceptance, indicating an erosion of a key roadblock that traditionally serves as an excuse for major studios to balk on featuring LGBTQ characters or storylines – the accepted notion that such material would be denied release in lucrative international markets, resulting in the loss millions of dollars in profits.

Speaking with the Blade in 2018, GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis questioned the validity of this argument, saying, “I’ve never seen the science or the methodology behind that and I think if they ever did those studies, they probably did them decades ago,” Ellis says  “There are these false narratives that live within the entertainment community that we all buy into and we’ve all taken them on as the truth.”

The moment in “Rise of Skywalker” is the first time in “Star Wars” history that a same-sex romantic relationship has been depicted in one of the franchise’s films, though a 1999 comic book, “The Bounty Hunters: Aurra Sing,” featured the first LGBTQ character within the “Star Wars” universe, and several LGBTQ characters have since been depicted in “Star Wars” video games.

Onscreen, 2018’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” featured the character of Lando Calrissian, who was confirmed by both screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan and actor Donald Glover as pansexual. More recently, Justin Ridge, executive producer of the kid-friendly “Star Wars Resistance” TV series, said on a podcast that two fan-favorite characters from his show are “absolutely a gay couple,” and Queerty published a story reporting on rumors that an upcoming “Star Wars” series on the Disney+ streaming service will “feature an out-queer lead.”

While most commentators have acknowledged the historic importance of the lesbian kiss in “Rise of Skywalker,” many have also expressed a less-than-positive perspective. An article in Variety lamented that the brief onscreen moment has “zero impact on the story” and features “characters who barely register within the vast tapestry of the ‘Star Wars’ creative galaxy.”

The Hollywood Reporter went even further, publishing an article that characterized it as “a step back for LGBTQ representation” and called out Disney for a history of “queerbaiting” LGBTQ fans, citing as an example this year’s earlier “Avengers: Endgame,” which included a similarly brief and non-essential scene as its sole nod toward LGBTQ inclusion.

Critical response to the film, which is the final installment of the so-called “Skywalker Saga” which originated with the first “Star Wars” film in 1977, has been mixed; audience reactions have been predictably divisive, reflecting a trend in fan culture that was explored in a recent essay in Esquire, which suggests the aggressively hostile reaction of some fans over the newer installments is a response to their frustration “that heroes in ‘Star Wars’ – and in other massive properties – are no longer exclusively straight, white, and male.”

Earlier this month, former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka made comments on his “America First” radio show decrying Abrams’ hinted revelation of an LGBTQ moment, saying, “Well, you know, if you couldn’t destroy the franchise already, let’s destroy it a little bit more. The last installment of the ‘Star Wars’ saga would include a member from the trans — is it trans? Let’s just say the alphabet soup community.”

His derisive comments echo many of those made by angry fans around the franchise’s most recent rebooted trilogy, which have each featured an increased number of prominent characters who are female or people of color; the backlash reached a peak with the release of “The Last Jedi” in 2017, when disgruntled fans mounted campaigns to have the movie removed from the “official” canon, and some even calling for it to be remade.

In addition, Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran was driven to delete her social media accounts when she was beset by sexist and racist insults by “a legion of trolls,” as detailed in a 2018 Yahoo article which describes the increasing trend toward virulent grassroots activism as “toxic fan culture” and links “ the vile online behavior of a vocal minority” of fans to “elements of the far-right and the misogynist ‘incel’ men’s movement.”

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