Super: Can We Have Nice Things? The Big Gay Poe Dameron Question
Poe Dameron is probably only accidentally a gay hero. He wasn't originally meant to survive the first act of Star Wars: The Force Awakens according to writer/director J.J. Abrams, so he doesn't have a real arc of his own. On paper, Poe Dameron is just a device to advance the plot. It's in Oscar Isaac's performance that he becomes something special, and someone Abrams knew he had to keep around.
Isaac gives Poe Dameron his charisma and smoldering intensity, and because his primary (human) relationship in the movie is with John Boyega's Finn, he gets to direct that charm and intensity towards him. In one of the characters' most pored over scenes --- a scene that only exists because of Poe Dameron's reprieve from death --- the pilot gives Finn a look that's indistinguishable from lust, even biting his own lip as he tells him to keep the jacket they've come to share. It's one of the gayest things I've seen in a blockbuster movie, in the most positive and celebratory sense of the word, and it gave us reason to hope that Poe Dameron could be Star Wars' first onscreen gay hero. But is Poe Dameron actually gay, and what happens to our hopes and dreams if he's not?
It's a question that gained new urgency last week, when Marvel announced an ongoing Poe Dameron comic set before the events of The Force Awakens, from the team of Charles Soule and Phil Noto. The next time Poe Dameron appears on screen is more than a year away, and major production on that movie, Star Wars: Episode VIII, only begins this month. Fans assumed we wouldn't learn anything more about Poe Dameron until that movie's release.
Now we know we'll be seeing him every month, starting in April. It would be unusual for a comic not to delve into its lead character's love life, so a question we thought would be answered on the screen will probably be answered on the page.
That's concerning for fans invested in the idea of Poe Dameron being gay, because there's a very real chance that neither Marvel nor Lucasfilm had given the question serious consideration before the movie's release --- and yet fan response to the character shows an enormous appetite for a gay leading man in a blockbuster franchise.
Did Oscar Isaac intend to play the character gay, and specifically as someone attracted to Finn? In an interview on The Ellen Show he joked about playing a romance, which some fans interpret as confirmation, but you don't need to know about that interview (or to interpret it that way) to see how Isaac performed the role. With Finn as the character's only major emotional anchor besides the droid BB-8, Isaac invested that relationship with a powerful bond of affection. It could be platonic, but it could be something more.
And maybe Abrams intends for it to be something more. That famous jacket scene, in which Poe tells Finn to keep his jacket because it looks good on him, is a classic dramatization of attraction. Giving a guy your jacket and complimenting him on how it looks means you are into him. We wouldn't doubt the significance of that moment if one of the characters was a woman. And we certainly wouldn't doubt that lip bite.
Abrams says the reason he kept Poe Dameron around when he originally meant for him to die is, "we began to see a way that being in the movie would be worth [Isaac's] time and the audience's." The character has a greater purpose, and we don't know yet what that is.
Is it possible that Abrams specifically wants to create a hero for a queer audience, in the same way that he gave girls a new hero in Rey, and black kids a new hero in Finn? The diversity of this Star Wars movie, and the breaking down of the franchise's association with a primarily white straight male fan-base, is without doubt part of the reason it has outperformed even the expectations for a new Star Wars movie. The Force Awakens has broad appeal that goes far beyond what Star Wars previously offered. Why shouldn't a gay hero be part of that design?
Even if that wasn't the original design, it could become so now. Fan response to Poe Dameron has been immense; he's already one of the most popular characters in fan art and fan fiction, and much of that work sees him romantically involved with Finn (using the tags 'finnpoe' or 'stormpilot'). The filmmakers have good reason to capitalize on that passion. Some people would respond negatively, as they did when author Chuck Wendig introduced gay characters to Star Wars canon in the novel Aftermath, but those are the same fans who protested The Force Awakens' inclusion of a female protagonist and black and Latino lead actors, yet couldn't put a dent in the movie's momentum.
A canon relationship between Poe and Finn would be an extraordinary milestone for queer representation in the mainstream, but just to know that Poe is gay, and attracted to Finn, and that's OK, would be a giant step forward. No franchise is better positioned than Star Wars to break down barriers. No other blockbuster could so easily and confidently sell its audience a gay hero. Rewrites on Episode VIII are reportedly happening right now, so the writers could be in the process of making this happen as a direct response to fan acclaim.
But the Star Wars: Poe Dameron comic has been in the works for a few months. Marvel may be committed to a different course, and whatever happens in the comics is meant to be canon for the movies. The decision on how to define Poe Dameron's sexuality may have been made before the audience ever got to see the movie, and if that's the case, chances are good that he defaulted to straight, as most characters do. A character's sexual identity is always the author's choice, but the presumption of straightness has a gravity that most writers can't seem to navigate around.
Poe Dameron being attracted to the opposite sex doesn't stop him from having same-sex attractions, of course, but if the former gets to be text and the latter gets to be subtext, we're back to the same familiar frustrations of queer marginalization.
Those of us who want Poe Dameron to be gay may have set ourselves up for heartbreak. The history of mainstream entertainment goes against us. I can list dozens of times I've hoped a character in fiction might be gay, in most cases just because of an absence of opposite-sex attraction in the text --- because that's usually all we get. In just about every case, the character's straightness eventually asserts itself, and another "maybe" gay character gets moved into the "nope" column. (Any of these characters could also be bisexual. Are they? "Nope" column.)
Poe Dameron is a near-perfect example of how this happens. The character exists more in Oscar Isaac's performance than on the page, and because his bond is with another man, and because his originally intended death precluded him from having a romance, the movie created a void from which the dream of a gay hero could emerge.
Now it may fall on Marvel Comics to crush that dream.
But this is what happens every time. We get used to it. We become resilient to it. We shouldn't have to; our relationships and desires ought to exist in every part of the culture, including mainstream big budget movies, and we ought to have our own Finns, our own Reys. But we don't. We carve out spaces for it, and sometimes we think we see it, but it always turns out that the author wasn't thinking about us. The space they made, where we saw ourselves, was an accident, not a design.
And the space disappears, and the hope dies, and our hearts break. And we get a little tougher.
Still, I cross my fingers and wish for a gay hero like Poe Dameron; for the kids he could inspire, and even the adults who never had that, and whose confidence could use a boost. But wishing won't make it happen. It's up to companies like Marvel and Lucasfilm, and their parent company Disney, to acknowledge and accept that same-sex relationships deserve to exist in their worlds.
Maybe this time it's real, and we exist, and we matter. Maybe Poe Dameron is our hero.
Or maybe next time. Or the time after that. Or the time after that...
Check Out Some Great Star Wars: The Force Awakens Fan Art