Rogue One, the first standalone Star Wars film, opened to wide acclaim on December 16, 2016. It's a stirring portrait of everyday people who accomplish heroic things in times of grave danger and in spite of monumental odds. The multiethnic cast — led by a strong and dynamic female character, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) — is appealing to audiences who yearn for more diverse portrayals of heroism in major Hollywood movies, and especially in fantasy and science fiction.
But when it comes to LGBT representation, things get a little murkier. Rogue One portrays a very tender relationship between two male characters, Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and there's a pretty solid basis to speculate that Chirrut and Baze are more than just devoted pals.
Fanart by Darren Tan
The subtext of the relationship between Chirrut and Baze has set the Internet churning with the sailing of a new Star Wars ship. Within hours of the first Rogue One screenings in the UK, Yahoo! Movies ran the headline "Rogue One: Are Chirrut and Baze Star Wars's first same-sex couple?", in which the film's director, Gareth Edwards, is quoted as saying: "I don't mind people reading into (Chirrut and Baze's relationship), I think that's all good."
Other outlets followed quickly with arch, clickbaity headlines like "Rogue One: Does the new Star Wars film feature the franchise’s first gay couple?", "Are Chirrut and Baze from Rogue One Star Wars' first same-sex couple?", and "Rogue One: Are These the Gay Star Wars Characters We’ve Been Looking For?".
Let us be very clear: the fact that each of these headlines ends with a question mark means that Chirrut and Baze are not the openly gay cinematic LGBT Star Wars characters we are hoping for. Or that J.J. Abrams promised.
GLAAD issues an annual Studio Responsibility Index, which analyzes the visibility of LGBT characters in major Hollywood films. As its benchmark for identifying queer characters of substance in mainstream films, GLAAD applies the Vito Russo Test, a variation on the Bechdel test. Under this standard, a movie includes a meaningful LGBT character if the following are true:
The film contains a character that is identifiably LGBT.
That character must not be predominantly defined by their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The LGBT character plays a meaningful role in the narrative.
Chirrut and Baze's relationship certainly meets the second and third criteria, but decidedly does not satisfy the first. Establishing a character as "identifiably LGBT" doesn't take much. For example, Star Trek: Beyond established Sulu as gay with the shots of Sulu's family photograph and his reunion with his husband and daughter. These images are subtle and understated but unambiguous indications that Sulu is canonically gay.
Rogue One does not approach that level of clarity with Chirrut and Baze. Their interactions are familiar and affectionate, but the characters say and do nothing that could not also be attributed to intimate but platonic friendship. More to the point, the director of the film himself acknowledged in the Yahoo! Movies interview that a same-sex romance between Chirrut and Baze requires the audience to "read into" the subtext. "Identifiably LGBT" for purposes of measuring meaningful LGBT representation in film requires far more than just winking nuance and coded interactions.
Meanwhile, clickbaity headlines about Chirrut and Baze's sexuality frame the subtext in terms of legitimate representation. This suggests that a speculative romance based on ambiguous same-sex interaction is the threshold for establishing an on-screen "identifiably LGBT" character that LGBT fans should regard as meaningful representation. This notion subtly marginalizes LGBT fans who expect authentic and open representation in media just as much as any other minority.
A Chirrut and Baze young adult novel, slated for a May 2017 release, may provide clearer answers to questions about the nature of their relationship. But for now, the answer to the question of whether Chirrut and Baze are identifiably LGBT in Rogue One for purposes of LGBT representation in film has to be: No.
Ultimately, you should see Rogue One. It's an immensely entertaining film. Enjoy the stunning photography, the masterful score, the gripping action sequences and the stirring performances. Celebrate how diverse the characters are in terms of race, sex, and ability. Cry a little or cry a lot, depending on your emotional investment. Write some Chirrut/Baze erotic fanfic, if that's your thing. (And please send the link. Bonus points if Cassian happens to stop by to deliver a pizza.)
But please also challenge the notion that Rogue One breaks new ground for LGBT representation in the cinematic Star Wars universe. To paraphrase Saw Gerrera: "Save the Rebellion! Save the dream (of an LGBT-inclusive Star Wars film)!"