The latest turn in the geek culture wars is upon us — and upending years of Star Wars fandom precedent in the process — thanks to the fact that smooth-talking schemer Lando Calrissian is clearly just too hot for one gender.
As played by Donald Glover in the new Star Wars film Solo, Lando is the swinging, cape-wearing reprobate the galaxy needs. He’s clearly the movie’s star in all but name, at least as far as fans and critics are concerned. (Sorry, Han.)
Now, due to what fans and critics are perceiving as a barrage of blatant flirting and sexual tension between Han and Lando in the film, the Solo writers have gone on the record about Lando’s sexuality. In a recent interview with the Huffington Post, Solo co-writer Jonathan Kasdan made it clear he viewed Lando as pansexual — and wanted his motives to be left up to sexy, sexy interpretation. (Kasdan’s co-writer and father Lawrence Kasdan was more ambiguous in his response.)
“There’s a fluidity to Donald and Billy Dee’s [portrayal of Lando’s] sexuality,” Jonathan Kasdan told HuffPost, after answering, “Yes,” when asked if Lando was pansexual. “I mean, I would have loved to have gotten a more explicitly LGBT character into this movie. I think it’s time, certainly, for that, and I love the fluidity ― sort of the spectrum of sexuality that Donald appeals to and that droids are a part of.”
Kasdan clearly meant his comment to be an affirmation of queer identity, but the fact that no character in the Star Wars movie narrative is officially queer makes his position a tricky one. On the one hand, suggesting to fans that Lando is queer without actually delivering on that promise is a deeply regressive move, commonly referred to as queerbaiting.
But on the other hand, in terms of the history of Star Wars fandom, even this level of overt attention to a nonheterosexual identity is a jaw-dropping evolution for the franchise. In essence, pansexual Lando is a sign of how drastically Star Wars’ attitude toward its fandom has evolved.
Outing Lando as pansexual raises a host of questions about what that means and what it’s worth
Identifying as pansexual means you feel attracted to people regardless of their gender. Here on Earth, the term carries a wide range of implications, but generally, it means that a person’s gender doesn’t factor into whether you find them attractive.
In science fiction, pansexuality also generally encompasses feelings of attraction toward other species and humanoids as well as all genders. Famous pansexual figures in sci-fi include Doctor Who’s Jack Harkness (flirted with anything that moved), Deadpool (had a fling with Death), and even sci-fi-obsessed singer Janelle Monáe, who recently outed herself as pansexual after years of declaring, “I only date androids.”
Responding to the controversy in an appearance on Sirius XM, Glover supported this interpretation. “How can you not be pansexual in space?” he said. “There’s so many things to have sex with. ... I feel like if you’re in space, it’s kind of like the door’s open ... this thing is literally a blob. Like, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ Who cares?”
This element of pansexuality is significant in this case because Kasdan’s comments seem to have been at least partially about Lando’s romantic feelings for his female droid, L3-37 (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). One early review of the film called them “the hottest couple in Star Wars” and noted that Han wasn’t even the sexiest part of his own movie.
Still, while the comments may have been meant for Lando and his female droid, queer fans, shippers, and supporters are more than on board for any development that gets them closer to a canonical queer relationship between Han and Lando — whom multiple reviewers have described as flirting in the trailer and beyond. Fans have been hyped about the potential for shipping Han and Lando for a while now, and though shippers seem torn on whether their portmanteau should be Hando, HanLando, or Solorissian, the excitement is real.
It’s important to stress, however, that “flirting” isn’t affirming queer identity; ambiguous banter that can be plausibly denied is still not clear textual representation. In fact, it’s arguably queerbaiting — common fan parlance for the homophobic act of presenting a character as straight while dangling subtext clues (and in some cases, external direction by creators) for fans to tease the idea that they could be queer.
Queerbaiting is especially pernicious because it not only perpetuates the celluloid closet, but also exploits the hopes of well-meaning fans and queer people who tune in to the narrative hoping for actual queer representation. When the franchise is a major Hollywood property, like Star Wars, this kind of bait and switch can feel especially cruel and egregious.
Dear filmmakers: Either admit that you won't put LGBTQ characters into major franchise titles for fear of losing overseas box office or bite the bullet, do it anyway and hope for the best. Enough with this "He's gay or bi when you're not looking" garbage.— Scott Mendelson (@ScottMendelson) May 17, 2018
It’s also worth noting, however, that a few Star Wars fans have declared themselves outraged over even the idea of fans shipping Hando, so clearly a little flirting can go a very long way. The irony of these reactions is that they’re many decades late — if not to the phenomenon of shipping Han/Lando specifically, then certainly to the phenomenon of queering Star Wars.
The Han/Luke ship is one of the foundational pairings of the Star Wars fandom, present since the beginnings of the franchise and responsible for a considerable amount of energy around the creation of early fanzines and other fan works. After the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace, a massive amount of fanfic pairing Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan flooded the internet. And with the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, the fandom queering of Finn and Poe Dameron instantly became a topic of intense celebration and speculation. Even Han/Lando shippers have had their moments, producing fanfiction, fan art, fan vids, and general celebrations of their rivalry, friendship, and love. At Polygon, Julia Alexander interviewed the co-writers of the oldest Han/Lando fic housed on AO3, a 1997 fic titled “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Soldier?”
“People have been shipping Han/Lando and Han/Luke since the 1980s, and the subtext has always been there,” geek culture reporter Gavia Baker-Whitelaw told Vox. “The main difference is that now, queer representation is part of the public conversation.”
But to drag even the possibility of queering Star Wars into mainstream discussion, Star Wars fandom had to undergo a massive evolution. In fact, beyond anecdotal reports, there are very few historical artifacts of any queer shipping in Star Wars before the mid-’90s — much less involving Lando — that remain for the rest of us to peruse.
And for that, you can thank Lucasfilm.
Star Wars fandom had 99 problems (but queer characters weren’t one)
In the early days of the Star Wars fanfiction community, slash — that’s queer romantic fanfic written about male characters who are presented as straight in the storyline — existed, but was controversial. According to the Star Wars Collectors’ Bible, the very first existence of Star Wars slash was an erotic comic published in 1977 called Come Wars. Historical anecdotes of “a predominance of women writing Han and Luke and Darth and Lando” in fanfiction date back to at least 1981.
Fanzines were crucial to distributing fanfiction in the pre-internet era. But as far as history records, just two zines managed to successfully publish slash fiction in the 1980s. Both zines, Imperial Entanglements and Organia, were released in 1982 and were immediately controversial. After these two zines, there’s no record of any slash being published in Star Wars fandom between 1982 and 1992 — the year two different multi-fandom zines, Dyad and Homosapien, each published separate Star Wars slash fics.
There are multiple reasons for this scarcity, including general internet atrophy and specific targeted purges of content from various fanfiction websites over the years — namely Fanfiction.net. But chief among them is that throughout the ’80s, Lucasfilm held the reins of the Star Wars fandom very tightly, which had a widespread chilling effect on the creation of fan works for more than a decade.
In the early ’80s, the Star Wars brand was being heavily marketed as family-friendly, and this branding extended to individual works of fanfiction. In 1981, after years of being vaguely hands-off in its approach to the existence of fanzines, Lucasfilm, under the auspices of its official fan club, sent a letter to the editor of a fanzine that had published a PG-13-rated Han/Leia fic called “Slow Boat to Bespin.” In the letter, an attorney for Lucasfilm implied that the fanfic was “harmful to the spirit” and “wholesome character” of Star Wars, and ended by “demand[ing] your written assurance that you will make no further use of the characters in this manner.”
A month later, Lucasfilm branched out even further. In an open letter to all fanzine editors, distributed through the fan club, Lucasfilm claimed — in what would today generally be deemed an inaccurate understanding of fair use in copyright — that explicit fanfiction was essentially illegal. A third letter made it explicit that “The word has come from George Lucas, himself, that STAR WARS pornography is unquestionable [sic] unacceptable.”
Obviously, this development alarmed many fanfic writers and particularly cowed writers of queer fiction, which has historically been seen within fandom as especially illicit. The result was a widespread dearth of queer fanfiction for an entire decade. According to the fandom preservation wiki Fanlore, despite those early fanzines’ attempts to publish slash, after the Lucasfilm crackdown, slash ships in general, and the pairing of Han/Luke in particular, were essentially unpublishable in fanzines throughout the ’80s.
Crucially, it’s not that people weren’t writing this fiction — it just wasn’t being distributed. This kind of fic is referred to as “drawerfic,” meaning you basically pull an Emily Dickinson and only show it to your close friends, if anyone. Witness the Han/Luke fanfic “Evidence,” written in 1981 and only published in a zine in 1998.
Two fans are generally credited for creating a resurgence of Star Wars slash fiction in the ’90s after the dampening impact of these letters. One of them, the fanzine editor Z.P. Florian, died last month. The other, influential Han/Luke author Cara Loup, told Vox that when she began writing and editing fanzines in the early ’90s, she’d “been duly warned to keep a low profile.” Through fan conventions like MediaWest, however, fans’ fears became replaced by determination.
“I think everyone had their expectations shaped by Lucasfilm-induced paranoia,” she said, “but all of that really vanished into thin air once we all met face to face.” It was at conventions throughout the ’80s and early ’90s that fanzines featuring fanfic, including slash, were famously distributed by hand. “After a couple years, nobody expected a Lucasfilm crackdown anymore.”
And then, of course, came the internet. “The internet made slash more accessible in general,” said Loup. “Phantom Menace hit the theaters, and Qui-Gon/Obi-wan appealed to so many that the dam finally broke.”
The internet allowed transformative fandom to flourish — and to transform how Star Wars fandom thought of Lando
The internet wasn’t just crucial to popularizing queer shipping and bringing fanfiction beyond Lucasfilm’s control; it also allowed a different part of Star Wars fandom to flourish, which was arguably crucial for the modern-day reappraisal of Lando as a character. Though Lando is certainly getting attention now with Solo, this level of discourse around his sexuality, as well as other characters like the popular Poe/Finn ship, is new.
“In the fanfic area, [Lando] was mostly (from my point of view) ignored,” a fan who uses the handle Laura JV told Vox. As a Star Wars fanfiction writer, she wrote some of the earliest still-extant slash fics featuring Lando, pairing him with Luke. “For me, up until the modern era, very few folks were writing anything I wanted to read.”
Records from early Star Wars fandom support this observation. The Star Wars fanzine Jundland Wastes, which ran from 1981 to 1983, documented numerous instances of fans complaining that Lando was unnecessarily demonized and ignored by the fandom. “Is it because he’s black?” one fan asked in the third issue.
Fans also seemed to equate him with Leia as a character who tended to get shunted to the side. Loup told Vox that though she looked for stories featuring Leia, she was largely ignored by the fandom. “The first piece of Han/Lando I ever saw was much later, in the late ’90s,” she added. This observation supports the longstanding fandom trend wherein white men often receive the brunt of female-dominated fandom’s devotion and attention, at the expense of female characters and characters of color.
But while this approach toward characters who weren’t white men demonstrates ongoing biases within fanfiction, it also demonstrates the effect of Lucasfilm’s approach to fandom — which was that fans shouldn’t explore any aspects of the characters that weren’t laid out for them onscreen. It was as recently as 2002, in fact, that Jim Ward, then the vice president of marketing for Lucasfilm, summed up the franchise’s attitude about fandom: that it should be at all times worshipful and non-additive:
We’ve been very clear all along on where we draw the line. … We love our fans. We want them to have fun. But if in fact somebody is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that’s not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.
Ward’s statement privileges a specific kind of fandom over another. The “good” kind of fandom here is a curatorial one, focusing on trivia and memorizing and enshrining the canon as it is presented by the creators. This is the kind of fan activity traditionally adopted by male-dominated geek spaces, in which the goal is largely to acquire knowledge about canon as it exists. It’s also, crucially, the kind of fandom that’s easy to rein in, as far as copyright is concerned.
But the part of fandom that plays well with copyright isn’t the part of fandom that cultivates new attitudes about the stories being played with. That’s because when the franchise owner tells you to “celebrate the story the way it is,” they’re often necessarily telling you to ignore the characters the franchise ignores. Fans who don’t see themselves well-represented by the stories they love inevitably become the fans who are interested in different perspectives beyond the official version of the story. Hence, the “bad” kind of fandom inevitably becomes the transformative, fan-works-based side of fandom — the side of fandom that is traditionally the realm of women, queer fans, and other marginalized fans.
Transformative fandom frequently seeks to disrupt and add to canon by exploring what kinds of narratives and voices aren’t being shown and heard onscreen or in the text. Fan works ask crucial questions about, for example, why Poe and Finn aren’t actually a couple; why shouldn’t Lando have been the star of Solo instead of Han; and, of course, why shouldn’t Star Wars have a canonically, textually pansexual character?
Of course, a lot else has changed since 2002. Ownership of the Star Wars franchise has changed hands, and while Disney has traditionally been notorious about ignoring fair use in copyright, it’s recently begun to lighten up considerably in its attitude toward fan works. And the critical and progressive impulses of transformative fandom frequently drive the public conversation today in ways that would have been unheard of 15 years ago.
While Lucasfilm was able to suppress transformative fandom by quelling certain kinds of fanfiction and privileging certain kinds of fan works — notably fan films over fanfiction — the internet allowed transformative fandom culture to spread and become mainstream. Laura JV told Vox that the general spread of broadband internet helped increase the number of voices in the fandom and the number of people paying attention to queering the canon — which ultimately led to a fandom-wide reevaluation of Lando.
“I think a lot of white folks became more aware of the effects of unconscious racism on their stories,” Laura JV said. “[And] a lot of fans of color raised a lot of awareness around these issues ... that is, I think it was more a general cultural thing rather than specifically about Lando. Although let’s be real, Lando is extremely cool and deserves lots of attention.”
It seems that finally, that attention has come. Not only are fans rethinking their views on all Star Wars characters ...
I just. Guys. Han isn't space James Bond. He's not some charming rogue. He's a bum who's behind on his debts and lives with his best friend in a van. That charismatic space adventurer you're remembering? His name's Lando— Paul Krueger (@NotLikeFreddy) May 16, 2018
... but they’re also awakening to new possibilities that go beyond the text of the films.
Does anything about this say "straight" pic.twitter.com/VgljSUbXHI— thomas // THOR FOR PRESIDENT (@KingOfDusk_) May 10, 2018
Obviously, all of this is progressive in terms of reflecting the franchise’s evolving attitude toward fandom, and changing attitudes toward both transformative fandom and progressive representation in geek culture. But let’s not forget that in practical terms, there are still zero queer characters in any of the Star Wars films.
“I think some fans look at the buzz around characters like Poe and Lando and say, ‘Why does everyone need to be gay now?’” Baker-Whitelaw told Vox, “when in reality, people are just responding to queer subtext and asking filmmakers to make it more obvious onscreen.”
If that subtext never makes it to film, then it’s clear that fans will make sure it’s realized offscreen.