About halfway through Solo, Han’s former girlfriend Qi’ra has some girl-talk with the droid L3-37, Lando’s chronically aggrieved co-pilot. L3 tells Qi’ra that she understands complicated romantic relationships because of her own romantic tension with Lando. Qi’ra listens in astonished silence, and then says, with all the puzzlement of the straight lady at the Pride parade, “How would that work?”
L3 gives her a look. “It works,” she says, silencing Qi-ra, who to Emilia Clarke’s credit manages to look equal parts amused, confounded and disturbed.
It’s our only glimmer in the Star Wars cinematic universe of what we might call non-normative sexuality, and it’s significant that the moment is connected with Lando. Donald Glover’s Lando dials up the flamboyant charisma to eleven—and I use the word flamboyant advisedly, based mainly on the size of Lando’s cape collection. He romps, smirks, charms and scams his way across the galaxy, effectively stealing the show from Alden Ehrenreich and Emilia Clarke—not to mention Woody Harrelson and a delightfully creepy Paul Bettany. This Lando is coded gay, and that is, like Paul Bettany’s performance, both delightful and super, super creepy.
At some point, someone connected with this movie recognized that having zero gay people in it was statistically improbable at best. It’s 2018, after all, but it’s also Star Wars, and no one can actually be gay in Star Wars. People don’t have sex in Star Wars; they kiss (with minimal tongue) to swelling music and they make significant eye contact as they declare their love and in general behave as though they are in front of a bunch of eight-year-olds because, let’s face it, the parents of those eight-year-olds are the cash cow of the Star Wars universe. No one shells out the big bucks for plastic light sabers with realistic sound effects, LEGO Tie Fighters and mini-BB8s (which may or may not be an inventory of my personal collection) for edgy movies that explore the boundaries of human sexual expression or lead to difficult conversations in the movie theater parking lot. We take our kids to the movies so they will stop talking to us, not so they will talk to us more, for God’s sake.
But at a certain cultural point it becomes a financial liability to the production company to pretend queerness does not exist. Moviegoers (and parents) in 2018 are less likely than those of the ’80s to credit the complete absence of gay people, so producers are left with a dilemma: how to telegraph an awareness of human reality while not damaging the cash cow formula? Enter Lando Calrissian, cosmic metrosexual.
Glover’s Lando carries on a venerable tradition of the flamboyant omnisexual who (crucially) has little to no sexual interaction with anyone—a tradition arguably kicked off by David Bowie’s Goblin King in 1986, and elevated into a multimedia franchise by Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow in 2003. But this new Lando is also building on groundwork laid by Billy Dee Williams’ 1980 portrayal. If Williams wore a dashing off-the-shoulder cape, New Lando has a walk-in closet of multi-colored capes. That closet is so enticing that Qi’ra sneaks into it to try on Lando’s capes. This Lando is more into his clothes than his ship. When the Falcon is falling apart in flaming chunks, and Qi’ra seizes a cape to put out the fire, Lando shrieks at her, “That’s a custom piece!”
It’s more than Lando’s fashion sense that codes him as gay. The by-play between Han and Lando is outright called “flirting” by L3. Lando tell Han he’s adorable, and while on the one hand it’s meant to be a patronizing put-down, it can also mean something very different. And that is of course the point of gay coding—writers maintain plausible deniability while dog-whistling the hell out of an audience that knows what to look for. Lando is characterized as a self-obsessed card cheater, a liar, an inveterate scammer—a deceiver. The gay/bisexual character as a cheater is an old trope, and it’s based on the old stereotype that queer people hide their true face from the world, both from necessity and for protection.
But it’s Lando’s relationship with L3 that seals the deal on something being up. Throughout the Star Wars cinematic universe, humanoid-on-non-humanoid sex is presented as perverted and distasteful—think of Jabba’s swollen tongue slobbering over a revolted Leia. When L3 talks about Lando’s feelings for her, she provides our first suggestion of something else. On the one hand, she might be (as Qi’ra assumes) amusingly deceived by her own failure to understand her place in the scheme of things. On the other, Lando’s feelings are revealed to be far more powerful than we have seen anyone display for a droid. He grieves her loss with physical caresses and with surprising intimacy—this after risking his life (and the whole crew of the Falcon) to save hers. Whatever is between the two of them, it isn’t like anything we have seen from the Star Wars universe before in terms of human/droid relations. Combined with Lando’s fashion sense, his metrosexual charm and his air of “you can’t really tell what side I’m on here,” that sexually questionable connection with L3 begins to look like something else, and that something else is a wink and a nudge at the audience.
That wink and nudge is delightful to watch, but it also disturbs. A sexually transgressive Lando makes perfect sense. But we know the end of the story, and we know that Han is headed to Tatooine to meet Obi-Wan and Luke in everyone’s favorite hive of scum and villainy, and our next glimpse of Lando is likely to be that schmoozy smile as he leans over Leia’s hand in The Empire Strikes Back. Unless there are more prequels in the Solo universe, Lando isn’t going to get any more development than he gets here. The code is going to remain a code, his sexual transgressiveness a hint and nothing more. The audience is meant to “get it,” and that’s the frustration—we are meant to not just pick up on the hint, but to be satisfied with it. It’s meant to be enough, and that finally is the biggest card cheat of all.
In a recent SiriusXM interview, Glover is clear that he enjoys Lando’s “fluidity,” and asks, “How can you not be pansexual in space? There’s so many things to have sex with.” Glover’s obvious willingness to go there stands in stark contrast to the reluctance of the Star Wars Machine™ to go there beyond 1950s-style hints and indirection. Fans are going to rebel against that imaginative straitjacket, and rightly so. Exuberant tweets about the minimal, barely-there representation in Star Wars will become less exuberant and more irritated, as the world moves forward and the franchise does not.
Unlike other science fiction universes, Star Wars has always been more about exploration of the human world than about exploration of the unknown other. Alien worlds exist as incidental backdrop to the development of the human story, and representation of non-humans is somewhere between painful racist stereotype and walking plushie. (I’m sorry—I tried not to make this about Jar Jar.) But that intense focus on the humanity of the main characters is also Star Wars’ strength. We go to see lightsabers make the zhoong sound, sure, but mainly we go to be reassured about the eternality of humankind. Leia’s snark, Han’s bumbling, Luke’s impetuous chafing—all these are expressed in startlingly contemporary idiom. Star Wars was never really about the long ago and far away; it was always about the here and now. That illusion of “just like us” is broken when the rift between our world and theirs opens up, as it does when queerness is a vibrant presence in our world and remains coded in theirs. When the “us” on the screen no longer really looks like us—or looks like an uncomfortable 1950s version of us—then the illusion loses its power. Writers in the service of the greatest science fiction empire the world has ever known need to be very sure that “a long time ago” remains the opening crawl and not the guiding moral principle of that empire.