In early October, Twitter user Star Wars Queers Watch and I half-jokingly debated whether a newly introduced character in Andor, the franchise’s most recent live-action television series which wrapped up its first season last Wednesday, was actually giving off seriously gay vibes. Vel Sartha, played by Faye Marsay who is maybe best known as that girl who smacked Arya Stark with a stick for like two seasons straight on Game of Thrones, was a poncho-sporting, no-nonsense backwoods resistance fighter who seemed to maybe be a little more than friendly with a woman who was also one of her fellow comrades in arms. Queers Watch, I, and the rest of Star Wars’ queer fandom were hopeful — but skeptical. We’d been burned many, many times before by Lucasfilm’s messy attempts at making the Galaxy Far, Far Away just a little bit less hetero, and there was no real indication that the Disney subsidiary was about to change course any time soon.
But, come Andor’s fifth episode, “The Axe Forgets,” the answer was made very clear. Vel is queer. She is in fact sleeping with fellow rebellion fighter Cinta Kaz played by Varada Sethu. And while they weren’t exactly having steamy lesbian sex on a Disney+ series, their relationship is explicitly woven into the fabric of the show. Other queer fans and I were understandably cynical about how Vel and Cinta’s romance would develop. Given the high stakes and often action-packed plots of Andor, showrunner Tony Gilroy had more than one opportunity to bury some gays. However, with each passing episode, it became clear that Andor deserved our attention and confidence and that at the very least it was a significant step forward for a gayer galaxy.
To say that Star Wars’ march toward having any sort of visible queer representation has been fraught would be an understatement. Unlike its rival space series Star Trek, which was incorporating queer themes into its narratives as far back as the early 90s, Star Wars never seemed quite sure what to do with its queers. Its first canonically queer character is the lesbian redeemed Jedi, Juhani, in the classic 2002 video game Knights of the Old Republic, but given the relatively small role her queerness plays in the RPG’s admittedly massive story one couldn’t really be blamed for flat out missing this. Even then, Juhani’s legacy was complicated by later community statements made by Knights’ production company, Bioware. In the long role out for the game’s MMO sequel, The Old Republic, Bioware community managers made the bizarre and inescapably homophobic statement in 2009 that gays simply don’t exist in Star Wars in response to forum users noting that threads discussing queer characters and themes were routinely blocked and deleted by moderators. While Bioware did eventually capitulate after the game’s release (well over three years later) and feature romanceable characters for queer players, the message had already been loudly made that queers weren’t welcome in this space.
Things would luckily take a turn for the better following Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012 and Star Wars’ canonical resetting that followed. Star Wars novels started to regularly feature queer characters. Gay freedom fighters. Lesbian Imperials. Bisexual bounty hunters. Quirky enby smugglers. It was a change that predictably was met with a decent amount of pushback from homophobic fans who had grown accustomed to the franchise’s willing ignorance toward queer characters, but the publishing side of Lucasfilm marched on forward with its army full of weird space gays.
The most notable queer addition to Star Wars canon was, and arguably still is, the comics anti-hero Doctor Aphra. Created by bisexual comic writer Kieron Gillen, known for writing the gayest iteration of Young Avengers and the overstuffed with queers mythological mystery The Wicked + the Divine. Doctor Aphra is a chaotic lesbian archaeologist who frequently runs awry with galactic treasure hunters and the ghosts of long dead Sith Lords. Think Indiana Jones if he was a queer Asian woman with a very questionable moral compass. Aphra originally began as a supporting character in Gillen’s Darth Vader comic before spinning out into her own long-running series, which sported Star Wars’ first ever depicted lesbian kiss. Aphra’s comics are effortlessly queer, not only in how they depict Aphra’s own messy love life but in the sprawling queer supporting cast that Gillen and later writers Si Spurrier and Alyssa Wong have populated her adventures with. A long-running antagonist was a vengeful space detective whose cyborg boyfriend Aphra left for dead after a particularly bad job. Wong’s current arc has a team of Aphra’s former flings and enemies trying to save her from a rogue AI that has taken over her body. Doctor Aphra is to this day the only Star Wars media to win a GLAAD award, and it feels deserved.
It’s beyond frustrating then that the film and television side of Lucasfilm has floundered so badly in comparison. Perhaps most famously, fans around the world have lobbied for John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron to shack up ever since they first appeared in 2015’s The Force Awakens. Finn and Poe’s chemistry was infectious, and Isaac was not subtle about his intent to play the dynamic between both characters as romantic. This of course culminated in 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker seemingly inventing two women to pair off both characters with, shutting the book on the two leads becoming boyfriends. Isaac in particular was outspoken in his disappointment in Poe’s straightwashing chalking it up to institutional cowardice on Disney’s part. Director and co-writer JJ Abrams did assure queer fans that there would be something for them in the trilogy capper, but this ended up being a split-second kiss between two women extras in the film’s final moments. It was a move that was so transparently trivial and easy to remove for foreign censors that it immediately became a source of mockery and derision. The best of which is Twitter user Lyra Silvertongue’s viral tweet highlighting a sluglike alien’s apparent disgust at the whole development.
Rise of Skywalker does have one perfect moment, it’s that right after they show the first gay kiss in Star Wars (for 2 seconds) they immediately cut to this frowning slug monster for twice as long. 16/10, no notes pic.twitter.com/B0KlKteZrr
— Lyra, Esq., is NOT DAREDEVIL (@PinkRangerLB) February 21, 2022
This is of course not even accounting for Donald Glover’s assertion that his portrayal of classic character Lando Calrissian is pansexual, which in the context of the film just seems to mean that he’s fucking a robot played by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
And sure, there are slightly less problematic moments like the epilogue to animated series Star Wars Rebels implying in the loosest of terms that two male characters are now maybe kind of a thing or the comedic relief fussy alien couple portrayed by Bobby Moynihan and Jim Rash in the children’s series Star Wars Resistance. But again, if you weren’t a queer viewer starving for any small hint of space gays or the kind of fan who reads mountains of interviews with cast and crew, you could have easily missed all of this.
This is all to say that Andor simply having an on-screen queer couple whose role extends beyond a winking reference or quick cameo is already leaps and bounds ahead of anything that Lucasfilm has bothered to offer up to date. But Andor is a particularly rare beast. Actually great, thoughtful, Star Wars. The series, which on paper is a prequel to 2016’s Rogue One, follows Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor as he is brought into the fold of the very early days of the rebellion against the Empire. Andor not only stands above pretty much everything that Disney Star Wars has churned out in the last half decade in terms of its grounded production design, great cinematography, and nuanced performances, but because it’s the first Star Wars media in a long time to be about something besides itself. As enjoyable as it might be to watch Pedro Pascal’s Mandalorian bond with a baby Yoda puppet, Star Wars has absolutely gotten itself stuck in a self-referencing nostalgia loop. Sure, it sometimes excels at celebrating itself or even deconstructing its own myth, but Star Wars has been about Star Wars and only about Star Wars for years now. And while Andor is a spin-off of a spin-off, Tony Gilroy’s show is much more interested in showcasing what the early days of resistance against a fascist Empire actually looks like. Whether it be depictions of the corporate stooges or ladder climbing bureaucrats, Andor revels in the banality of its evil and is unflinching in depicting the recognizable horrors of a government that believes itself too big to fail. It’s anti-cop, anti-prison industrial complex, anti-colonialism, anti-incremental resistance, and restlessly pissed off at the state of the world, whether that be our humble little planet or a galaxy-spanning dystopia. As much as Star Wars has always had a slight political edge to it, Andor is the first iteration of the series to make its anti-fascist underpinnings the front and center focus of its story.
And thankfully this nuanced and surprisingly grounded approach extends to our space lesbians as well. While we first meet Vel and Cinta as backwoods revolutionaries, their relationship is defined by their fight against fascism. Cinta, whose family was murdered by Stormtroopers prior to the start of the series, is clearly the more driven of the two. She’s the most eager freedom fighter to blast away Imperials and is more than willing to make personal sacrifices for the sake of burning down the fascist establishment. More than once over the series’ 12 episode first season, Cinta opts to stay behind to clean up the messes of revolution while Vel’s work takes her elsewhere. It naturally becomes a point of contention between both women. Vel is eager to find whatever moments of happiness that the two can eek out amid the growing violence, but as Cinta tells her, “I told you upfront, the struggle always comes first. We take what’s left.”
Vel in contrast hails from the aristocratic and socially conservative world of Chandrila. Cousin to long-time Star Wars supporting character, Mon Mothma (played wonderfully here by Genevieve O’Reilly), Vel lives a double life as the heiress to a centuries old family fortune. Where Cinta’s work often has her skulking in the shadows of dark apartment buildings or dank alley ways, Vel finds herself rubbing shoulders with the galactic elite. And it’s here that Andor throws maybe it’s most interesting wrinkle into Vel’s character. As we learn throughout the season, on Vel and Mon’s home world of Chandrila arranged (straight) marriages among teens are common and a cultural norm. Mon’s own arranged husband, a Mitt Romney type that just can’t seem to get why his wife is so upset about the fascist evil wizard running the government, even remarks on how strange it is that Vel continues to be single well into adulthood. The knowing glances shared between cousins let us know that Mon is well-aware of the real reason why Vel has yet to find a man, but the point has already been made. Vel is living another double life. Not only in her work as a revolutionary, but also that she’s a huge les. It’s the first hint that at least in some corners of the Galaxy Far, Far Away that life in the closet is a very real thing.
And while I’m not exactly glad that homophobia exists in the Star Wars universe, its inclusion in Andor still feels important and maybe even necessary. While the abundant queerness of Doctor Aphra is definitely a delight, the casual acceptance of its gay, lesbian, and nonbinary characters can’t help but feel oddly segregated given how starkly cishet the rest of the universe is portrayed to be. It’s joyful escapism, but it can’t help but feel oddly hollow. In a galaxy that is rife with conflict, crime, and inequality, the open acceptance of queer characters in the Star Wars publishing wing feels inauthentic not only to our own world but to how Disney/Lucasfilm have decided to craft their fiction. Just as how Andor shows us the banal evils of the Empire and its supporters, it feels right that we at least acknowledge that queer identity isn’t always easy and that sometimes those most sympathetic to the authoritarian rule are those most willing to enforce cishteronormative values, intentionally or not.
Andor’s portrayal of Vel and Cinta isn’t without its problems. As clearly communicated as their relationship is, the two don’t kiss or do much of anything physical besides tender hand-holding or caressing one another’s shoulders. To be fair, this isn’t that different from how Andor showcases any of its heterosexual relationships. Andor may be the rare Star Wars media that actually acknowledges that sex exists, but its hook ups and love makings always happen just off screen. If anything, it may just be a sad symptom of just how sexless so much franchise media has become over the last decade or so. This is a Disney production after all. I mean, when a stale dry humping heterosexual sex scene in The Eternals makes headlines, you know we’re in a particularly chaste era of blockbusters.
All the same, the ease at which Tony Gilroy and the rest of his creative team portray Cinta and Vel’s relationship marks a far too late, but much needed step forward for this franchise. Andor manages to walk the delicate line of featuring undeniably queer characters in a lesbian relationship without making their inclusion feel like a pandering bone thrown to fans. They exist as characters with their own individual arcs and a relationship that is believably flawed but at times still remarkably tender. And thankfully (spoilers) both Vel and Cinta live. Whenever Andor finally manages to grace our screens again, which by all accounts seems to be at least two years away, we will get to see more of both women. That’s two years for the rest of the Star Wars galaxy to get its shit together. I’m not exactly holding my breath, but hey there’s hope. A new hope, maybe, for the gays to strike back.