Awakening Queer Star Wars: Finn’s Identity and Sexuality Through an LGBTQ Lens
The Force Awakens’ Finn, played by John Boyega, has been a polarizing figure since before the film’s December release. Celebrated by some as a much-needed person of colour in the incredibly white sci-fi genre, he has also been criticized as a token figure, excelling at nothing and constantly running away. It’s been noted that his friendships structure the film and potential Finn romances, particularly between Finn and Poe, have sent a charge through the internet.
But from the moment we see Finn watching in horror as his fellow Stormtroopers murder the inhabitants of a village on Jakku, we see something relatable in Finn. What we see depends largely on the filters through which we view our culture and for me, Finn’s story arc is familiar to me as a trans person. That’s not to suggest that Finn is a trans character, rather, that the challenges he faces and the barriers he overcomes speak to the trans experience. That Finn can be read as LGBTQ friendly does not erase intersectional readings of his character that raise legitimate concerns about his portrayal, such as race and capability. However, it does give him a complexity normally lacking in blockbuster films.
His decisive rejection of the First Order, a toxic, violent organization bent on restoring the power and privilege of the original trilogy’s Empire, is key for me as a trans person. The First Order replicates the fascistic overtones of the Galactic Empire, but with its primarily male Stormtroopers and the hate-spewing General Hux, it also represents a toxic patriarchal society seeking to eliminate difference and dissent.
The First Order kidnapped Finn in childhood and has undertaken an extensive programming campaign to make Finn a Stormtrooper, one of the thousands of anonymous killers employed by the First Order. Finn’s refusal to take part in the village massacre on Jakku required him to disobey the orders of superiors Captain Phasma and Kylo Ren and consequently jeopardizes his emerging morality and individuality. Threatened with further programming, Finn runs, and in the process aids Poe’s escape from First Order forces.
This initial departure is seen by many as the first of several instances of Finn running away in the face of danger and has been used to illustrate his cowardice and failure. But as a trans person, Finn’s break from the First Order is the type of liberating experience that has great resonance for me. In the face of certain harm, Finn chooses to turn away from the only life, community, and role he knows to assert his true identity. Finn runs from a toxic, normative institution, which has kidnapped and abused him, towards an assertive, honest, individuality. He risks certain violent reprisal and programming to be himself. Running from an abusive, identity stifling situation isn’t cowardice, it’s bravery.
The decisions Finn makes to start the film, rejecting the destructive activities of his society, breaking from its normativity, and ultimately asserting an identity and individuality which the First Order wished to oppress, are reminiscent of the efforts trans folks have to undertake to live peacefully and fully as themselves. That Finn does so with his humour, charm, and good nature intact is all the more impressive.
Like Han in the original trilogy, Finn is initially mistaken for a rebel. But the question with Finn isn’t so much what his role in the Resistance will be, but rather, what type of man will he become?
On the run with no support network, Finn asserts a masculinity which differs from the only example of identity he’s familiar with, the brutal norm represented by the Stormtroopers of the First Order. One of the biggest challenges for trans masculine folks is navigating our personal relationship with masculinity. The harmful mainstream masculinity we have been exposed to has injured us and marginalized us. Yet, when trying to figure out what type of masculine folks we want to be, mainstream masculinity holds an unfortunate appeal. It offers safety and anonymity, a reprieve from harassment, and the allure of power. However, this is exactly the type of masculinity and sense of belonging Finn rejects. Like many trans folks, Finn forges his own masculinity. When he meets Rey, he initially grabs her hand and attempts to guide her to safety. But he doesn’t continue to assert this conventional masculinity nor does he fulfill a traditional hero’s role. Instead, Finn defers to Rey’s superior knowledge of Jakku and her abilities as a pilot. He works in partnership with Rey to destroy enemy fighters. He accepts Rey’s abilities and sees her as an equal. He fights with a lightsaber out of self defense, not destiny. His is a new type of masculinity for a galaxy far, far away.
It’s not perfect though. I found Finn’s naming scene to be problematic from a trans perspective. As they make their initial escape, Poe asks Finn what his name is. Finn responds with his Stormtrooper designation. Taken aback, Poe doesn’t ask Finn if he wants a new name and instead adapts Finn’s designation to a name he likes: Finn. While being given a name can be a great honour, a marker of being welcomed into community, it is also something that holds great importance for trans people. Choosing your real name, having that name respected and used by others, is huge. Finn doesn’t get this moment, though he does accept the name.
There are those who look at Finn’s friendship with Rey as a budding romance, but many more lament the lack of chemistry from the two young leads. And this seems to bother some people. For a franchise known for consistent variation on established plot and themes, The Force Awakens’ two protagonists should follow the pattern established by Han and Leia in the original trilogy and Anakin and Padme in the prequels. That Finn and Rey haven’t so far seems to be a greater knock against Finn and his masculinity. Lonnae O’Neal of the Washington Post problematically reduces the original trilogy’s lone prominent person of colour, Lando, to his sexuality, when she points out Finn doesn’t “exude sex appeal” like Lando does in The Empire Strikes Back. She concludes that “not only does the hero of the film not get the girl, he’s not the hero.” It is only when you enter the film with the expectation that the male protagonist be the hero in a traditional sense that you see this as problematic. Finn’s masculinity, typified by his unwillingness to follow normative practices, his commitment to friendship, and his willingness to work collaboratively is a masculinity we need to see on screen more, not less. It’s only when you view fiction through a heteronormative lens that it matters if stories concludes nicely in a sexual relationship between a man and a woman, with the woman serving as prize for the man’s courageous deeds. To conclude that Rey “seems empowered at his expense” is to ignore the great acts of courage and the assertions of individuality that Finn makes in the film.
When we don’t view Finn or the Star Wars universe through a heteronormative lens, we see an emerging sexuality for the former Stormtrooper. For me, as a trans person, as a masculine person, and as someone who is, among other things, attracted to men, the moments of homosexual awakening between Finn and Poe are immensely important. Their emphatic embrace towards the end of the film can be viewed as merely homosocial, with no sexual overtones, but Finn’s exuberance at being reunited with Poe can also be read as youthful, sexual excitement and awakening, while Poe’s suggestive lip biting should be read as more pointedly sexual. There is tenderness here too. After Finn presumes Poe has died in the crash, Finn takes Poe’s jacket. Finn sheds his Stormtrooper gear, his former self, and wears Poe’s leather jacket for most of the film. It’s a commemorative gesture that will remind some of the ending of Brokeback Mountain. When the pair are reunited at the Resistance base, Poe tells him to keep the jacket, that it suits him, that he looks good. This is also the moment when Poe suggestively bites his lip. There is chemistry here but you don’t see it you refuse to acknowledge queer experiences.
Why does this budding romance matter? Poe is the quick-witted, joking, ruggedly handsome, X-Wing fighter pilot whose committed to the Resistance and his characterization reminds many of Han Solo, a more conventional depiction of male heroism on film. His is the type of masculinity many seem to wish for Finn. That Poe only has eyes for Finn continues to challenge what we’ve come to expect from masculinity in the Star Wars universe. That Finn, a product of a toxic, patriarchal culture presents a masculinity open to love and sexual experiences with another man matters. In the world of the original trilogy, a Stormtrooper and X-Wing fighter pilot didn’t, couldn’t, share sexual tension on screen; they rarely shared scenes together let alone smouldering looks. The same was true of two men. The Star Wars saga already has its great, homosocial relationship in the form of Han and Chewie’s friendship. In Finn and Poe, there is the potential for truly epic romance.