Fag Wars: How The Phantom Menace Inspired a Generation of LGBT Youth
No one likes the Star Wars Episode I prequel, except the transgender and gay fans who showed up at the 1999 premiere. We talked to the fans to find out why the The Phantom Menace is actually an LGBT triumph.
Illustration by Kayla Wasil
A loud, lanky boy runs across a green field. He falls to the ground, and then a bearded, middle-aged man jumps upon him. The man is trying to save the kid, who has fallen, but the boy just giggles and shrieks, like a puppy in heat. This isn't a scene from daddy/twink porn or an Xavier Dolan movie. It's from the third act of George Lucas' Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The man is one Qwi Gon Jin, an older, paternal Jedi figure and the boy, of course, is Jar Jar Binks—a controversial character in a film that inspired a generation of LGBT youth.
In the face of mainstream condemnation, many gay and transgender people adore The Phantom Menace. When Episode I debuted in 1999, critics and fans lambasted it. Hostel director Eli Roth said it was "more like A Bug's Life than Star Wars," and a critic for the Hollywood Reporter wrote that the film "vacillates between ponderous solemnity and a distressing tendency towards silly shtick." An entire generation of gay and trans youth, on the other hand, disagreed with the general dismissal of Lucas' return to their fathers' beloved sci-fi saga.
In the 90s, many parents believed their children would grow up to be just like them: cis breeders. Little did they know that their kids were covert members of a rebel alliance whose mission was to destroy the evil, heteronormative empire. In 1999, fathers brought their sons to The Phantom Menace premiere. They believed they were handing the torch of Star Wars to their prodigies, like a Jedi Master who affectionately trains a young Padawan, or Jedi Initiate. But, much like Obi-Wan was unaware that Anakin would defy the norm and join Senator Palpatine on the Dark Side of the Force, American dads failed to foresee that The Phantom Menace was the forbidden fruit that would tempt their children toward the queer side of life. Sean, a young man in his 20s, remembers watching The Phantom Menace with his dad. He attended a conservative Catholic school, and viewed fantasy films as an escape. Walking out of the theatre, Sean says he asked his father, "Did you like that?"
"No," his dad replied. "No I did not. Did you?"
Sean did. "I liked the insane gay parts," he explains. "Queen [Padmé] Amidala [of the planet Naboo], from a design standpoint, is very campy."
There are queer easter eggs throughout The Phantom Menace. Niv, a trans male dancer and artist in his 20s, says, "Everyone [in The Phantom Menace] is in drag. That always wins me. Amidala does some fun identity switching too."
Niv and Sean aren't the only queer fans who were moved by the Queen of Naboo. Aimee, a transgender woman, watches all six of the Star Wars films annually and cries every time. Her favorite character is Queen Amidala. In The Phantom Menace, a handmaiden named Sabé (portrayed by Keira Knightly) acts as Padmé's decoy in order distract the Queen's political enemies. To throw the Trade Federation off Padmé's scent, Padmé dons drab brown robes, and Sabé, the decoy, dresses like a drag queen. It's that subterfuge that speaks to Aimee, who lived in secret with her trans female identity for years. "Disguising herself as a handmaiden so as not to reveal her true self, living that double life," Aimee says. "It's certainly something I can relate to."
Disguising herself as a handmaiden so as not to reveal her true self, living that double life. It's certainly something I can relate to.
"Everyone remembers Amidala in the first movie!" Aaron, a twenty-something trans femme Star Wars fan, exclaims. "Like, I still see her referenced as a icon 16 years later. [Amidala] had so many costume changes, and each one hinted at the history and culture of her home world." There was so much meticulous attention to detail, her whole wardrobe is beautiful and fascinating. They look like couture archive pieces. The costume designer made a lot of references to aspects of Japanese and Himalayan traditional costumes. I guess some people would call cultural appropriation, but it's hard for me to arbitrate the line between inspiration and appropriation."
The Phantom Menace was a campy and colorful film, whereas the original trilogy is dark and utilitarian. In Episodes IV, V, and VI culture has been stripped from the Star Wars universe, and there's a reason for that. "It reflects a different and darker time in the galaxy," Aaron explains. "In Episode I you see a different side of Star Wars. The spaceships are sleek and clean, the costumes are rich and elaborate, the cities on Naboo are bright and colorful. It lends a different texture and culture to the galaxy that reflects a happier time. The only things that really appear utilitarian are the exteriors of the Trade Federation's ships, which look very dull, militant, and lifeless."
Sean says that the film's campiness was subversive, because it was in the context of a traditionally masculine, science fiction niche. It made him feel like it was OK to appreciate something that was typically thought of as bad, because it's so gay. Furthermore, the camp of The Phantom Menace intensified because George Lucas believed it would become a classic—he was blissfully unaware of the ridiculousness mainstream society lampooned the film for. In a behind the scenes making of video produced prior to the film's release, Lucas said, "Jar Jar is key to all this."
Read More: The Broadly Guide to Star Wars
"Jar Jar Binks is basically a gay Jamaican man," one gay millenial says. "[The Phantom Menace premiered] around the time I realized I was gay."
Many transgender Star Wars fans have a complicated, critical relationship to Jar Jar. Niv elaborates, explaining that Jar Jar, "is a caricature of a Jamaican rasta man." As to whether or not the feminine freak could have been a role model for trans kids, Niv doubts it. "The alien humanoids of the Star Wars saga consistently challenge gender binaries, but to say Jar Jar was actually trans would be giving George [Lucas] too much credit. Jar Jar was a cheap jab at black masculinity—call it what it is."
Aaron agrees with Niv's analysis, stating that, "Jar Jar is a problem! I definitely vote no on queer icon. I don't see him as a trans or gay, but maybe asexual and aromantic or something."
For Sean, the contrast between his perception of Jar Jar and the public's reminds him of Faye Dunaway's performance in Mommie Dearest. "I loved the Mommie Dearest of it all," Sean explains. "Faye Dunaway was playing Oscar bait. George Lucas had these new Star Wars films." At the same time, Sean saw depth to the Episode I. In his maligned screenplay, Lucas crafted a complex relationship between Qui-Gon and his Padawan, Obi-Wan Kenobi. These two characters remind Sean of two archetypal homosexual relationships: priests beside altar boys, and older gay men who date younger guys.
"It's almost an allegory for the young Catholic church; the Jedi counsel taking a young boy and introducing the world to him," Sean says. "There are elements [that] straight people wouldn't understand or discuss. It's creepy: These two older guys show up and give this guy blood tests—that's the movie i want to see!" Anakin is a special kid in part because Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan detect that he has exceptional potential to master the Force. This potential is determined by the number of Midi-chlorians (microscopic lifeforms) in their blood; Anakin's Midi-chlorian count exceeds even that of Master Yoda.
Niv also noticed that pederastic interplay. "Obi-Wan's hair was pretty queer but my suspicions were more focused on the proximity of the two Jedis."
When Jacob, a gay male in his 20s, was preteen, he viewed queer themes in the fandom surrounding the Star Wars prequels. The same way queers obsessed over gay icons, like Madonna or Britney Spears, Star Wars fans dressed up and waited for days to see the movies.
The overarching theme of The Phantom Menace that makes it so appealing to queers is this inclusion of marginalized individuals, like Jar Jar Binks.
Trans fan Aaron also connects with the queer community of Star Wars fandom. "I saw Episode I the day it came out, midnight screening," she says. "I skipped school and waited in line all day. I was too scared and embarrassed to dress up like all the other nerds in line with me though—I've never liked calling too much attention to myself. It was an amazing shared experience, I love that about fandom, it brings people together. It's the sort of thing some people get from religion, but I get it from really good, epic sci-fi."
Jacob says that the queer connection goes deeper still. Although Anakin becomes the murderous Darth Vader in the films following Episode I, he appears as a young child in The Phantom Menace. The Jedi Counsel believes Anakin to be "the one," prophesied to restore balance in the Force, but Anakin worries about his fate. He constantly begs the older Jedis to explain how the world works. Critics have complained about Anakin appearing as a "whiney" kid, the archetypal emo, complaining about Obi-Wan ad nauseam to an ever patient Padmé. Isn't it ironic that stuffy critics would whine about whining? Jacob says he and other gays related to young Anakin's angst.
"Anakin may have been written as this alpha, force-and-hormone crazed boy, but in The Phantom Menace he's reluctant to accept his future as the chosen one," Jacob explains. "That's something that resonates with anyone queer who may have been afraid of, or confused by, the life that they were either already living or just coming to terms with. I guess the overarching theme of The Phantom Menace that makes it so appealing to queers is this inclusion of marginalized individuals, like Jar Jar Binks, against this larger, oppressive entity, that being the Trade Federation and the Sith."
Some LGBT people prefer the other two prequels: Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. A cute boy that a Broadly staff member got drinks with (we'll call him Kyle) remembers despising Keira Knightley's drag queen-like character as a little kid. "I thought [Knightley] was dry as hell," Kyle says. " I was obsessed with Hayden Christensen—he was my dream boyfriend." Kyle also obsessed over Anakin's tragic character arc from optimistic slave boy to Darth Vader, who murders young children because the Sith Lord told him it would prevent his love, Padmé, from dying.
"I was obsessed with Darth Vader (generally always into the villain)," Kyle says. "He was vulnerable, but yet so powerful—a very conflicted/complicated character."
Darth Maul was born on a planet ruled by femme witches and was a part of the masculine species called, Nightbrothers who are all subs.
Complicated, dark characters are incredibly attractive to queer people, whose coming of age experiences often mirror the trials of misunderstood outcasts, who are perceived as, or forced to become, villains.
"Darth Maul is the real queer icon," Niv assures us. "He was born on a planet ruled by femme witches and was a part of the masculine species called Nightbrothers who are all subs." Though Darth Maul's backstory is minimally addressed in The Phantom Menace, it was elaborated upon in both the CGI series The Clone Wars and in Star Wars literature, such as Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter. The ripped, horny devil comes from the planet Dathomir. He and his people, the Nightbrothers, are a male race that lives in total submission to women, the Dathomirian Nightsisters, who are the femme witches to which Niv refers. "Darth Maul is cute," Niv adds. "Mother Talzin, the ruling queen witch of Dathomir, gifts Darth Maul some super human strength, and with that apparently big muscles and little speech, not unlike the muscle head Toms and Brads of normative gay nightlife."
"Darth Sidious [aka the Emperor, aka Senator Palpatine] fell for Darth Maul," Niv explains, "and 'took him under his wing to master the Force.'" Niv believes that there are "too many innuendos to ignore." The radical, queer aspects that Niv and his contemporaries point out are fundamental to The Phantom Menace. "I wouldn't say this film was a seminal moment for me in my transition, for that I owe to explicitly queer films," Niv says. "Futurity and science fiction are home to so many possibilities for folks of marginal experience."
Feminist art historian and radical 1960s lesbian Camille Paglia is obsessed with the Star Wars prequels, especially Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. In her 2012 book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars, she describes the prequel trilogy's finale as one of the best works of art in the past 30 years. Paglia loves both the film's tragic story, and its art history-influenced visuals.
According to the Yale-educated academic, the movie's grand finale combines narrative with intricate imagery. On the '"storm-swept planet of [Mustafar]," Jedi master Obi-Wan Kanobi battles his apprentice Anakin Skywalker over lava.
"The seething reds and yellows of the great lava river and waterfalls (based on Niagara Falls) flood the eye. It is a vision of hell," Paglia writes. "As in Dante, there is an allegorical level: 'I have the high ground,' declares Obi-Wan when he springs to the top of a black sandy slope. Hell, as in Marlowe, Milton, and Blake, is a psychological state—Anakin's self-destructive surrender to possessive love and jealous hate."
The 'alien' humanoids of the star wars saga consistently challenge gender binaries.
Paglia's celebration of the pop masterpiece has baffled many foolish journalists, but gays and trans people like Kyle, Jacob, Aaron, Aimee, Niv, and Sean understand Paglia's theory. Carefully crafted action and sci-fi films can deliver greater emotional moments than most Oscar bait. Lucas' saga is comprised of individual movies that each add to the increasingly rich culture of the Star Wars universe. Many straight moviegoers and critics are dumb, too hetero-normalized to appreciate what is right before their eyes, and what queer people inherently understand.
"What I've consistently found is that journalists or critics who scoff at my huge admiration of Revenge of the Sith (and many do scoff) have never actually seen it!" Paglia tells Broadly in an email. "They simply assume ALL of the Star Wars films have the same and tone of the first one."
Just as Anakin's limbless body writhed and whimpered in horror from the Paglian Hellscape, so too did a generation of gay and transgender youth cry from their seats in movie theaters across America in 1999. The Phantom Menace showed them that there is a place on this planet for trans people and gays. The judgement and generic disdain that straight people and other mainstream critics regurgitate upon Episode I parallels the thoughtless, cruel conformity of homo- and transphobias. Just as the rich cultural landscape of Naboo brought viewers back to a time of joy and peace in the galaxy, so too did The Phantom Menace bring hope and light to queers, whose world has been stripped and sterilized like the gray obelisk fleet of Darth Sidius' evil Galactic Empire.
"I went through a period when I, like many, talked trash about it," Aimee remembers. "But in the end, I am a fan and always will be. The year it came out, my mother bought me a Phantom Menace bathroom set. Shower curtain, trash can, toothbrush and cup. I still have all of them, and the trash can is still in my bathroom to this day."