To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
C3-PO – Interpreter and Human-Cyborg Relations Representative
by Christopher Bryant
C3-P0 was, in many ways, typical of the 1970s homosexual made visible in mainstream entertainment. Like John Inman’s Mr Humphries from the BBC Sitcom Are You Being Served?, he was particular, fastidious and somewhat over-dramatic. Mr Humphries’ sexuality was always assumed, never stated, but he was a particular type and so it did not need to be. The same could be said of C3-P0. Although he was a robot, and without sexuality, his behaviour was that of the archetypal homosexual. What set him apart was that he was not merely comedy relief, or the discontented villain (as in 1970s spy thrillers like The Eiger Sanction) but a key part of a team of heroes.
C3-P0’s identity pivoted on his particular brand of camp. His first words in Star Wars are, “We’re doomed”. When he and his “counterpart” R2-D2 land on the surface of Tatooine he has nothing less than a queeny hissy fit. “I’m not going that way, it’s much too rocky”, he says when R2 makes a suggestion. He is caught out when R2 points out that there could be settlements that way. “Don’t get technical with me,” he fires back, and carries on regardless. In the opening scenes of The Empire Strikes Back he fusses about drying out Princess Leia’s clothes, which were drenched after he commented that it was freezing in her ice chamber, leading R2 to turn the heating on. When he is literally in pieces at the end of the film, and after many hours spent being carried on Chewbacca’s back, he says to R2 in tones of despair, “I thought that hairy beast would be the end of me”.
More often than not cinema, like music, works on feelings and ideas that remain unspoken. In that sense it can operate beyond the confines of the analytical mind, which organises thoughts into boxes, and decides what’s right and what’s wrong based on prior experience. In other words, it can bypass the preconceptions from which prejudice springs. The human mind is not a literal machine, and so while on the surface C3-P0 is a robot with a feisty sidekick, he also represents a different possibility, a different identity. And so what exactly do I mean by that?
Hollywood is the dream factory, and what that means is that its stars, like the Greeks gods of myth, give form to our hopes and dreams, and in so doing this gives such unspoken ideas a language. The language of the homosexual in Hollywood at the time Star Wars was released in 1977 had been one of implication, suggestion and scandal, as Vito Russo describes in his excellent book The Celluloid Closet. Yet in the Star Wars trilogy, and through (somewhat tellingly) an asexual robot, that language was changed.
When I was a child, my parents nicknamed me C3-P0. It’s a joke that remains running to this day. This Christmas past, in fact, they bought me an R2-D2 coffee mug. I was fastidious as well as particular, and because of the collective obsession with Star Wars that my family shared, this was reflected back through the character of C3-P0. Admittedly, you have to bend your mind to think about it rationally, but the power of that indirect identification proved incalculable. Although C3-P0 shied away from bravery, he did what needed to be done anyway, and rather than being just a figure of fun he was a hero. He epitomised so many of the unspoken assumptions about homosexual behaviour, and because he was a robot this bypassed any direct identification with homosexuality. And because I was a child I did not fear the identification, as I no doubt would have with a character like Mr Humphries. As an idea, that is somewhat theoretically questionable, but as an experience it represents something else altogether. I knew implicitly that it meant it was possible to be part of the world, and not separate from it, not an outcast. For that reason C3-P0 will always be a hero, and no-one can take that away from me.