The man who made Lando Calrissian a household name may not be a "man" after all
Billy Dee Williams is a sex symbol.
The deep silky tones of his voice. The sly smile that invites you to be as comfortable and cool as he is. He has sexual chemistry with literally everyone, literally all the time.
So when Donald Glover took over the iconic role of Lando Calrissian—essentially playing a younger version of Williams for Solo: A Star Wars Story—it should hardly have been surprising to anyone that Glover and the film's writers would refer to Lando as pansexual. And yet, it did. Just as people of a certain stripe will find cause for outrage in women being allowed to bust ghosts and hypersexualized videogame characters wearing slightly more clothing than they used to, Twitter commentators began attacking this addition to a classic character that they had rigidly defined according to their own narrow views.
According to them, both Billy Dee Williams and Lando Calrissian were consummate cis, hetero, norm-conforming, masculine males. Look at his jawline! Look at his mustache! Look at the way he flirts with Leia! This is a man's man who drinks malt liquor, objectifies women, and makes capes look badass. According to this assessment, the suggestion that Lando Calrissian could even be attracted to anyone outside of the traditional, heteronormative structure of romance was an affront to manhood itself. Anyone that cool and manly could only be into women, and pretending otherwise could only be a part of the SJW attack on civilization.
Not to suggest that you have to be straight to make a cape look badass
Those same commentators must be having some complicated feelings today, with the news that Billy Dee Williams, at the age of 82, is not at all hung up on these old ideas. In a recent interview with Esquire, Williams—who is reprising his role as Han Solo's frenemy in the upcoming film, Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker—refers to himself/herself with both sets of the traditional gender pronouns, saying, "I think of myself as a relatively colorful character who doesn't take himself or herself too seriously." In case there was any question about the sincerity of that usage, Williams followed up with some clarification, "And you see I say 'himself' and 'herself,' because I also see myself as feminine as well as masculine… I'm a very soft person. I'm not afraid to show that side of myself."
Many outlets are reporting this as a straightforward story of the actor "coming out" as "gender fluid." While that's an understandable interpretation of events, Williams does not actually use that term within the interview, which begs the question of what it really means to be gender fluid. If you relate to traits of both the traditionally masculine and the traditionally feminine role—e.g. you are biologically male, but value your feminine side—does that mean you're gender fluid? Does it require a direct declaration of a fluid identity? Or regular use of pronouns other than the one you were assigned at birth?
I don't have an answer, because I don't believe there is one answer. Coming to terms with the fact that gender is largely a social construct means coming to terms with the fact that the definitions of terms around gender are subject to societal standards and norms that are currently—if not permanently—in flux. I personally think many in the media have jumped the gun in declaring Williams to be gender fluid without getting direct confirmation that he/she defines himself/herself in those specific terms. But what's way more important than knowing exactly how to navigate new questions and concerns about gender as culture changes is recognizing the problems with the old strictures—problems which Williams' interview highlights beautifully.
Put simply, there are no superficial signifiers that define who a person is supposed to be. Just because Billy Dee Williams projects a public persona that conforms to traditional ideas of masculinity doesn't mean that he/she is beholden to the rigid role that entails. In Williams' own words, "I never tried to be anything except myself." If even someone who seems to have such a natural aptitude for the gruff, cool confidence of old-school masculinity can—at the age of 82—recognize that aspects of his/her identity fall outside the prescribed norms of manhood, then we should all feel a little freer to question the roles that are set out for us.
If all that means for you is letting yourself cry when Sam Smith comes on the radio, changing up your grooming habits, or expanding your wardrobe to include some badass capes, that's great. And if it means using a different pronoun, a different name, or taking more permanent measures to match your gender presentation to your gender identity, then maybe a figure like Billy Dee Williams referring to herself as feminine can help give you some license to defy expectations.
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