Guest writer Stephanie L.
The second I heard about and saw first look photos of Kelly Marie Tran’s character for The Last Jedi, I remember feeling the same excitement from my youth (1998) when Disney’s animated film, Mulan film came out. The highs were short lived, as the attacks on Tran started rolling in.
As much excitement as I felt seeing Asians represented, I was just as intensely reminded of what people really expect and want from Asian Americans. Rose Tico went (quickly and relatively silently) from a meaningful story arc in The Last Jedi to a performative near-cameo in The Rise of Skywalker. This exemplifies the efforts to appease the louder voices wishing for her silence in the background.
In The Rise of Skywalker, Rose is superficially portrayed as a valued leader in the Resistance, but is rarely heard from or shown in that capacity. The idea that Beaumont Kin, a new, seemingly ‘extra’ character, took screen time that could’ve been used by Rose’s pre-established character speaks to the white privilege and male dominance of film-making and the tokenizing of marginalized people. This is the place of Asian Americans today- the model minority. The ‘model minority’ is a myth steeped in stereotypes that has been used to harm not just Asians, but also other people that experience discrimination (based on unequal power dynamic). It is responsible for the belief that Asian Americans, no matter their circumstances, are successful by means of lifting themselves up by natural talent (we’re great at math!) or their bootstraps; and are therefore immune to oppression. In addition, this narrative is used to diminish the struggle of other BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). For instance, the “they can do it with hard work, so why can’t you?” attitude. In effect, it’s used to keep BIPOC quiet and ‘in their place’. This narrative would have us believe that if one person can rise above the systems of oppression, then what right do others have to voice their struggles? Even in high-ranking positions, Asians are expected to be quiet, passive- as you see with Rose in The Rise of Skywalker. She is present long enough to be included, but not given the opportunity to contribute meaningfully or have any amount of character development.
As Rose was silenced in The Rise of Skywalker, Tran was expected to just be quiet even in the face of the racist attacks. Fortunately for us, she didn’t. Her New York Times Op-Ed was a testament to the strength it takes to speak out. One person speaking out amongst overwhelming odds, or a sea of angry ‘fans’, is so quintessentially Star Wars. Her op-ed highlighted the experience of being a woman of color- how “othered” the online harassment made her feel and how she’s been made to feel that she belongs in the background. In retrospect, it’s clear that her words were not heard. I still cringe while thinking of her being presented in all the press junkets for The Rise of Skywalker; presenting her as a lead character equal to that of Finn and Poe, just to find out she had been pushed to the margins in the film. And like Tran, I look back and feel shame for our world and the systems that keep reinforcing the idea that we, Asian Americans and minorities generally, don’t matter. Yes, I saw the articles bringing to light her diminished screen time. But they did not address the issues at the heart of this: the treatment of minorities on and offscreen. For example, the use of Carrie Fisher’s death as a scapegoat is just laying the blame for cutting Tran on another woman. I don’t doubt that Fisher’s death complicated aspects of the film, but for a film packed with SO much, it certainly feels Rose was the first to go. This attitude of disposability speaks to why parts of society can label Asian Americans a virus and no one seems to notice.
Moreover, when all the backlash around Tran’s character started, it became evident that many were unable to separate their issues with the story, with the screen writing, with a fictional character, with a director, and with race. Is it possible for these things to be intertwined? Yes, but there ought to be a nuanced depth- a gravity- to the conversations we have regarding Star Wars. We should want more for each other. Yes, I celebrate Tran and the character of Rose. That shouldn’t mean we stop wanting more for them, that we don’t critique the abandonment of the possibilities that were dangled in front of us. There is room for feelings of admiration, sadness, and any of the other multitudes of possibilities. Some in the Star Wars fandom would have you believe a false binary- that you must love or hate something. Well, we all know who deals in these sorts of absolutes. The lack of respectful discourse and amount of oppression that happens in the Star Wars fandom is symptomatic of The United States’ larger issues.
We can – and should – celebrate Star Wars by lifting each other up, and also calling out the problems we see in order to improve what we already love so passionately. Even now, we were tasked with balancing the excitement of the final month of waiting for Season 2 of The Mandalorian with the recent transphobic and anti-science remarks of Gina Carano, as well as juggle other mixed feelings we may have for possible rumored actors. We can hold space for all our feelings, but we should not move forward with attacks or hate. We have to create a collective struggle somewhere between the silence of inaction and the refusal to learn from each other. After all, we are complex beings, with many different aspects to our identities. These give us reason to process our feelings, love what we love, and critique what we want to see done better. We can also look to our beloved characters for inspiration in our celebrations andcritiques.
In The Last Jedi, Rose reminds us in Canto Bight to look closer, to look at what life is like for others. We cannot know another’s lived experiences, but we can and should be paying attention- listening, and learning. Finn took a closer look at Canto Bight and saw what was really beneath the glamour of Canto Bight: corruption, exploitation, and animal abuse, to name a few. So, what is really going on in Star Wars fandom, in Hollywood/film making, and in our daily lives? As Padmé once said, “This war represents a failure to listen.” Today, Padmé might rephrase it as: the toxicity of Star Wars fandom represents a failure to listen to (and learn from) each other.
Changing this toxicity, making the fandom more welcoming for marginalized communities, and appreciating all of our differing viewpoints will require action, not silence.
Near the peak of the Black Lives Matter coverage, John Boyega spoke out and people rallied behind him, even garnering a public vote of support from co-stars, directors, and even the official Star Wars Social Media accounts. However, more recently, there was a noticeable difference in the response when his British GQ article came out. A deeply divided Star Wars twitter showed people’s true thoughts on Black Lives Matter, and listening to different viewpoints. He shared his experience and people dismissed it; some going so far as to belittle his words to make it seem like he ought to just be grateful to have been in Star Wars at all. Certainly, we can acknowledge different viewpoints and even disagree, but not at the cost of listening to or respecting each other. As with Tran, peoples’ actions (or lack thereof) told Boyega that his experience didn’t matter. That [certain groups of] the fandom would only support him as long as he played the model minority role and his critiques did not extend to Star Wars.
As noted, even things we love can be problematic, particularly for marginalized communities. We can support and uplift having diversity in the sequel trilogy, but also call in the idea that BIPOC actors can still be misused. Having diversity in casting does not mean equality or true representation. There is a responsibility in casting BIPOC. Creators have a responsibility to represent BIPOC stories authentically and embrace their actors with the same weight as their white counterparts. If we don’t recognize this and call for change, then we allow the media to use characters like Rose and Finn to appeal to BIPOC for the sake of their ticket sales (hello, Finn with a lightsaber in The Force Awakenstrailer?). If you are celebrating Black Panther, then you must also call attention to the systems that continue experiences like Boyega and Tran’s.
I can watch the sequel trilogy countless times, but I cannot know the actual lived experiences of those actors, unless they choose to share them with me, as both Tran and Boyega have. Their outspokenness should remind us to listen to each other, learn from each other, and perhaps unlearn what oppresses others. This is how we move forward. This is what is at the heart of what the Resistance is really fighting for.
“Know right from wrong and don’t run away when it gets hard”.
One of the biggest charms of Star Wars, is how easy it is to get lost in it- from exciting lightsaber battles to our favorite lines and the iconic music; there is a lot to love. Star Wars has always been filled with gorgeous action visuals and daring rescues, but they often romanticize violence. And in the midst of the red salt streaks of Crait, Rose grounds us back to the bigger picture, by standing up to Finn (not for the first time) when she believes he’s making a mistake. With decisive action, she gives him pause to consider fighting in a different way. “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate…saving what we love.” Rose just wants to make the galaxy safer for everyone, and that includes calling in her friends. We see General Leia call in Poe after his Dreadnought mission and then again after his failed takeover of command. We need each other to grow from our mistakes, especially in the hardest times– a lesson Poe finally learns with a reminder from Lando Calrissian near the end of The Rise of Skywalker. When Poe asks him, “How did you do it? Defeat an Empire,” Lando responded, “We had each other. That’s how we won.” All of these scenes remind us that we should look out for each other so that we can make the world better.
Oftentimes, as a minority fan, I feel a sense of being forgotten– like I have put out signals using Leia’s personal code, but still no one answers. Then I think, sometimes we don’t get the answer we expect, but that does not mean we stop pushing for the answer we deserve. Rose and Finn may never have heard from or seen Temiri Blagg, the force sensitive “Stable Boy”, but their actions carried a huge message of hope with the children on Canto Bight. Despite no one coming to the Rebellion’s aid on Crait, there is no doubt that the spark had been ignited at the close of The Last Jedi. We see that play out further in The Rise of Skywalker, when co-generals Poe and Finn call again for others to join the fight. There is a strength in all our voices, and how we use them matters. Even when we don’t use them- it matters.
Editor’s note: this was written before Boyega’s meeting with Disney was announced.