Representation in Media

The Star Wars universe is vast and there are countless stories to be told. While Disney and other production companies have made progress towards more inclusive stories and improvement in cast diversity, there is still a long way to go. Three members of Project Stardust weigh in on representation in Star Wars and other media and why it matters.

1) Tell us about yourself – what is your racial background, why is this topic important to you, etc?

Sierra: My name is Sierra Solo, and I’m a biracial woman who comes from a mixed background. I’m twenty years old, and I was born and raised in the United States. I’m a full time student, cosplayer, avid reader of comics, and I’m the Senior Co-Editor of the shorts here at Project Stardust. 

When discussing myself, race can be a sort of tricky topic to navigate. My mother is white, but  her family comes from Macedonia. My father is Mexican, and his family is native to Texas and somewhere in Northern Mexico. 

I must confess, my racial and cultural background is a bit confusing for me. I grew up not knowing much about my heritage or about my father’s side of the family. As a little girl, I drew myself as white. I’m considerably more white-passing compared to my siblings, and I’m not fluent in Spanish. I only know what my father has shared with me, which I consider to be generous grains of sand here and there. I know more about him than myself. His past and present struggles are why I think discussing race and culture is important– even if I am still learning about myself and family everyday. I felt hesitant to step up to the plate to be someone to discuss this topic, but the fact that I felt at all doubtful of myself and belonging is exactly why I’m here.

Lauren: My name is Lauren. I identify as a Chicana as I feel that it most closely encapsulates my experience as an American-born person of Mexican descent. This topic is important because Latinx people as a group remain the second to least represented people in media, any media, followed only by Native/Indigenous peoples. In 2019, that number was 3% which encompassed both leading and supporting roles. As in many other aspects of American life, Latinx people are invisible and that doesn’t work for me. 

Vicky: I’m Vicky and while I’m personally white, I married into a family that immigrated to the US from Southeast Asia. I have two biracial children, therefore matters involving racism are extremely important to me. I want to pave the way for my children to have a better world, and I want to raise them to successfully navigate a world where racism still runs deep. As such, I am ready to go to bat for them and am regularly trying to educate my fellow white people about how we perpetuate systemic racism. 

2)  Why is it important to see characters that look like you on the big screen?

Sierra: As I mentioned just a moment ago, as a little girl I always drew myself as white. I was a bit of an artist. I enjoyed coloring and sketching. I took note of key details in every little thing I made. I drew my father considerably more orange compared to my mother, siblings, and I. Still, my family portraits always looked a little different compared to my peers who were primarily white. I didn’t know any other biracial kids, they were all either Asian, Black, or White as far as I knew. 

I was the only one who paused and didn’t know how to respond when someone asked “What are you?” I’d resort to the whole “my mom is white, my dad is Mexican. I am both.” line. I’d get confused looks, or more questions that I never quite knew how to answer at such a young age, other than very bluntly. My peers enjoyed shows like Zoey 101Hannah MontanaTotally Spies, and Invader Zim. You could never go wrong with the Barbie movies, either. Though the characters in all of these shows were primarily white with a dash of diversity, I still never saw anyone who looked like me. I resorted to identifying with Emma Gilbert, Sabrina Spellman, and Kim Possible. I just wanted to be the pretty little white girl with long, flowing blonde hair, living a perfect life in a perfect neighborhood with some quirks along the way.

I’d been taught that people like me didn’t exist, and that we weren’t welcomed on screen. We were like a blemish, a silly mistake that should be covered up. To have the features I did, I couldn’t be the main character. I couldn’t be the pretty one. I couldn’t even make it as a side character. Mixed girls like me not only didn’t matter, but we simply were not real. 

I was almost ashamed of being mixed. Why didn’t I look exactly like my peers? I had their skin, not their lips, eyes, or noses. Even in high school, I’d made friends with a group of girls who had very opinionated thoughts when it came to me. They made fun of me for being “white washed”, essentially asked me to pick a side, dubbed me the white girl at their table, and only spoke Spanish when I joined them. They weren’t wrong, I am white washed, I don’t know how to feel about it. But I do know that despite my privilege, I’ve never been wanted by either side and often wondered who am I? 

Had I seen someone who looked more like myself when I was a little girl, I think perhaps I would’ve been less shy. I’d have felt beautiful in my own skin just the way I was. I wouldn’t have been nervous to admit I was more than one race. I’m not Israeli, but I remember the first time I saw Gal Gadot on screen as Wonder Woman, or even Selena Gomez as the lead on a Disney show. I felt an overwhelming sense of emotion come over me. It showed me that it’s possible for a woman who looks like me to not only be strong and kick-ass, but that I could be just as important as everyone else around me, even if I didn’t have pretty blonde locks. I only wish I could have seen that as a little girl more often.

Lauren: I think that it’s just validating to see someone that looks like you on the screen. I think when there is absence it says that the people that have been excluded are not important. Our stories are not important. Our point of view is not important. Our very presence is not important. For example, if you’re going to make something about Los Angeles, the Latinx population here is 48.6%. If there are no Latinx people in your Los Angeles-based film/show, forget about “shoehorning in diversity”…your production with mostly white talent isn’t even based in reality. It’s important for me to see characters that look like me on screen because I, and people like me, exist. 

Vicky: Although I wouldn’t say people on the big screen “look like” me (I don’t characterize myself as conventionally attractive), there are loads of white characters that I can look to that represent me. However, when I first entered my relationship with my now-husband, I became acutely aware of how few Asians there were in the media – and when male Asians were portrayed, they were never the “desirable mate” – they were comic relief or were portraying a stereotype. If Asian women were portrayed, they were typically hypersexualized. It disturbed me – these characters were not representative of my husband, and were pretty offensive takes on people who looked like him. 

Now that I have a family, I am increasingly frustrated that my children don’t have many people who look like them on screen.  We watch a lot of Disney shows, and things are slowly changing in terms of representation. There are shows featuring Black leads, Indian leads, and Hispanic leads on Disney. And still, there are virtually no South and East Asian leads, and even fewer biracial or multiracial characters. I’m concerned with this because I want my children to grow up seeing themselves reflected in movies and television – I want them to know that they can be the hero, or the beautiful protagonist. That they can be the love interest or the femme fatale. They don’t have to be a stereotype, and they don’t have to conform to some sterotyped  representation of sexuality.

3) When did you first see yourself represented in the media? How did you feel?

Sierra: I don’t ever remember there being a time when I froze up, pointed to a screen and said “that person looks like me!” I feel like Hollywood likes to take advantage of the folks who look like me, and make them look more white than they really are. I remember loving the Cheetah Girls as a kid, I thought Sabrina Bryan was stunning, and in a way, I thought she was similar to me. But perhaps that was just me assuming she was white, it was easiest to place myself in the position of a white person, since I’d be told I wasn’t “Mexican enough” to even identify with anyone else.

Lauren: It was actually La Bamba. Which is funny because Lou Diamond Phillips is Filipino. There is so little attention paid to Latinx in the media that routinely, people of other nationalities are subbed in as being “close enough” which is a whole other conversation. But I remember watching it and feeling pretty seen. Growing up in Los Angeles in oldies culture, it was music that I already knew and loved. And then when they showed Ritchie Valens getting the idea for La Bamba, they had Folklorico dancers (traditional Mexican dancers) doing the dance. At that point, I think I might have started dancing already and the danzas of Veracruz were always my favorite. So there was a connection there that I didn’t get from other movies and I think kids do need that connection for media to have a lasting influence.

Vicky: Again, speaking for my children – there aren’t a lot of characters that look like them. My children definitely appear to be of Asian heritage, but their skin is pale. We are big Disney fans in our house and the first time they saw characters that look like the Asian part of them was probably when we watched Mulan, or perhaps when Minnie Mouse visited her friend in Japan. I certainly think that Disney has made strides in terms of representation – my kids love Mira, the Royal Detective – but there is still a lot to be desired, especially in terms of biracial representation. It’s estimated that around 3.1% of people in the US self-idenitify as multi racial , and that number is only going to continue to grow as more people enter into interracial relationships. Our types of relationships have historically been portrayed as tragic, and as Sierra has alluded to, multi-racial individuals can often experience being shunned by both sides of their heritage. That’s not okay, and it’s a piece of racism that doesn’t get enough discussion. As media continues to improve in terms of representation, it’s imperative that we do not neglect representation of multi-racial individuals.

4)  How do you feel when the only characters who look like you are villains, even well portrayed ones?

Sierra: To put it bluntly, I think it’s lazy writing. It’s too easy to pretend you’re diverse by casting a person of color, and having them play the role of the bad guy. It was what D.W. Griffith did with “The Birth of a Nation” back in 1915. Then a little more than 100 years later, it was exactly what Tim Burton did with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, thereby reinforcing the stereotype that POC are somehow wretched and morally undignified. Burton was even so bold as to say what everyone else in Hollywood was too scared to admit, “things either call for things, or they don’t. I remember back when I was a child watching The Brady Bunch … I grew up watching blaxploitation movies, right? And I said, that’s great. I didn’t go like, OK, there should be more white people in these movies.”It’s not only implied through storytelling, but so honestly spoken: people who look like me are “not called for” in the media.

Lauren: It is annoying, for sure. I’m not sure there has been a well portrayed villain who was Latinx though? One is not coming to mind. When it happens, it tends to be background characters who don’t have very large speaking roles and they’re gangsters. It conveniently fits a narrative about Latinx people and fails to honor our complexities. But I’ll echo again that appearance is rare, which I feel actually makes it dangerous. Being underrepresented in media makes it easier to go along with kids in cages when you don’t see a group of people as fully realized human beings. 

Vicky: It irritates me, to be honest. East Asian characters in particular are almost exclusively rivals with small roleswhen they aren’t in comedic relief or sidekick roles. And when they are in rivalry or villain roles, they’re often playing stereotypical or “annoying guy” angles (think Mr. Chow from The Hangover). I must also admit, I can’t recall a movie or tv series that had a Southeast Asian as a villain, with the exception of The Hangover Part II, which I could write a much larger piece on how offensive the portrayal of Bangkok is in that movie, but I’ll spare you. My life experiences have taught me that villains come in all colors, and the media should reflect that. 

5)  Do you think animation provides adequate representation?

Sierra: I think yes, it does. Children’s animation has been getting especially better at representing all kinds of people, whether this be through race or even with unique family situations. We’re starting to normalize the idea that white people are not the only ones that exist. Still though, today’s efforts have a long way to go. I don’t feel cartoons are really expected to dive deeply into a character’s background, you paint them a color, and call it good. Maybe they have an accent, but then they won’t even tell us if this character is from Thailand or China, but since there is representation they expect us to thank them for the minimal effort. Some of my fellow Stardusters grew up on cartoons such as Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, Jem, or Powerpuff Girls, which are still widely praised today as iconic cartoons, but still I step back and realize that I can’t find myself in any of these characters. How could I not belong in any of these universes?

Lauren: I don’t think so. I think it’s a copout for people to be able to say, “Well…there’s this person in the animated series” or “This character is coded as xxxx.” Great. Make them live-action and hire Latinx actors, you cowards! That said, I loved the Martez sisters in The Clone Wars. They presented as human. They had large, significant, multi-episode roles. They were fully fleshed out characters with problems of their own. They had a great look. It was a solid effort there, but I’ll reserve my pats on the head for when Trace shows up in the Ahsoka live-action show.

Vicky: It depends. Children’s animation does a pretty decent job of this, and I point again towards Disney for good examples. I’m also an enormous fan of The Dragon Prince, and I think they have done a pretty good job of providing adequate representation. But where things get a bit dodgy is when you’re trying to portray a biracial character. You cannot rely on phenotypes with these characters, because a biracial person can be “white passing.” Or, like my children, their skin looks like mine, but they have their father’s eyes. In these cases, the writers need to rely on character backstory to portray a multi-racial character, so you need a strong story in order to keep from falling back on racist tropes. Additionally, it is great that kids are exposed to multiple races in cartoons at a young age, but representation drops around the time they start watching “older” shows. This is also right around when kids start learning about inclusivity. 

6)  How do you feel about “stereotypical” characters that are inserted into media? Would you prefer being represented by stereotypical characters, or not at all?

Sierra: Hollywood in general has seemingly setting sail on its voyage to cast BIPOC in a correct manner, and not in a tokenism sort of way. They’re pulling away from the stereotypes and attempting to make unique characters and not just someone who isn’t straight and white. We’ve begun recognizing directors other than Quentin Taratino and Christopher Nolan, we’re waking up from a long slumber to see that Jordan Peele and Ava Duverney have been standing here all along. We’re seeing through the lenses of people who live in America as a BIPOC, and not only the “racially inclusive” movies written by white people for white people. 

As much as I would love to see myself be represented in the media more, I find myself wishing I wasn’t there at all. Why is it that the only way Mexicans are cast is to be a drug dealer, or a sexed up firecracker of a woman? The fact that Poe Dameron was made to be a spice runner had me sighing in my seat; I wish we’d never heard of his backstory in the first place if this was the route they decided was appropriate.

Lauren: As I’ve said, I think the use of stereotypical characters for Latinx peoples has greatly contributed to the lack of empathy for the horrific situation we see at the border. I don’t think this is hyperbole. I think Karen in Montana is not able to concoct a realistic picture of a Latinx person in their mind because they’ve never met someone who is Latinx. Since we are not fully realized on screen in media, Karen is working with what they have been given. It’s time to stop offering only the caricature of Latinx people and to give us space to present the varied and unique narratives that we are capable of. How powerful would it be if Star Wars became part of that solution in reaching the hearts of people in such a way that they begin to question the ideas they have about Latinx people. Diego Luna and Oscar Isaac are such gifts to fandom, but there’s still so far to go.

Vicky: If your Asian character is just a stereotype, I’d rather them not even be portrayed. These characters are how my children are seeing themselves in media – I don’t want them thinking that this is how the world sees them – how *I* see them. I loved that Star Wars introduced an Asian character in the sequel trilogy! Not only that, but she was romantically interested in a Black character! Interracial relationships – yay! And I was terribly disappointed when Rose and the relationship with Finn were just swept to the side. It was, however, a great metaphor for Asian erasure and ignoring interracial relationships,both of which are major problems within the US and media at large.

7)   From your perspective, how should white people behave when racism is discussed, especially when BIPOC are giving their perspective?

Sierra: For some reason, I’ve noticed that the topic of race, privilege, and appropriation makes those around me who are white squirm in their seats. They either feel that they’re not included with those who are privileged, they cannot be racist, or they’re so anti-racist, I should be quiet and take advice from them on what I should or should not be offended about. It’s almost laughable to see how seriously I’m spoken to, they simply must make their opinions known so that I know they’re not racist. It’s as though the topic is a personal attack against them. I think that everyone should feel comfortable enough to openly talk about racism and how horrible it can be. But until white people can learn that listening to a new perspective other than their own is alright, then I don’t believe true progress can be made. I think a lot more could be fixed if white people were more willing to understand that speaking about these things does not warrant a defensive rundown of their lives. Learning and listening is key if they want to assist in making the world a better place.

Lauren: I think that when racism is being discussed and BIPOC are speaking, it is time for white people to be quiet and listen. Don’t be defensive. Don’t come in with, “But not all white people” or “But I’m a good white person!” Just listen, absorb, reflect and try to figure out what your role can be to dismantle the racist structures around us. 

Also, I think it’s not fair to ask BIPOC for free labor to educate. Perhaps someone is generous with their time and, if that’s the case, one should be really grateful for that time taken to explain. However, many BIPOC have already taken the time to outline what living with racism has been like for them and given pathways to liberation which include what white people can do. Don’t be lazy. The information is there. 

Lastly, the very least white people can do is collect their own when they see someone crossing a line. Don’t let BIPOC use up their last bit of nerve to deal with someone dedicated to misunderstanding the points they are making. Stop that behavior right in its tracks and commit to the safety and well-being of BIPOC. 

Vicky: Dear fellow white people: please understand that when BIPOC say something you are doing is racist, or that you benefit from racism – they are NOT saying “you are a card carrying member of the KKK.” It is NOT a smear of your character, it is simply fact. BIPOC can see the difference between a well-meaning white person who messes up and a person who refuses to acknowledge their privilege. Just listen. Sometimes being quiet is the best way to be an ally.

Conversely – don’t white knight and don’t speak for BIPOC. Yes, speak up and use your privilege for good. But if a BIPOC tries to tell you “hey, that’s not an issue,” LISTEN to them. Don’t double down. 

8)      What about people who are “white presenting?” Are they technically represented by white characters? Have you ever seen this addressed in media? What are your thoughts about how white presenting individuals can see themselves in media?

Sierra: I am a white-presenting woman. I’m white-passing, though certain features have always been a bit accentuated. In my opinion, I don’t believe we’re “technically represented by white characters” and I say this because it’s the truth. Just because we pass, does not mean that we’re only one thing. The very fact that we have to pick a race to identify with shows that we aren’t being represented nearly enough, and it’s silly to pretend we’re just because we look white. 

To be told to pick a side yet not be wanted by either is a very confusing and exhausting chore, and it was never one I felt comfortable with growing up. Yes, I’ve always found it easiest to identify with the main character, who is almost always white, and  yes, I am a white presenting person, I still don’t find it easy to see myself in the media. 

Growing up as a biracial woman in America has taught me a number of things, even where I stand within even the Star Wars fandom. As a woman I can be shown on television and have a few girl-power moments as long as I’m presented as white, straight, semi-attractive, and don’t steal the spotlight from a fellow male-lead. An LGBT+ person can be on the big screen, but being the center of attention for romance is completely out of the question, being the gay best friend is always the safest bet. A BIPOC can have a lead role, though the lead actor or actress must be white. Everyday no matter where I go, I am shown my place. It’s time we change that, and I have hope that with more education and listening, maybe the next Rey Skywalker will look like I do.

Lauren: I personally do not watch a movie with a mostly white cast and feel seen. There are other social cues besides visuals that make up cultural representations that can not be expressed by white actors because they simply have not lived those realities. This also goes back to other issues like how Hollywood hates paying women and BIPOC an equivalent fee from their white male counterparts. We have to stop letting people off the hook for being unwilling to hire Latinx people to act, write, direct, etc. For myself, as I can be white presenting to some, I tend to look to other characters that inhabit other facets of myself. I have loved the character of Leia for being a badass woman who exhibits stunning leadership qualities. I don’t SEE myself, but I see this idea of something that I can take and make a part of my own identity. This year, I’m hoping to start working on my Folklorico mashup of the character and I’m so excited to take a look at the real Rebel women of Mexico that I feel inspired by for this costume.

Vicky: I don’t think white presenting people are represented by white characters, because white presenting people experience different things. Although there are conversations about how white presenting individuals do benefit from white privilege – the reality is that they still have to deal with racism and attitudes that we white people do not. For example, have you ever seen a white character be told “I had no idea you were part Hispanic. You’re so well-spoken!”? I know I haven’t. Yet, this is the reality for many white presenting people.

I also think this is part of the reason why it is important to not make assumptions about peoples’ race based on how they look. Skin color is a spectrum across race – I have met very pale skinned black people and very dark skinned white people. Yes, there are absolutely some complications in the racism conversation because of this, but it highlights the importance of not assuming anything. When we let go of our assumptions, we open ourselves up to real learning and real healing.

In Summary: Strides are indeed being made to have more diverse representation in film and other media. However, we still have a long way to go. We can help encourage production companies to have more inclusive casts by watching movies that have Latinx heroes. Don’t be afraid to watch the BET channel just because you’re white. You liked The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open? Great! Recommend it to your friends and point out that it’s a movie about Indigenous characters. Taking a chance on a new movie or TV show takes very little effort, and it can open your eyes to a whole new world. And best of all, you’ll be sending Hollywood an important message – viewers are interested in diverse stories. Create more of them.