Star Wars Worry: When Will Nerds of Color Experience The Rey Effect?
A young white girl sat in the row in front of me during my viewing of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” She sighed and gasped, the way an engaged viewer excited about a movie should. Much of the credit goes to the character of Rey, a charming and strong addition to the mythos. She resonated with the girl, and that’s wonderful. The power to relate to visual media cannot be underestimated. I’m not saying that in Darth Vader’s voice either. Folks take that for granted, the chance to see a character —someone who shares visual similarities— doing cool stuff, to stand for good, to not be marginalized. Not everyone appreciates that because they’ve never been without that privilege. It allows more freedom to dream, it sets imagination to lightspeed.
That girl reminded me of…well, me. A long time ago, I sat in a theater in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood (what’s now The Copernicus Center, the Polish community center) with my parents, instantly hooked on “Return of the Jedi.” I enthusiastically screamed at the screen, much to the chagrin of other moviegoers. But no one was going to tell this little kid to pipe down. Luke Skywalker was the coolest guy in the world in 1985 for this 6 year old. He still is in many ways.
I’ve read many critics’ reactions to the new movie. A prevalent criticism is that this movie regurgitated much of the original’s plot; it didn’t take any chances after the lukewarm reaction to the prequels. That’s true, many of the themes were repeated. But the familiarity that stuck out to me is…well, it involves something I’m calling the Rey Effect.
My white female friends, bless them, they are celebrating Daisy Ridley’s performance, grasping at her importance to the plot as a chance to celebrate. Princess, I mean General Leia and Rey in the same movie? Solid. I’m happy, but I’m no A-List guest at this party. Sure, I’m welcome to praise this small step for equality, but it’s not MY step. Instead I’m forced to jump other people’s trains, crashing this fiesta. Sure, I’m an adult, well past my formative years. But maybe in the next trilogy there will be a character that kind of looks like me. I mean, in the “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” cartoon, there’s a female character named Ahsoka. That name is ALMOST spelled like mine. And she’s an alien. Which is more or less how I have been treated when white is the default. Quit eating that spicy food, pass the ketchup. It’s Christmas in America and you’re not from that Judeo-Christian tradition? You’re the reason why I can’t say “merry Christmas.” More or less, being an alien is not a foreign concept.
This didn’t really bother me a first until I saw all the cameos. JJ Abrams opened up his contacts to invite everyone in his Old Boy’s Club to be in the movie. Daniel Craig? He’s cool. Bill Heder? He’s funny. Judah Friedlander? Oh, come on. Judah Friendlander and Jar Jar Binks are part of Star Wars, and you can’t leave room for a competent South Asian character? Here, even combining Southeast Asians, there’s five actors in the movie. FIVE.
They tell me an old script left dashing pilot Poe Damoron dead. I wonder if his resurrection was for marketing, despite Oscar Isaac’s Guatemalan heritage. The film needed a strong young white dude for the mainstream/white audience. An older Harrison Ford doesn’t cut it and Rey and Finn can’t hog all the spotlight. I mean, white fanboys need someone to relate to, to bro to, coddled they must be. Arming Finn with a lightsaber makes some pale nerds uncomfortable in the same way the NRA is uncomfortable with a black man with a gun.
Meanwhile, oh how I’d love if a South Asian character could be stupidly ripped for being a Mary Sue. But we’re not even at that stage yet. Abrams, of course, directed the last “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” You know, the one with Benedict Cumberbatch, who played Khan Noonien Singh. It doesn’t take Sherlock to know that’s the brownest of brown names. Fear’s the path of the Dark Side and all, but I fear for Cumberbatch’s skin if he ever tried for a tan. Maybe the third time’s the charm with Khan?
It’s no secret white women are the biggest beneficiaries from affirmative action. Knowing that, I’m sure soon we’ll see gay white men, white lesbians and white transgenders appear in “Star Wars” movies. And that, make no mistake, is great. The game’s more fun when everyone is playing. It’s also a sense of pride for the white families and friends of those marginalized groups.
But those folks are lucky. They’ll eventually experience that Rey Effect. Probably really soon. Meanwhile, I’m just waiting for a sliver of possibility that one day I will, too. Maybe Jar Jar will get a special brown friend in the next movie. Yeah.