Some thoughts on the few women of color in “The Force Awakens”

There’s this trope; I don’t know if it has a name. A young woman of “ambiguous race” (so usually part Asian/Pacific Islander, Black, and/or White, or an Asian/Pacific Islander or African person with light skin) plays a spy. It’s usually a bit part. It’s usually in a bar or at a party. You’ve seen this so many times. The main character strolls past, incognito. She rolls her hips into frame: speaking into a radio, she calls her boss. “Bad guy? It’s Sexy Spy Chick. Good guy’s here.” Then pause, look up under eyelashes, allow one small, evil laugh.

Ah, it does have a name: Femme Fatale Spy. But the version I’m thinking of isn’t white. She’s post-Vietnam, perhaps very 90s. She’s the woman I thought I was supposed to grow up to be. (No, no, she’s the woman I thought I was, even as a child). She’s exotic, alien but still relatable to a white audience; she’s the ultimate object, and always a backstabber. Here she is in True Lies (apologies to Tia Carrere):

Beautiful. Deadly. Blah blah blah blah

By now, if you’ve seen The Force Awakens, you hopefully know who I’m talking about: Bazine Netal. (Stay with me.)

As soon as I saw her I was angry. I knew she was going to stand up, smirk for the camera, and do The Thing. And she freakin’ did.

The Thing

I tried to get rid of my anger as quickly as possible, because this was the 9pm Thursday showing of Star Wars and Finn and Rey were talking and I wanted to pay attention because I already loved this movie. Sharp inhale. Roll eyes as hard and briefly as possible. Move on. I held out hope for other women of color to show up, but I knew Maz was coming and I was nervous I was going to see this:

And, you know, the actual Maz Kanata isn’t as jarring in person

but, in terms of representation, it’s not the same as if we had seen this:

c:

(And please don’t tell me she didn’t want her face seen, as this Buzzfeed article “Why Lupita Nyong’o Didn’t Want To Be Seen In “Star Wars”” implies, because the actual quote is

12 Years a Slave was a film that was so much about my body, and Star Wars is not at all. There was a liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question…. The acting challenge I was looking for was completely different, a complete departure from 12 Years a Slave.”

She’s talking about her process as an actor, not saying “I’m happy there are no visible black women with more than one line in Star Wars,” so you can try someone else with that one.)

The next woman of color we see is Korr Sella (played by Maisie Richardson-Sellers), right before she dies.

She does not speak, and without The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary I wouldn’t know who she was or her name: only that she dies.

Then I think there are two more women of color — a resistance pilot and technician. (It’s totally possible that I’ve missed someone, and I find it hard to believe there are no women of color in the First Order so my apologies in advance. I won’t be able to find everyone until the video comes out… or I see it another four times). There’s an old woman on Jakku who looks brown and/or Asian to me, but she’s so old and it’s such a short shot I could be wrong.

So we have

  • Old Scavenger Lady on Jakku
  • Maz Kanata, an orange alien pirate lady
  • Korr Sella, an unnamed casualty whose speaking scenes were cut
  • Jess Pava (played by Jessica Henwick), an awesome resistance pilot who kicks ass and has multiple lines, but whose name I wouldn’t know without this post
  • Unnamed Resistance Technician (possibly Pamich Nerro? Ensign Goode? played by Crystal Clarke), has one line
  • And Bazine Netal, played by Anna….Brewsterwaitwhat?
Anna Brewster

But… I thought…

I thought she was brown… she’s not? Is she not?

But she’s got those thick black eyebrows… and tan skin, and dark lips, and such hooded eyes… she looks like she’s… ohhh.

Oh.

I see what happened.

She’s a Sexy Spy. Sexy Spies look like this; they look Exotic, Alien, but Still Relatable… oh. She’s supposed to look like me.

I thought it was an actress who actually did look like me, that they cast in That Role, that role I hate. But it was a white woman (I mean, I assume… maybe I’m wrong?), made up to look like someone like me.

You may disagree with me. All I have are my experiences and my intuition. I’m trusting my gut on this one: Bazine Netal is coded Asian, and she falls into my trope, my Sexy Exotic Alien Sex Spy Lady trope (sex).

That’s cool. It’s cool. It’s fine. Like.

I was going to write this and just say, hey, it would be nice to have a lead woman of color in Star Wars, like maybe next time one of the leads could be — it’s not that I’m not very happy with Finn, and Poe, and even Rey; they’re wonderful characters and they give amazing performances and I love them very much — it’s just —

I would like to be able to recommend Star Wars to my friend who is not a nerd for the galaxy far, far away, but I know she’ll be upset to see that the only face that looks like hers dies immediately after we see it, so I just can’t, not in good conscience. And I think that it would be amazing for a little brown, black or Asian girl to be able to gasp the way a little black boy behind me gasped when Finn took off his helmet — I want that experience for all little kids. (But I’m also, oh my god that was such a cute moment and I’m so glad I got to hear it happen!!)

I’m happy to see the characters we have, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful — and at the same time I’m irritated that that’s a stance I have to take to avoid attack: “I don’t want to sound ungrateful,” as though seeing people like me and my friends and family on screen, treated as humans, is a gift, instead of (honestly) a right.

I’d like Star Wars to step away from its origins as film that borrows heavily from Asian cinema, style, and culture, without including the men and women who created that cinema, style, and culture. It’s great to see Admiral Statura and Jess Pava, but while they’re two steps forward, Bazine is one step back. It might be a small, 30 second step, but it’s one I felt.

I wish I could trust that the next films will add even more relatable characters of color, including women, and that maybe other films will pick up on it, and Hollywood will stop being such a yacht club, and little kids will all have someone they can point to on screen and say, “I wanna be like that when I grow up…”

I want little girls like me to not feel trapped into being Exotic, Alien, Inherently Sexual. I want little girls of all ethnicities and nationalities to feel Normal, Human, Inherently Relatable. That’s all.