Star Wars, White Women, and Hollywood

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been met with mounds of acclaim and rightly so; it’s an exciting movie that stays true to the spirit of the original trilogy whilst expanding and adapting it for a more modern audience. The franchise has come a long way since those shoddy prequels a mere fifteen years ago. Director J.J. Abrams forewent George Lucas’s child-pandering approach and more importantly cast actual actors of colour as leads, as opposed to tertiary characters such as Padmé Amidala’s “loyal protector” Captain Panaka. In the prequels, George Lucas thought the appropriate substitution for well-written characters of colour to this would be to personify aliens with racist caricatures. The only element of accuracy in this derives in it being somewhat reflective of what an ignorant White person perceives to be the world. Whether it was the clumsy Rastafarian Jar Jar Binks, the Fu Manchu-esque Viceroy Nute Gunray responsible for giving Emperor Palpatine the platform for power in the first place, or the stingy Jew in Watto, we can certainly join hands in praising Lucas’s vile attempts at diversity. In the original trilogies, the sole good character coming close to being ‘of colour’ was Admiral Ackbar; a nice use of a Muslim name but of course, he’s a giant red alien. And yes, though Lando Calrissian was good, he was slightly swayed by the dark side. This laziness in character creation was utterly dehumanising… no pun intended. In fact, the decision to cast a White woman (Daisy Ridley) as the protagonist with a Latino (Oscar Isaac) and a Black man (John Boyega) as her costars is radical not only for Star Wars but in Hollywood’s notoriously White and male landscape. Naturally, Boyega’s casting as Finn has been widely praised, but not without uproar from crazies calling for a boycott because Black men don’t exist in fantasy worlds or some other pathetic excuse.

In addition to the racial progress, the latest Star Wars film clearly has somewhat of a feminist objective despite this not being explicitly expressed by its makers. Heralded as a feminist character by the likes of The Guardian and fans alike, Rey is strong, self-sufficient, intelligent, and brave. Though, at the hands of a male alien to whom she sells stolen metal and mechanical objects, she remains captive on a desert planet like (whom most suspect to be) her Grandfather Anakin Skywalker before her. In her path to freedom, she encounters Finn, a Stormtrooper who defected from the evil First Order and assisted imprisoned Rebel pilot Poe Dameron in escaping. Though Finn was raised without an identity and presumably without any knowledge of societal constraints amongst genders, he defaults to casual misogyny and paternalism. This makes even less sense when you consider that he was under orders from Captain Phasma, a female Stormtrooper with a very fancy chrome suit. Finn demonstrates several clumsy attempts to protect Rey; writers Abrams and Kasdan have him hold her hand to her objection as a protective form of dominance and he repeatedly question her skills.

On the surface, Star Wars is set in a supposedly post-racial time, to the extent that race is not once acknowledged, rather the battle of good versus evil and in the newest installation, gender. By having a Black man act in such a way towards a White woman projects harmful racial stereotypes that are salient in the real world. Think back to that viral video making the rounds not so long ago of a White woman walking through New York with catcalls being directed at her by Black men alone (which turned out to be manipulated). It’s alarming that no major or independent publications are talking about how the discomforting dynamics between Rey and Finn add to this. To be so tone deaf in your writing is unfathomable; race must be assessed and written intelligently when living in a racist society. There are consequences to everything as art influences society and society influences art.

This relays into Hollywood’s sole focus on the liberation of White women and White women alone. It’s easy for Hollywood to cast another White lady in a leading role because that simple task is perceived to be the path to equality by White feminists. For them, movies like Brave, Frozen, The Hunger Games, and many others are satisfactory because strong White female leads are enough. Just take a look at Patricia Arquette’s speech on wage inequality at the Oscars that failed to mention that White women earn more than men of colour or Jennifer Lawrence’s essay for Lenny on wage inequality in Hollywood wherein which she doesn’t acknowledge that she earns far more than her peers of colour, regardless of gender. Also, who could forget the abhorrently Whitewashed film Suffragette, whose writers seemed to forget the sheer effort Desi women put into achieving universal suffrage for women? But of course, let’s take the time to commemorate White women like who said things like “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.” You’d have to be blind not to recognise that White woman historically and currently have access to more wealth, privilege, and power than any single man of colour. This is why it was heartbreaking as a woman of colour to see yet another strong White female lead in a fictional universe: where are the heroes that look like me?

In an essay for Bitch Media on the “Woman child,” I argued that Hollywood treats lazy White female characters more favourably than women of colour because there’s a double standard that dictates how a woman of colour is supposed to act. A woman of colour is supposed to be strong and self-sufficient but not enough to place a palpable threat to White women’s hegemonic status, nor is she supposed to be lackadaisical and thus, a burden on society. The only way to undo this is to start writing better roles for women of colour; they need to be presented in that same glorious manner Hollywood extends to the same White people time and time again. Not casting women of colour in powerful roles is racist and lazy. In fact, the only powerful visible woman of colour in the entire Star Wars franchise was the nameless Desi successor to Padmé Amidala as Queen of Naboo, but her face was covered with White makeup and she had maybe three short lines if we’re lucky. Her animated counterpart being Lupita N’yongo’s portrayal of orange alien bartender Maz Kanata.

I feel as if there were two simple ways for this situation to have been avoided. The first being that Finn should not have been written to be a misogynist; misogyny is something learned and it most definitely not inherent. The second solution would have been to reverse the character’s races. Though Rey’s ethnic origins are not stated, all evidence points to her being the next Skywalker meaning that she would at least be half White, and that still wouldn’t have stopped her from potentially being a woman of colour. In fact, Indian actress Priyanka Chopra isn’t White but still plays a half White character in Quantico. It actually makes the most sense when assessing Finn’s actions that he should have been a White man. What’s more of a White man trait than suppressing a woman of colour’s individuality and intuition?

Consider how a young Brown girl would have felt seeing an actor of Sri Lankan origin playing Rey. Brown girls have been harassed constantly since 9/11 online, in the media, and undoubtedly in person. What if there was a character to challenge this notion in a franchise as predictably successful as Star Wars? As it is Bollywood is slowly phasing out Indian women in favour of mediocre White women like Amy Jackson and Elli Avram. Western and Eastern film industries are ones where Brown girls aren’t good enough or beautiful enough and Hollywood needs more strong women of colour in order to evolve as an industry. This cannot happen when the industry is terrified of Brown people and doesn’t care to represent them accordingly. This industry is one that gives Nicolas Cage a spray tan and suddenly he’s permissible as Persian; that thinks people of colour are so interchangeable that it’s acceptable to cast Rosario Dawson (an Afro-Puerto Rican) as an Afghan in Oliver Stone’s Alexander and Sakina Jaffrey (an Indian) as a Mexican in House of Cards. I can only hope that in future blockbusters, leading ladies are full of might, complexity, and valiance, with a diverse ethnic makeup to round it all off.

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