Jyn Erso Isn’t Revolutionary; Her Co-Leads Are
Much of the hype surrounding Rogue One in the weeks leading up to the release has centered on Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso. The film is being hailed as progressive and revolutionary for having a female lead who is un-sexualized, is vulnerable yet kickass, and in general is allowed to be a hero without being weighed down by specifically gendered traits. To listen to some, she is the most progressive and revolutionary character in the film.
But when lined up next to the rest of the cast — Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor, Riz Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook, Donnie Yen’s Chirrut Imwe, and Jiang Wen’s Baze Malbus — she hardly emerges as the most progressive character. Rogue One boasts the most diverse cast of all Star Wars films, and these characters stand out from the crowd in the way Jones’s Jyn does not. After all, a white female lead in a film is hardly revolutionary — even with the gender disparity in films, most female leads are white women — but these specific characters, played by these specific actors, are far more revolutionary than yet another white female lead.
This is not to say that all white female leads are not progressive. “I don’t think white female leads can’t be progressive… trans women, fat women and physically disabled women (actually played by actresses of these groups) are still revolutionary, and a white woman that belonged to one of these minorities would have been an excellent casting choice,” said Andrea, one Star Wars fan I interviewed. “But Lucasfilm insists on casting the exact same type of thin, conventionally attractive, cishet ablebodied white actress; which, in a franchise that’s inspired little (white) boys and girls everywhere for generations, just comes to show that they don’t care for marginalized little girls to see themselves as figures of heroism, revolution and change in the way that privileged white girls are shown to be.”
It cannot be argued that Jyn is the protagonist of Rogue One. That much is clear, and if the press and merchandizing ignored her we’d have a different problem on our hands. But as it stands, Jyn receives the lion’s share of attention, while her co-stars remain mostly a footnote; this has happened to the point where even director Gareth Edwards made a joke about the size of Jyn vs the size of her co-stars on the poster. This has frustrated fans who find themselves annoyed that she is dominating the conversation.
“It does [frustrate me], because it erases the importance of the other characters. Star Wars has always taken a lot from varying Asian cultures, and this is the first time we get to see not one, not two, but three Asian men with big roles appear in a Star Wars movie,” said Adel, an admin of the twitter Nerdy POC. “The importance of representation for women is something I strongly advocate for, but it shouldn’t be used to erase the importance of other kinds of representation.”
Adel’s views are shared by other fans. “Lucasfilm itself, the media and the fandom have focused on Jyn as a female lead as a sign of “progressive” representation while completely ignoring the rest of the cast, which are all far more revolutionary in their own right, as men of color in a genre and particularly in a franchise that’s spent four decades profiting from nonwhite cultures without actually centering characters of those cultures,” said Andrea.
A third interviewee, Mehek, voiced similar thoughts. “I find it frustrating that a white woman is being propped up over the men of color in the cast. White female leads aren’t progressive, they’re the opposite. I’m sick and tired of seeing white people in lead roles while people of color are pushed to the side, and Lucasfilm continuously having white female leads is lazy and is not something they should be praised for when there are so many talented women of color capable of leading too.”
These fans bring up important points that cannot be ignored. The four leading male characters are all far more revolutionary in a genre that too often relies on white men named Chris to round out their casts. This marks the first time that Star Wars, which borrowed heavily from Asian cultures to create “exotic” alien worlds, will feature Asian actors in prominent, multifaceted roles. Similarly, it will feature a Latino actor in a prominent role that isn’t stereotyped. As Diego Luna himself noted, he’s a Mexican actor in Star Wars who’s there for more than ten minutes. That’s a rarity in Star Wars, and in the sci-fi genre itself.
Merchandising also focuses on Jyn to a degree where they have begun to exclude the other characters. Recently, Funko Pops came under fire from a segment of the fandom as they refused to make a figure for Bodhi Rook, one of the main characters from Rogue One. Yet Jyn has nearly five different variant figures covering her costumes throughout the film. Funko stated that Bodhi “might” be a traitor and that’s one of the reasons they didn’t make a figure for him, yet white villain Orson Krennic received a figure. In the large variety packs of Funko figures, Cassian is the only man of color to make it into the lineup — Baze and Chirrut are both excluded at the expense of multiple stormtrooper variants.
Obviously, the problem is not that Jyn is getting merch. After all, if last year’s #WheresRey tag proved anything, it’s that female characters deserve as much merch as their male counterparts. But when the only major white character in the cast receives variant upon variant while the men of color are excluded from merchandise, a problem begins to form.
And already the fandom itself has begun to ignore and erase Cassian, Baze, Chirrut, and Bodhi, choosing instead to focus on the white characters. The largest ship in the fandom according to Archive of Our Own, a fanfiction website, is Jyn and Krennic. The ship itself is kind of gross considering the age gap and ideological differences, but becomes even more confusing when the fact that Jyn’s possible canonical love interest Cassian doesn’t even make an appearance. Similarly to the way that post-The Force Awakens fandom found ways to erase John Boyega’s Finn, it seems as though both the press and the fans are already well on their way to ignoring the men of color in Rogue One.
Jyn also highlights an ongoing problem with Lucasfilm’s supposed diverse casting: the company seems to adhere to the Smurfette Principle — one major female character per movie — as law, and seems to be unable to cast an actress who is not a white brunette. The recent casting of Emilia Clarke in the young Han Solo anthology film over actresses such as Tessa Thompson and Jessica Henwick set the fandom on fire, as it showed a stunning lack of awareness in terms of the message the studio was sending, particularly as it erased a black, bisexual female character who the comics had established played a major role in Han’s past.
Lucasfilm/Disney may pride itself on being diverse and progressive, but when we look at the women in their movies, we see that the majority are white, and that their characters so far have all been cisgender and straight. The few women of color that were in the movies have either gotten bit parts or have become tiny, orange aliens,” Adel said. “And sometimes it feels as if Lucasfilm/Disney doesn’t even care. In my opinion, we’ve moved past the point where putting a white woman front and center, while erasing women of color from the narrative, is in any way progressive. It’s true, we do need more women in our media, but why do they all have to look the same way.”
Aliyah, another Star Wars fan, voiced complaints with Clarke’s casting. “It does anger me a little bit, like the Emilia Clarke casting hurt because I was willing to let Jyn slide if a woc could at least get in there in the future movies and it doesn’t seem to be the case. What I would want is just a well developed character who is not an alien, as woc are so often tasked with playing, You know a good guy who gets to be relatable and that people root for is all I really want.”
Kelly Marie Tran will be joining the cast of Episode VIII, but so far she is the only major woman of color with a non-alien role in the sequel trilogy. Lucasfilm had the chance to change things up with both the casting of Jyn, who did not need to be white, and with the casting for the lead of the young Han Solo film, yet they continued the same pattern. One white, brunette woman, when they could be branching out and casting more women or even casting a woman of color in a leading role.
Later in our interview, Mehek said “Lucasfilm has a serious problem that they need to fix, it’s incredibly racist for them to continuously cast white women for roles that women of color could play as well. let’s say the Rey Erso Skywalker theory* was real — Rey could have been played by a mixed race woc, there isn’t any excuse at all. Seeing white woman constantly being portrayed as heroes whilst women of colour are pushed to the sidelines or have hardly any screentime at all is frustrating and it needs to stop. Hearing white women refer to white female leads as “feminist” is incorrect — it isn’t feminism, it’s lazy and dripping in racism”
“While I’m very excited about Rogue One and I really appreciate the “efforts” Lucasfilm and media in general are doing to add more diversity to genre films, I’m EXHAUSTED of having to pick between seeing my gender represented in white cishet women whose narratives barely resemble anything I could empathise with; or men of color with whom I feel connected by our race but that are removed from my experience as a woman,” Andrea said towards the end of our interview. “This happens on literally every front: we can only choose to see one of our identities on the screen at a time. I want media to finally portray our identities as multidimentional and intersecting; and most of all, I want people of color, who’ve always been the backbone of every revolutionary movement, to finally get to be seen as the heroes we are and not loyal soldiers lining up after a white person.”
Perhaps most importantly, these characters stand as revolutionary outside of the realm of genre. In the new era of Trump shouting “build that wall” and making bold claims that he will deport all Muslims, having heroes played by a Mexican actor, a Pakistani Muslim actor, and two well-respected East Asian actors takes a bold and political stance. Star Wars is aware that it is making history with the cast that it has, yet at every turn it chooses to focus on Jyn above the others. Protagonist or not, you cannot simply cast the film and then use the truly revolutionary diversity as a backdrop while you focus on the least progressive casting choice of your lineup.
“It’s frustrating, like this was marketed to me originally as a team movie but the marketing is selling it as Jyn Erso and those other guys too,” said Aliyah. “It’s a bit disappointing. They’re so cool I’d wish they pushed that more. Aren’t they worthy of the strong push?”