Growing up as an Asian-American kid, I watched a lot of bad TV. It’s what you do when you’re starved for characters who look like you.
I watched Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, a far cry from Star Wars, because Johnny Yong Bosch’s Black Ranger was an Asian superhero the likes of which I’ve yet to see in a Marvel movie. I watched Black Sash, a short-lived, pre-CW WB drama where Russell Wong played a cop who taught teens kung fu to solve crimes. (Netflix reboot, now.) And I stuck with Heroes, even as it nosedived into oblivion, because it gave me Hiro and Ando.
Bad as they were, those shows gave me what 99 percent of movies and TV still do not: Visibility. Visibility that validates your existence, reflecting you in ways mirrors cannot. To audiences who are not only used to being represented but expect it from pop culture, it’s hard to explain why one fictional character can profoundly change someone’s life. White, straight, and male has been the default, since Sherlock Holmes to the latest Call of Duty, but there’s no bigger mythology that does this than Star Wars.
Star Wars makes billions around the world, but it’s only ever projected a single image of heroism until recently. With its Hero’s Journey of The Chosen One — be it Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, a dirty blonde farm boy turned rebel pilot, or Hayden Christensen’s Anakin, a slave plucked from obscurity only to end a tragic figure — these literal images of only white men shifting the galaxy allow the same swaths of fandom to see themselves as heroes of their own story, and they’ve been doing so for forty years.
Now imagine holding on to that fantasy, only to suddenly not be the hero anymore. Proving they misunderstand the Force, these fans reject having to follow women like Daisy Ridley’s Rey, or black and brown heroes like Finn (British-Nigerian John Boyega) and Poe (Guatemalan-American Oscar Isaac). All of a sudden, the white men in the galaxy are all either dead, old, or The First Order.
To save the galaxy was a privilege afforded to white audiences, and Star Wars enabled it for decades. Now that the franchise has opened to other kinds of people, so-called “real” fans just can’t deal. Put another way, in the words of The Black List founder Franklin Leonard: “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”
There is no “Luke Skywalker” for white men anymore. Luke is not a young pilot before a wide-open galaxy. Luke is a jaded hermit drinking dirty milk from the teet because the real world sucked and he hated it. Luke is dead.
As you may have heard, these fans are Mad Online about Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. It came to a boiling point this week when Vietnamese-American comedienne Kelly Marie Tran, who played the spunky Rose Tico, deleted her Instagram allegedly after months of harassment. It’s not unlike when, in 2016, co-star Daisy Ridley deleted hers because of vitriol she received for expressing an opinion on gun violence. (She thinks it’s bad!)
I lament that Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune turned down the role of Obi-Wan despite being George Lucas’ first choice. What world would this be if pop culture’s most famous mentor of all time had an Asian face?
To say Star Wars has always been inclusive is kind of a lie. Every film has had white directors, writers, and producers. This is not to discount the women and people of color who held important jobs behind the scenes. But Star Wars, by way of its most influential people, became a Caucasian cosmos. I lament that Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune turned down playing Obi-Wan despite being George Lucas’ first choice. What world would we be in if pop culture’s most famous mentor of all time had an Asian face?
The Force teaches tolerance, if not going with the flow (based on what millennials and Generation-Z voters care about, gender, racial, and sexual diversity is the flow), but this ugliness with Tran shows it’s time for everyone who loves this galaxy from far away to reckon with its white legacy. To paraphrase Luke on Ahch-To, Star Wars does not belong to just one audience, and to say so is vanity.