‘Star Wars’ Doesn’t Belong To You: A Message To The Men Harassing Kelly Marie Tran
Tran’s Instagram bio read: “Afraid but doing it anyway.” It is heartbreaking that she was absolutely right to be afraid.
Last week, Kelly Marie Tran, who played mechanic-turned-resistance fighter Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, wiped her Instagram account clear. While Tran hasn’t spoken publicly about this yet, most believe it has something to do with the vile harassment she received from certain corners of the internet for daring to be in Star Wars while also happening to be a woman of Asian descent. Toxic fandom had struck again.
The Last Jedi is a hugely polarising film. I came out of the cinema on release day thinking it was one of the greatest Star Wars films of all times. I also know people who left the cinema in near tears because it had ruined the franchise for them. These wildly differing opinions are reflected in the film’s 47 percent Rotten Tomatoes audience score.
But both the furore around the film, and the outright harassment of Kelly Marie Tran, take place at the intersection of toxic fandom, the world of science fiction, and plain old racism. Add social media, and you have a perfect shitstorm.
A Quick History Of Diversity In Star Wars
There’s no getting around the fact that there was a distinct lack of diversity in the Star Wars Original Trilogy. Of course, this isn’t new information — everyone from Cracked to Key and Peele have already pointed this out. Leia and Lando are both great characters, but they are both singular.
The Prequel Trilogy added Mace Windu and Jango Fett and the clones, as well as more women, including Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala. The expanded universe (now Star Wars Legends), Clone Wars and Rebels, included more people of colour again.
“Overall, it feels like there are more aliens with speaking parts than people of colour”
Still, the relative paucity of people of colour in the Star Wars films never sat too well with me, given it’s well documented that George Lucas drew tremendous influence from Asian — and particularly Japanese — culture in creating the fictional universe. Overall, it feels like there are more aliens with speaking parts than people of colour.
Fast forward to the new Sequel Trilogy. I was beyond excited to find that the new Star Wars films were embracing a world in which all kinds of people exist. The Force Awakens brought us Daisy Ridley as Rey, a female Jedi and John Boyega as Finn, a black Stormtrooper who defects to join the Resistance. Then came Rogue One with an incredibly diverse cast, and then The Last Jedi, with Rose, a main character who was neither white nor male — something incredibly uncommon in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, many fans weren’t as excited as I was. Now, I don’t believe that everyone who hated TLJ is bigoted. But fan criticism of the new Star Wars films and its stars has been flavoured with bigotry, subtle or not.
Asians In Space
We already know that pop culture needs to do a better job of reflecting the world around it. It’s important that film and TV represent the diversity of the people watching it — because it makes audiences better able to empathise with others, because it influences how we see the world, and because people of colour, women, queers and non-binary folk exist and deserve to see themselves on screen just as much as straight white men do.
I believe that science fiction has an additional duty to represent the world’s diversity. Unlike most other genres, sci-fi often imagines the future, or at least, a futuristic world. (A caveat: I know Star Wars is not set in our universe, but in a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. For now, let’s not get caught up in debates over whether their galaxy just happens to have very few people of colour in it.)
So when sci-fi films imagine all the possibilities of a futuristic world — with robots and spaceships and aliens — but stop short of imagining people of colour, it says that the people who make and consume this media don’t see people like me in the future. It says that people can suspend their disbelief for space battles and laser swords, but not for more than one person of colour.
Then in walks Kelly Marie Tran.
Tran is an actress and comedian, and in playing Rose in The Last Jedi, became the first woman of colour to play a lead role in a Star Wars film. She is, by all accounts, a lovely human being.
She has also been subjected to sustained harassment for her role. I don’t want to send traffic to any of the commentators responsible, but this harassment has ranged from the racist vandalism of her Wookieepedia page to bodyshaming her for not being a “hot” enough Asian woman and suggestions that she was only cast to cater to audiences in China (Tran is not Chinese; she is American, and of Vietnamese descent).
Rian Johnson, who directed The Last Jedi (and who has also been abused for “ruining” Star Wars), and Mark Hamill himself, have rallied around Tran.
What we talk about when we talk about manbabies
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) June 5, 2018
— Mark Hamill (@HamillHimself) June 6, 2018
Harassment and bullying is not a new phenomenon in the Star Wars fandom. Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen were torn apart by fans for their depictions of Anakin Skywalker in the Prequel Trilogy; both retreated from acting, in part because of the abuse they received. (A note: while they were also treated terribly, they avoided the blatant racism and sexism Tran was subject to.)
Many fans say that toxic fandom is just a buzzword or a beat-up. “The Last Jedi just a bad movie!” they’ll say. “I didn’t like the character/plot/etc.” I could write thousands of words defending The Last Jedi from its critics, but that’s not the point. People have different opinions. That’s okay. But it’s not okay to abuse actors and creatives, spread rumours and generally be jerks.
Those who complain the loudest often feel a sense of ownership towards the franchise. Many of them watched A New Hope in cinemas, or can recite expanded universe lore, or own all of the merchandise. There’s nothing wrong with any of these things — but often, these claims to “true fan” status are paired with a gross sense of entitlement.
You know their script: “I watched A New Hope in cinemas, so I know that the new films have objectively ruined the franchise.” “I can recite expanded universe lore, so I know Luke wouldn’t have ever been tempted by the dark side.” “I own all the merchandise, including Lando figurines, so I can’t be racist — I just think that the studio is virtue signalling with all this diversity in the new films, instead of focusing on making a good movie.”
But it doesn’t matter how many times you watched the Original Trilogy, or how well you know the expanded universe. Star Wars doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t belong to me, either.
It belongs to all of us, and we need to learn how to share it.