Monday, January 4, 2016

On Star Wars and Diversity (SPOILERS)

You've been warned. I finally had the chance to watch the latest Star Wars, and I’m glad to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. This installment makes charming references that appeal to fans of the past films while successfully bridging the gap to a new generation of fans and ushering in a new group of heroes. I also appreciate the return of many of the elements of the original trilogy that were lost in the prequels: creative costumes, minimal use of cheesy CGI, and lively set design. John Williams’ music is fantastic as usual. It was great to see Han, Luke, and Leia again after so many years, and yet the familiar faces did not overshadow the new protagonists, who bring a new energy and source of excitement to the series.

Despite all of the film’s merits, though, there was definitely an abundance of cringe-inducing moments that were simply too distracting for me to ignore. Some of them were just clumsy, awkward, or annoying. Some others were flat-out lame, disappointing products of bad story telling. And some were simply so bad, I began to think that I had developed an aptitude for the Force, as I felt my face and palm becoming uncontrollably and mysteriously magnetized to one another. As I’ve thought a bit more about them, I think I know why.

It became increasingly obvious to me that Star Wars Episode VII was more dedicated to bludgeoning a “strong female lead” narrative into our heads, and did so at the expense of good story-telling and basic common sense.

Some scenes from the film were more benign, but still annoying. Some examples:
-         -- Rey and Finn fleeing from enemy fire on the planet Jakku. Finn grabs her hand to lead her as they make an escape, and Rey yells at him multiple times to stop holding her hand. She’s an independent woman who doesn’t need some entitled man to make unsolicited physical gestures to lead her to safety, after all! As if it would have been much more heroic if Finn were to run away by himself and let her be fried to a crisp by laser cannons. For equality!

-         --  Rey prepares to co-pilot the Millennium Falcon alongside her legendary hero, Han Solo. Something’s wrong with the ship’s hardware, but of course Rey, the strong independent woman who doesn’t need some entitled man to fix her intergalactic space travel ships for her, identifies the problem with the ship and fixes it before Han Solo can even utter a casually cool one-liner. I get it; Rey has spent her whole life as a scavenger and understands mechanics and engineering really well. But this is Han-freaking-Solo we’re talking about, the man who practically IS the Millennium Falcon. Was J.J. Abrams really that desperate to make one of the most beloved characters of the series old and obsolete?

Star Wars: The Ageism Awakens

Others are more obnoxious and frustrating. The other two lead characters, Poe and Finn, are devoid any real, meaningful role in the plot. Who needs a cool, suave pilot man? Certainly not Rey. I can’t say that I learned much about Poe in this movie, although I suppose it could be said that his existence provides a convenient origin story for Finn’s first article of civilian clothing. If it weren’t for the X-wing fighter scenes, Poe really might as well be Star Wars’ first Teletubby.

Who needs a brave warrior fighter guy? Not Rey either. John Boyega’s Finn is a likeable, and interesting addition to the cast that the Star Wars series. We’re given some insight into his background, but not much is developed from there. As he says himself, he’s a warrior whose very purpose in life was to fight, but he finds he has nothing to fight for. We see Finn develop a moral conscience that compels him to desert the First Order, into a new life in which he merely wishes to avoid conflict and find safety. Eventually, he picks up the iconic lightsaber and begins the transformation from conflict avoider to fighter for good. He courageously steps up to this challenge by facing the sinister Kylo Ren in a lightsaber showdown. Just seeing Finn assume that badass Jedi fighting stance with the glow of the blue lightsaber on his face was enough to get my heart racing with anticipation. All of this character development finds its climax in……..Finn being incapacitated by Kylo Ren in a matter of seconds, rendering him about as useful as Peeta Mellark from the Hunger Games. Yes, Peeta. The character whose useful contributions in his own series include making himself look like a pile of rocks, going into cardiac arrest, and eventually betraying his own friends.

Honestly, if Poe and Finn were left out of the movie altogether, it would have a minimal effect on the overall story. After all, we have the whole package in Rey, our strong female lead who does anything and everything by herself, because she’s a strong independent woman who doesn’t need some entitled man to help defeat her evil fascistic galactic empires for her! Where there is no pilot, Rey steps up. And when Finn gets his ass sliced to the ground, Rey cuts down the big bad villain by herself—the first time she ever wields a lightsaber.

A white person getting all the attention and credit at the expense of a black man? Sounds familiar, doesn't it J.J....or should I say, Jefferson Davis?

Which reminds me, how does she know how to use the Force and fight with a lightsaber so well, when she hasn’t even met a single Jedi or attempted to use the Force any time before the events of the movie? Luke Skywalker wasn’t able to defeat Darth Vader until the third movie. Rey is shown already defeating a Sith, presumably because it would be a misogynistic microaggression to portray a woman losing in a fight against a man. In fact, it would probably racist and white supremacist too because…….intersectionality and equality and social justice, or something like that! End the wage gap! #banbossy #Kony2012

Also, isn’t it suggested that Kylo Ren almost singlehandedly massacred the new Jedi Order, in the same way that his grandfather Anakin did, sending even the galaxy’s greatest Jedi into hiding? This is the same guy that, moments before, used the Force to throw Rey a dozen feet into a tree, knocking her out cold. Did Kylo Ren suddenly decide that using the Force is an unfair male privilege afforded to him by the mere coincidence of his biological gender assignment and voluntarily handicap his abilities? Or did he forget that calling a woman “bossy” is the single most effective method of female disempowerment? Perhaps in a deleted scene, Kylo Ren is seen featured in a BuzzFeed Video entitled, “15 Problems that Male Sith Lords will never have to deal with. Number 8 will make you cry!”

In all seriousness, the fact that Rey has gone from zero to hero in almost no time at all also betrays the fundamental element that makes Star Wars appealing in the first place. In the vein of the great hero archetype, Luke Skywalker is a young man with a mix of talents, virtues, and vices who is living a seemingly uneventful life, when a larger, overarching story envelops him and sends him on a great adventure. Along the way, he learns new things, cooperates with others, confronts challenges (and often fails), and is tempted. His journey to become a Jedi is only truly completed by the last movie, and the process is a hard-won battle that refines his mind, body, and spirit. Rey is a great new character who bears some similarities, but at this point already pretty much displays the abilities of a full-fledged Jedi. What room is there now for a journey, for the Jedi-in-training story? We revere the Jedi precisely because their path is one of discipline, rigor, self-control, and virtue. In fact, the example of Anakin Skywalker seems to demonstrate that those who most quickly master Force powers without moral character development are the most prone to corruption. This excessive emphasis on the “strong female lead” narrative seems to have completely done away with many of these basic plot elements.

All of this has been my roundabout way of pointing out what happens when an excessive amount of attention is directed on things like diversity and representation at the expense of actual creativity and basic story telling. I don’t think the problem is that one of the lead characters is a brilliant female engineer. Instead, it’s that this desperate attempt to create a strong female lead character was elevated above creating a good story, and as a result it really ends up missing the galaxy for the planets. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way either. Check out this woman complaining about the strong female lead character she’s always wanted.

Almost the exact same thing happened in the recent Hobbit movies. Does anyone remember the female warrior-elf Tauriel? Remember how contrived, awkward, and uncomfortable that story line was? It was not even a part of the original source material. Rather, it was crammed into the story for no other reason than to introduce a female character in a male-dominated cast. I know that after I watched it, I wanted nothing more than to forget it had ever appeared in the movie. To this day, I don’t know a single person who thought that this was a positive addition to the story.

I understand how important things like diversity, inclusion, and social justice are to people in our pluralistic society. After all, I went to school for four years in San Francisco, where merely saying those three phrases enough times is a bit like uttering a magical incantation that will cause masses of people to leap to their feet with a thunderous uproar of applause. 

We are desperately looking for ways for various media and pop culture to not only identify, validate, and convey our respective experiences, but also to empower and uplift us. New sitcoms like Dr. Ken and Fresh Off the Boat are massively appealing to Asian Americans. Marvel’s Thor is a woman, Hulk is now an Asian American, and Spiderman now has a half black/half Latino incarnation. An Indian American is the lead character and executive producer of his own TV show. We celebrate every time someone sharing some aspect of who we are is lifted up in a popular narrative. These narratives give us not only the chance for our side of the story to be shared with others, but also expand our horizons for what we are willing to believe is possible in our own lives….who we are, and who we can become. There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with these developments, and it's great that so many different people are finding voices and creating. At the same time, my observation is that obsessively injecting identity politics into every aspect of our lives tends to end up in all sorts of misguided distractions.

One assumption seems to be that someone who shares certain characteristics with you (race, sex, socioeconomic status, etc.) will always accurately represent or convey your interests and experiences. This is why people are always looking for more diverse CEOs, politicians, entrepreneurs, and other prominent figures in society. In principle, most people would agree that a convergence on those levels is not necessarily a guarantee for anything, and yet everyone seems to believe it in practice anyway. I’m not so naïve as to assume that things like race, sex, culture, personality, religion, and experience can be completely divorced from one another, and neither am I trying to promote some kind of color-blindness idealism. But isn’t part of the point of anti-racism and sexism to treat people as individuals, rather than to assume things based on outwardly characteristics? I'm an Asian American man, but I am not obligated to agree or disagree, associate or disassociate myself, with anyone or anything simply on the basis of my race or sex. By inserting identity politics into almost everything, whether ideology or pop culture or whatever, are we not simply enslaving ourselves to such a baseless and ridiculous ideal? This happens all the time, where women who disagree with feminists are said to have either “internalized misogyny” or are desperate for male approval, as if there is no possible way that these dissenting women have any agency or rational faculties of their own with which to arrive at their beliefs. I've observed that African-Americans experience a similar fate, often being told they are traitors, or some sort of “Uncle Tom” reference. Here, we see identity politics used not only as a distraction from rational dialogue, but as a silencing tactic. 

It’s clear that diversity and inclusion were major priorities for J. J. Abrams and crew in the making of this new Star Wars movie. It would be unfair of me to cast aspersions on him, because it at least appears that he is well intentioned. I can appreciate the “go Asians!” comment, and that he would cast “only” Asians in his films if he had that control. But, seriously J. J., now you’re saying would actually make the cast less diverse if you could? Shit, can you imagine the type of reaction that our culture would have if he had said that about whites instead of Asians? As an Asian American myself, I can’t help but find this sort of thinking completely stupid and infantilizing. I find it is an insult to my intelligence to imagine that some people out there think that merely placing Asian characters into a film will automatically make it more appealing to me, or that the film would be less enjoyable for me if it lacked Asian characters. I shudder at the thought that someone out there, after watching the George Lucas prequels, one day stood up in a stroke of creative genius and said, “I’ve got it: this film just needs more Asians!”

The lack of Asian characters in the first Star Wars films didn't prevent me and my brother from enjoying the story, admiring the characters, collecting the toys, and re-enacting the epic lightsaber battles in our living room when we were young children. It was always the story of Luke, Han, and Leia that captured our attention. No amount of “diverse casting” can fix horrific writing and bad story-telling. I don’t see any Japanese crying that they can’t relate to Naruto because he looks more Danish than Japanese. And I certainly don’t hear any African-American men complaining that Dragon Ball Z’s overabundance of Asian-looking characters is a hindrance to their aspirations of one day achieving Super Saiyan-level strength. In the West, it seems “diversity” has now just become another item to check off on an every-growing list of criteria for socially acceptable media. But realistically, who among us is really so pedantic about such things like the proportion of races in each film such that we desire “equitable representation” over actual substance? Again, how is this anything other than making slaves of ourselves to a ridiculous idea? 

A second assumption that I’ve observed drives much of the politics of identity and representation is that people are pigeon-holed into societal classes largely due to the narratives that pervade the popular culture. People say that media figures are important role models, and that not having diverse role models for all types of people deprives young people of the opportunity to aspire to certain positions in society. “If (insert people group here) are always portrayed as sidekicks in popular media, how will they ever feel empowered enough to rise to anything other than a subordinated role in society?” so ask many. To that I would first have to ask, what happened to raising (or being) personal role models in the actual, rather than a conceived world? If we are allowing a select number of films, books, TV shows to dictate what people believe their station in life should or can be, this is probably an indication that we have bigger problems to worry about. Seeking affirmation in those narratives is acquiescing to defeat, not achieving victory.

Overall, my impression that an unhealthy obsession with identity politics demonstrates one of the ways in which all people, myself included, are prone to misplacing our desire for things like validation, belonging, affirmation, and value. Quite often, it makes us miss the forest for the trees, and in doing so we actually sell ourselves short in the long run.


  1. I agree! But I never once let that hinder my enjoyment of the movie. I was being mindful of my thoughts like a Jedi.

  2. I've read this three times now and it keeps getting better