Major spoilers ahead for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Do not read any further if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to be spoiled! There are also some major spoilers for The Clone Wars animated series.
Full disclosure: I loved Rogue One. I saw the film on opening night right after my class ended and I was enthralled all the way through (it also happened to be the last day of my semester, so it was the perfect way to celebrate). While I enjoyed last year’s The Force Awakens, I felt that the film was missing spiritual and political themes that were quite prominent in Lucas’ previous 6 films. Aside from the racially diverse cast, I thought it was unfortunate that The Force Awakens didn’t take risks or delve further into the Star Wars mythology.
Rogue One, on the other hand, had stronger and more complex political themes that were more reminiscent of the prequel era, especially The Clone Wars animated series. In fact, Rogue One felt like a live-action Clone Wars episode, especially the Onderon arc where we first see Saw Gerrera and his sister Steela Gerrera (side note: I think it should be mandatory for people to watch these episodes [season 5, episodes 2-5] before watching Rogue One to fully appreciate Saw’s character).
I know the prequel films get a lot of hate, but they show more ambiguity and grey areas between the Republic and the Separatists (and this is developed deeper in The Clone Wars). Rogue One doesn’t adopt a simplistic framework either in the Rebellion’s struggle against the Empire. We see Rebel leaders deliver questionable orders and commit terrible acts of violence in the name of the Rebellion. What we see are the harsh consequences of living under the oppressive rule of the Empire.
As much as I loved Rogue One, I acknowledge that, like anything, the film has its flaws. When I took to social media to voice my critiques, I saw a significant number of people making a different argument: the film lacks women and is dominated by men. The problem I have with this critique is that it lacks nuance and represents a failure of understanding intersectionality (PDF link). Furthermore, by describing characters exclusively by their gender, we ignore and erase race. It’s concerning that there are many articles online that are complicit in this erasure. I’ll try to organize my critique of these articles in the points below:
1. Men of color do not have the same power and privilege as white men
In her article, “If ‘Rogue One’ is so progressive, where the heck are all the women,” Gavia Baker-Whitelaw describes the film as “the worst gender imbalance since the original Star Wars trilogy” with an “endless sea of dudes.” The first issue here is that the title of the article suggests that a film can only be progressive on the basis of gender alone. Second, there is a glaring omission of race. The racially diverse cast of male actors, particularly of Mexican, Pakistani-British, Chinese, and African-American descent, are essentially whitewashed and reduced to being an “endless sea of dudes.” I would have been fine with this critique if all of the male characters were white, but race complicates the power dynamics.
Western society demonizes men of color. This is a reality that has existed in the western imagination for centuries. There is a long history in the United States, for instance, of Black men being demonized as rapists and subsequently lynched for it. This demonization continues to this day, as we continue to see police brutality and murders committed against Black men and women. We also see widespread demonization of Pakistanis and Muslims, who are cast as “backwards” and “uncivilized” people who follow an “inherently violent religion.” Hollywood cinema is filled with over a century’s worth of films that vilify Muslims, Arabs, Iranians, and South Asians (and tend to conflate us as “one and the same”). Mexicans are stereotyped as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists, while Chinese – and East Asians in general – are subjected to “Yellow Peril” and “Model Minority” stereotypes in Hollywood films and television.
Seeing these men of color depicted as heroes in a Star Wars film is significant and progressive. Speaking as a Pakistani Muslim man, when I am so used to seeing people who look like me dehumanized, it is refreshing to see a Pakistani Muslim actor, Riz Ahmed, play one of the main characters. Ahmed has been vocal about his experiences with being stereotyped and typecast. Also, as a friend pointed out to me, it was so powerful to not only see a Mexican man in Star Wars, but a Mexican man who spoke with his accent. Throughout media, Latino/as and other people of color who speak with accents are ridiculed, stereotyped, judged, and labeled “incompetent” and “unintelligent.” By casting Diego Luna as a central and non-stereotypical character in Rogue One, the hope is that this opens more opportunities for other Latino/a actors and actresses.
Commenting on Asian representation in Rogue One, Donnie Yen stated in an interview that casting Asians in Star Wars should have been done a long time ago. He added, “It’s only natural to have an Asian character in the film” given how Lucas has said Star Wars was inspired by Asian philosophies, culture, and films. Yen was also outspoken against the idea of using Chinese actors just for the sake of selling tickets in China. Yen urged director Gareth Edwards to depict Asian characters in a meaningful way.
But Baker-Whitelaw’s article does not acknowledge the importance of seeing men of color in heroic leading roles at all. Praise for this representation is absent because her article is written as if race doesn’t exist, as if male actors of color are on an equal plane as white male actors. In other words, it doesn’t matter if the actors are men of color according to her argument, they are just “men.” This also carries the assumption that male actors of color have the same opportunities in Hollywood as white male actors do. In reality, men of color are not treated equally as white men. Furthermore, men of color can be marginalized and oppressed by white women, too. While white women do not have male privilege, they have white privilege, which works to maintain white supremacy. By ignoring the intersection of race and gender, we fail to see these power dynamics.
2. The real issue: Lack of women of color
The serious and shameful lack of women of color is not just an issue with Rogue One and Star Wars. It reflects a major problem with Hollywood in general. In recent years, we have seen white women play significant leading roles in blockbuster films and TV shows: Furiosa, Rey, Katniss Everdeen, Beatrice Prior, Black Widow, Kara Zor-El/Supergirl, Jessica Jones, Agent Carter, and now Jyn Erso. It’s more challenging to name women of color who have had similar roles.
When critiques point out the lack of women in Rogue One and fail to acknowledge race, people of color, especially women of color, get erased from the conversation. So when Baker-Whitelaw advocates for more women, which women is she talking about? White women? Black women? Asian women? Indigenous women? If the film had 5 women in lead roles and they were all white women, would the same critics speak out against the lack of women of color?
To her credit, when I tweeted this hypothetical scenario to Baker-Whitelaw, she stated she would speak out against the marginalization of women of color. While this is appreciated, it is concerning that recognizing the exclusion of women of color is an afterthought or something that needed to be brought to people’s attention. So much of it has to do with the way we’ve been conditioned to use language. That is, when we say “woman lead” or “woman character,” it is assumed by default that the woman is white. But this should not be the case. “Woman” should not be a synonym for “white woman.”
In another article, “Jyn Erso is Another Worthy Star Wars Heroine. But Where Are the Rest of the Women in Rogue One?” the author Marissa Martinelli makes the same mistake in failing to acknowledge the male characters as men of color. At the end of the article, Martinelli expresses hope that we’ll see “more women, and particularly more women of color.” Although it’s important this was mentioned, the dismissal of race throughout the article (and the fact this was written at the very end) makes this feel like an afterthought.
Instead of advocating for “more women,” why not advocate for women of color characters specifically? I don’t deny that white women face sexism and misogyny in Hollywood, and by no means am I suggesting that they have the same privileges as white male actors. However, what I am saying is that at least white women get cast in leading roles of blockbuster films and TV shows, whereas women of color struggle to find the same opportunities. In her critique of white feminism, bell hooks taught us:
Most people in the United States think of feminism, or the most commonly used term “women’s lib,” as a movement that aims to make women the social equals of men. This broad definition, popularized by the media and mainstream segments of the movement, raises problematic questions. Since men are not equals in white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal class structure, which men do women want to be equal to? Do women share a common vision of what equality means? Implicit in this simplistic definition of women’s liberation is a dismissal of race and class as factors that, in conjunction with sexism, determine the extent to which an individual will be discriminated against, exploited, or oppressed.
The point is, white women and women of color do not have the same experiences. Even among women of color, there are different experiences. So, saying “we need more women” is simplistic and potentially harmful, especially when Black, Latina, South Asian, East Asian, Middle Eastern, Indigenous, and other women of color are not treated equally.
In her excellent post, “How ‘Star Wars’ forgot about black women,” Monique comments on how Black women are frequently marginalized to Star Wars novels and comic books. She also writes:
Also something that’s annoyed many a black woman fan—the fact that the one black woman we do have in the new Star Wars universe, Lupita Nyong’o, is playing Maz Kanata, a character that is completely CGI… Another strike against Lucasfilm and the Star Wars universe is how often black women and other women of color are often cast as Twi’leks, whose women are often enslaved as sex objects.
I would add that one Black character we get to see in the The Clone Wars animated series is Steela Gerrera, one of my favorite characters. She is introduced with her brother Saw in the Onderon arc I mentioned earlier. Steela, voiced by Dawn-Lyen Gardner, is a courageous freedom fighter who leads a resistance movement against the droid occupation of her planet. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Unfortunately, the writers killed her character in the final episode, reinforcing a racist and misogynist trope that women of color must sacrifice their lives to inspire white protagonists to lead the revolution.
3. Challenging white privilege and white feminism
As a heterosexual Pakistani Muslim man, I know I cannot speak on behalf of Pakistani Muslim women or women of color in general. My hope is that this post is seen as a call for solidarity to advocate for more roles for women of color actresses. I think it is critical for white feminists to not only be mindful about their own racism, but actively work against it.
As someone who respects the work of Feminist Frequency, it was disappointing to see no explicit mentioning of women of color in her recent Rogue One review. While she mentioned the word “diversity” to describe the cast at the beginning of the video, she described Jyn as being surrounded by “many, many men,” as if there is no significance about these men being men of color. Furthermore, there is no acknowledgement that white women are more represented in Star Wars films (and in Hollywood) than women of color.
Elsewhere, Jason Dias contends that Rogue One “sets feminism back light years.” At first, when I read the title of his article, I was hoping that he was referring to the long history of white feminism marginalizing, vilifying, and/or silencing Black and Brown women. Unfortunately, it is another critique of the film that mostly ignores race and focuses exclusively on gender. To his credit, he suggests Asian women actresses such as Zhang Ziyi and Maggie Q as alternative casting choices for Chirrut Imwe. Though Dias doesn’t mention this, I think it’s worth mentioning here that even though men of color are not as privileged as white women, men of color have privileges over women of color.
Dias goes on to conclude:
Overall diversity was high in Rogue One. We do need diversity in film. Why would everyone be white or talk with an American or a British accent? Why would everybody be equally abled or similarly young or sexy or whatever? Great. And if you ignore the gender of the characters, this is a great movie.
And yet here is the problem. What about ignoring race? If you ignore race, then you erase the fact that this is a rare Hollywood film that portrays men of color as heroes. Again, intersectionality cannot be emphasized enough. None of us have one identity. Bodhi Rook is not just played by a man, for example. He is played by a Pakistani-British and Muslim-identified man. Jyn Erso isn’t just played by a woman. She is played by a white British woman. Intersectionality teaches us that it’s not “either or” when it comes to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, ability, and so on. We are all privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others, and some are more privileged than they are disadvantaged, while some are more disadvantaged than they are privileged.
It is significant that white women are able to see themselves represented in The Force Awakens and Rogue One, but it’s almost important to challenge Hollywood’s whiteness and support more roles and opportunities for women of color. I also think it’s important for white feminists to be honest about how Rogue One would have been hailed a feminist film if the film had 3 more women characters and all of them were white. The fact that many white feminists are not even addressing the lack of women of color raises serious concerns about who gets to lead a Star Wars film and who doesn’t. Back when Mad Max: Fury Road came out, the film was praised as feminist, but one blogger noted, “If Furiosa had been black or brown, I feel like the reactions would have been very different. It would have not been hailed as the second coming of feminist films.”
We heard reports that the Han Solo spin-off film was looking for a woman of color to play a leading role. Three Black actresses, namely Tessa Thompson, Kiersey Clemons, and Zoe Kravitz reportedly auditioned for the role, but then the announcement came that a white actress, Emilia Clarke, won the part. I remember seeing tweets where white people argued defensively against criticism of Clarke’s casting, claiming that she had won the role “because they [Lucasfilm] thought she was the most qualified.” Yet this argument implies actresses of color are not as talented as white actresses. This is why I think it’s problematic to simply say, “We need more women in Star Wars.” It really should be, “Cast women of color in Star Wars.”
On a positive note, it’s encouraging to know that Kelly Marie Tran, an Asian-American actress, is set to play a significant character in Star Wars: Episode VIII. Hopefully, there will come a day where we’ll see a woman of color play the main protagonist in a Star Wars film.
* Note on my use of the phrase “white feminist critiques” – this isn’t exclusively about the racial identity of the authors I’m critiquing. White feminism is an ideology and people can reinforce and perpetuate it, regardless of how they identify their race.