By Linh Nguyen
These past couple months held no shortage of kick-ass action movies. Like millions of people across the globe, I headed to theatres to see Avengers: Infinity War and Solo: A Star Wars Story and revel in the films’ charismatic heroes. Though I largely enjoyed my viewing experience I left with a familiar sadness that, yet again, there was not one person on-screen who looked like me.
These latest instalments, practically devoid of Asian representation, are just a couple of examples that highlight the rarity of Asian actors on the big screen, particularly in popular action movies. We have never been the heroes in these stories—but after #OscarsSoWhite and the subsequent talk of diversity in cinema, it would seem that Hollywood audiences are demanding more inclusion and nuanced representation.
A look at evidence, though, does little to support that idea. A 2017 study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism shows only 1% of lead roles in film go to Asians, with “no meaningful change” in representation over the past decade. Of the top 100 highest grossing films in 2016, a grand total of two Asian actors, both male, were cast as leads or co-leads.
The road to Asian superheroes especially does not look promising, in part due to the lack of source material to work with. Historically, Marvel comics did not feature many A-list Asian superheroes — in fact, negative portrayals of Asians as villains, such as the Mandarin, are far more common — and therefore any Asian character introduced lacks the established reputation offered to longer-running white heroes. Delving into polls of favourite fan heroes over the past few years further shows how the target audiences of such films have little attachment to the few Asian heroes that exist in the Western canon. It must be noted that even when given the chance to feature Asian characters Hollywood has often failed, as in the case of Tilda Swinton’s casting as the originally Tibetan Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
But what of the Asian heroes that do exist on Hollywood’s big screen? In the Marvel franchise today, Guardians of the Galaxy’s Mantis, Spider-Man’s Ned, and Doctor Strange’s Wong are worth acknowledging, but their characters are framed as sidekicks and rarely developed independently of the protagonists.
To evaluate the portrayal and reception of an Asian hero requires looking at a character with a bit more screen time—someone like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As the Huffington Post reported, “Tran is the first woman of color to play a leading role in a ‘Star Wars’ movie.” She is the first Vietnamese woman I’ve watched fight in a blockbuster movie, yet a critical examination of fans’ reception shows us the limits of accepting diversity in Hollywood.
It is impossible to ignore the outright racism that characterizes much of the backlash against Rose. Intense online harassment and a petition to ban the character from the Star Wars canon made headlines. Rose’s name on the “Wookiepedia” page was edited by fans to read “Ching Chong Wing Tong” and her homeworld to “Ching Chong China,” among other deeply racist comments. The page has since been locked for editing as a result of this racist barrage, and Tran herself has also been driven off social media for the same reasons.
Putting these extreme reactions aside though, we are still met with many fans who simply did not warm up to the character. Despite celebrating Tran’s importance as a rare example of a Vietnamese protagonist in a multimillion-dollar franchise, I must admit that I myself did not love Rose when I first saw the film—a response probably clouded by the type of female heroes we are all used to seeing. Characters like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Woman, Princess Leia, Rey and so many others all fit a mold: skinny, white, and stereotypically beautiful. Rose, on the other hand, is a mechanic. Her clothes are brown and bulky, not tight-fitting, and though she is clearly smart and strong, she does not look the part of a classic attractive female heroine. This break from the norm likely played into audiences’ lukewarm reception to Rose’s character, including my own.
The pattern of body shaming around Rose certainly supports this idea. Had Tran been a conventionally attractive supermodel, would she have been more accepted? The posts that compare her with skinnier Asian women in more-fitted and revealing clothing suggest that she would have been. This criticism also calls attention to how Asian women are continually viewed as aesthetic objects. Hour-long YouTube videos of a disgruntled Star Wars fan, Ethan Van Sciver, unboxing unsold Rose Tico toys and action figures as a joke—his mocking of her clothes and figure—suggest that Asian women who are not sexualized are unwanted.
Given the mediocre to negative reception of the character, should The Last Jedi have done more to set her up for success? Rose has no shortage of courage, warmth, and good ideas, and her lack of physical combat prowess actually makes for a rare and refreshing Asian hero not associated with stereotypes like a mastery of Kung-Fu. Plenty of supporting characters with as much development get far more fan love—Effie Trinket from The Hunger Games or Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter, for example—so what more could the film have done?
Though many criticize the Canto Bight adventure that Rose and Finn star in as a waste of time and inconsequential, the same could be argued for Rey’s failed attempts at saving Kylo Ren, as pointed out in this tweet. Despite having similar amounts of screen time in this film, Rey is far more adored by fans, which may be because she looks exactly as we would expect a heroine to look.
Certainly, not loving Rose’s character could also be a matter of preference. It is unreasonable to expect that one Vietnamese woman could appeal to an entire race let alone to a Pan-Asian audience or general audience at large. However, it is important to look beyond one’s initial dislike or indifference towards a groundbreaking example of an Asian female lead in a science fiction franchise and question why we feel that way. For me, as much as I’ve argued for Asian representation on screen, it did reveal an uncomfortable truth: I am still used to seeing the world through the dominant white gaze.
Ultimately, Star Wars: The Last Jedi did well in using its privilege of an established story and franchise to create space for characters of colour. The significance of such inclusion for a minority community cannot be understated. Halfway across the world from Vietnam, in Toronto, leading up to the film’s release, my family talked about how special it was that two Vietnamese actresses would get named roles. Though Veronica Ngo (or as my parents knew her, the model Ngô Thanh Vân), who played Rose’s sister, Paige Tico, only had several minutes onscreen, it still meant an incredible amount to all of us seeing faces and names like ours in the credits. Both actresses have also foregrounded their Vietnamese identities, wearing traditional áo dài to film promotions. Tran’s support of Vietnamese designers and make-up artists also demonstrate the ripple effect of making room for people of colour: just one success can serve as a launching point for an entire community.
While it’s important to acknowledge the huge numbers who attack characters of colour in outright racist ways, it’s equally telling to examine the subtle ways that we have been conditioned to view heroes. With the dominance of white narratives in media, the only way to get used to seeing culturally diverse people playing leading roles is by featuring more characters like Rose and questioning how we have been conditioned to uphold the very structures that marginalize us. Only then can we make progress in decolonizing our own viewpoints and consequently our media.