Fear Leads to Anger: Race, Gender, and the Reactions to John Boyega in Star Wars

john-boyega
“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”
– Jedi Master Yoda, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

As my close friends know, I have been a huge Star Wars fan since childhood. I grew up on the original trilogy – first on VHS and then re-watched them in the theater when the Special Editions were released. I was 15 years-old when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 and I went to the midnight premieres for all three prequel films.

The way I viewed the Star Wars Saga changed as I grew older. When I picked up on the spiritual and political themes in the films, I began to think of Star Wars as more than just escapist entertainment. Commenting on his first film, the much overlooked THX 1138, George Lucas explained that the film was set in the future, but not about the future. Like many science fiction stories about dystopian futures, the movie was meant to reflect the kind of society we live in today. Star Wars is more space fantasy than science fiction, but Lucas’ social and political commentaries on contemporary issues are evident in his work, including in the prequels and “The Clone Wars” TV series.

However, I feel that the commercialization and status of Star Wars as a marketing brand have, unfortunately, depoliticized the important political themes of the films. Furthermore, as much as I appreciate the anti-imperialist and anti-war messages, there is a lot of race and gender fail that cannot be overlooked. In the 6 films, there is a serious lack of people of color and women characters. This criticism isn’t just about numbers, but also about how the characters are portrayed and tokenized. For example, the inclusion of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back appeared to be an attempt to add “diversity” to the series. However, as Wyatt Cenac expressed in one of his stand-up performances about the lack of black people in science fiction and fantasy, “There’s Lando Calrissian, whose cool till he betrays everybody.” Although the Empire forced Lando to betray his longtime friend, Han Solo, along with Leia and Chewbacca, the message that gets communicated is that black people are traitors and untrustworthy. In Return of the Jedi, we see Lando help rescue Han and later become a General for the Rebel Alliance. He also leads an attack on the second Death Star and destroys it. Adilifu Nama, the author of “Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film,” argues that Lando is more complex than a one-dimensional token black character, but also states that even though Lando is “situated with the ‘good guys'” in Return of the Jedi, the “broader racial message remained: whites must be guarded toward blacks, and blacks must be evaluated according to their degree of allegiance to white interests.”

Across the 6 films, there are only two prominent women characters: Padmé Amidala from the prequels, and Leia Organa from the original trilogy (for an excellent analysis of these characters, check out Amanda Rodriguez’s article, “The Very Few Women of ‘Star Wars’: Queen Amidala and Princess Leia”). The Star Wars Expanded Universe (i.e. the Star Wars novels, comic books, and video games) seemed to make a conscious attempt of creating more women characters in the Star Wars universe. Jaina Solo and Mara Jade are perhaps the most popular characters who do not appear in the films or TV shows (a comic book mentions that Mara was at Jabba’s palace during the events of Return of the Jedi, but she still can’t be seen in the actual film). Mara Jade was so popular that Lucasfilm hired model Shannon McRandle to represent the character in photos for Star Wars card games. Sadly, after Disney bought Lucasfilm and declared that the Expanded Universe is no longer canon, there is speculation about whether or not Jaina and Mara will be in the upcoming sequel trilogy.

NBail_Organaone of the women characters mentioned above are women of color. Although people of color are slightly more visible in the prequel trilogy, their roles are mostly relegated to the background. Indian actress Ayesha Dharker appears in a very short scene in Attack of the Clones as Queen Jamillia and is never seen again. Fans know the important role Bail Organa (pictured left, and portrayed by Jimmy Smits) plays in the saga, but he isn’t given much to do in the prequels. There are two politically charged scenes in Revenge of the Sith where he, along with other people of color and women characters (including Mon Mothma), are given more dialogue and screen time, but both of these scenes were deleted (you can watch them here and here). One troubling detail is that Chinese actress Bai Ling, who plays Senator Bana Breemu in one of the scenes, states that Lucas cut her role from the film due to her Star Wars-themed photoshoot for Playboy magazine.

SteelaIt is true we see more women characters in “The Clone Wars” TV series (which is still canon), like Ahsoka Tano, Asajj Ventress, Barriss OffeeSatine Kryze, and more screen time for Aayla Secura, but there are a few points that need to be addressed. First, since these characters exist in a timeline between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, they must eventually disappear, be pushed to the background, or get killed off. Second, women of color rarely make an appearance. I have mentioned Steela Gerrera (pictured right, and voiced by Dawn-Lyen Gardner) in a previous post and (SPOILERS) how her death reinforced the trope of women of color being killed off to serve as martyrs who inspire the revolution led by white protagonists (Rue from The Hunger Games is another example). In prozacpark’s post about (SPOILERS) the horrible death of Dualla/Dee (another woman of color) in the TV show “Battlestar Galactica,” she mentions how Edgar Allen Poe once wrote that the “death of a beautiful woman” is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” In response to this violent, misogynist trope and the death of Dualla/Dee, she writes:

But would Dee, arguably the strongest person this show has, kill herself? Dee, who told Lee that she was going to marry him despite believing he loved Kara better because she was willing to take whatever she could get and it was going to be enough? No, Dee would’ve gone on… She would’ve survived. And been more beautiful in her strength than she could ever be in death.

Because death – always beautiful for women – redeems them, restores them to their beauty, happiness, and honor or what the fuck ever. Because in death, they become a blank text that can be written upon – having nothing but the body that patriarchy finds so interesting, that the male gaze finds easy to objectify – just as Dee became a text to be written on (just as Cally was, before her, ‘vacant,’ as Tyrol said), so the writers could impart some message using her. She’s not a person to them; women rarely are in fiction, right? She’s a symbol. Of everything humanity has lost, and everything it continues to lose. But I’m sick of symbolism. Sick of women dying so they can be symbols of some man’s revolution or some writer’s narrative journey. Sick, in general, of this metanarrative that I hate with a burning passion and that just won’t go away.

You know what’s better than that proverbial beautiful death? SURVIVING.

I believe this applies similarly to Steela Gerrera in “The Clone Wars.” Here, we see a woman of color resistance leader fighting against a brutal droid occupation of her planet, Onderon (it’s hard not to think about a possible allegory with occupied Palestine when the characters demand, “End the droid occupation”). When she and Lux Bonteri, a young white politician-turned-rebel fighter, were nearly falling off a cliff, Ahsoka Tano used the Force in attempt to save them. Ahsoka managed to float Lux to safety, but her efforts to save Steela failed. Steela’s death was not necessary and served no other purpose but to transform her into a symbol and have her remembered as a martyr. Meanwhile, the young white man, Lux, survives and is re-appointed as senator of Onderon and rejoins the planet with the Republic. His survival was important for larger political purposes, whereas Steela’s purpose was to die for Onderon’s independence so that white men could lead. The “death of a beautiful woman” trope also victimizes Duchess Satine Kryze, whom Obi-Wan Kenobi is in love with. Since Obi-Wan doesn’t mention anything about a romantic interest in the films, the writers must have figured that the easiest way to keep continuity was by killing off Satine (who is murdered by Darth Maul).

Then there are issuEwokses concerning cultural appropriation, Orientalism (e.g. Tatooine, Tusken Raiders/Sand People, Jabba the Hutt smoking hookah and keeping a harem of female dancers), and the racialization of non-human characters (especially Jar Jar Binks and the offensive anti-Asian caricatures of the Neimoidians) in Star Wars. Lucas named the Ewoks (pictured left) in Return of the Jedi after the Miwok, a Native American tribe who are indigenous to San Rafael, California (which is also where Lucas built his Skywalker Ranch). In the Battle of Endor, where Ewoks help the Rebels fight the Empire, Lucas wanted to portray a “primitive” and “technologically-inferior” society of creatures (Ewoks) defeat the technologically-advanced imperial forces (not too different from how the Na’vi in Avatar are “thinly veiled representations” of Native Americans). As Gabriel S. Estrada states in his chapter, “Star Wars episodes I-VI: Coyote and the force of white narrative,” Lucas’ Ewoks “play into historical racism against California Indians and Miwoks in particular. Historical California Indian technological differences were unethically used to justify Indian genocide as State and Federal policy, especially after the 1849 Gold Rush.” Furthermore, he writes: “Even though the teddy bear Ewoks fight off Empire soldiers and side with the good guys, they are more like the ‘lovable’ loyal sports mascots that so many Native Americans ridicule.”

These topics on racializaiton and racist appropriation would be better discussed in a separate blog post, but I recommend clicking on the links I’ve provided above (also, much of my thoughts about white people appropriating the struggles of people of color are similar to what I’ve said in previous posts here and here). What I want to focus on below are the reactions to John Boyega being a potential lead character in the upcoming 2015 Star Wars film, Episode VII – The Force Awakens. I say “potential lead character” because we don’t know what his role is yet. However, based on numerous rumors and reports, including quotes from Mark Hamill (who says the upcoming Star Wars films are about the “new generation of characters”), it is believed that Boyega’s character is most likely part of this new generation.

According to how the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens is structured, it does not seem to be insignificant that the first shot we see of Episode 7 is one of John Boyega entering the frame. The second person we see is a young white woman (Daisy Ridley’s character) on a speeder bike, followed by a male X-wing pilot (played by Latino actor Oscar Isaac). Both of the latter characters are thought to share leading roles with Boyega. After the trailer was released, the racist tweets/posts/comments flooded the internet. Below are a few screenshots: swcomment1swcomment2swcomment3 swcomment5swcomment4comment6There are countless comments like these and the disturbing part is that they are not hard to find. One look at the comment threads on YouTube or message boards will be enough to see the white rage expressed against John Boyega. In fact, the racist remarks were so common that Boyega took a moment on his instagram account to (1) thank fans for the support and (2) tell the racists to “get used to it.” His instagram post can be viewed here.

It is good to see that there has been a lot of coverage on social media about these racist posts. Most of the articles and commentaries I’ve read rightfully condemn these reactions, but they unfortunately don’t get at the heart of the problem. That is, most of the articles frame these reactions as having everything to do with Boyega playing a “black stormtrooper,” instead of having more to do with him being black and a potential lead character in a film series that has always centered on white male characters. There are articles out there that are pointing this out as well, so I’m not the first to address this. However, I still notice posts, articles, YouTube videos, and news programs that ask, “Can stormtroopers be black?” when they should be asking, “Can Star Wars have a black lead character?”

jangofettHere’s the problem with the question about the race of stormtroopers: you’ll find a lot of posts and comments from people (who, to my astonishment, call themselves Star Wars fans) who believe that stormtroopers are clones of Jango Fett (pictured right, and played by Temuera Morrison, who is of Maori descent) and therefore cannot be black. Within the internal logic of the Star Wars universe, this is factually incorrect. It seems like a common mistake that a significant number of people are making, but I also believe a lot of people are using it as an excuse to hide their racism and fear of a black lead character (I’ll get to this in a minute). In the prequels, Clone troopers were clones of Jango Fett, but the imperial stormtroopers we see in the original trilogy are no longer clones. After the formation of the Galactic Empire, humans were recruited to enlist as stormtroopers. This is indicated by the different heights and voices of the stormtroopers in the original trilogy (for the Blu-ray release of the Star Wars Saga, Lucas replaced Boba Fett’s voice with Temuera Morrison’s voice, but the voices of the stormtroopers were not changed). The recruitment of humans in the post-prequel era is also being explained and depicted in the new Star Wars Rebels TV show. So, the “black stormtrooper problem” is one that can be solved simply with a Google search.

Yet it’s amazing when I still see people on YouTube, Facebook threads (including on the official Star Wars page), and message boards persist in making this argument that “stormtroopers can’t be black because they are clones of Jango Fett.” When well-intentioned articles put forth the question, “Can stormtroopers be black?” they are working within a false framework that assumes all stormtroopers are clones. On a larger scale, their question raises concerns about whether black people and other people of color have a place in white male-dominated sci-fi/fantasy stories. I recently saw a comment that said, “Stormtoopers can’t be black because it changes the canon of the story,” and then the person went on about how Superman, James Bond, and Johnny Storm should always be white. When I pay attention to the tone, length, and persistence of these comments (mostly coming from white people in fandom), the more I believe there is more going on. How could casting a person of color as Superman, for example, be an issue about “canon” when the character is an extra-terrestrial from a fictional planet? What “rule” says his character (or any fictional character for that matter) must be white? As one can see in some of the comments I shared above about John Boyega, the complaints go beyond “canon” and are more about him being black. The “stormtroopers can’t be black” arguments are not only inaccurate, but also used as an excuse by people who are not comfortable with a black lead character disrupting their white universe. As one commenter, Grace_Omega, wrote on a message board:

[L]ook at the reaction to John Boyega in Star Wars. Some people are getting mad over accusations of infidelity to the previous movies (or they’re claiming to be, at least), but judging by the comments I’m seeing [it’s] clear that others just can’t accept a black Star Wars lead (assuming Boyega is actually the lead, as has been strongly rumoured). They’re used to Star Wars being almost entirely white, with black characters only included in supporting roles, and Boyega being the first character on screen in that trailer triggered the same reaction as the students I mentioned above.

It should be obvious that racism is the real issue here. As the comment mentions, there have been black characters in Star Wars before like the aforementioned Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu, but the films never centered on them. Having black actors is more acceptable when they are playing supporting roles (though not always the case, especially if they’re playing characters that were imagined as white – see racist reactions to Rue and Idris Elba’s Heimdall). Even if stormtroopers were clones of Jango Fett, Star Wars is a fictional world with fictional characters. Do people really believe the writers wouldn’t be able to create an explanation?  These same individuals most likely will agree that sci-fi and fantasy stories/films encourages them to broaden their imaginations, but when it becomes about having people of color in these stories, suddenly there are limits. It’s called “political correctness” or a “diversity agenda.” Since we haven’t seen the film, isn’t there also the possibility that Boyega’s character disguised himself as a stormtrooper (in the same way Luke and Han did in A New Hope)? These possibilities are not taken into consideration because their racist imaginations refuse to accept a black main character in Star Wars.

Racism in fandom is nothing new and it’s something that’s still being addressed and challenged. It’s the fear of black people and other people of color “invading” that white-dominated space that leads to anger and hatred (not too different from how white America fears people of color outnumbering them in the near future). While most of the hatred here is directed at Boyega, you’ll find other comments that also complain about the film having a possible woman lead, a Latino male character, and (according to rumors) women playing stormtroopers. Lupita Nyong’o did not appear in the trailer, but is set to be in the film, too. The complaints (again, coming from mostly white male fans) accuse the film of pushing “political correctness” that is apparently threatening their fandom. I can’t help but wonder what the reaction would have been if Nyong’o was shown as the lead character.

The message these racist reactions send are that black people cannot be seen as heroes. They reflect the dangerous anti-blackness that is rooted in white supremacy. As I mentioned in a previous post, anti-black racism is global. In the United States, we shouldn’t have to be reminded about the country’s long history of slavery, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, police and state violence against black people. One of the comments above compared Boyega to Trayvon Martin, a horribly insensitive and racist sentiment that demonstrates how black lives are constantly devalued. A 2013 study conducted by Malcolm X Grassroots Movement found that “one black man is killed every 28 hours by police or vigilantes.” Adam Hudson adds:

These killings come on top of other forms of oppression black people face. Mass incarceration of nonwhites is one of them. While African-Americans constitute 13.1% of the nation’s population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. Even though African-Americans use or sell drugs about the same rate as whites, they are 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely to be arrested for drugs than whites. Black offenders also receive longer sentences compared to whites. Most offenders are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses.

Mainstream media, including film and television, help fuel racist attitudes, policies, and violence through victim-blaming commentaries on the murders of black men, women, trans and gender-nonconforming people (who are criminalized and vilified as “thugs” after their deaths, cruelly implying that their deaths were justified and that their lives do not matter). The dehumanization is reinforced over and over again through racist stereotyping of black people in films and TV shows, which no doubt influence and fuel the racist reactions we see towards John Boyega. The shameful media coverage of Ferguson wanted to focus more on blaming Mike Brown and demonizing him as a “thug” rather than addressing and challenging the violence of white supremacy (some news networks tried to show “balanced” coverage, which is a horrible cop-out because it legitimizes the narratives that blame black people for their own murders and oppression). When the larger structures of violence in society views black men and women as “criminals” and “inferior,” it isn’t surprising that angry tweets and posts treat Boyega’s presence as a criminal act.

As I have articulated in previous posts, I believe images in media matter. The media plays a significant role in shaping our perceptions and attitudes about race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, body image, ideas about freedom, and so on. It is good to see John Boyega being in the new Star Wars (and even better if he is playing the lead role), but then there are questions that still remain about how his character will be portrayed. I also think it’s important to be conscious of how “diversity” in mainstream media (especially in franchises like Star Wars) has a terrible habit of reinforcing myths about a “post-racial and post-gender” world. These myths uphold white supremacy as they focus more on showing how “diverse” and “multicultural” our society is rather than dismantling systems of oppression. It is not difficult to imagine people saying, “Stop whining about racism, the new Star Wars hero is black” (similar to how people say, “Racism doesn’t exist anymore because we have a black president”).

The Star Wars universe has touched upon speciesism within its stories, but never racism, sexism, and homophobia. I don’t expect Star Wars to address these issues (at least, not directly) and I don’t believe it intends to bring about radical change against racism. People of color have been (and are) leading that charge for a long time. I’ve heard some people dismiss the racist reactions to John Boyega as being a “non-issue,” but the reality is, the reactions reflect the disturbing anti-blackness (and its acceptability) that is dangerously prevalent. There is no doubt that the film will be a huge success (and it is predicted to break records at the box office) and there will be a lot of people who will praise the film’s diversity. I personally believe it’s important to see people of color in heroic, complex, and non-stereotypical roles. At the same time, I have seen the ways “diversity” has been used to advocate “colorblindness” and distract us from real problems in society (these are some concerns I have about Muslim-American superheroes too, but that’s for another post!). It would be awful if Boyega, along with Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and Lupita Nyong’o were used to promote the idea that we live in a “post-racial and post-gender” world. Because if there is one thing that’s clear from the outrage about Boyega, it’s that we are very far from that fictional world.

2 thoughts on “Fear Leads to Anger: Race, Gender, and the Reactions to John Boyega in Star Wars

  1. This criticism isn’t just about numbers, but also about how the characters are portrayed and tokenized. For example, the inclusion of Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back appeared to be an attempt to add “diversity” to the series. However, as Wyatt Cenac expressed in one of his stand-up performances about the lack of black people in science fiction and fantasy, “There’s Lando Calrissian, whose cool till he betrays everybody.” Although the Empire forced Lando to betray his longtime friend, Han Solo, along with Leia and Chewbacca, the message that gets communicated is that black people are traitors and untrustworthy.

    The message I got was that Lando had a good reason to betray them; and Han and Leia were too stupid to realize that their actions had endangered him in the first place.

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