Erasing Rey’s Whiteness in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey and Finn Star Wars
Image description: Two characters, Rey (a young White woman) and Finn (a young Black man), stand adjacent to each other under a tent on a desert planet called Jakku. They are looking off screen at approaching danger. Accompanying them is BB-8, a small white and orange droid shaped like a ball.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am a huge Star Wars fan. I saw The Force Awakens on its first night (i.e. the Thursday night preview) right after my 7:30 to 10 pm class. It was the last day of the semester, but the class still ran till 10 pm! Didn’t my professor know Star Wars was coming out???

Spoilers for The Force Awakens below! If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read any further!

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, but I remember leaving and feeling like something was off about it. I’m not just talking in regard to its racial and gender politics, but also in terms of how you can really feel George Lucas’ absence. I know a lot of people will say that’s a good thing, but Lucas’ political commentary, especially in the prequels and the Clone Wars animated series, is something I’ve enjoyed and appreciated over the years (despite all of the problematic elements in those films/shows). I thought The Force Awakens was weak on the political and spiritual themes (aside from the obvious Nazi reference and Maz having a generic line about the Force). A common criticism of the film is that it was a rehash of A New Hope, which I can definitely see. I think this is, again, where we see Lucas’ absence because, as he told Charlie Rose in a recent interview, Disney wanted to go “retro” with The Force Awakens. Lucas, on the other hand, wanted to take it in a new direction.

However, I think something that is overlooked in this criticism of The Force Awakens is that it is the most diverse Star Wars film yet. Yes, there were Black men characters like Lando Calrissian and Mace Windu, and White women characters like Leia Organa and Padme Amidala, but The Force Awakens is the first time where we see the story centered on a White woman and a Black man. It’s also the first time we see a Latino male actor (Oscar Isaac) playing a supporting role in Star Wars. As readers on my blog know, I am very critical of movies, but I admit, when I first saw the movie, it was refreshing and pretty awesome to see a cast that wasn’t the usual all-white male ensemble. I definitely enjoyed this about the film, but like anything, it’s not perfect.

There are already some great critiques written about the way the film depicts Finn (John Boyega) and chooses to make Lupita Nyong’o a motion capture CGI character instead of having her appear in the movie. I’ll get to these critiques later in the post, but below are some of my thoughts about the way many blog posts, message boards, and fan sites are talking about Rey and Finn. As much as I liked most of the casting decisions, I expressed in my previous post that I was worried that White people would use The Force Awakens to argue that we live in a “post-racial” and “post-gender” society where racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression “don’t exist anymore.”

What’s problematic about the way fans/columnists/bloggers talk about Rey and Finn is that they either (1) erase Rey’s Whiteness and refer to her as just “a woman” (because we’ve been conditioned to think White women represent the “default” woman, therefore there’s no need to specify Rey is White), or (2) describe Finn as being Black, but fail to mention he’s also a man (because when we hear the term “Black character,” we assume that the “default” Black character is a Black man, therefore no need to specify Finn is a man), or (3) both of the above. What I’ve also noticed is (4) the erasure of Finn’s Blackness in certain conversations where he’s just referred to as a “male character” or just “a guy.” This is often done when Finn is discussed in relation to Rey and when the gender politics of the film are the only focus, as if race doesn’t matter or play a role.

For example, I’ll see people write, “The Force Awakens is so inclusive! The film has a Black lead and a female lead!” But why are people specifying Finn’s racial background, but not specifying Rey’s racial background, yet focusing on her gender? I’ve also read articles that praise the film for portraying “a male character” (Finn) who constantly “needs saving from a woman.” I definitely advocate challenging the prevalent “damsel in distress” trope where women need to be saved by men, but Finn is not just a male character and Rey is not just a woman. This is important because when we talk about Rey as a White woman, it complicates the racial and gender politics of the film. Because it’s not just Finn, a Black man, being saved “by a woman,” but rather by a White woman.

This is where I think the film gets problematic because Finn is not only frequently rescued by White characters (Rey and Han Solo), but he also, as Andre Seewood asserts, “lacks dramatic agency.” Unlike Rey, he cannot communicate with Wookies or droids nor does he know how to fly spaceships, despite being a trained stormtrooper and cleared for battle. The film later reveals that Finn worked in sanitation, which I found really stereotypical, but why would he be cleared for his first battle on Jakku if he wasn’t trained for combat? The argument can be made that Finn is Force sensitive (which I believe he is), but the end result is that he’s knocked unconscious quite brutally by the White antagonist, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Having a Black male character being constantly rescued by White characters reinforces the message that Black people need to be led/guided/saved by White people. Recognizing Rey’s Whiteness makes us think about the power dynamics. Is it sexist when women are portrayed as always needing to be saved by men? Yes, but we cannot just look at gender and ignore race, or vice versa. Rey is still White and we see her Whiteness reinforced in opposition to Finn through the way she has more dramatic agency.

I do like both Rey and Finn, don’t get me wrong (and Daisy Ridley and John Boyega delivered fantastic performances), but it is problematic when people fail to understand how race and gender intersect. In describing a screenshot for a Star Wars pinball table, an article on Kotaku states: “Here’s Rey instructing Finn to get his timid butt to cover while a real hero handles things.” This ridiculing of Finn and characterizing him as “timid” (or, as I’ve heard some people say, “a bumbling coward”) is something I’ve seen mostly from White commentators/fans. Yes, apparently it’s the White woman who needs to “instruct” the Black man on how a “real hero handles things.” Neither Rey nor Finn come from privileged backgrounds, but we know that White women can still oppress men of color. The author of the article may not have been thinking, “Rey is superior than Finn because she is White,” but the pattern in which White characters (whether men or women) are treated or perceived as more competent, skilled, and heroic than Black and other people of color characters is one that has existed for a long time. I don’t think Rey is portrayed as oppressing Finn, but the depiction of a White woman constantly saving a Black man reinforces a White savior narrative.

For the record, I don’t see Finn’s character as a “bumbling coward” nor do I think he is completely stereotypical. Finn standing up against the First Order and refusing to kill for them is heroic and hardly a “cowardly” thing to do. I read this act of resistance as being anti-establishment, especially when one considers how the First Order rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. For those who don’t recall the Star Wars prequels, the Galactic Empire rose to power through votes, i.e. through the democratic process, not because of a military coup or external force. Lucas has stated in the commentary track for Revenge of the Sith that he wanted to portray how a democracy becomes a dictatorship, not from an outside force, but by being handed over from the inside (“This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause”). Revenge of the Sith featured heavy political themes and commentary about the Bush administration (the “you’re either with me or you’re my enemy” line being the most obvious), but it also attempted to shift people’s understanding of Palpatine’s Empire. Although Lucas expressed that the original trilogy was meant to protest the U.S. war against Vietnam, the Empire was mostly seen by audiences as far removed from the U.S. Say what you want about the prequels, but the politics of those films were meant to reflect and critique U.S. government corruption and imperialism. The formation of the Galactic Empire served as an analog for U.S. Empire. Through this lens, Finn resisting an Order that rose from the Empire can be read as resisting U.S. Empire, but I’m not going to pretend for a second that this is the message Disney is trying to promote! The foundations for a compelling and relevant narrative of a Black man rebelling against a predominately White imperialist Order (one that orders mass murder against villagers and obliterates entire planets) are there, but this narrative is not explored.

As much as I root for Finn, I notice that the more I watch the film (I’ve seen it four times… so far…), the more annoyed I become at how the narrative treats him. In many ways, it felt like his character was treated as serving the White protagonists. I thought Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan did a disservice to Finn’s character during his fight scene with the stormtrooper (who is equipped with a lightsaber-deflecting stun baton). When Finn used Luke’s lightsaber and fought against the very people that stole him from his family and attempted to brainwash him with their imperialist ideology, that was his moment. The sequence ended with Finn battling the stormtrooper and being knocked to the ground, only to be saved at the last second by Han Solo. Finn should have defeated that stormtrooper. Again, that was his moment. One of the basic rules of screenwriting is that you want your protagonist(s) to get out of situations on their own (there are exceptions, of course). If you have a movie where your character is stranded on an island and you solve it by having a random plane arrive out of nowhere and saving the day, that’s obviously very contrived and convenient. Granted, Han Solo was there on the battlefield, so it’s justified and not exactly deus ex machina, but it did not need to be written that way. Given how Finn turned his back on the First Order, overcoming and defeating that stormtrooper would have been so much more symbolic. In my opinion, having Han blast the stormtrooper from a distance took that moment away from Finn.

I’m not saying I think Finn should have been portrayed as a typical hyper-masculine character. I’m just saying that when you watch scenes like him getting zapped by BB-8, strangled by Chewbacca, almost eaten by a Rathar, almost killed by that stormtrooper, and almost beaten to death by Kylo Ren, I think erasing his Blackness becomes problematic because we know how Black bodies are often brutalized by police brutality (being assaulted, tazed, choked, shot at, and murdered). When Rey is suspicious about Finn and assumes he is a thief upon their first meeting, it’s hard not to draw parallels with how close that is to reality. I get people argue their points within the context of the story (i.e. it takes place in a galaxy far, far away), but the film is still released here on Earth and we need to understand the impact of these images within our sociocultural and political contexts. I don’t think it’s helpful for people to go “colorblind” on these issues (or go “colorblind” anywhere, really).

But perhaps the most important reason why all of this matters is because failing to identify Rey as a White woman and just referring to her as “a woman,” and failing to specify Finn’s gender and just referring to him as a “Black character” contributes to further marginalizing and erasing women of color. If Rey was Black, for example, I doubt promotional material would refer to her as simply a “woman lead,” they would say, “a Black woman lead.” Again, it’s because when we say “she is a woman lead,” we assume that “woman” means “White woman.” I remember being disappointed when I first heard about Lupita Nyong’o playing a motion capture character. It’s yet another example of people of color, especially Black women, being otherized as aliens or non-human characters in science fiction/fantasy films and TV shows. We saw this before with Zoe Saldana playing a motion capture CGI character in Avatar, as well as having her skin colored green in Guardians of the Galaxy. As Seewood writes, the primary reason why Nyong’o was hidden as a CG character is because the filmmakers did not want the “talents of a Black actress who happens to be of Mexican and Kenyan descent to distract and diminish the White heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) whom they had chosen to be the true hero of this installment of the tale.” Seewood cites Joseph Boston who writes:

“The casting of largely unknown Daisy Ridley as a central protagonist in the ‘Force Awakens’ therefore entrusting an inexperienced actress with a multi-billion dollar corporation while Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o is relegated to a supporting CGI character named Maz Kanata is but the latest example of “Star Wars” and Hollywood’s misogynoir & its ‘problem’ with Black women writ large.”

It has been said many times before that leading roles for Black women and other women of color in Hollywood films are extremely limited. The Star Wars films are no exception (read my previous post for more on the few women of color characters in the Star Wars universe). During a press conference, J.J. Abrams mentioned that someone asked him why he cast “someone as beautiful as Lupita Nyong’o to play a motion-capture character?” Abrams’ response was, “Would it be ok if she were ugly?” The problem is that the wrong question was asked. What should have been asked is, “Why are you hiding a Black actress behind a motion-capture character when there are not any Black women or women of color characters in the film?” There have also been rumors that Abrams was not satisfied with her performance and decided to delete many of her scenes. Whether this is true, the reality is that Nyong’o, unlike Andy Serkis, does not specialize in playing CGI characters, so what was the purpose in having her playing a motion capture character? Why not have her play a human character?

Had Rey been Black (can you imagine that, a Star Wars film with both a Black woman and Black man in lead roles), I think the conversation about the racial and gender dynamics in the film would be much different. I remember when Mad Max: Fury Road was released, there were many critiques about the lack of people of color in the film. As much as I enjoyed it, I was still annoyed at how the two women of color in the film were relegated to limited roles or killed off so quickly. One blogger wrote in a very nuanced post, “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.” I feel the same holds true for Rey if she was played by a Black or Brown actress. In next year’s Star Wars spin-off film, Rogue One, we see another diverse cast, which includes Pakistani-British actor Rizwan Ahmed, but once again, we don’t see any women of color characters. For Episode 8, I heard rumors about Gugu Mbatha-Raw possibly being cast, but then I read an article saying she didn’t get the role? It would be really disappointing if the latter is true.

Hopefully, in Episode 8 and future films, we’ll see improvements, not just in terms of casting and diversity, but in how characters of color are portrayed. One can hope, right?

Stop Reinforcing the Term “Moderate Muslims”

dailyshow1
The other night, Dalia Mogahed appeared on The Daily Show and spoke about the challenges faced by Muslim Americans. When asked whether Mosques caused “radicalization” of Muslims, she stated that Mosques are actually forces for “moderation.” In her 2006 Gallup report, “The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Moderate vs. Extremist Views in the Muslim World,” she classifies two groups of Muslims: the “moderates” and the “radicals/extremists.”

Mogahed is not the only Muslim who reinforces the “moderate/extremist” binary. In fact, most Muslims who appear on mainstream media and speak for us describe the global Muslim population in these binary terms.

This needs to STOP.

I have written about this before in my “No One Hijacked Islam” posts, but I am strongly opposed to the term, “moderate Muslim.” To assert that Muslims can be simply categorized into two types not only plays into the harmful “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary, but it is also so dehumanizing. It is as if all Muslims have radio dials attached to the back of our heads, indicating whether or not we are “moderate” or “radical.” Mogahed contends that the internet “radicalizes” Muslims, as if it is as easy as someone turning the dial knob from “moderate” to “radical.” Furthermore, does U.S. imperialism and military occupation not also fuel more violence? It’s just “the internet”?

Over the years, in conversations with well-intentioned non-Muslims who aspired to help challenge Islamophobia, I’ve lost count of how many of them would say, “It’s so ridiculous, not all Muslims are terrorists! Like, you’re a moderate!” Or as I heard recently from a non-Muslim who invited me to an interfaith discussion, “We never get to hear from the moderates like you, we just hear about the radical Muslims.” There is never a question of whether or not I identify myself as “moderate.” These assumptions and conclusions about us are made because of how normalized the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary is. To say “Muslim” is not enough, we need to specify that we are “moderate Muslims” in order to prove that we are not “terrorists.” This is dehumanizing because our values, morals, and political and religious views cannot, and should not, be measured or categorized. We don’t hear Christians or Jews being classified into simplistic categories, and certainly not in binaries like “moderate Christian” vs. “extremist Christians.” Yet, we must brand Muslims.

I also don’t like the vilification of the term “radical.” Here, on this blog, I use the term “radical” to describe the anti-racist, decolonial, and feminist politics I advocate. To me, “radical” has always meant resisting and challenging oppression, the status quo, and structural violence. In the mainstream media, when the term “radical” is paired with “Muslim” or “Islam,” we are being conditioned to view “radical Muslims” as people who blow up buildings or target innocent civilians for no apparent reason other than the fact that they “hate freedom.” Because so many of the mainstream Muslim American “representatives” and organizations who appear on CNN, MSNBC, or Comedy Central say, “ISIS and Al-Qaeda cause Islamophobia,” to challenge them and point out that Islamophobia exists because of white supremacy, is to get dismissed as an “extremist.”

Prophet Muhammad was a radical, as was Hazrat Fatima, Imam Ali, Jesus, Mary, Moses, and all of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). Remember that scene from Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, where he tells Forest Whitaker’s character that “Jesus was a radical”? Somehow, especially in the Muslim American community, we have internalized and reproduced white supremacy’s notion that “radical” means “evil.” The term is thrown around like an insult to dismiss Muslims as being irrational, violent, and extremist. You don’t vote in the U.S. election because you believe the system is corrupt? “Oh, you’re a radical, why are you in this country?!” You protest against drone strikes in Pakistan and talk about how the Obama administration has killed grandmothers, fathers, mothers, sons, and daugthers? “You’re a radical, you’re a terrorist sympathizer!”

“Moderate Muslim” is also code for “assimilated Muslim.” It’s appealing to the dominant culture and saying that we are “just like every other American” (and “American” is code for white people). Further, it’s saying that we must glorify U.S. history and the “founding fathers.” For Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, the term “moderate Muslim” gets applied to individuals who are pro-Western, or, as Fareed Zakaria fantasizes about, the “Jeffersonian democrats” — Muslims who supposedly want to be “American.” If we point out that Jefferson owned African slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous Peoples, we get called “radicals.” We get equated with “terrorists.” For Muslims who don’t want to be American or reject the U.S. political system, are we “evil” for having these thoughts? If we point out the facts and truth, such as the U.S. being founded upon slavery and genocide, we are “extremists.” Can we not be human and have freedom of thought instead of being forced into narrow boxes of identity? With all the talk about freedom of thought and freedom of expression, we don’t uphold those values for Muslims and people of color. To be accepted, you need to be “the moderate.”

Talk about imperialism, drones, and exploitation of Muslim-majority countries, and you’ll get classified as a “radical.” The worst and scary part of all of this is that you are not just vilified by the U.S. mainstream, but by fellow Muslims too, especially those who are speaking for us in the mainstream media. If you watch the entire interview with Mogahed, you don’t hear her once mention U.S. imperialism as playing a significant role in the creation of ISIS. Is talking about the latter considered an “extremist” view or “justification” of ISIS’s violence?

I understand the fear of getting labeled “anti-American,” – the consequences are real, no doubt – but it is concerning when we don’t see any of the more popular Muslims in the mainstream (i.e. those who get frequently invited to speak on TV) raising these points to challenge the imperialist violence that the U.S. perpetuates. Mogahed makes the important point that the vast majority of terrorists are white non-Muslims, but the argument stops there. It does not go further and address U.S. state-sponsored terrorism. Everyone is on board with condemning ISIS, but no one seems to want to talk about the root causes or how we got here. Instead, the “root cause” is pinned merely on extremism and anti-American sentiment. Nothing is said about U.S. complicity or about where this extremism comes from.

By reinforcing the “moderate Muslim” vs. “extremist Muslim” binary, we are restricting freedom of thought. We are not just discouraging critical thinking, but also vilifying it. We vilify the Muslims who challenge and speak out against the white supremacist system that is built into the U.S. It’s like we are giving other Muslims an ultimatum: you’re either a moderate, Good Muslim who loves being an American, or you’re the radical, Bad Muslim who we need to reject and turn in.

Our community is not monolithic. The views of Muslims are diverse, complex, and vary from individual to individual. I am not the only person who has been speaking out against the simplistic and harmful labels/categorization of our community. Instead of categorizing ourselves, we need to encourage Muslims to be who they are, unapologetically. Not all Muslims are going to be the flag-waving proud “American Muslims” that so many of the mainstream Muslim American groups want us to be, and that is OK. It should be OK.

Have any of the mainstream Muslim American political commentators gone on TV to talk about how dehumanizing and painful it is for Muslims when they constantly hear about people who look like them getting bombed, tortured, raped, and detained, not to mention being routinely demonized in TV shows, movies, and media news coverage? Holding anti-imperialist views does not mean Muslims are going to join ISIS. It does not mean we should be dismissed, ridiculed, or vilified. Being an “American” is not a prerequisite to being human, nor do we need to call ourselves “moderates” to be respected as human beings.

Let’s put an end to these harmful and dehumanizing labels. I have come across far too many Muslims, especially Muslim youth, who don’t like disclosing their Muslim identity or feel anxiety about going to school or work due to all of the media vilification that is out there. As research has suggested, racism and Islamophobia, including in the form of microaggressions, have a negative impact on self-esteem, mental health, and identity. It’s not easy being the only Muslim student in a classroom and the professor puts you on the spot to speak for all Muslims or answer for the crimes other people committed. It’s not easy to face Islamophobia in the workplace. We don’t help Muslims in those situations if we reinforce the idea that we have to define ourselves according to the “moderate Muslim/extremist Muslim” binary. Instead, we should be encouraging each other, uplifting each other, to define ourselves on our own terms, proudly and unapologetically.

DC Comics Thinks Pakistanis Speak “Pakistanian”

pakistanian
Image description: Two men are seen falling from high above – a bright sky in the background – and surrounded by rocky debris. One man is shouting, “<Father!*>” with the brackets denoting that a non-English language is being spoken. A note from the editor appears in a yellow box at the bottom of the page, reading: “All translated from Pakistanian — Ed.”

So, this happened.

The image above is a screenshot from DC comics’ recent Superman/Wonder Woman Annual #2 and was tweeted by fellow Pakistanian Pakistani writer, Khaver Siddiqi.

A friend sent me an article about this and my initial reaction was, “Seriously? They didn’t have time to run a Google search?” It doesn’t come as a surprise to me since I, like many Pakistanis, have heard non-Pakistanis use the term “Pakistanian.” I’ve heard from Palestinian friends that people often refer to them as “Pakistanian,” too.  For those who are un/misinformed, there is no such language, let alone nationality, as “Pakistanian.” It doesn’t exist.

I saw one comment that tried to justify DC’s error by saying, “So translating from Kryptonese, a fictional language, is okay; but translating from Pakistanian, a fictional language, is not okay.” Haha, but I’m like, even fictional languages have words! You could learn how to speak fictional languages like Huttese, Klingon, and even Na’vi — despite being made-up, there are online lessons for them! But “Pakistanian”? Forget about it. It’s non-existent.

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Image description: An additional panel shows an older adult, the father, falling and screaming, “Help us, Allah.” In the next panel, he is caught by a blonde-haired man (whose face is concealed by his hair), who says, “Why call out for a God,” presumably also in “Pakistanian.”

The other problem with this “rationalization” is that the comic book is specifically set in Pakistan, a real place in the world. Comic books have created fictional countries with fictional  languages in the past, but that’s not what the writers are doing here. They’re trying to depict Pakistanis, but fail miserably at it.

Judging by the unflattering and stereotypical images of the Pakistani characters in the rest of the panels, I don’t think the writers cared about getting anything right about Pakistanis. When people are already dehumanized, accuracy is the least of concerns. We aren’t important enough for writers to take five seconds to fact-check. Whether this was deliberate or not, the pattern of inaccurate and stereotypical depictions of Pakistanis has already been long established in western media.

There have been some hilarious reactions on Twitter, some of which can be viewed on Buzzfeed and The Guardian. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Siddiqi said: “My friend @Takhalus found it and shared it on a sci-fi geek Twitter group DM. I just had to buy the comic and read it myself to confirm. I’m not offended at being called Pakistanian — I’m just offended that nobody had the time to do one Google search. That’s all. Spoiled the story for me.”

Siddiqi’s tweet also said, “Here’s why @Marvel is winning over @DCComics – the latter thinks we speak Pakistanian.”

Hmm, I disagree with Siddiqi here because Marvel is not perfect at depicting Pakistanis and Muslims either, but that’s a topic for another blog post…

Dil hai Pakistanian. 

Gifs via my silences had not protected me.