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?

Mocking “Foreign Accents” and the Privilege of “Sounding White”

I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought for a while, not only because of the observations I’ve made from white and people of color friends and allies, but also because I, too, have been guilty in mocking the “accented” English of people in my community and other communities of color. The imitation and mockery of these “accents” are sometimes conducted for seemingly “harmless” comedic purposes, but nonetheless those of us who speak the colonizer’s language in any form of what is commonly defined as a “Standard English” accent in white English majority-speaking countries tend to overlook our privilege and complicity in attributing stereotypes to bodies of color and perpetuating the harmful racialized narrative of “modern” versus “pre-modern.”

Being raised in the United States and attending a predominately white public school was never devoid of racism, but it is important to note how my white friends, classmates, and teachers would frequently comment on how “amazed” they were that I “didn’t have an accent” (remarks that I still get). Since a “Standard American English” accent is not regarded as an accent in U.S. mainstream media and society, sounding like all the other white kids and the white people I watched in popular film and television meant that I spoke “normally.” While I faced racism throughout my public school years, my being brown yet “sounding white” definitely made some part of me, no matter how small, feel like I “fitted in” or “belonged” to mainstream white America. It also made me feel superior to the (few other) South Asian students who, unlike me, spoke English “differently” and were more Otherized because of it. Even though I was racialized like them through the lens of the white gaze, my “non-existing accent” gave me an unfair advantage and created a dichotomy which I participated in, too: they were “FOBs” while I was at least “Americanized.”

At a previous workplace, I recall the difficultly one of my Indian co-workers faced due to his accent. He was explaining a transaction to a white customer, but she grew impatient and shouted, “I can’t understand you! I can’t understand you!” I stepped in and explained verbatim what my co-worker said and the woman understood and thanked me. I couldn’t help but notice what had just happened. My co-worker, although perfectly understandable and far more knowledgeable than me with regard to the work field, was yelled at because of the way he spoke, while I, a fellow brown man, was treated respectfully and as more “competent” because of my white suburban American accent. Interesting enough, we had a white co-worker who received compliments daily because of his European accent (I won’t disclose the exact country for privacy reasons). I lost count of how many times customers commented on how “attractive” his accent was, whereas our Indian co-worker was treated as “unintelligible.”

The perception and attitudes towards people with accented English in the United States varies from community to community and intersects with race, gender, class, religious background, etc. I anticipate that some people reading this post will ask, “Well, what about white people who speak with Southern accents, Canadian accents, British accents, Australian accents, New Zealand accents? They get stereotyped, too!” While white people with these accents may be stereotyped – some more positively than others (e.g. British accent treated as “sophisticated” and “sexy” at best, mocked for “weird vocab” at worst) – they are not cast as racial Others like people of color with so-called “foreign accents” are (and for those who want to insist otherwise, please follow these directions: 1. Point your mouse cursor to the top right of your browser. 2. See that “x” button? 3. Yeah, click that! Khuda hafiz!).

Unlike “Standard English” accents and various dialects of the language in North America and other English majority-speaking nations, stereotypes of accents described as South Asian, Arab, Iranian, African, East Asian, Latino, Indigenous/Aboriginal/Native American, and so on, are racialized and mark bodies as “incompetent,” “backwards,” uncivilized,” “subordinate,” “goofy,” and even “threatening, “sinister,” and “evil.” As noted in the example from my workplace, South Asian (or “Desi”) accents are not considered “desirable,” “cool,” or “comprehensible,” while British, Australian, or New Zealand accents are. In American TV shows and Hollywood films, there are countless examples of how Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and other people of color with accented speech are demonized, ridiculed, degraded, and/or used for comedic purposes. These media representations have a real impact on society, as Carla Chamberlin-Quinlisk (a former professor of mine in undergrad) explains below:

Accent, however, is more than a theatrical device and has also been linked to real life perceptions of competency, intelligence, and credibility.  In educational contexts, including language learning communities, non-native speaking students and teachers face judgments of academic or professional incompetence based on their language status (Amin, 1997; Braine, 1999; Hoekje & Williams, 1992; Kamhi-Stein, 2004; Liu, 1999; Thomas, 1999).  Moreover, decades of studies on language attitudes confirm that linguistic variation (accent and dialect) filters listeners’ perception of speakers’ intelligence, socioeconomic status, competence, education level, and attractiveness (Cargile, 1997, 2000, 2002; Cargile & Giles, 1997; Edwards, 1982; White et al. 1998).

As I continue this discussion, it is important to be conscious of how intersecting factors like whiteness and maleness play significant roles in giving people racial and gender privileges over others, despite sharing the same accent. Furthermore, what I want to focus on primarily in this post is how white people and people of color like myself, who speak with white or “Standard English” accents, participate in mocking so-called “foreign accents” and reinforce demeaning stereotypes about communities of color. When I and other people of color imitate these Otherized accents, we do so for a number of reasons – for laughs (especially around white people), for dramatizing stories we recount, for mockery of people we may know, etc. What we fail to see is how imitating these accents serves the purpose of disassociating and differentiating ourselves from non-native English speakers of color, as well as making strong implications that they are “backwards,” “silly,” and most importantly, forever stuck in the “pre-modern.”  In other words, we characterize them as “FOBs” who will always be sexist, illogical, violent, barbaric, and uncivilized because of their non-western cultures (as if white people with their “normal” and “civilized” accents cannot be sexist, violent, barbaric, illogical, etc.).  They, unlike us, are not “modernized” and can never assimilate “properly” into western society or be compatible with the west’s “superior” values. White supremacy undeniably marks all people of color as inferior, but when we reproduce these narratives of “modern” versus “pre-modern” in our own communities, we become complicit in normalizing the logic of white supremacy.

Additionally, we make spaces of exception for certain “FOBs.” That is, even though these individuals have accents, we don’t regard them as real “FOBs” because they are our friends, they live in the west, study in western universities, dress western, have “progressive” feminist politics, and so on. The real “FOBs” are the ones who, in addition to having accents, are bound to their “foreign” cultures and therefore must have “barbaric” and “oppressive” values.

Even in these spaces of exception, people of color with accented English are treated as somehow having “less credibility,” regardless of their education status. This is especially true in educational and workplace settings.  It’s upsetting how such hostility towards people of color with accents come not only from white people, but also from people of color who have white accents. I have consistently heard white people who self-identify as anti-racist and feminist refer to people of color with accents as the “immigrant generation” – a description used as code for “FOB,” and therefore “sexist,” “regressive,” “morally and intellectually inferior,” etc. Admittedly, I and other people of color who sound white participate in maintaining these gross generalizations and stereotypes.  In our discriminatory attitudes and jokes about the way they “mispronounce” words, we fail to take into account the struggles they face daily due to the racist perceptions of their accents. We fail to see how women of color with accents, for example, are further racialized and exoticized in a white supremacist heteropatriarchal culture and seen as more loyal to cultures, tribes, or countries that are marked inferior, savage, and uncivilized.

Some people of color mock the way other members in their community speak as a way of gaining “acceptance” by white people. For a long time, I imitated Desi accents around my white friends, classmates, and co-workers who would burst into laughter every time.  I decided to stop when they thought it was “ok” for them to mock the accents just because I did it.  While it’s certainly not the same thing when I imitate the Desi accent around only people of color, the privilege of not facing challenges because of our white accents rarely enters the conversation. I have heard others say things like, “I can’t stand the Desi accent, it’s annoying,” or “I hate the way Indians/Pakistanis talk,” or make innocent-sounding statements like, “Desi accents are hilarious!” These comments don’t take into account that there are real South Asians who actually live with the reality of racist remarks, angry looks, discrimination, and harsh judgment due to the stereotypes linked with their accents.

As many anti-racist feminist writers and activists emphasize, all of us need to hold ourselves accountable for our privilege and complicity. Although, for example, people of my skin color and religious background are demonized, discriminated against, and victimized by racist laws, there are certain advantages I have as a U.S. citizen and heterosexual male who speaks with a white suburban accent. If I apply for a job, my name, skin color, and religion are clear disadvantages, but my white accent will open more possibilities for me than for South Asians who “sound foreign.” When white classmates poked fun at me with “Apu accents,” they got more of a kick out of it when they did it to Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi students who, in their minds, “spoke like that.” I had the advantage of saying, “I don’t speak that way,” which also served as a way of stating, “I’m not like them, I’m more like you.” I didn’t have to worry about being laughed at or feeling ashamed every time I opened my mouth. This does not dismiss the fact that people of color face racism on the basis of their skin color alone, but rather highlights on how we should recognize the different yet interrelated ways racism impacts us all.

I don’t deny that people of color with western accents are sometimes perceived as having “foreign accents” due the way the dominant culture racializes them. In 8th grade, my English teacher sent me to an ESL class simply because I failed one test (I didn’t read the book!). Last summer, I interned at a counseling center and was told by the office manager that I had “a bit of an accent” after I told her I was born in Pakistan. I felt insulted and offended by both of these incidents and I would think to myself, “How could they say I have an accent? I don’t!” Until I was called out on how problematic my framing of these experiences with racialization were, I didn’t realize that my anger implied that there was something wrong with having a South Asian accent.  What I later addressed with my internship supervisor was not so much about whether or not I had an accent, but rather, what does it mean to have an “accent” and how are real people of color, who don’t speak English with “general” or “standard” western accents, perceived and treated? Instead of distancing ourselves from people of color who speak English “differently” and trying to make ourselves look more “acceptable” or “assimilated,” we should be confronting racist stereotypes and attitudes that are associated with “accents.”

As people of color who have the privilege of “sounding white,” we need to challenge the ways we imitate the accented English of people in racialized communities. White people, especially those who claim to be anti-racist allies, should never imitate these accents or feel that it is “ok” for them to do so.  I’m sure others can relate to these stories, but my parents and other family members constantly faced discrimination not only because of their skin color, but also because of their language status. When I taught English to immigrants and refugees two years ago, one of the things that stood out to me was how the students wanted to learn English so that they could be understood at their jobs, apply for jobs, or not feel ashamed in front of their children.

In white-majority societies where the “speak-English-or-get-out” culture is very hostile towards non-English speakers, we need to take responsibility for our privileges and complicity seriously and stop stereotyping people of color with so-called “foreign accents.”  What does it say about the power of colonialism and the settler-state when people of color deserve mockery, shame, ridicule, and vilification for the way they mispronounce words in the colonizer’s language?  When white suburban American accents like mine are not considered an “accent,” but regarded as the “norm,” we need to challenge what it means to have an “accent.” We also need to challenge ideas about what it means to be “modern” and how stereotypes about “accent,” like race and religion, serve as markers for those who are cast as “pre-modern” racial Others.