The Kelly Marie Tran Impact: WOC in Star Wars and Sci-Fi

By Melissa Lee

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I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Star Wars was one of the very first movie obsessions. The earliest movie memory I have isn’t of The Lion King or The Little Mermaid. No, the earliest movie memory I have is of being a bumbling, drooling toddler sitting on the floor of my living room, watching a sandy-haired boy at the bedside of a little green alien dying in his tiny cave on a distant swamp planet. (Cheerful, I know.)

Being both a diehard Star Wars fan and an Asian woman, I was beyond stoked when Kelly Marie Tran was announced to appear in Episode VIII — The Last Jedi. Amidst a small troupe of A-listers and big-name actors both rumoured and confirmed to be joining the Star Wars franchise in the hotly anticipated sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens, writer-director Rian Johnson wasted no time in informing fans that Tran had “the biggest new part in the movie”. Bigger than Laura Dern. Bigger than Benicio Del Toro!

Star Wars finally cast a non-white female lead.

Star Wars finally cast a non-white female lead, and she’s an Asian woman. A full-blooded Asian woman, with absolutely no discernible Eurocentric features at all!

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The Last Jedi promotional still of Tran as Rose Tico, also featuring John Boyega (Finn)

As much as I’ve loved Star Wars for literally all of my life, I’ve always felt majorly disappointed with how the franchise has lagged severely far behind in representation for WOC. Ever since 1977’s A New Hope, female Star Wars leads have always been white women. The pattern continued on through to the prequel trilogy, and even ten years later to the J.J. Abrams-helmed reboot, The Force Awakens. Not even 2016’s semi-spinoff Rogue One wasn’t free from this unwritten rule, despite being lauded by media outlets all over the world for being ‘the most diverse Star Wars film ever’.

Considering the familial relationship between Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and now, potentially, Rey (Daisy Ridley), I don’t dispute that there is an underlying need for that ethnic continuity. As much as I loved Rogue One, lead actress Felicity Jones, and her character, Jyn Erso, I was and am still disappointed that yet again, the powers that be failed to look beyond their white-woman-with-dark-hair type-casting tendencies for this mega franchise. Jyn Erso has neither blood nor familial connection to the Skywalkers. Jyn Erso never even comes into direct contact with any of the Skywalkers. Plain and simple, Jyn Erso did not have to be white.

Aside from that, the only other times we have ever seen WOC in Star Wars is when their skin tone or overall appearances were drastically to the point that audiences could barely tell what they look like under the makeup and costumes. 1983’s Episode VI — Return of the Jedi featured a Twi’lek slave dancer named Oola, played by the Nigerian-born Femi Taylor. After dancing for Jabba the Hutt’s entertainment in a skimpy outfit and chains, Oola infamously met her end in a frankly unnecessary drawn out scene where Jabba practically dangles her like bait for his monstrous pet Rancor. That gruesome display aside, Taylor’s skin was painted green all over, rendering her near unrecognisable.

Jessica Henwick attracted some attention when she appeared in The Force Awakens as Resistance pilot Jessika Pava, but she was afforded a single spoken line and about five total seconds of screentime. (It was later revealed that Henwick was originally a frontrunner for the role of Rey, which makes me wonder just how necessary the abovementioned need for ethnic continuity was in this case).

Other halfway notable appearances by WOC in the Star Wars universe include Queen Jamillia in Episode II — Attack of the Clones (played by Ayesha Dharker), and a two-second silent appearance from Keisha Castle-Hughes in Episode III — Revenge of the Sith (playing Queen Apailana). Both these characters served as Queens of Padmé Amidala’s home planet Naboo, a position that required them to appear in stark, opaquely white face paint that covered up their distinctly brown skin tones.

George Lucas appeared to have no problems leaving Billy Dee Williams’s skin colour alone, or Samuel L. Jackson’s and Jay Laga’aia’s in the prequel trilogy. The Force Awakens filled out the traditional Star Wars trio with not just one man of colour, but two (John Boyega and Oscar Isaac). Rogue One teamed Felicity Jones up with a whole host of non-white men.

It’s downright confusing to me how Star Wars and indeed, so much of other “diverse” media seems open to hiring men of colour, but continue to draw a complete blank on the women. In a study of the top 100 films of 2016, women comprised just 32% of speaking characters. Out of that 32%, only 23% were characters of colour. That amounts to just 7.36% of all speaking characters, male and female.

Star Trek has Zoe Saldana and Sonequa Martin-Green. Battlestar Galactica had Grace Park and Luciana Carro. Hell, even the short-lived Firefly had Gina Torres. This show was on the air for a mere ten months, and still managed to include more significant WOC rep than Star Wars has in nearly forty years.

Despite the pockets of WOC rep existent in the overarching sci-fi genre, what little to be appreciated largely belongs to Black and Latina women. It’s much, much rarer that we get to see Asian women in big sci-fi franchises, Asian women who are given speaking roles of significance, with their skin tones and physical appearances largely unaltered. (See: Pom Klementieff in this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.)

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Pom Klementieff (L) as Mantis in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (R). Klementieff is half Korean.

This is what makes Kelly Marie Tran so important. Not only is she technically the first WOC lead in the entirety of the Star Wars franchise, but it’s clear that she wasn’t cast based on “diversity points”. Tran doesn’t just check an ethnicity box. She’s unabashedly, indisputably, wholly Asian, with both her parents originally hailing from Vietnam. She is not slender and delicate. She’s definitely no size two. Her background is in improv comedy, a career choice that stands in loud contrast to the virtues of Asian women being subservient and silent; virtues that are still widely championed in many Asian countries today.

All in all, Tran is a complete 180 from the widespread perceptions of Asian beauty, especially for women from East Asian countries with huge entertainment markets like China, Japan, and Korea.

In addition to that, before the Star Wars Celebration announcement earlier this year, Kelly Marie Tran was almost completely unknown to mainstream audiences. Outside of the indie comedy circuit, she pretty much had no name, no image, and no reputation. Unlike with Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in Rogue One, Rian Johnson didn’t cast Tran to net her thousands and thousands of adoring supporters, simply because she does not possess that kind of clout. (And by this, I do not mean at all that Yen and Jiang did not deserve their Rogue One roles on their own merit. This is simply to point out that the two Chinese film veterans do have extensive fan bases cultivated over a combined seventy years of commanding silver screens all over Asia, and it would be naive to assume that this did not factor at all into Disney’s casting considerations.)

A few months after Tran’s casting was announced, it was revealed that her character Rose Tico would have a sister, Paige — played by fellow Vietnamese actress Veronica Ngo. Disney cast a Vietnamese girl to play a Vietnamese girl’s sister.

While some of us already understand how (unfortunately) rare an occurrence this is, let’s really think about where this occurrence is taking place. This is Star Wars. In a made-up galaxy of Wookiees and Ewoks and whatever the hell Yoda is, the concept of “Vietnamese people” doesn’t actually exist. This was one of the few cases where the studio could have cast an actress belonging to pretty much any light-skinned Asian ethnicity. The character of Rose Tico isn’t specifically Vietnamese. Neither is her sister, Paige Tico.

Disney didn’t have to match the ethnicities of the actresses chosen to play the Tico sisters… but they did.

As a fellow Asian woman, I’m so proud of and excited for Kelly Marie Tran. A quick scroll through her Instagram account tells you loud and clear that she fully understands the weight of her newfound responsibility. She is not about to shy away from her Asian and Vietnamese heritage for the sake of being more liked, or more popular, or more famous. She greatly values the impact and power she holds as a woman of colour being given the opportunity to lead one of the biggest media franchises in the world.

While I look forward to Tran’s success and continued rise, I sincerely hope this isn’t just a one-off. I hope Tran’s role in The Last Jedi sparks a new wave of WOC rep in both Star Wars and sci-fi. I hope Hollywood starts giving Asian women more chances than ever before. I hope we see more Asian women in positions of authority, like Star Trek: Discovery’s Captain Philippa Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh). I hope we see more Asian women fighting battles in the frontlines, like Jessika Pava and Paige Tico.

Most of all, I hope there are many, many more Rose Ticos to come.

Editor: Ricardo Biramontes

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