Science fiction likes to pride itself on its diversity, such as Star Trek’s historically diverse cast. Yet, is science fiction really trying to be more diverse or is it trying to avoid the issue outright in our so-called “post-racial” society? Are the exoticizing of aliens merely a cop out against racial diversity to perpetuate white hegemony in the hue of the hero and to perpetuate systemic racism? The Star Wars franchise has historically struggled with racial stereotypes and lack of diversity, which director George Lucas has vehemently denied such claims as preposterous as alien races can’t possibly compare to human ones. The series has attempted to make headway in the racial diversity department recently with Rogue One and The Force Awakens but that hasn’t necessarily translated to better representation of Asians in film.
The irony of Star Wars’ lack of racial diversity, particularly Asians, stems from the franchises’ heavy Asian influences. When Yoda famously tells Luke to, “Feel the Force flow,” it suggests a Taoist principle of a divine flowing energy that controls and can be controlled. But beyond the philosophy, Asian influences can be observed in the artistic style and characteristics of the settings and characters as well. Lucas has acknowledged heavy plot influences from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress. Characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn have Asian sounding names, and the robes the Jedi wear harken back to the kimono of samurai. Most strikingly, Darth Vader’s mask and breastplate resemble the formal armor of the daimyo (Wetmore 92). Finally, the worst offender or the entire series, The Phantom Menace (or what I like to call “The Racist Menace”), presents horrible racial archetypes in its alien races, particularly with the Nemoidians of the Trade Federation. Not only do they wear garb that resembles classical Chinese scholars-officials, they speak a with a slurred “Engrish” accent, suggesting Asian speakers.
“Having appropriated Asian culture for both heroes and villains, and having constructed a colonialist model in which the evil Western trade federation, and later the Empire, attempt to manipulate and conquer the peaceful, cultured East, Lucas chose to cast European actors in the heroic roles and reduce the evil characters to literally alien Others” (Wentmore 102).
Not only is the irony present with Europeans being saviors against imperialism by Asians, the stereotypes of Asians being forever foreigners are further perpetuated by their portrayal as weird, different aliens.
Almost two decades later, has Rogue One made any real headway with racial diversity sorely lacking in Phantom Menace? Mainstream media seems to think so with Rogue One’s most diverse lineup of actors ever in the series. However, I’d like to examine Donnie Yen’s role in particular to illustrate issues of racial archetypes of Asian men in Hollywood cinema.
As an aside, some may point out that Donnie Yen has primarily starred in Asian, mostly Hong Kong, films and has been billed distinctly as Hong Kong’s top action star. Thus, it’s unfair to say his role in Rogue One is really “Asian American” representation. However, a quick viewing of any of the interviews Yen has done in promotion of Rogue One will surprise many with his almost impeccable English with hardly an accent that one would expect from an Asian actor.
Growing up, his family moved to Boston when he was 11 and he studied there until he was 16, when he then moved back to Hong Kong to pursue martial art training and eventually an acting career. His path may sound familiar, as Bruce Lee spent a great deal of time in the US before achieving success in Hong Kong, and finally being able to bring his acting talent to the US. Both their careers illustrate the difficulty for Asians to achieve any roles in Hollywood, and how they first became truly exceptional in Hong Kong to be recognized by Hollywood.
Even when they achieve that “exceptional” status in their field, Asians still become pidgeon-holed into stereotypical roles that do very little for representation. In Rogue One, Donnie Yen plays force-sensitive master Chirrut Imwe, a blind, force-sensitive warrior monk. Undoubtedly, director Gareth Edwards picked Yen to play the character for his sensational martial arts abilities and to capitalize on his popularity in Asia as an actor. Along with his past acting experience as the calm, collected grandmaster in Ip Man, Yen also possesses the persona for this warrior monk character. However, Chirrut Imwe again fulfills a very stereotypical Asian trope of the wise martial arts master. In a galaxy far, far away, Asians still can’t escape the martial arts stereotypes. It’s even more frustrating in the scope of the film that the creators couldn’t make him a Jedi since those are predominantly white; rather, they exoticized Yen’s character and relegate him to performing “force-fu” instead.
Finally, fans looking for LGBT representation have theorized a gay relationship between Chirrut Imwe and Jiang Wen’s character Baze Malbus, a promising and problematic premise. On the one hand, the characters do possess a great deal of chemistry and have a bit of “old-married-couple” vibe every time Baze shoots a funny look when Chirrut
discusses the force. Before Chirrut’s noble sacrifice, he calls to Baze “I don’t need luck, I have you” and subsequently dies in Baze’s embace. Although nowhere does the film
or director confirm their relationship, it’s pretty radical for the Star Wars series to even include gay subtext, but of course they used the only two Asian characters to portray it. Asian men already struggle against a film industry that undermines their masculinity and denies their heterosexuality. Having gay subtext – while good for LGBT representation – also emasculates the two characters and further perpetuates stereotypes against Asian men fitting heteronormative ideals.
And so, while the Star Wars series has made strides to integrate more racial diversity into their films, it is still far, far away from achieving a greater sense of racial representation. That’s not to take away from Gareth Edwards and Donnie Yen’s work. Having a renowned martial artist and action choreographer was a brilliant move by Edwards, and Yen’s scenes as Chirrut Imwe were exciting and action-packed. Just like the Star Wars universe, ours is quite diverse as well, so hopefully Disney can acknowledge that fact and create a wider variety of roles for actors of color to create even more diverse movies.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Dir. Gareth Edwards. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016. Film.
Wetmore, Kevin J. “The Tao of ‘Star Wars’, Or, Cultural Appropriation in a Galaxy Far, Far Away.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 23, no. 1, 2000, pp. 91–106., www.jstor.org/stable/23414569