We Failed Kelly Marie Tran

I get emotional when I think about Rose Tico. I idolize her the way past generations have idolized Luke, Han, Leia – the way Rose herself is astonished to meet Finn. Because after how many movies set in a galaxy far, far away, there she is. There we are, reflected. I didn’t realize how monumental that would feel to me as an Asian-American. Which is why I feel so personally vilified to hear that Kelly Marie Tran has been driven off social media over the unspeakable crime of being in a Star Wars movie. 

In 2018, an Asian actress can’t appear in Star Wars without being harassed. This, when women still account for less than a third of speaking characters in big budget films and have yet to accrue 50% of screen-time compared to their male counterparts. Marvel isn’t faring any better either, and these statistics get worse in terms of diversity. Apparently, women and people of color have had it too good for too long. 

The persecution of Kelly Marie Tran is doubly ironic in that Asian culture (manga, anime) is fetishized to the degree of ownership and whitewashing. It’s fine for Scarlett Johansson to star in Ghost in the Shell, but when an Asian actress takes a supporting role in Star Wars, suddenly fanboys get possessive of their white male-dominated franchise with cries of “get this SJW bullshit out of my Star Wars!” (And apparently only white males can properly allocate where they get their diversity.) Representation is an easy thing to dismiss when you’ve had the privilege of seeing yourself in movies all your life.

I truly thought Rogue One broke ground on the subject, which makes this story all the more depressing. We roll back on our progress every year courtesy of our casual racism and our flailing, dick-shriveling misogyny. In 2017, it was Wonder Woman. Us dude-bros threw a fit over a handful of female-only screenings. We got so used to our privilege of seeing our gender represented that we couldn’t recognize that maybe Wonder Woman isn’t our moment.

The Ghostbusters reboot is a more poignant example. Leslie Jones got hacked, doxxed, harassed for merely being vocal about a film she was in – something Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, and literally every Hollywood actor does for their films. This gross invasion of Jones’ privacy and well-being was seen as justified because the concept of the all-female reboot had offended and “ruined” men’s childhoods, therefore racist and sexist pricks felt they could say and do whatever they wanted in retaliation. If merely existing on an equal ground has become an exclusive privilege, then we’re truly fucked.

What I love about Rose Tico is that she’s afforded the rare opportunity to exist alongside her comrades. (Asians comprise 60% of the world’s population, yet account for less than 1% in Hollywood roles.) Rose Tico nonetheless gets to be a character. Her Asian identity – not even the fact that she’s a woman, isn’t something to be remarked on, fetishized, or made into a running quirk. She gets to be.

Rose is that symbol for me and so many others who have yet to be represented duly, for more of us to be included in this vast galaxy. It’s a shame there aren’t better fans to recognize that. Upon looking down at Canto Bight (“a terrible place filled with the worst people”), a town whose immoral fallibility has run rampant, Rose remarks, “I wish I could put my fist through this lousy beautiful town.” I feel the same way about certain ranks of the Star Wars fandom.

From the making of the film to the press junkets and interviews, to the film’s premiere, Kelly has shown herself to be a fan first, actress second. And, based on the supportive posts she’s dedicated to her co-stars, (chronicled in a Buzzfeed piece titled, “We Must Protect Kelly Marie Tran,” no less) she’s like a damn soccer mom. This was her first major film role. That she was stepping into the Star Wars universe was not lost on her. To know that outspoken assholes couldn’t let her have this moment or a personal space – going as far as trolling her birthday posts – I am ashamed. We, as fans, failed her. Because we convinced ourselves that mercilessly trolling is an acceptable part of film discourse. 

It is now routine to treat actors and directors not as people, but as fair game, as having a direct hand in ruining our childhood. So we troll, harass, internet stalk to the point of hazing and gaslighting – omitting the reality that some might have actually enjoyed the film, a performance, etc. – all of this done because of a difference of opinion. That’s not to say filmmakers should be immune to criticism or scrutiny, but how is “Ching Chong” constructive to the conversation? That trolls have taken upon themselves to skewer Kelly’s ethnicity is unbelievably fucking infuriating.

When the best we can articulate is “Rian Johnson Sucks” in regards to his direction, decency has gone out the window; we’ve resorted to pettiness and sheer assholery as a mode of expression. It doesn’t take long for the racists to @ John Boyega, misogynists to mansplain heroism to Daisy Ridley, or for all-around shitbags to lob Asian slurs as a means of “discussing a character.” That might’ve always been the agenda for some people, but we’ve essentially created a blanket for them. (Since they’ve been personally offended as fans, they feel they are within their right to abuse and offend in the guise of an opinion.)

There’s no boundaries. You can say and do anything you want because you feel validated in your hate, as long as you get your dislike across. And you can get away with it by hiding under, “I’m not racist,” “sexist,” followed by, “Relax, I was just talking about the movie.” Worse, the ensuing “I didn’t like Kelly’s character either but she doesn’t deserve to be treated like that” is completely full of shit. Because not liking her character was used as justification for harassment wielded as retaliation. You still found a way to get your dislike across and that’s not even the issue.

This is not hard. You either condemn the behavior or you don’t. We’re not meaningfully talking about Kelly’s performance anymore, hardly Rose’s arc. Because the comments have fixated on Kelly’s ethnicity and apparently there is still nothing funnier than calling an Asian person “Chink.” What’s the point of these insults, I wonder? To get us to de-invest in Rose? You can’t get me to not like Rose no more than I can get you to appreciate Last Jedi. That impasse, that difference is what leads to veritable shouting matches where insults, cheap shots, and discrimination are all weapons at our disposal. This justifies targeted harassment. It validates editing a wiki page and littering it with more derogatory slurs. 

The most outspoken haters of Last Jedi would have you believe there’s no merit to the film at all. Not the film’s dedication to old-school puppetry, not Carrie Fisher’s nor Mark Hamill’s performances (which are among their best), certainly not the fact that Luke Skywalker – no matter how you feel about his pacifist arc – still gets the most epic moment in the movie wherein his legend is re-mythologized and inspires the downtrodden across the galaxy into rebellion. There is plenty for old-school fans to admire and yet…no merit. Haters would even like to believe that those who did enjoy the movie were paid by Disney – the disgruntled fan equivalent of paid protesters. One comment on the forum refers to Kelly Marie Tran as Chinese. (Disclaimer: she’s Vietnamese.)

It’s not impossible to not like a movie and restrain yourself from harassing an actor. (For those dickheads who will say their hands were forced somehow, because not liking a movie removes all notions of accountability for the things we say.) For comparison, I have my own feelings on DC’s films, but I know the filmmakers had every intention of making it great, and that intention maybe just didn’t translate over to my perspective of the film. I know people who genuinely enjoyed Justice League and that’s fine. That’s their right. My differing response didn’t turn into a personal vendetta against Zack Snyder, David Ayer, or Joss Whedon. Because no one sets out to ruin a franchise or make a bad movie. Even Tommy Wiseau thought he was making a Tennessee Williams-level drama with The Room. Regardless, I have confidence that DC’s films can and will be better. 

Obnoxious haters would have you believe Disney is pushing a leftist agenda, that Kathleen Kennedy and her ilk are out to spread anti-Trump, ant-Nazi, anti-white messages on unsuspecting audiences. They want to go back to the franchise they remembered as children. But as children, the political messages George Lucas consciously imbued in the original trilogy went over our heads. (Stormtroopers were the name of German soldiers in WWI; Imperial officers bear resemblance to the Gestapo; the rise of the Empire has obvious parallels to the rise of Nazism.)

It’s not that we want Star Wars to go back to its glory days, we just want to go back to being naïve. (We are of the same fandom who told creator George Lucas that he ruined Star Wars. Consider that. We told the franchise’s creator that he ruined his own vision.) As a result, we’ve gone backwards in our thinking, in our etiquette, exceedingly narrow-minded in our worldview. I can only imagine the backlash that will come when Star Wars hires a female director, let alone a person of color. Instead of progressing with Star Wars, we resent it for doing the very thing it sets out to do in its opening crawl: look to the stars.

Hating is not film discourse no matter how you try to disguise it. (There is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion, but harassment is not expression.) I’m all for a brash opinion if that brash opinion is warranted in which lessons need learning. Maybe I’m stubborn, but I fail to see how sending Rian Johnson death threats is in any way helpful to the guy or provide lessons as to how he could do better; this goes for trying to diversity-splain John Boyega, or calling Rose Tico a “dumb bitch.” Just because you hate a movie, a performance, an actor, that doesn’t mean you can’t express that opinion like a decent human being. Otherwise, it’s just hate-spewing. At that level, you’re not a critic or someone with an informed opinion. You’re just an asshole. Sure, you can take pride in being an asshole, but the Kelly Marie Trans of the world deserve better.


5 thoughts on “We Failed Kelly Marie Tran

  1. Thank you, Adrian, for your eloquently written thoughts.
    The amount of toxicity coming from Star Wars “fans” is making me sick, to the point where I’ve considered dissociating myself from them. Your words have renewed my faith in both the franchise and the true fans of it.

    1. Much appreciated my man. I can hardly blame you, I too am at that crossroads wondering whether my investment in Star Wars is worth it. There’s just so much hate and vitriol, I hardly recognize the fandom anymore.

      It has been nice though to see the swell of support with #FanArtforRose. Kelly Marie Tran has probably (and understandably) gone social media dark, but I really hope she sees the tag somehow.

  2. These sick trolls have no place in rational discussion, in film or anywhere else. True fans recognize the vision of Lucas, and I, for one, am gratified to see the diversity in the new films.

    1. Yes! Rogue One and Last Jedi to me were astonishing in terms of inclusion in its cast. Both films gave me hope. The racist backlash to Last Jedi is a crushing low point for the fandom. Though I’m ashamed, I still have hope that the films will continue to push for diversity despite the alt-right trollers trying to usurp the franchise.

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